The Dark Side of Istanbul

Recently I wrote an article about hidden spaces (plus a handful of relatively popular tourist destinations) tucked away beneath the streets of Istanbul… in case you missed it, here it is. When I first began writing that piece however, it had been a different concept altogether: I was going to call it ‘The Underbelly of Istanbul,’ or something like that, and the focus would have been a parallel study of the city’s literal and metaphorical underworlds.

In the end, I decided against including those metaphorical underworlds in the public blog post. The literal, archaeological angle seemed to justify a post in its own right, while my anecdotal accounts of unsavoury goings-on felt rather like an afterthought; a personal counter-narrative shoehorned into the story.

Besides, some of these episodes seemed perhaps too personal for public consumption; in particular, the story which I’ll relate here of a time when I was – and I feel weird writing this – sexually assaulted in Istanbul train station.

[By the way – the photos featured here are unrelated to the story. I didn’t want the page to look blank though, so I’ve added some colour using assorted pictures I’ve taken in Istanbul over the years.]

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Safety Concerns

I saw a different side to the city on my very first visit; or at least, that is to say, I ventured far enough outside of the tourist districts to get a glimpse through the cracks in Istanbul’s glittering façade.

In my blog post, The Belly of Byzantium, I ended with an anecdote about meeting a Turkish teenager who led me down into an allegedly Byzantine-era tunnel. I finished the post there, without relating what came next…

Dark Side of Istanbul-10Stood in those tunnels, surrounded by expensive race horses and accompanied by a youth who looked more likely to be homeless than any kind of stakeholder in this bizarre stable, I’ll admit to feeling a little out of my element. As I said, it was my first time in Istanbul – first time in Turkey – and compared to the mosques, museums, cafes and souvenir shops that surrounded my hotel, this new setting was jarring in its unexpected authenticity.

The boy invited me to follow him somewhere else – he told me that he lived nearby, that I should come and drink tea with his family. I agreed; the offer seemed genuine enough, although it wasn’t long before I started to get cold feet.

He led me out of the tunnels, along an unlit path that fed back up into the hillside through dense undergrowth. It was late, pitch black, with only the distant city light oozing over hedgerows to cast a dim glow about us. I heard voices nearby, in the darkness – off to one side – and then made out a distant light ahead, in the direction I was being led.

Abruptly I changed my mind: made my apologies, and headed back to the busy, well-lit road that ran along the waterfront. To this day, I have no idea where I was being taken. The invitation might well have been genuine, after all; but I was in such a vulnerable position, that in the end it felt like too much of a gamble.

Dark Side of Istanbul-1Since then I’ve been back to Istanbul many times, and I’ve come to think of the place as incredibly safe. There are riots, from time to time, political protests that erupt into violence… and as these tend to make the international news, they can affect the way foreigners see the place. Case in point, a friend of mine recently changed their holiday plans after hearing about clashes in Istanbul and deciding that the city might not be the safest destination.

The thing about Istanbul though, is that this city is larger than some countries. There are twice as many people living in Istanbul as there are in the whole of Bulgaria, for example. So, just because there may be violent riots in one area, the chance of accidentally stumbling into the midst of them remains profoundly low.

That’s not to say that it’s entirely without its dangers, however. Because where there are tourists, there are pickpockets… and con artists, thieves, beggars, prostitutes and all kinds of creative scams.

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Sultanahmet: Scam Central

I tend to do my best to avoid Sultanahmet these days. Granted, it does have some pretty spectacular buildings going on – but for me, such attractions are simply not worth the relentless hassle of the counterfeit perfume sellers, the beggars, the illicit money changers, the late-night pimps and worst of all, those ubiquitous and tirelessly persistent shoe-shiners.

For those not familiar with the shoe-shining scam, here’s how it works: a man will approach you with a carry case full of brushes, and offer to clean and polish your shoes. Sometimes it’ll be an elderly man; other times, for added effect, a small child.

Dark Side of Istanbul-5They’ll tell you it costs just a couple of lira – or they might even tell you it’s free. Then, after a few moments, something changes. Your free trial comes to an end, or they’ll offer to apply a more expensive polish. These upgrades are usually announced quietly, or even masked by a cough… but suddenly the price of your free or inexpensive shoe polish leaps up by a factor of ten.

