In all my years of going to Turkey – regularly since the year I lived there in 1997-1998 – I had never seen so much anger and violence. And I’m not talking about the protests and the brutal crackdowns. Just a general sense of impatience, heated arguments, pushing, shoving, slapping and kicking. That isn’t to say it never existed. In Istanbul years ago when my buddies and I tried to get into a club at night, we were turned away because we had no dates. The idea being that if the male to female ratio was too far to the manly side and alcohol was involved, trouble would likely happen.
But this was different. I saw shopkeepers physically kick a shoeshine man away from storefronts. Random physical fights in the street. My guide got into a fight at an archaeological site with one of the questionably “official” site workers. What shocked me most, however, was an incident at a bus terminal while we were taking an eleven-hour ride from Gaziantep, Turkey’s foodie capital, to Konya, the city of Mevlana, the founder of the whirling dervishes.
The bus ride had been uncomfortable as the air conditioning struggled (and failed) to keep up with the heat of a May sun. I couldn’t imagine the height of summer. The bus was full, and a large group of people, seemingly an extended family, who didn’t speak any Turkish, were on board. I recognized snippets of Arabic; possibly they were Syrian, part of the massive wave of refugees from the sad troubles of their home country not more than a half hour to the south of where we were. They had bid a tearful goodbye to a couple of men at the terminal back in Antep. They appeared to be very careful with their cash and had brought a bit of food with them on the trip and at the rest stops didn’t buy anything more. But the fact that they had purchased bus tickets made them much more fortunate than the many Syrians who could be seen on street corners begging for pocket change or food.
I watched them curiously, their two kids, a boy and a girl of middle-school age. Well behaved kids, I thought, curiously observing (if not staring) at the passengers around us, especially at Tip and me when we spoke English. I tried to imagine riding a bus away from my home, possibly permanently, with little more than the clothes on my back through a land whose language I didn’t know. Was it frightening or were they still of the naïve age that made the challenges of the adults trying to keep a family safe and together seem like an adventure? The bus almost left a couple of the adults behind at a stop when the passengers misunderstood how long we’d be there and were slow to return from the restroom. The attendant – a fellow who provides drinks, snacks, and serves Turkish buses in the same manner as a flight attendant – didn’t seem very patient with them. He resembled actor Stephen Lang, another reminder of just how diverse the Turkish people look. But he had the grim attitude of one of Lang’s tough-guy military characters.
We had left the Mediterranean coastal highway and headed north into the mountains, climbing to the plains where Konya rested. The last bit of sunshine still slipped above the jagged horizon. It was to be a 10-minute break, enough for a quick run to restrooms and maybe a snack stall. Suddenly, everyone on the opposite side of the bus stood up to watch something we couldn’t see from our seats. When I rose I saw another passenger, a swarthy man with a scruffy face, chasing a small boy through the parking lot, slapping the kid’s head, and jumping after him to kick him hard in the seat of his pants. He chased the poor boy all the way to a woman in a head scarf seated on a bench outside the terminal near our bus with three other small children huddled around her in fear. There were gasps throughout the bus and everyone in the parking lot turned to look. The Turks are typically highly indulgent of their children. As a teacher back in 1997 I may have found it frustrating from a discipline perspective, but their love and tolerance of their children is quite apparent and mostly charming.
The woman offered some protest and ineffectually tried to shield her child from slaps and kicks as the apparent father went ballistic on the boy. What on earth could have merited it? Wandering too far from the bus? A sassy word? I doubted there were too many daring backtalk moments in his life considering the fear in his and the other children’s faces. This didn’t appear to be out of the ordinary for them. Mom didn’t look baffled and surprised, just fearful and pleading.
The situation was no longer just someone else’s business and I had that knot in my stomach as my mind raced through the possibilities of how a guy like me – not exactly a brawler or physically imposing — might intervene on someone else’s turf and in another language. And I was also pretty sure he wasn’t Turkish, or at least he knew Arabic. It seemed he had come with the other group non-Turkish group, but I wasn’t sure.
I moved into the aisle but was spared a “don’t try to be a hero, Kevin” moment when a couple of young Turkish men near the bench uncrossed their arms and said something. The man whirled and spit some edgy words at them, and that was the invitation. The two men came over, threatening, and began slapping him across the head in similar fashion like bullies in a high school hallway, but clearly about to take it up a notch. Others leaped in to separate everyone, the mother forced her way into the middle, now torn between placing comforting hands on the heads of her little ones and trying to push her husband back from what would have been a very one-sided ass whooping. He threatened her with the back of his hand raised and she pleaded with him while pushing back toward the other men with one hand. The situation deflated and the family was left there still huddled on the bench while the father took staccato drags off a cigarette, muttering, pacing, and peering around him with an anger that nearly masked the jittering adrenaline of fight or flight.
Inside the bus, the Arabic patriarch across the aisle made an effort to catch my eye and when I turned to him he gave a sad, gentle smile, shook his head, and twirled a finger around his temple to indicate the man was crazy, as if to say, He’s not one of us.
Remarkably, ten minutes later we were all back on board and heading up the highway as if it all hadn’t happened. But later in the evening when we stopped for dinner, the bus driver sat drinking tea and smoking a cigarette in the terminal’s sole café. He called the child beater over and with the patience and posture of a wiser man gave a gentle scolding. He remained seated while the offender stood there – hat in hand, as they say – with a clear deference to the authority of a bus driver and offered a couple weak defenses but generally just heard him out. Perhaps the driver could have left him behind. The driver said his last words and then called the boy over. He told him to go pick out any juice from the fridge, and the boy did so, said thank you, and went slinking away, still unsmiling and worried. The driver told the shopkeeper across the room to put it on his bill.
Moments later everyone climbed back on the bus and we continued on through the night to Konya.
Enjoy more posts from Southeastern Turkey! Click here for the Gaziantep trip.
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