Spots of Time

May 20, 2003

Five Minutes Being Turkish (Mike McGee)

By guest columnist, Mike McGee (

Early in my trip to Turkey I'd poked fun at my expatriate friend Colin for having once fallen in love with a Turkish girl, given his joking about how stubborn and volatile they could be. But when I said it, I didn't get the reaction I expected. There was no chuckle from him; no sheepish "yes, I should've known better" look. Instead, his face froze, the life draining from his eyes.

Later that evening in a terrace bar in Istanbul, after a few drinks and much personal history, Colin pulled up his briefcase and gently, almost reverentially, dug out a picture of his old girlfriend, Defne.

I was expecting a wallet-sized portrait, the standard "here's my wife and kids" type. It wasn't. It was practically an 8 x 10. Part of her face hadn't made it into the frame, like the pic had been taken at one of those little photo booths that spit out a strip of three. In fact, that's what it originally was, but Colin had blown it up so her thick black bangs, impish smile, and dusting of freckles were practically life-sized. These days, he carried the picture with him everywhere. It was only out for a second, hardly that even, maybe because, to him, it suddenly seemed silly to show it to me -- but I knew he hadn't pulled it out for me.

When I first met Colin, he'd already been in Istanbul seven months. Initially, he hated the country. A terrible hatred. But since then, he'd come to understand it, like it, maybe even love the place a little. And that qualified as a giant leap, believe me.

He and Defne had met in London, and had dated for two years, both of them very much in love. Missing her parents, though, Defne planned to go back to see them for three weeks in eastern Turkey. Colin was against it. Women virtually have no rights in eastern Turkey. It's the most conservative area of the country, where women, often as not, walk about behind veils. It's also the kind of place that spawns Turkey's more old-world political parties, the kind that recently distributed pamphlets on the proper way to beat your wife. For instance, Tip No. 1: Never hit her in the face. It draws too much attention. Instead, target areas her clothing will conceal.

But Defne was used to attitudes there. She knew her way around, knew just how far she could push things, and assured Colin she'd be all right. That was almost precisely seven months ago.

Colin recalled to me their last night in London, the two of them standing outside a pub. She'd looked him in the eye, her hand on his cheek. "I'll be back in three weeks. I have to go. And I am going -- no matter what you say."

For those not in the know, most Turkish women, by nature, are strong-willed. Colin had told me they could be a nightmare sometimes. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Correction: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And yet, they are hopeless romantics -- very passionate, very open with their feelings, the kind who'll go completely starry-eyed when they fall for a man, their heads zooming above the clouds, like rockets.

And so Defne had told Colin: the only way he'd keep her from seeing her parents was to actually beat her and forcibly drag her back home. She meant it. What's more, in Colin's mind nowadays, he believes she him to.

With Turkish women, it often comes with the territory.

For instance, at Colin's company these days, whenever he entertains the office "girls" at his apartment (virgins are called "girls"; non-virgins are "women"), he has to routinely "trash" them -- give them hell, essentially -- otherwise he'll be considered a wuss (or wimp, if you like) and prone to their jibes and abuse. So, he'll wow them with his more considerate western side, make them dinner -- something no Turkish man would ever do -- and then, before they get too comfortable and start pushing him around, for five minutes he'll become Turkish, ordering them about -- "Get me a coffee!" -- even though it's in his own place. And the women do whatever he tells them, willingly -- may to do it even -- because they've been bred to.

A few days after Defne arrived in Turkey, Colin's phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Defne. Her parents had locked her in the house, and meant to marry her to an eastern Turk, by force. The marriage plans were already in place. Her family had expected her return, and had been ready. She was calling from a cell phone she'd hidden in her socks.

The very next day, Colin was on a plane to Turkey, trying to formulate a plan. The idea was to rescue her and then make their way to the west coast and the Mediterranean where they could hire a boat and disappear into the Greek islands. Crossing Turkey wouldn't be easy though, given it's the size of the U.S. west coast. But Colin did have one thing in his favor. Since his mother was a Brit, and his father Bangladeshi, his black hair and darker complexion would make him look Turkish enough to skirt a great deal of unwanted attention. He'd even decided on a fake identity -- as a journalist -- so when he arrived in Defne's hometown and started asking questions, he wouldn't arouse too much suspicion -- too quickly.

When he got there, he signed in at the local hotel, made inquiries, and finally tracked down Defne's house. Slipping out of the hotel that night, he made his way across the darkened streets. When he reached her family's home, however, he discovered it surrounded by armed men, shotguns in hand. They had expected him.

Perhaps worst of all in this was that Defne was no longer a "girl" by Turkish standards, something which put her life in greater peril. If she were found out, she could be killed or put on trial at the court for immoral women (I may have the name wrong here, but that's essentially its function). If found guilty, she could be placed in one of Turkey's state-run brothels, known as the Genelevs. Her only chance was to fake the blood on her wedding night, possibly by cutting herself in the necessary spot.

Retreating back to the hotel, Colin thought to hire his own gunmen, to take the house by storm. But if it went wrong, Defne might be killed in the process. He wrangled with the thing over and over, coming up with scenario after scenario -- none of them good. This wasn't some Hollywood movie. He was alone; he could hardly speak the language; and he didn't know whom he could trust.

Slowly, a horrific weight on his heart, he realized he'd have to give up the venture, for Defne's own safety.

He remembers every word of his last call with her -- their final goodbyes. She'd been worried about him, too -- that if he tried to break in to help her, he might only get himself killed. Through her tears, she told him she'd made her decision: she'd destroy her cell phone -- partly to keep from being caught, and partly to save them both.

Now, seven months later, not a day goes by that Colin doesn't think about her and pull out her photo, sometimes to show others who might have information about her. Maybe that's why he remained in Istanbul. I'm not sure. Even now, he doesn't know if she's alive or dead, or sentenced to a Genelev as a registered prostitute. He's not even sure to discover her whereabouts, without endangering her life again. All he can hope for is that she survived somehow, that she did get married, and that she will grow to accept it, perhaps even to become content with the arrangement. A thousand things are possible when you surrender.

And as he put her picture away that night in Istanbul, there was a moment's hesitation after he closed the case, as if he were coming up for air again in the present, burying all those things he didn't want to think about -- the missed chances. I think it's that last one, more than anything, which haunts him now. That maybe he could've saved Defne -- if only on their last night together in London, he'd spent five minutes being Turkish.

For a sobering account of the Genelevs (or state-run brothels) of Turkey, I'd recommend visiting the following site: