One Horrific Night in Istanbul
An early morning nightmare I wish I could erase from my memory.
A few years ago I was presented with the opportunity to visit Istanbul. One of our French Culinary Institute graduates was opening a cooking school in the center of the city and I was invited to stay at her home and take a look at her school. I had often dreamt about traveling to Turkey and what better reason could there be to make the trip.
Whenever I travel to a city I haven’t been to, I check out the gay scene; if there is a gay scene that is. I knew of course that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country and it is essentially against a Muslim’s religion to be intimate with someone of the same sex.
[The Quran narrates the story of the “people of Lot” destroyed by the wrath of God because the men engaged in lustful carnal acts between themselves. Some hadith collections also condemn homosexual and transgender acts, prescribing death penalty for male homosexual intercourse. Homosexual acts are forbidden in traditional Islamic jurisprudence and are liable to different punishments, including the death penalty, depending on the situation and legal school.] (Wikipedia)
This knowledge should have been enough to squelch any desire I might have had to explore the gay culture in Istanbul. Truth is, I can be way too curious and extremely stupid sometimes. Hence the night I came close to losing my life in Istanbul.
This was a few years ago and I couldn’t find anything about a gay community on-line prior to traveling to Turkey. I thought I’d inquire once I settled in. I was shopping at the Grand Bazaar on my second day in Istanbul and finally met a young, friendly, English speaking man, who was working at a spice stall. I had the notion he might be gay and so I delicately approached the subject of gay culture in Istanbul. He basically informed me that it was underground, not wildly popular and not easy to find. He was aware of one particular club, but not sure about others in the city.
I should note that I did not think it was appropriate to question my host about this matter or inform her that I would be going to a gay club. We had not been friendly prior to my visit and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing personal information. For the most part, I was scheduled to be on my own in the evening.
It was Friday afternoon and I thought it might be fun to venture out and find this club while there was still some daylight, so that it would be easy to find that evening. After walking around the vicinity of where the young man said the club would be, I found it sort of tucked away on a side street near the centre. It was closed and there were no hours on the door. I wasn’t even sure that what I found was a club. I figured I’d go at about 10:00 p.m., hoping to find it lively. When I arrived that evening, there was just one person at the door and the bartender. The bar was sparse and not at all enticing. I asked the bartender what time things got going and he just shrugged his shoulders acting as if he had no idea what I was talking about. I believe he spoke English, I wasn’t really sure.
Two hours later, a few others began to arrive. What I experienced at the club that night I have never experienced at a gay club prior. It was a pleasant enough space, one large room with a chandelier and some colorful club lights. There was a small dancefloor; unused that evening. There appeared to be one couple and then maybe three or four guys just standing around hugging the wall. I don’t recall any laughing or smiling, just guys looking very serious and holding their drinks. I’m not sure why, but I was intimidated and intrigued at the same time. At one point I questioned why in the world I was sticking around. A part of me thought that things might liven-up. I had been to clubs before that didn’t get going until 1:00 a.m. and so I thought that perhaps the culture in Istanbul was a late one.
I was dead wrong, it never got better. I decided to leave the club at about 2:00 a.m. I had not had much to drink due to the circumstances. I walked outside to find a taxi and a young gentleman followed me out. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from New York and visiting Turkey for the first time. He then asked me if I would like to walk for a bit. The streets were very quiet, in fact, they were eerily deserted. I was curious why he had not spoken to me at the club, but instead, waited until I left the bar. His English was not great,but we understood one another. He told me that he had not said hello to me at the club because he was afraid I would reject him. He appeared shy and said that he had been working up the nerve to speak to me. He also apologized for his English. I asked about the gay culture in Turkey and I could tell that he was reluctant to go there with me. He started to become agitated as I probed, and so I apologized.
We were walking without saying much for about ten minutes, when he asked me if I was interested in going back to his place for a coffee. I told him that I didn’t drink coffee at that hour, but that it would be nice to see his place. I was very curious and he was attractive. We found a taxi and went to his apartment; it was a five minute ride at the most.
