Rick Steigelman was born and raised in Muskegon, Michigan. He moved to Ann Arbor to attend The University of Michigan, and, like so many others, stuck around afterwards to help staff the local restaurant scene. He has published one novel, The Hope of Timothy Bean (Briarwood Publications, 2002), and has placed creative nonfiction in the online journals Hackwriters and Cosmoetica. He currently resides in Ann Arbor with his wife Donna and daughter Claire.
The Great Zionist Conspiracy
Mom and I awaken on our first full day in Istanbul to a glorious spring sun. What a morning! Crisp and invigorating. It's time to get a move on.
Our tentative plan is to take in the church of St. Sophia , as well as the Blue Mosque. This weather, however, is dictating otherwise. Not knowing whether we'll see another day as fine as this, we decide to shuffle our calendar. It had been our hope, at some point during our stay here, to catch a cruise up the straits of the Bosphorus, the body of water that not only divides the city of Istanbul , but that separates the continents of Europe and Asia , as well. This would be that day.
My research on the subject has drawn us to the option that will take us all the way to the Black Sea , with periodic stops at select villages along either shore, during which passengers will be permitted to disembark for forty-five minutes of exploration, before reboarding. The trip is to culminate with lunch at a resort along the Black Sea, followed by a return to the port at Istanbul . This is our plan.
Intoxicated by the brilliance of this superb spring morning, I persuade Mom to suppress her natural affinity for meeting up with me at any given destination by means of a cab, and to join me in making the trek down to the docks at Eminonu by foot. Next time, I'll keep my mouth shut.
We are not terribly far into our walk before the topographical splendor of Istanbul 's resting upon seven hills begins losing its charm for Mom. She seems convinced that each of the seven rears up at least once between our hotel and the water. It does not help her mood that she has come to interpret my many abrupt and uncertain changes of direction as a sign we are lost. That my path, at the very least, has resulted in our successfully circumventing the aggressive hordes of street peddlers and touts that so plague tourist Istanbul appears to count little with Mom. I have begun to receive an earful.
What I would give to have a sympathetic muezzin pipe in right now and drown out my mother's Call to Complaint, which has started to draw plenty of attention as it echoes on high through the narrow corridors of the neighborhood. Evidently, Islam does not work this way. They seem a bit strict about sticking to schedule. I, therefore, determine to control Mom's volume by putting half-a-block between us.
All right, so I'm lost. I do not have to break this news to Mom. It is time to ask for directions. I choose a deaf guy. It might simply be that he cannot hear me over Mom, still a quarter-block up the way, but, whatever the reason, my crescendoing line of questioning, mixing randomly his native tongue and mine, succeeds only in attracting the notice of another local, who moves in promptly for the rescue (though of me or the deaf man, I cannot say).
By now, Mom has caught up. She is agitating for a cab. I assure her that if I can manage to pluck one out of thin air, I will gladly pay her fare to the far side of the Black Sea . She does not find this cute.
We stumble upon the docks of Eminonu before we do a cab. With ten minutes, and no patience, to spare. I proceed up to the nearest ticket shack and request, in my best Turkish, passage for two on the Black Sea-bound cruise. I am given two tickets.
From the rear deck of our departing ship, I am captivated by the sight of the morning sun setting sparkle to the domes of the Yeni and Suleymaniye Mosques. I watch these landmarks recede across the shimmering inlet of water known as the Golden Horn , as we glide out towards the Bosphorus. If the entire excursion is comprised of such vistas, we are in for a great day's journey. I make sure that the camera is loaded.
We are perhaps half-an-hour into our voyage when the first village on our itinerary approaches on the European side. Unbeknownst to Mom and me, as we step off the boat, this is to be the only village on our itinerary. We are not even to the head of the dock, when, with a casual glance over my shoulder, I see that the ship is already pulling away.
I hurry over to the tiny ticket office to find out what the hell's going on, and to demand that they call the boat back immediately. The window is shut, the door is locked. The place is vacant.
I sprint back to the end of the dock and wave in full expectation that the ship's captain, upon seeing me and realizing his error, will certainly swing the large vessel back round to retrieve us.
Some of those still on board the ship wave back.
But what is anybody doing still on board? A fretful examination of the evidence seems to suggest that other than a few Turks-and two tourists from the States-everyone else had, in fact, remained on the ship. I had not been paying close enough attention at the time to recognize this.
It occurs to me, now, as I watch what used to be our ship float further and further away, that the Istanbul ticket-seller had steered us onto a commuter boat, rather than the cruise vessel I had specifically requested. Of all the times for that fellow's Turkish to have failed him. Consequently, we are as close to the Black Sea as we are going to get.
Mom is quick to rustle up an additional culprit for our predicament. While I was traipsing about the deck of the ship to take in the many different views and angles of either shoreline, Mom had remained behind in the cabin to placate her preference for being insulated from as many of the elements of nature as is possible in any given situation. There, while defying both wind and sun, along with the occasional spray of that bothersome water they seem to include with every boat ride, Mom had fallen into conversation with a fellow American traveler.
It turns out that they had discussed more than merely their anticipation of breaking baklava on the Black Sea . They had touched upon politics, a subject regarding which Mom has always had a difficult time employing even the slightest tact, or, better yet, keeping still. Well, as luck would have it, this other woman was of Jewish heritage and held a view quite in opposition to Mom's concerning Israeli policies towards the Palestinian people.
Mom, of course, cannot leave bad enough alone. As a result of what sounded like a fairly tense difference of opinion, this other woman, Mom is now claiming, intentionally failed to correct my mother's openly expressed notion regarding the voyage we were on. Not only did this woman keep the true nature of our vessel's mission to herself, she apparently went to great lengths to feed Mom's belief that, yes, this village, rather than being part of a commuter line was, indeed, the first of several leisurely stops of an organized cruise headed out for a very fine lunch on the Black Sea .
