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There goes the neighbourhood

Last word After being assaulted in her Istanbul home, Suzy Hansen reflects on the changing nature of her adopted city.

After being assaulted in her Istanbul home, Suzy Hansen reflects on the changing nature of her adopted city. Turkish women always ask me what I think of Turkish men. "So are the men attacking you on the street?" they will say and smile. "No, of course not. They're all very kind," I reply, lying. "But they must stare," they insist. "No more in Istanbul than any man stares at any woman in any other city," I say, and we continue our dance. Turkish women genuinely want to know the answers to these questions - you can see it in their eyes - but sometimes I wonder if they're asking because I'm a woman or because I'm from the US, where, in some fantasy, all women are free and all men are well-behaved.

In his book Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk quotes a newspaper column from 1974 that advises its readers, "When you see a beautiful woman in the street, don't look at her hatefully as if you're about to kill her and don't exhibit excessive longing either; just give her a little smile, avert your eyes, and walk on." In The Black Book, Pamuk aptly refers to these stares as "scowls." Shortly after I moved here, just over a year ago, I'd decided that the scowls were a test: I am looking at you, will you treat me like a human being? If I smiled at them, they would relax, smile back, and respectfully look away - most of the time.

When you happily move to a foreign country, you very much want to reject cultural stereotypes. Parroting the idea, for example, that "all Turkish men" are irredeemably macho or aggressive feels like an admission of failure. (Here you moved halfway around the world, and you still think everyone's a cartoon). Plus, I detected something ugly in Turkish women's voices when they talked about men on the street - these weren't just men, but men from the East, members of the underclass. I essentially reasoned that since the women were snobs, they couldn't be right.

Turks are still making sense of the new Istanbul, a great heap of people from varying cultures, classes, towns and religious sects. When they brush up against each other in Taksim Square, the centre of the city, even Turks look foreign to Turks. Newcomers need to be filtered, categorised, labelled, stereotyped - and kept at a distance. The headscarf controversy draws its fire from this roiling growth. The intimacy of urban life demands that families protect their vulnerable daughters on city streets, and the sight of those covered girls in once-exclusively secular quarters makes secularists feel as though their Western havens have been invaded not just by the East, but by the past.

My neighbourhood, Cihangir, has lately been assaulted by candy-coloured furniture stores and bad European restaurants. But something of the Ottoman hodgepodge spirit, that world-in-miniature feeling that owes to narrow streets and the open courtyards of mosques and tea-houses, has survived. It's still a neighbourhood. I wanted to belong to it. Every day, I took care to greet the pastry shop men, or wave at the grumpy car park attendants. They might have enjoyed my enthusiasm, but I was silly to think they felt similarly - I was a foreigner, and there are too many of us around these days. Plus I was a single woman living alone: not just a target, but a threat.

Unsurprisingly, Cihangir attracts many foreigners. The sidewalks dance with mewling cats, crumbling stairs descend down creepy, romantic, passageways, and from unexpected vantage points you can catch a glimpse of the sea. Those lucky Cihangirlis with apartments hanging from the hill treasure some of the best views in the city - of both the Golden Horn and Asia, of the Sea of Marmara rushing into the Bosphorus, of ferries dodging oil tankers and Russian yachts, and these days, military ships headed for the Black Sea.

It wasn't always so enchanting, though. In this century, the neighbourhood has undergone two brutal transformations. Its mostly Greek inhabitants were chased out by Turkish mobs in the Fifties and Sixties, and this most cosmopolitan of old Istanbul neighbourhoods endured the whitewash of Turkish homogeno-nationalism. When the Greeks, Armenians and Jews fled, rents plummeted and prostitutes planted roots in the gorgeous old Christian buildings. Cihangir became a place you just didn't go to.

I have friends whose parents still forbid them from living in Cihangir, even as it is now, studded with wide-glass storefronts selling Ikea-inspired lamps. Cihangir must have been really bad if, even wearing the conspicuous jewellery of global gentrification, it still scares Turkish moms. But Cihangir, named for an Ottoman prince, had been reduced to a lady of ill-repute. In Turkey, honour is much more important than a good view of the Bosphorus.

The lessons of Istanbul often have to do with honour, but I'd always missed that during my conversations with Turkish women about Turkish men. Then one night, for the first time in over a year, I gave in to my lazy New York ways and ordered in some food. Two young guys arrived; they didn't have change for my 50 lira bill, so I had to fish coins out of a bowl to pay them. I invited them in while they waited. One respectfully cast his eyes to the floor. The other grinned broadly, amused to be inside a foreign girl's home. In my mind, I was revelling in Cihangir neighbourliness; I almost offered them tea.

Two minutes after they'd left, the grinning delivery boy returned, claiming I'd left them a few kurus short. Sheepishly, I turned my back to him again to get his money. He came inside, shut the door behind him and grabbed me. The details of the story aren't important - I emerged unscathed and he eventually left. I called a Turkish friend, and she rushed over, cracking her knuckles, getting in the mood (only half-joking) for a sort of Turkish neighbourhood justice. Each guy we informed of the event immediately declared, hands shaking, that he would find the kid and break his face. One said, "He will never be allowed in the neighbourhood again."

"OK," said my girlfriend after an hour or so, "So now you have three men who will beat him, and that should be enough." I've been robbed in Philadelphia and worse in New York. My grabby delivery boy suffered from an international disease, but the local reaction was particularly Turkish. "Why didn't you just call the police?" said an American male friend. "You just let these guys beat this kid up?"

But the Turkish police were an unsatisfying solution. This delivery boy had not only denigrated my honour, but the whole neighbourhood's - perhaps all of Turkey's - and so it was up to ordinary Turks to win it back. They would beat him not only because he was dangerous, but also because he didn't know his place. But it was clear to me, as my neighbours listened to my story, that I hadn't known my place either. I had confused this young man with my friendliness. My self-conscious American class sensitivity had upset the order of things. But it was this kid who would be set straight, not me.

"These animals!" said another Turkish woman. "But why did you even open the door all the way? What are you thinking?" Istanbullus can't do anything about foreigners moving to their city, and they can't do anything about mysterious country folks moving there either. Instead, they exert control over that which remains manageable - the spaces between classes and sexes. My neighbours' point was: while this class snobbery may offend your Western sensibilities, you, foreigner, are perhaps better off playing by the rules of this country, instead of your own.

I told the owner of the deli where the kid worked about what happened. "I am so sorry," he said. Then he turned to my Turkish friend with shining eyes. "Sister, she is foreign, but I know her. She is a neighbourhood girl." Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Istanbul and a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs.

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