When we arrived at his apartment, I began to be concerned. His demeanor changed abruptly. I wasn’t sure if he was having second thoughts about inviting me to his place or if he was possibly dangerous. When you walked into his apartment there were three guys playing some sort of game, and whatever they were smoking filled the entire apartment with smoke. He did not introduce me and took me into his bedroom. Honestly, I’m not sure we ever exchanged names. The room was small, dark and very unpleasant. This is when I began feeling very threatened. I told him that I wasn’t feeling right about the situation. I didn’t share this, but I had gotten a bad vibe from the guys in the other room. He dismissed my discomfort and told me not to worry.
The next bit came as quite a shock. He asked me for $100 dollars. It was then that I knew I was in trouble.
I said, “You should have told me that you were working. I’m not interested in paying for sex.”
He became angry with me and told me that I had to pay him because I should have known. He was insulting and incensed. I was very frightened at this point. I asked him to please just let me leave.
“No, you cannot leave without giving me $100.”
I told him that all I had was $20 (in Lira) and that I needed it for a taxi. He said he didn’t believe me and I had to empty my pockets for him. He saw that I had my ID and bankcard. He said that if I didn’t pay him, that he and his friends would beat me. At that moment, I believed him. I told him that we’d have to find an ATM machine. He agreed that we would go to a machine with one of his friends. I know that I was shaking and close to tears.
We found a machine near his apartment. I made a couple of attempts to withdraw money, but it wasn’t working. His friend kept telling me to hurry. I tried to explain that it wasn’t working, but they said that I was lying. I asked them if we could try another machine. This was my first attempt at using an ATM in Turkey. I brought Lira with me, but I left most of it in the apartment where I was staying. I have never liked carrying a lot of cash. They took me to another machine a few streets away. I was looking for the police as we hurried through the streets, but I saw no one.
I had the same issue at the next machine. I thought that I might have been so nervous that I was using the wrong pin. At this point both men were very agitated. I tried to explain that it just wasn’t working.
I pleaded, “What if I give you what I have in my pocket and my watch as well?”
They just shook their heads and said they wanted the money. I took the money out of my pocket and handed it to one of them. I tried to give them my watch, but they refused to take it. At this point they were both screaming at me in Turkish. I threw my watch at them and ran. They chased me through the streets and all I could imagine was that I was going to be brutally killed in Istanbul. I was running marathons at this point in my live and fortunately, I was very fit. I ran toward a taxi I had spotted and begged the driver to allow me to get in; he refused. I ran a bit further and I saw another driver standing on the side of his taxi.
“Help, these guys are going to hurt me.”
The driver opened his door and I jumped into the taxi. The two Turks chasing me were pounding on the window as the taxi drove away. I thanked the driver several times, but he spoke no English. I tried to tell him that I did not have money, but that I would get some cash for him when we arrived to where I was staying.
When we got to the apartment I tried to tell him again that I had no cash on me. The driver was very angry that I was not paying him; he kept repeating something in his language and pointing to his hand. There was a military soldier standing with a rifle near the house where I was staying. This was a very wealthy neighborhood and there was a soldier on almost every corner. He spoke a little English and I explained my situation. He then spoke to the angry driver. He told me that I could go in and get the money. I quickly went in to retrieve some cash and I brought it out to pay him. He angrily grabbed the money and drove away. The soldier said nothing. I often wondered if he knew what had happened to me that night.
I showered and shivered for who knows how long. Sleep was elusive. The evening kept playing in my head on an endless loop. I crawled out of my bed a few hours later and spent the remainder of the day trying to forget what had happened. I told no one. I called my bank and I was told that I had not informed them that I was traveling and so their policy was to block my account.
Let’s be totally honest; what I did was dumb, insane, ridiculous, naive, and immature. At the time, I was a young man in my early 40s and I had put myself in dangerous situations more often than I care to admit. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and that’s all I’ll say. I wish I hadn’t been so stupid, but then, who knew I’d be chased through the streets of Istanbul at 3:00 a.m. You live and learn and I learned the hard way.
“I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.”
― Sophocles, Oedipus Rex