The Foreword to Insomnia’s Istanbul (The Voice of an Unreliable Narrator, in Medias Res)

Now and then, I am restless….

When I dropped them at the restaurant, Simon asked me to join them for lunch. I parked the dolmus near the Sirkeci Railway.  Potential fares watched me curiously. I felt compelled to announce that it was time for lunch.

“Ogle yemegi.”  is what I said to them, and not sesame-sprinkled bread either — to myself!

I couldn’t walk fast enough to get away from the stink of the smelted metal, and I find the putrid aroma of leather nauseating. What you smell on Galata Bridge depends on where you stand.  Looking over at the fishermen bobbing on the ‘horn’ next to the bridge, but still managing to grill a pan-full of mackerel, I almost walked over and bought a snack from my brethren.

When I arrived, Simon and the woman were drinking Tuborg bira. I don’t know what inspired her, but she was wearing the hood on her caftan.  My friend, Ishmir, served us.  He handed me the menu, but he was very good.  Ishmir stood directly across from her and suggested we start with hor d ‘Oeuvres.

They ordered Red Caviar in Mayonnaise.  I ordered Stuffed Vine Leaves. Of course, Ishmir suggested fish, and she ordered Roe. I ordered Anchovy. But Simon ordered Roast Lamb with onions, Yuk!  Ishmir smiled a lot, but he was a cad, a supreme waiter and a notorious rogue.

For vegetables, she ordered Spinach Tomato. Simon ordered Squash Potatoes, and I ordered cabbage.  They wanted Strawberries for fruit, and I ordered Figs.  For dessert, she ordered Yogurt and Egg Pudding.  Simon, a Lady’s Navel, a donut soaked in honey — and me Rice Pudding.

Then we had vodka.  She tipped the glass as if it were empty like her vanity.  Simon told Ishmir to give it some color. So, Ishmir put a peach on the rim. Suddenly everything was right. She rested her elbow on the table, her chin in the palm of her hand, cradling the vodka in the other, and started at the “bottom” of her wish list.

“I want to go to Topkapi Palace.”

Simon smiled the way a jinni would when “his” wish comes true. “What do you expect to find there?”

“The shadow of God — I don’t know.  I just want to go.”  She dropped her eyes, and then raised them again.

Simon said, “You want to see the shadow of God?  Perhaps we should go to the Sancta Sophia instead, but of course we can go to the Imperial Harem in Topkapi and feel the shadow of black emasculated men who controlled the Harem — eunuchs who resembled modern day pimps without penises. Or the captured, bought or sold foreign and often Christian concubines whose body hair is removed, and then pomaded with henna to prevent perspiration, after it is massaged and scrubbed by slave women (too old to be favored), because the Sultan put his handkerchief on the concubine’s shoulder that she brings to his bed at midnight.”

He leaned into a whisper, “A world of bored lesbians or platonic affairs with castrated page-boys.  And afterwards, we could dive the Bosphorus,” He pointed toward Asia. “In search of those weighted sacks that Sultan Ibrahim had 280 concubines sewn in.  They’ll be upright and easy to find at the bottom of the channel.”

“You know…” she lowered the hand that held her chin, on the table and dug her nails in the palm of her hand.  She sipped her vodka before she continued with, “A goalkeeper can catch ‘and’ throw the ball.”

He didn’t return her volley.  He reached in his pocket for cigarettes.

“Meaning?”  He offered her one, but her eyes faded and she shook her head, balancing the rim of the glass on her tongue.  She sipped her vodka again.  When she spoke, her blue eyes were flambé.

“You can relate the melodrama of emasculated slave drivers; expose the gauze of white bondage in a pleasure dome.  You can casually lean into homophobia and then sink into regret.  You hear voices from the bottom of the channel, and you can suggest that we dive like dreadful Arabs; but you don’t mention that in this center of civilization, this threshold of bliss, the arched eyebrows of ravaging old men think it is right and necessary to punish one man for his impudence with the lives of a thousand boys, and a thousand girls, a thousand mothers, and a thousand fathers.”

