It was a Monday late afternoon as N and I walked onto the extremely crowded Istiklal, Istanbul’s see-and-be-seen pedestrian avenue lined with all the coolest shops and restaurants. She and I walked among the masses on our way to meet a friend for dinner, chatting about her work and upcoming events at the University, when all of a sudden out of the hundreds of voices rose one extremely angry and violent male tone, shouting in Turkish in such a manner that you needn’t understand Turkish to understand that this man was on the verge of hurting someone or something.
The voice must have pierced through the crowd and into our conversation at about the same time for both of us, as we immediately stopped in mid-sentence and our eyes fixed on a middle-aged, average looking gentleman who would have otherwise unremarkable if it wasn’t for the snarling anger he shouted with, with one hand gripping a tearful woman’s arm, as she struggled to answer his scolding words.
You might think I’m a concerned global citizen, one who speaks up against injustice and abuse in all its forms throughout the world… I know I myself like to think that. But perhaps to your disappointment and my own,in that moment, I was scared to do anything.. almost confused, trying to understand if what I was seeing was what I thought I was seeing. N knew immediately, her face showed a look of familiar disgust, as if she had reached a limit when it came to tolerating something. Half watching the couple as the women continued to whimper and the man continued to shout, she explained to me while keeping her eyes fixated on them: “I really can’t stand this shit..” she snapped (perhaps not her exact words but close enough). N kept listening, we took one or two more steps forward, something in me wanted to keep walking out of fear the man would notice us. I asked N: “What is he saying?” – “The usual bullshit”, she said, “Why were you late!? where have you been!? who were you with!?” As she explained I had a feeling she was about to walk over and stand between them, the scenario already starting playing out in my head…
But we kept walking, perhaps because of my own fear, and my legs which reacted by moving forward away from the couple. In my mind I thought about how someone should do something. Yet oddly enough I also rationalized, this was not my world, perhaps I didn’t understand. Or if I get involved, what if I get in over my head, would any of the people walking by, acting as if nothing wrong is happening, what are the chances they would help? In my mind a new scenario played out, one where I try to help and step in to stop this abusive idiot, and then he and everyone around us condemn me as a stupid foreigner, or worse, stand by as he pummels me.
N and I walk on and she talks about how angry she is at those scenes, and how annoyed she is that those scenes occur and no one does anything. I suggest going to the police, who were only a block away, she responds “By the time they respond, it won’t matter, plus, they might agree with this kind of treatment of women.” Suddenly I really felt lost and powerless, the excuse this is not your world kept going through my head. As if that somehow would justify my lack of action.
Turkey is certainly not the worst country in the world when it comes to treatment of women. But seeing what I saw and discussing it with N, or just hearing her anger and frustration, a great sense of dispair set in. Is right or good to try and change a culture or a country that is not ours? Or perhaps the next and more important question, how can we effectively change a place or a culture if we are from such a different tradition?
We continued down the Istiklal, mostly just observing the masses all around us, no doubt replaying the previous few minutes in ours heads, over and over.