These shoe cleaners won’t necessarily stop when you want them to stop, either. You may have to yank your leg away from them, shake them off like an over-friendly dog; and then after that, they’ll pressure (or sometimes, guilt-trip) you into paying a ridiculously high fee for the service. When it was tried on me one time, the young boy threatened to call his big brothers to come and collect the debt.

Once, I saw the trick performed on a tourist who’d fallen asleep on a bench. The boy gave a two-minute polish, then woke the man up to present him with the bill.

Another time, I almost fell for an interesting variant on this routine. Near the ferry ports at Eminönü, I passed a man coming the other way along the pavement. As he brushed by I heard a sudden clack – I turned, and saw that the wooden brush had fallen from his shoe cleaning kit. So I called out to him, picked up the brush and gave it back. The stranger expressed such profound gratitude, that he simply had to offer me a free shoe polish on the spot. From the tone of his voice, his body language, the sales-speak laced subtly through the banter, I somehow knew where this was going; the set-up was too perfect, the man flawless in his delivery of the lines. So I declined the offer, despite his noisy insistence.

On my latest visit to the city though, I saw something entirely new. Just this last summer I noticed what appears to be a fresh trend amongst those preying on tourists in Sultanahmet – and while I’m loathe to brand it a ‘scam,’ my reluctance to do so is exactly why this trick appears to be so effective.

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The Syrian Dilemma

Right now, Istanbul is flooded with people claiming to be Syrian refugees. The city is also very much full of actual Syrian refugees; though how often these two groups overlap, is anyone’s guess.

Back in the summer, I kept running into men, women and children, individually or in family groups, asking for money in the busiest tourist districts. I never heard them speaking, but rather, they typically held cardboard signs with messages along the lines of, “We are refugees from Syria. Please give generously.”

Dark Side of Istanbul-7My first encounter was as I passed beneath an archway, somewhere around the back of the Grand Bazaar. It was a family group – a man and woman, their infant child – dressed in ragged clothes and headscarves, and holding out a cup in my direction. A sign in the woman’s hand read, “WE ARE FROM SYRIA. PLEASE HELP US.”

Initially, I walked on past. As I walked away though, the Syria thing stuck in my mind – the refugee crisis was all anyone was talking about at the time – and so I turned back. I put a note in the man’s pot but he didn’t smile, or nod, or acknowledge it in any way. Instead he scowled, and shook the pot at me some more.

I was taken aback by the apparent lack of gratitude… then almost instantly, critical of myself for expecting it. But while the promise of gratitude or reward might be a shallow motivation for charity, nevertheless the absence of it was strange – and the more I thought about it, the less the situation seemed to add up.

Around the city that week, I saw plenty more of them too. Always straight-faced, never talking, signs always written in English. It felt forced, uniform, and I’m afraid to say I strongly suspect that most of these people had never been to Syria in their lives.

Dark Side of Istanbul-9But if this was – at least on some occasions – a scam, then it was a very good one. Any decent person who comes from a country that has been consistently dropping bombs on the Middle East for decades, is likely to feel somewhat sympathetic (and thereby, generous) when brought face to face with the victims of their nation’s foreign policy. Besides, there are lots of Syrian refugees in Istanbul right now, and it’s likely to be the poorer ones; those who couldn’t afford the boats, so instead had to try their luck at the border.

Not that they’re likely to have much success there. Taking the coach back to Bulgaria a few days later, we were stopped by military police several times before even reaching the border. Men with automatic rifles would come aboard, check passports, rummage around in the luggage space beneath us, then wave the vehicle through towards the next checkpoint. Meanwhile the border itself has been reinforced with 50 miles of razor wire – a 15-foot fence raised by the Bulgarians to keep out refugees. Any would-be migrants deflected by this barrier would likely find their way, sooner or later, back onto the streets of Istanbul.

Over the course of that week, I gave money to six people who claimed to be from Syria. Maybe some of them actually were – but it’s impossible to say, while cynicism, in this instance, just seems unsavoury. In the end, I simply reminded myself that anyone who aspires to the income potential of a penniless refugee is probably equally in need of kindness.

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An Unpleasant Incident in the Train Station

For all these scams, actual physical violence in Istanbul seems to be pretty rare. There are the occasional riots, of course – often sparked when heavy-handed police forces plough into demonstrators with rubber bullets or water cannons – though these are largely self-contained, and I’m yet to experience one for myself.