Mom's Jewish friend never left her seat. I cannot help but imagine her chuckling grandly from the cabin as our two forlorn figures disappear slowly from her sight. Mom is well animated by her anger as she recounts all of this for me. In triplicate. Her ranting is the only thing piercing my despair. That and the gradual realization that Mom and I appear to have before us a bit of a swim upstream to Istanbul . Another thirty seconds of this hare-brained howling over Zionist trickery and I'll be sending her in to test the current.
I discover that I will be unable to act upon this impulse, however, for there stands, just across the street from the head of the dock, an officer of the law. On the plus side of his presence, perhaps he can assist us in getting back to Istanbul . My panic-stricken Turkish comes tumbling out in what surely must've been Latin to his ears (in sharp contrast to my standard Turkish). He is an extremely patient man. We are probably not his first Americans. Despite my best efforts, he seems perfectly to understand. He directs us to a nearby cab stand, where we pile into a mini-bus with some half-dozen locals for a ride into Istanbul .
So, thank you, kind stranger; for without your timely intervention, Mom might still be bobbing out to the Black Sea , and I might find myself a special guest in your nation's custody. Lodged in quarters firmly inaccessible to family and friends. For a very long time.
So, we get to St. Sophia and the Blue Mosque this day, after all. In between our visits to these two sites, we go for lunch. Though we are here during the holy month of Ramadan, during which the faithful must abstain from, among other things, the daylight consumption of food, we have no trouble finding a restaurant that is open. There are always infidels to be fed.
We leave the restaurant and almost immediately are approached by a well-dressed and much polished young man of about thirty years of age. He calls himself Albertino. I will develop other names for him. Quickly mining our intent, he offers to personally escort us to the Blue Mosque, where he'll gladly show us about the place. Why, how fortunate for us to have stumbled, by mere chance, upon such a good citizen and selfless ambassador for old Constantinople !
Whether we wish it or not, we are now a threesome. Lead on, Albertino.
We are allowed to enter into the mosque despite the fact that there is a service going on. There is a lot of blue in the Blue Mosque. Some twenty-one thousand beautiful tiles worth, covering up everything, it seems, but for the segregation imposed upon the female segment of the worshippers, who, rather than being placed upon a pedestal near to the front of the service, are instead herded behind a barrier at the rear of the room. Though I prefer for myself, when hauled into church, this sort of distant seating assignment, in that it facilitates the mind's drifting while providing some cover, as well, for striking an early exit, I do not get the impression that this is what is going on here. It is a bit uncomfortable for the western mind to observe.
What is this that Albertino is now telling us as we depart the premises? His uncle owns a carpet shop nearby? Why, who ever would've imagined such a thing?
That Mom and I had been sought out based not upon the overwhelming merits of our companionship, but, rather, by our perceived purchasing potential, is already cutting a deep physcological scar. How shall I ever again be able to trust a complete stranger who approaches me on the street?
Mom cannot accept the invitation to visit the rug shop fast enough. Reading my expression more adroitly than she had Albertino's purpose, Mom assures me, in an aside, that she has absolutely no intention of buying anything. I receive this vow with silent skepticism and turn, at once, to wondering in which room she might end up displaying the inevitable acquisition.
We soon arrive at the shop, where Albertino turns the show over to the practiced geniality of his uncle. After rounding up a portable space heater with which to warm our web, our young guide retreats into the background, where he fidgets as he awaits the results of his uncle's work.
It must be noted that, off the streets and away from the bazaars, the sales pitch is of a more relaxed and personal nature. We have first been led upstairs for tea and coffee. The uncle, we learn, once trained as an air traffic controller in Oklahoma . His English is good. No Oklahoma accent. We talk America and a good many other things. Except rugs. The uncle's a real pro. I can sense that Mom is already forming a kind of generational bond with this charming fellow. I calculate near to zero my chances of walking out of this building without a carpet of some sort strapped to my back.
Mom's growing comfort with the rug merchant leads, after a while, to her confiding to him that she is very curious to get his opinion on a matter of great political sensitivity.
Oh God, here it comes. The Armenian question. Getting tricked off the boat for talking Palestinian politics evidently was not lesson enough. Now it's time to dredge up the topic of Turkish culpability in the deaths of a million or so Armenian civilians back in the early part of the twentieth century. Mom may find herself with no choice but to purchase a rug, as payoff for the uncle's not alerting the authorities to the fact that there are a couple of Americans afoot who have dared broach a subject that is very much taboo in the Republic of Turkey. I might have to buy one, too, just for good measure.
I fumble for my tongue in the hope of interceding before Mom can cross the line of impropriety. Unfortunately, it is the only time that she moves with any speed. She beats me to the wire.
This fine gentleman receives her inquiry graciously, and deflects it easily. No harm done.
Mom tries again. Bless her heart.
The merchant is again gracious, but no more forthcoming regarding any opinion that he might hold on the matter.
With the tea and coffee consumed, the uncle desperately welcomes the opportunity to direct us back downstairs for the real reason that we have been brought here (which was not to discuss the Armenians). As this former air traffic controller skillfully maneuvers Mom into the sale that she as repeatedly insinuated to him will not happen, I can only respond to her weakening refusals with a roll of my eyes.
Mom compromises and picks out the smallest and, at $225, the least expensive rug in the place. It permits her a sense of triumph. Yes, she certainly has shown him. He'll never be able to show his face in Oklahoma again.
Mom privately preempts the lecture she presumes forming on my tongue, by promising me the rug upon her passing. If she keeps flirting with the Armenian issue, I might find myself proud owner of the rug sooner rather than later.