When she said “a thousand,” her eyes closed, and her lips barely moved.  I could hear her heart weep.  She leaned across the table into prose.

“Muslims never mention a time when neglected and lascivious Turkish women stole around looking for new loves, shrouded in these habiliments — now celebrated as some sort of Islamic affirmation.”

She snatched the hood from her head.  “Whores, whose husbands dreamed about the Imperial Harem, and could never recognize their disguised wives in this garden of paradise.”

I pursed my cigarette between my lips, looked across the Horn at the Galata Tower, and thought, “Please!  Fuck her in the ass!”

Simon’s bottom lip collapsed between his teeth, and when he released it to speak, they left a white impression.  His head moved like the pugilist you shadow box, the prize, the peacock that halts to seduce you.

“Is my nose bleeding, goalkeeper?”

Her hands moved across the table for his.  She took his hand in hers tenderly.  She spread his fingers, and stroked the back of his hand with hers, and turned his palm over and held it up as if light would pass through it like alabaster, and she talked into it, as if words would penetrate like sound.

She said, “I saw a man in Seoul once.  It was a gray day.  My girlfriend and I had just hailed a taxi.  He was with business associates, I guess, I don’t know.  They carried armored briefcases and he was wearing a plush black topcoat.  A town car pulled in front of his party when his eyes, the color of the day, watched me, watching him.  It was a magnetic moment, with magnetic potential, but I felt my body moving like Niagara toward the opened door of the taxi, and fall inside reluctantly.  I left a phantom standing.”

His bottom lip grew accustomed to his teeth again.  He tilted his head far enough to see his reflection in her eyes, and her hands disappeared between his.  White horses straddled the hull, and Ishmir smiled at me, when a glass of tea shifted on his tray.

I followed them through the Gate of the Majestic One, even though I’d been there before.  They were easy to trail.  After we paid half price for nylons from a street vendor, Simon bought some French vanilla because she liked the decanter.  It resembled a flask.  But French vanilla didn’t mix with a miasma of death:  the dark tiny cells, marbled rooms and iron barred windows of black eunuchs, and the eerie and evil battle-axes and scimitars of the conquered.  Or, the surrealism of giant emeralds on the crown of the Topkapi Dagger like a roman candle — carried through the Gate of Felicity by Madonna.

In spite of all that, and the barbaric flower patterns on the walls, and so much gold and diamonds they resembled copper and glass, I smelled French vanilla in this stained-glass heaven, and heard tocks in a room full of clocks like waterfalls, but what I wanted most of all, was to see his cock between her thighs.

Beneath delicate balconies, 300 tiny rooms and 400 years of a ravaged Harem bridged by staircases, little courtyards, and pavilions; at the end of the cul-de-sac, I saw the lustrous eyes of the gazelle.  While my thoughts shifted from ugly destruction to whet wildflowers in this horribly airy place, she looked satisfied.  Then the lights went out!

All you could hear was the hushed noise of silence.  The familiar yelps of babies paused for the unfamiliar, but the proverbial blackout would arouse the dead before they wiped sleep from their eyes, and magnified the click of her heels rising from clay, when I saw her leap in his arms in lackluster headlights, and her bosom brushed his face — infrared in taillights.

Toward my voice of gentle direction, a friendly gauge to the door I opened, in a dark stagger they fell to obscurity, like me.  But I prefer to be forgotten, and left to eavesdrop on transitory affairs.

They were two people, interacting on each other.  One, to conquer like the Arab in the desert.  The other to submit, like the Turkish nomad.  Unfortunately, it was black in the back of the dolmus, like the city, and I was only privy to the promise of pleasure, the sound of pain, the smell of conduction, and the rhythm of breathing.

Unlike the neighbors next door, who desperately moan for us all, in the back of a dolmus — sex is existentialismIt is earnest copulation, a period of decline in a carriage drawn by a wild-eyed spooked horse — and I hoped she felt the sharp turn, at the corner of the Soup Kitchen of Lady Nilufer, in her throat.

We skipped the Sancta Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  We circled Istanbul University. When I crossed the Galata Bridge and so many pilgrims dancing in the dark, at once the electric power line that lay victim to steel-belted radials in the middle of the street, swung carefully without resistance — to expose the nightclub in the Galata Tower!