There was one time, however, years ago now, when I did experience a truly unsettling physical encounter in Istanbul. Here’s how it happened:

Dark Side of Istanbul-3It was late at night, and I was waiting for a train at Istanbul station. From time to time, other trains would leave – and sometime around 1am I found myself in that uncomfortable position of being the only person left in the departure hall. In such situations, paranoia soon kicks in and I usually find myself wondering if I’ve made a terrible mistake, and if the train I’m waiting for will actually arrive at all.

The hall was large and empty, a tiled floor with hard wooden benches set around the walls. It smelt of grease and wax, with a bitter hint of something unpleasant… and the distant aroma of food that seems to permeate every space in Istanbul. Outside the hall, darkness: double doors stood at the platform end, wooden saloon doors that swung open onto silent tracks.

I looked up as those doors creaked, and saw another passenger shuffle into the hall – I didn’t really see him though, the movement was a reflex and within moments I was immersed back in my book. It surprised me when the stranger sat down right beside me. The hall was large enough to seat a hundred people; there seemed no need for us to sit beside each other, with all this space on offer.

But then, perhaps I was being too British about things. I decided to put it down to cultural differences and gave him a friendly nod. “Merhaba,” I said, and he replied with a grimace that made me feel uncomfortable. I saw now that he was large, well built, and perhaps in his mid fifties. He wore a dark wool coat, his face half hidden behind a dirty white beard.

The man made a cooing sound at me, a soft kind of “oooooh,” before adding his own Merhaba on the end with a deep chuckle.

Dark Side of Istanbul-4After this odd exchange I went back to my book and was only partially aware of the stranger sat beside me. He smelt of urine and alcohol. As far as I could tell – without looking straight at him – he simply sat and stared at the far wall, while breathing heavily through his beard.

Then suddenly he grabbed my leg.

I shuddered and quickly brushed his hand away – noticing as I did the size and weight of that hand, like a hefty cut of ham covered in coarse white hair. I didn’t look at him. In my head, I think I was still trying to tell myself it was all some cultural misunderstanding, and I was worried that his face might tell me otherwise.

For a while, nothing happened. I stared at my book, although I couldn’t read a single word. There was utter silence – broken only by a distant dog barking, and the slow, rhythmic breathing of the man beside me. Five minutes went by and then more; maybe 10, maybe 20. I couldn’t say. I began to wonder if I’d imagined the hand on my leg… until it happened again.

This time he grabbed my thigh – higher than before – and he squeezed it hard. And that’s when I completely freaked out. I punched him hard across the knuckles of that big, fat hand, jumped to my feet and screamed at him,


Dark Side of Istanbul-6I was making no sense, just hurling a torrent of angry sounds at the man in an instinctive act of verbal self-defence. He didn’t move. Instead he smiled slightly, and made that soft cooing noise again at me. I didn’t relent though, and continued to shout obscenities at him until he eventually got to his feet, turned without a word and shuffled slowly out towards the darkened platform. When I sat back down, I recognised the rush of adrenaline – usually I’m quite polite and soft-spoken, I didn’t know I even had it in me to hurl noisy abuse at a stranger in a foreign train station. But then, it had been the fear speaking.

Meanwhile my train was growing later all the time. Another 20 minutes rolled slowly by. I tried to read, but found I couldn’t. I wondered now if the train would ever arrive… or if I’d have to give up waiting sooner or later, walk the dark streets back into the city centre and try finding a hotel for the night.

Then I glanced towards the double doors, in the direction of the platform – and there, framed in the window was a dirty white face. Wide, wild staring eyes above a bristling mess of beard, peering at me through the windows. I felt a sudden chill as I wondered how long he’d been there, watching me.

It was with a sick realisation that I acknowledged this interference was almost certainly sexual in nature. (I still feel a little queasy now, just writing that.) I was only 19 at the time – and perhaps in his perverse, drink-addled brain, this stranger assumed that a decadent westerner might have welcomed his advances. He certainly hadn’t tried using force, beyond a forceful invitation; and for that I was glad. The man may have been getting on in years but he was built like a wrestler… I wouldn’t have wanted to fight him.

When I looked again the face had gone; and I decided to move, grabbing my bag and walking swiftly out onto the platform. Across the ticket hall, there was a café with its lights still shining. I sat there for an hour, drinking coffee, chatting to the barman and relishing the human company – until at last, I saw my train pull sluggishly into the station. The strange man, I did not see again… though I couldn’t help but wonder, all that time I waited, if he was still lurking nearby perhaps, and spying on me from the shadows.

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