Learned Helplessness

When I said in my last post that tackling the subject of sexual politics in Turkey is a Herculean endeavor I was being flip, of course, (it’s what I do best) but it’s kind of true. Istanbul is, of course, a modern and very European city, with modern and global values. But… (this is why I don’t try to write about this stuff. After a certain point, usually the beginning, it all devolves into nonsense. Keep calm and carry on, soldier. You can spit out a thought.) While the women I’ve met here, (true, not a representative sample) have been well educated, ambitious, and impressively good at math, (you don’t find any of that “I’m a girl! Math is hard for me!” bullshit I successfully hid behind my entire childhood here) I think that, I mean I find that… okay, I’ll just say it.

Beneath a relatively thin veneer of modernism, there’s a strong current of traditionalism. Part of that traditionalism is a strong emphasis on marriage and family, both of which are way more important here than at home, and part of that traditionalism is macho culture. I haven’t fully grasped all the elements of the macho culture here. Parts of it are nice and recognizable. Like, chivalry is not dead! Men pay on dates, and light your cigarettes, and offer to carry your suitcases, and make sure you get where you’re going when you’re lost, and will defend your honor if you are insulted, or in my case, assaulted. But there’s stuff I don’t get. I often feel that there’s a rule book about how the sexes treat each other that no one gave me, and as a result I often feel clumsy and wrong-footed in my dealings with men.

Did you know, for instance, that if you go out with a man, even if you’re just getting a quick drink expressly as friends, you aren’t supposed to talk to strange men, and other men aren’t supposed to talk to you? I learned that the hard way, when “Mehmet” pitched a massive fit in the middle of a crowded bar. 

But that’s a story for another day. 

I had a doctor’s appointment at the American Hospital in Nisantisi the day I went into the hospital. It was snowing that morning. I woke poor Roommate up early by knocking on the door and saying, “could you help me? I need to get on the bus and I don’t think I can do that by myself.” RM was great. She hauled herself out of bed and got dressed. She waited patiently while I got my things together and then leaned against a wall to catch my breath. Stairs were manageable as long as I went down on my butt like a child, but the landings were daunting. She plopped me down at the bottom and went to get a taxi, and then helped me with the door, down the stairs, and into the cab. We took the taxi to the bus terminal, and waited together for the driver to open the 110. I was already exhausted and dreading  the ordeal that lay ahead- buses, sitting up, more stairs, explaining things in bad Turkish, blood draws, probably x-rays, more buses and then at home three flights of stairs going UP… it all made me want to cry, so I wasn’t really paying attention when a man in a transportation authority uniform approached us, trailed by a middle aged woman wearing a leopard print headscarf, sensible slacks and orthopedic shoes, and had a brief conversation with RM. I was too busy cataloging all the various and surprising ways I was miserable to even try to follow the conversation. 

“Did you catch that?” RM said when the man and woman had moved off. 

“No,” I said. 

“He said, ‘This woman is without her husband. Can you please make sure she gets to Taksim? She needs to get off the bus at Taksim and take a taxi.'” 

I thought about that for a minute. It was snowing lightly.

“The last stop is Taksim,” I said. “She can’t not get off at Taksim.”

“I know.” 

“And it’s hard to not catch a taxi in Taksim. You get off the bus and you’re in a taxi stand.” 

“I know.” 

“So…because her husband isn’t here, she can’t figure out how to get on a bus when it starts, and get off when it stops and everyone else gets off, and get into a taxi cab and tell the driver her address?” 

“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? And not that unusual.” 

“Huh. What did you say?” 

“I said fine, but I’m looking after my friend, who’s very ill. He’s trying to find another woman who’s going to Taksim to look after her.”

“Because she can’t talk to another man.” 

“Right.”

“Unless he’s wearing a uniform.” 

“Right.” 

“Huh.” 

The bus door opened just then with a welcome hiss of warm air. RM helped me with the stairs, and made sure I was comfortable in my seat before going back to pay our fares. 

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Filed under Daily Life, Turkish Culture

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