I met Mr B. at his usual haunt, a small table at the outdoor cafe he owns several blocks from the Pasha’s House, the small hotel he also owns. He will be my landlord for the next three weeks. I told him the address of the Yusra Community Center where I plan to volunteer. “Oh, very complicated to arrive by public transport,” says Mr B. “You call me ten minutes before you want to leave. I send D., my good friend and very honest. He return your camera when you leave it in the cab. And don’t eat at that Kabob place–with the red sign, you see?–because he’s a dirty man. I like him; we talk, but I don’t eat there. And D. will get you to Balat–ten Turkish lira, tops.”
We swayed the conversation towards the refugees, many of whom live in this neighborhood, Fatih. Fatih is among Istanbul’s more conservative neighborhoods, and it is Ramadan, so Mr B. closes his tea shop till the ravenously happy crowd arrives after nine in the evening. “Terrible, terrible,” opines Mr B. “Europe look down nose on us for rights and then sell us Syrians who go Greece in rubber boats. Three billion Euros. Sold them. And we bought them because we want to be as good as Europeans.
“Many children here begging because the parents get no work. I saw a boy–8,9–carrying baby sister. No one give money. So he put her down and step on her hand. She cry, and people give money. I slapped his head and said Don’t do that. He look at me like I’m foolish. So I give him a job. I take him in the shop, teach him to make tea and wash the cups. I pay him 200 Turkish lira a week, and he does good job. Then one day, he fall down–not heavy; light, just down, poof–and he run home crying. Later he come back with bandage on his wrist and ask for big money. Why, I say. I fall down. Your fault. Get out, I say. You can’t work for me. I help you and this is how you thank me?
“An hour later he come back, no bandage, but with his mother holding his arm. She beg for him to get his job again. No, I say. I won’t do that.”
At which point Olga joined us. Olga runs the art store across from Mr B.’s cafe. He owns her shop, too, so she works for him as does, it appears, everyone passing on this pedestrian thoroughfare. She’s Russian, has little English in proportion to her indignation, and she paints for a living. “I give lessons to children,” she says. “They get drive out of Syria, 8, 9, 10, years old, and no education. Not a book. Two, three years. Nothing. So I teach them, I touch the mind.” Then her face darkens with a malevolence (maybe only irritation) that subsumes the child, the loss of education, the war, the horror of the Assad regime, the failure on all sides to make any progress: “Stupid,” she cries, palming the table hard enough to slosh my apple tea into its saucer. “Stupid! Stupid boy won’t learn easiest thing. Color wheel!”
Frustration drowns sympathy so easily. So I let that ride and say that I intend to start building a library of children’s books at the center. “Oh, wonderful idea,” says Mr B. “You must go to A’s bookstore down hill from Gulhane Park, by the Iranian embassy. You tell A Mr. B says give you good price. His English is not very good so he will try to charge too much because he know you won’t bargain with a man who speak English so bad. But you tell him Mr B….
After tea, I walked the neighborhood, had a wrap made of highly spiced bulgar, lettuce, tomato, and about twelve pounds of cilantro. I stopped at the fruit stand next to my house for cherries, grapes, and apricots. I trekked up the long hill I knew would be a long hill, got to Sultanahmet and my favorite restaurant from years ago, had a shepherd’s salad, a sea food paella, and a beer. How pleasing it is to come back to a place, to have a table you can rely on, to eat in comfort and watch the world drift by full of its own affairs.
That’s the tame way, I suppose, of describing why I’ve come back to Istanbul. (See the girl below sitting on the curb, her dog and her father asleep behind her on the cobble stones, her one hand holding her ice cream to her lips, the other extending the almost empty box searching for a loose coin.)