I watched them from a bar stool dance the Fandango.  A Jew with a batch of dark curly hair in rings around his head was dented at the crown by a yarmulke.  He ordered double shots of Absolut Vodka with the regularity of a dehydrated Arab and shook his head in time to Ruben Blades’ El Padre Antonio.

Above the lullaby of the synthesizer, the tower buzzed with “muchas gracias” from the last Spanish-speaking Jewish community.  When that same synthesizer switched to hot salsa and the Jews were oddballs again, her body arched, the small of her back in the palms of his hands.  Her hair hung like strings of yellow ribbon suspended from a merry-go-round.  Fixed at the center, she rode the stallion.

Then I felt an annoying finger poke me on the shoulder blade.  Of course when I turned the offender moved to the other side.  I hate that!  It was Ishmir.  Immediately, he excused himself and sardonically asked, “Where is someone who knows English?”

“Affedersiniz, Ingilizee bilen bir kimse merede?”

I swerved round on the stool, and he saw what I saw.  My fare, without trying, drawing attention, like the dominant table in a crowded restaurant.  Without turning away he searched for his stool.  His hand on the seat, he gradually sat down.

“Guzel…”  He called her beautiful before his mouth closed and his eyes narrowed.  I ordered two shots of viski.  I was above lust in a crowd.  Instead, I encouraged the love Simon consumed and Ishmir conserved — like any valid voyeur.

In this motley assembly of American infidels, young Turks, Jews and effendis, he clearly wanted her.  He had no shame.  I watched Ishmir once stand in the center of the howling, his erection discovered, and affectionately held up for ridicule, Ishmir dropped his pants and revealed a deep-rooted trunk. With his back swayed by his fists on his hips he struck a perfect anatomical pose, a picture of pride among men.

Now, he watched her through narrow schizophrenic eyes, with his nose pressed against the windowpane, the man who has nothing, and no one adored her, like the man, Luther Vandross and Martha Wash sung about, and my fare danced.  Kirk Whalum’s sax charmed the snake.  Ishmir wanted to be the one.

Suddenly, he swerved round and watched them in the mirror behind the bar.  He swigged the viski and then he asked in a melodic yet unromantic tone, “Did he nail her?”

“In the back of the dolmus.”


“With an overhand knot around her neck…”

“You always lie!”  He cut me off.

“I’m not interested in your vivid imagination! What did he do, how did he do it?”  he demanded.

“I’m telling you what I know!  If you don’t believe me, ask him!”

“What of her wrists?”

“A surgeon’s knot.”

“Bullshit!  That’s too much kinetic energy.  She would have to be willing!”

“She was.”

“I don’t believe you!  I don’t believe you…”  He repeated, shaking his head and looking in his empty glass on the bar.  I gestured to the bartender for refills.  We were silent.  Ishmir was disappointed.  He swigged the viski again, and slammed the empty glass on the bar.


“Why what?”

“Why was she willing?”

I watched him.  He was a desperate, impatient predator who didn’t know how to take down his prey.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“Nothing’s obvious,”  he shot back.

“Did she cry out loud?”

“Yes…in ecstasy.”

Ishmir swallowed saliva.  He gestured to the bartender for refills, and looked in the mirror again. They were sitting at a table for two.  Simon’s arm was draped across the back of her chair.  She used his thigh to rest her arm, her hand between his knees, her head on his shoulder. He fed her the olive he fished from her drink, and sucked the salt from her lips.  Ishmir swigged the viski again.

He sat his glass on the bar and with the same hand, he scratched the back of his neck, looked at me, and resolved, “She’s a whore.

They were loaded.  Simon draped his arms around mine and Ishmir’s neck and in an English proclamation offered to buy more to drink, if we answered this riddle.

“What motivates a woman more than love, pride, country, power, glory, or God?”  Our eyes shifted from his to each other’s.  It was a trick question.  I thought of the sphinx for our reward.  Then, in an aria of proper English, Ishmir and I replied, “Man, of course.”

