by Nick Sweeney
The day the 1991 Gulf War started I was in Ataköy, a suburb of Istanbul along the E5 motorway on the way to the airport. A phony war had been sputtering since the previous August – the day we got married – when the Iraqis swaggered into Kuwait. That didn’t stop us taking up the jobs we’d got at an Istanbul school; the thought of a war so far away didn’t bother any of us who had got there and seen that, as a link in the NATO chain, people in Turkey were generally all for giving Saddam Hussein a kicking.
Third week of January we woke up to the BBC World Service radio announcers stating in their standard undramatic voices that Desert Storm was under way. Its mention of cruise missiles flying around changed the tone of it for us: this was serious.
We wondered about the scenarios in hair-raising letters from home: westerners reviled in this Muslim country, at the mercy of extremists. “Nah,” we decided. The World Service made even the most anodyne programme – even Lakeland vicars enthusing about flora – sound laden with doom.
All the same, I took the morning off and went to our bank in Taksim, Istanbul’s commercial district, to transfer our savings home. With the war now on, and its possible effect on the pound sterling-Turkish lira relationship, our money suddenly looked exposed.
I may have got the odd look on the bus into Istanbul – but no more than the usual curiosity sometimes offered to foreigners, usually courteous if a bit unnerving at times. There were no demonstrating mobs in Taksim, where the police would have cracked heads first and asked questions later. I did our banking business with a charming manager who kept me there as he practised his elegant English and kindly bade a minion bring me some horrible apple tea, a powdered just-add-water concoction I usually avoided. The clock told me that if I jumped in a cab I could have caught the fourth lesson, the last before lunchtime. I told the clock fuck it – why break my neck.
I was also in dire need of a coffee.
I’d grown to love Turkish coffee. Even diehard coffee-quaffers balk at its thick sludge with a hint of fire-damage served in vessels no bigger than egg-cups. It’s available sade – with no sugar – şekerli – with a bit of sugar – or çok şekerli – with a ton of the stuff. I was a çok şekerli man, not hardy enough to face it sugarless. I passed a café and smelt a coffee-grinder; an unmistakable mixture of coffee with a hint of flame. I went in.
I was learning Turkish three months before I went to live there. While unable to discuss, say, philosophy at length, or even understand the video timer instructions, I had ordering stuff nailed. I asked for a Turkish coffee with tons of sugar, took a seat and waited. I was the sole customer, so it wasn’t like the proprietor had much to distract him, apart from a Gulf War raging away, its news murmured from a TV I couldn’t see. He brought me a takeaway cup full of steaming water, and a side plate with a sachet of Nescafé, one of sugar, another of creamer and a plastic stirrer. He put the collection down with a flourish, and went back behind his counter.
I looked at the objects for a minute, and didn’t touch them, as if they were from some museum of bad taste artefacts.
I got the man’s attention. I said, “Are we on an aeroplane, or something?”
He shook his head at me and widened his eyes in the local gesture of polite enquiry. Maybe he had never been on a plane and made that rookie-flyer mistake of ordering the terrible coffee.
“How much?” I asked him.
It was 800 or 900 lire. I took out a 1000 lire note, put it down on the table, got up and left without another word.
Maybe I was a bit hubristic. Long-term foreigners there said my bandying about of the language wouldn’t matter to some people. I was a foreigner, so they wouldn’t listen: even if I recited ‘local Shakespeare’ Yunus Emre’s eloquent Turkish poetry, they’d just hear my barbarian tongue. I was annoyed at the proprietor, annoyed at myself for not believing what I’d been told, and also for my imperious exit.
Having junked fourth lesson, and with all lunchtime stretching before me, I resolved to enjoy the rest of my impromptu half-day off. I walked off in search of a place with a more attentive proprietor. I resolved to do my bit by speaking more clearly, repeating the words to myself as I walked and looking, no doubt, just a bit weird, or, at least, like a man still very much in dire need of coffee.