An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb


Istanbul, May 1968. We arrived a week ago, after an exciting trip from Haifa on a Turkish Maritime Lines boat (see “Sailing, Sailing”), and were not off the boat more than six hours when I was taken sick with the flu. Today, more or less recovered, my wife and I set out to see the sites.

Since it is just around the corner from our hotel, we decide to go to the Sultan Ahmet (“Blue”) Mosque, whose multiple minarets and blue tiles mark it as one of the most important in the city. As we approach the mosque, a tour bus full of Germans pulls up, and out come dozens of blonde, blue eyed plumpish men and women, mostly wearing shorts. I turn to Ellen. “Look at them”, I smug, “disrespecting other people’s culture”. Ellen, on the other hand, was wearing her most conservative skirt, which came to just above her knees. With her hair cut very short, and a loose fitting blouse, she was the very picture of decorum.

We are stopped by a guard at the top of the step. “You can’t come in” he says, “Her skirt is too short”.

“But the Germans”, I splutter. “Never mind the Germans”, he says. “How much?” I say. I get a pitying but withering look. “Just go get a different skirt”.

Outraged, I determine to have my revenge on this over-officious petty tyrant. We descent the steps. In front of us is a long, narrow strip of park that ends at the Hagia Sophia museum, original home of the Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox church (back when they called this place Constantinople). About halfway down the path is a sign: Tourist Police. C’mon, I urge, let’s go lodge a complaint.

The first thing I notice when we walk in is that all three officers behind the counter are women. Right away, I feel calmer. One asks if she can be of assistance. I begin a long discourse on the arbitrariness and injustice so recently perpetrated on our desires as tourists. After a couple of minutes, she holds up her hand, palm outward, and I stop talking.

“You wish to visit the Sultan Ahmet?” she ask. We nod our heads. She reaches behind her and takes a plain black raincoat off a hook and hands it to Ellen. “Put this on”. It fits, and it comes below her knees. “Go, enjoy, bring it back when you are done”.

Entry into the Mosque is swift and we spend a glorious hour or two admiring the splendor of the mosque.

Next, we will go to the Saint Sophia’s. On our way by, we stop to let the nice woman cop know that we will need her raincoat for a little while longer. “Why do you need a raincoat? It isn’t raining.” We want to go visit the Hagia Sofia. “Oh, you don’t need the rain coat for that. That (pointing toward the Sultan Ahmet) is a Mosque. That (pointing toward the Hagia Sofia) is only a Church”.

Later that night, having trudged through two markets and four mosques, and replete with a wonderful meal of barbequed patties of lamb and beef, a lettuce, onion and garbanzo salad, lots of bread and a yoghurt drink, we decide to look for a belly dancer. We ask another foreigner sitting at the next table, and he recommends a place on the Asian side of the Bosporus. We flag down a cab and when we give the name of the club to the cabbie, he gives us a funny look and takes us to the door. It is 9:00 p.m., and the night is still very young.

We approach the club, and a very large gentleman steps into our path. “May I help you?” Yes, we want to go into that club. “I don’t think so you do.” But isn’t this a place to see belly dancers? “Yes, but you will not like.” Why not? “Not for you.” You mean you don’t allow foreigners? “Foreigners, fine, You won’t like.” But we want to go in. “Not good. You come back next week.” No, we want to go in now, please.

Sullenly, he steps aside. We enter a large room, in the shape of a semi-circle. We are at the top of the arch. The stage is bottom center. Along the walls there are booths. Sitting in the booths are women of various origins, mostly Turks we think. The room is filled with tables, and most are taken by what appear to be middle aged, middle class men, in suits. A host comes up to us.

“Yes?” We would like a table, please. “I don’t think I have one.” What about that one, there? “Oh. You sure?” We are sure. He seats us, and a waiter comes over and takes our drinks order.

As we wait for our drinks, the stage show begins. A woman gets up from one of the booths and mounts the stairs to the stage, as a small band sets up in a back corner. She begins to sing, and she is hauntingly good. Ellen nudges me. “Have you noticed how those women are staring at us? Pointing? Laughing?” Yes.

The singer finishes her number and a belly dancer comes up. She is a large woman of uncertain age. She dances, and she is lithe, fluid, sexy. The guy at the next table was right, this is the real thing, and we are incredibly fortunate to be here.

The belly dancer comes off the stage, and before she can sit down, the others at her table point at us and speak urgently to her. She turns around, and marches past us. She circles back behind us. She reaches over Ellen’s shoulder and squeezes her tit. She pronounces to the room, complete with an hour glass gesture, that Ellen is indeed a woman. Everyone finds that hysterically funny.

Of course it turns out that women just do not go to such clubs, and so at first everyone believed that Ellen must be some sort of cross-dressing man. Transvestite men also do not go to such clubs – they have their own. Once it is established that Ellen was indeed a woman, and a foreigner to boot, everyone relaxes.

When we leave, the doorman asks us if we have enjoyed our evening. Oh, yes. Good, he says. You will leave Istanbul now? Tomorrow. He gives us a big smile. Good, he says. That is very good.

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