We laughed in perfect harmony.  The truth was never more obvious than the pure expression of vulnerability and betrayal in her eyes; because I thought, I betrayed her confidence.  I snooped.  I peeked.  Yes, I stuck my dick in her pie, and felt a pang of regret.

She resembled an Alsatian bitch with that one three, two four stride, and when we got to the dolmus, she literally crawled inside on all fours.  Ishmir saw the fresh pears before Simon closed the door.

I watched Simon curiously.  Surely he wasn’t finished with her yet!  He wouldn’t send her home in a ‘taxi’…!

“We forgot her caftan.”  He lit a cigarette, cupping the flame from the breeze, as he walked away.

“I’ll do it!”  I thumbed myself repeatedly in the chest I was afraid to be left alone with her.

Ishmir nudged me and showed me his empty hands, and before I could fill them with my fists, he opened the door and filled them with her ass.  Two fresh pears in his hands.  He bit one gently, his tongue cushioned his teeth, his arms embraced them and his face disappeared.

She thought it was Simon.  She moaned when Ishmir’s hands went round and touched the core of her sex.  I knew he’d gone too far when I was erect.  I reached for the scruff of his neck and missed when he fell inside and covered her on the seat.  He started…humping her, like lesbians hump virgin lesbians.  It was fucking coitus!

They were slender bodies of revolution.  Then she screamed like a little girl screams at the sight of an earthworm.When Ishmir backed off, the wet spot clung to his leg.  She bolted out of the dolmus like a Mandrill and clung to him.  She was in a violent rage!  The skin of his face was under her nails.  She was like the sticky pulp of Oedipus hurled in Jocasta’s face.

She slapped him hard, and harder again before Ishmir grabbed her by the neck with one hand, and fenced with the other.  That didn’t work!  He started choking her and pushed her back inside.  They smelled like leather.  I needed to throw up.   Then I realized we were in the leather district of the bridge!

Out of nowhere, while I stood there praying for fresh air and Simon, she stabbed Ishmir repeatedly in the head with the heel of her shoe!  He fell on top of her in a convulsive fit.  Blood pulsed with every spasm, and zigzagged in a darker red all over my velvet roof and all over her yellow hair — dripping red.  I threw up on the curb.

Simon finally, shoved him to the floor and she kept screaming, “He, he, he….” and pointing at the bloody head.  She was hysterical!  Instead of shaking or slapping her, Simon hugged her and smothered her face in the pit of his arm.

“Shh, shh!”  he said anxiously, until she simply trembled violently in his arms, her cries inverted.

“What happened?”  he whispered between clinched teeth.  I hesitated, trying desperately to separate saliva from acid.

“Talk to me, and speak English!”

I pointed at Ishmir’s head, “He violated her…” I choked.

“You ‘watched’ him violate her?”

My hands wouldn’t speak, “I…I…I”  Simon leaned and punched me, fast and hard in the face.  I stumbled, my arms falling on top of the dolmus.  I braced myself against a fall on the curb I threw up on.  I thought he broke my nose.

“You stupid fuck!”  He’s ‘your’ friend, how could you let this happen?”  He pointed his angry finger.

I raised the palms of my hands, fending off his accusations, shaking my head in denial.

“He forgot that she’s an American!”  I pointed at Ishmir.

“And she forgot that she’s in a foreign country!”  I pointed at her.

I tell you all this because I can’t tell anyone else.  You see, I helped them excavate an Ottoman gravestone.  We tied Ishmir supine around it in square nylon knots and threw him in the Golden Horn.  What is life in Istanbul anyway?  A world of felicity — Ishmir is in the other.

I see the French vanilla on the cover of magazines.  She has an odd fixed look in her eyes.  The kind of look every man sees when a woman is between his legs on her knees; because, indeed nothing propels a woman like man, not God, country, or pride.

“Please excuse me.  Ogle yemegi.”

The mackerel has never tasted better.  There must be something in the water.

Copyright 2004, 2013 E Maria Shelton Speller  All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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2 responses to “The Foreword to Insomnia’s Istanbul (The Voice of an Unreliable Narrator, in Medias Res)

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