It was true in Chicago, and Charlotte, and Hong Kong—especially in Hong Kong where, locked arm in arm, whole families paraded by filling the gap between the flowerpots on one side and the picture frames on the other and thus preventing you from making any progress towards the lampshades you wanted to cheapen—and it turns out to be true in Istanbul as well. Those blue arrows on the floor guiding you through the Cretan maze of baskets, bookcases, beds, and bric-a-brac at IKEA are not to be toyed with, not to be skirted, or ignored. Even when you see a sign that says “Shortcut” so you feel safe to diverge from the Blue Arrow’s crooked and narrow ways, you inevitably end up lost or, for the fourth time, at the canteen where even the Swedish meatballs can be assembled at home.
Language also wishes to be a shortcut, a means of establishing, without superfluous hand gestures, facial mugs, and shrugged shoulders, instant comprehension between a Speaker and a Listener. In this case, the blue arrow of bilingual conversation leads round blind corners and into shady cul-de-sacs when your half of the conversation is conducted in estimable English and his, and hers, and another his, and three more hises is conducted in Turkish. Bear in mind that an IKEA conversation is never an easy one to begin with. The cabinet you want, 177 X 47 centimeters, is divided into eight sections, each measuring some 33 centimeters per side. Would you like eight doors, or eight baskets, or sixteen drawers, or totally open squares? If you choose the yellow (or green, or red, or white) cabinet, would you like doors of the same color, a different color, or a mixture of colors particularly attractive to the children you hope to serve? Uh, is that the wicker basket or the cloth and wire version you prefer? The baskets are not in the Self-Service Aisles; you need to go back to Home Decoration for those. Delivery does not include assembly.
The traffic pattern at IKEA, it turns out, is based on the street map of Istanbul except that this ancient capital holds the advantage of arranging that every street climb steeply uphill and, to boot, is paved with unevenly spaced, ankle-breaking cobblestones. Just the other day, I climbed for twenty minutes from the community center to Pages Bookstore following the route Google Maps laid out for me. Fine. Pages, in a dispute with its Kuwaiti Bank, could not honor my Visa card, so the helpful clerk gave me a shortcut to an ATM machine ‘just up the road.’ Up, and up the road. Another twenty minutes. On the way back, I spied a likely shortcut where the descent didn’t seem so steep. I took it—straight into a cul-de-sac. Retracing, I climbed up again, saw the landmark I needed—the truly magnificent Byzantine Chora Church (now wrapped in a construction site baggie so that it was a small miracle that I recognized it)—and noted that I had overshot my mark by three or four blocks and was somewhat higher up the hill than I had begun. By the time I returned to Pages, the proprietor had a cold lemonade waiting for me.
All this while, in this 95 degree heat, under this baking sun, contending with these unforgiving slopes, I calmed myself: This is no real sacrifice for helping refugees who walked from their ruined cities into Turkey, who tolerated tent city refugee camps for months at a time, who had no work, no schools, no chance. There are heroic people and heroic deeds throughout the region; there are also small acts of kindness anyone with a spare hour can achieve.
It makes me laugh to do the latter.
A few days ago, a former student posted on Face Book the names and address of all the agencies, NGOs, churches, local organizations in America that are gearing up to receive, place, and help refugees from Syria. I thought this was very good information to have. Now Americans can begin to recognize the magnitude of the refugee crisis. Every state can begin the process of introducing new people into their communities, people who need help at first but who will, as history notes, revitalize neighborhoods, economies, understandings of the world stage.
But no, the list was prefaced with the fear-mongering thesis that these refugees may be terrorists in disguise, that Paris and Brussels (and now San Bernardino and Orlando) prove that these “so-called refugees” cannot be trusted until we have a foolproof system for vetting them.
This is a stonier path to climb than any Istanbul street. Surmounting such fear, whether it’s rooted in fact, or bigotry, or religious enmity, or propaganda, or xenophobia, or nativism needs a good guide, a map, and seemingly endless fortitude.
It makes me weep.