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An Honest Encounter In Istanbul

By Ellen Kattwinkel Wilson / December 9, 1993



IT is our last morning before our flight home to the United States via Copenhagen. I set out from our hotel for the Grand Bazaar to buy Bursa silk scarves for friends as mementos from Turkey. I have my last remaining Turkish lira, about 400,000, worth about $35. The largest bill is worth 250,000 lira.

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In the streets crowded with Turkish men, vendors spread candy, perfume, and trinkets on plastic sheets. Trash overflows the curbs, and storekeepers everlastingly sweep the few yards before their small shops with short handled brooms. There are few women.

A young man falls into step beside me. He looks about the age of the high school seniors in my creative writing class at home.

``Just $1 for 10 postcards,'' he urges animatedly. ``You like these. 10,000 lira only. Just $1.'' The lira has been inflated 72 percent in just the last year.

``No, I don't want any postcards,'' I tell him, but he continues urging.

He changes his strategy. ``Now I am very angry.'' (Looking fierce) ``You buy postcards.''

``I am very angry,'' I say. ``I don't want your postcards.''

The grinding poverty here and the lack of hope for change sadden and oppress me. I think of my seniors writing papers about hiking trips and sports.

``I will buy one postcard. How much for one?'' I open my purse to find a 2,500 lira note. He hands me 1,500 lira and a set of postcards and sets off through the crowd. Shocked, I'm aware that my 250,000 lira note is gone.

I catch up with him and touch his shoulder. ``You have my 250,000 liras.''

His eyes wide, he protests his innocence loudly in rapid Turkish, oblivious of the crowds of men rushing somewhere on all sides of us.

I think of a student protesting innocence to cheating on a test when he needs a higher grade to be eligible for football.

I look him straight in the eyes. ``I have been in Turkey one month, and now I am going home. Not one other person has been dishonest. You are the only one.''

His eyes flicker. I have reached something. He says quietly: ``This is not Anatolia. This is Istanbul. This is business! Search me,'' he dares with a sly smile. ``I do not have it.''

I want him to know I'm not afraid to touch him and search one pocket, but I won't be drawn into that little game.

``I am going to the Bazaar to buy scarves for my friends, and now I do not have enough money. Give me back my 250,000 lira!''

I put the postcards back into his hands. Of course I have other money. Of course, he needs my bill more than I. And yet ....

Now an older man has taken him by the arm, assuring that he will take him to the ``polisi,'' attempting to hurry him away.

``I don't want you to take him to the police. I just want my money back.'' They stop when I touch their arms. The young man again protests loudly in Turkish, angry and hurt.

Could I be wrong? Did I somehow lose the bill? Can justice ever be completely assured? ... Can I tear up the test, deny the grade, or in spring of senior year - the diploma? Those once dreadful decisions haunt me.

Other postcard vendors have gathered around, all with the same sets of cards, tourist scenes of Istanbul. They are smiling, wanting to find out what's going on.

How can they possibly sell enough in a day to the few tourists who brave the streets rather than hail an ever-present taxi?

Now, for some reason, he hands me a 100,000 lira note, a 50,000, and a 20,000. Does he not want the other men to know what he's done?

``I am an honest man. I do not cheat the tourists.'' He is almost crying.

I know I'm still short on lira, but those zeros are so confusing. He has given me most of my money. I want to get out of there. I walk on, figuring that I'm still short 80,000 - less than $8.

The bazaar is brilliant with gold - necklaces, watches, bracelets, and rich-colored Turkish rugs, leather jackets, calculators, and T-shirts. So much richness, yet on the streets people are so poor. I buy scarves from a small shop, choosing each brightly colored pattern, while talking with the young proprietor. He speaks English, French, German, and Italian, all learned from listening to tourists, but he has had only the fifth-grade education provided by the state. He tells of serving his time in the military, looking for terrorists in the western mountains, with a canteen of water and a small loaf of bread, not taking off his boots for a week. ``I forgot my languages,'' he says. ``It was a waste. But we must get along. Only do what we know is right as best we can.'' I pay with a $20 traveler's check and a few lira.

I walk back through the streets, past countless vendors of flat loaves of bread, toy whistles, and bright souvenirs.

The young man is coming toward me, a smile on his face, his hand outstretched to shake mine.

``I am an honest man!'' Relief and satisfaction are on his face and pride in his character.

``No, you still owe me lira.'' Astounded, hurt, disappointed, the smile disappears, the hand drops.

Now we are surrounded by the other smiling postcard vendors, all wanting to shake my hand, one pressing a postcard into them. ``He is honest. He wouldn't cheat a tourist.'' And one says, ``His mama gave him the 250,000.'' I shake all their hands. They have not cheated me.

To the young man, taking his hand, too, ``If you say you're honest, I'll believe you.'' His hand is limp in mine and he disappears into the crowd, scowling.

Who of us does not want enough money, as well as respect?

Disturbed, and flying home that afternoon to the wealth of America, I understood, for once, the ease of honesty in an abundant life, and realized the strength I'd demanded of him.