External Affairs

The Loneliest Man in Istanbul

Istanbul at sunset, seen from the Bosphorus strait. Credit: Moyan Brenn/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Istanbul at sunset, seen from the Bosphorus strait. Credit: Moyan Brenn/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Istanbul: On a warm May evening, the loneliest man in Istanbul sat by himself on a bench in a park in Fatih, a neighbourhood of long avenues sloping past arrangements of parks, children’s playgrounds, concrete tracks and restaurants.

In the past two years, the neighbourhood had become home to many of the estimated 3 million Syrians who, having fled their war-stricken home, were settled in Turkey. The local markets had re-oriented themselves around their newer, transient, itinerant patrons: some Turkish restaurants had made way for Syrian ones, some shopkeepers now spelled out their wares in Arabic scripted in brightly lit LEDs.

There were cybercafes to Skype with relatives scattered across the world, telephone booths to call both Europe and Syria, pawn shops, Western Unions, havala operators, cafes and spice shops selling dry powdered ginger, coffee ground with cinnamon, and sugary concoctions of almonds and pistachios.

The loneliest man sat by himself, the light from a streetlamp bouncing off his bald head, the muggy breeze teasing his dark tie secured tight at the neck of his white shirt worn close beneath a dark suit slightly shiny at the elbows.

Credit: Aman Sethi

The loneliest man in Istanbul. Credit: Aman Sethi

“Can I offer you a cigarette?” he said to a passing journalist. He reached into a black plastic bag stuffed with leaf tobacco, cylinders of cigarette paper and a fiddly plastic gadget for filling the former into the latter.

“Are you here from Syria?”

“My mother is Syrian, my father was Turkish. I was born in Jeddah, you know, in Saudi. Where my father was a lawyer. And then in 2000 we moved to Damascus, where my father, he had a heart attack and he died.”

He was was 24 at the time. He finished college, set up a shop, “We sold bread and ice cream. It was very popular. Just bread and ice cream.” He married a Syrian woman, the couple had two children, “both girls,” his younger sister married an Uzbek man and moved to London. His sister had two children, “both girls”. Then one day, he saw tanks, protestors, firing, rockets, “Just outside my house in Damascus.”

So in 2012, at the age of 36, for the first time in his life, he – as a citizen of Turkey – arrived in Istanbul with his family to seek refuge. “I had two passports, one Syrian, from my mother’s side, one Turkish, from my father. But I spoke no Turkish, I did not know a soul”.

Without the language, it was impossible to find any work. “I enrolled in military service (mandatory for all Turkish men) – it was good. But my wife hated life in Istanbul. Every day she would say, “I am going back to Damascus, I’m going back to Damascus”.

And then one day, she did – with the children. Back in Damascus, his wife married again. His mother sold the family home and moved to London to be with her daughter.

“Then I am suffering too much. I cannot do anything.”

The military ordered a medical examination. “The doctor say, my psychology is not good. Not good at all. My commanders they try to help me. But I am suffering too much. Now I am stuck here in Turkey. I do not know anyone – not a single Turkish person. But I am not Syrian – so I cannot apply for asylum. Every time I try to apply…

…’Sorry, you are a Turkish person. You have a Turkish passport. There is no war in Turkey. You are safe in Turkey’.”

“But I am from Syria…

…Sorry, you are a Turkish person. You have a Turkish passport. There is no war in Turkey. You are safe in Turkey’.”

“But my mother is Syrian. I have never lived in Turkey, I do not know language, I do not have job…

…Sorry, you are a Turkish person. You have a Turkish passport. There is no war in Turkey. You are safe in Turkey’.”

The loneliest man was trapped inside his own country, which was never his country at all.

So shunned by the Turkish, he found work doing 12-hour shifts (8 am to 8 pm – “This is not justice!”) as the maître d’ of a Syrian restaurant, serving fellow Syrians displaced by the war. He earned 1,700 lira a month, of which 700 went in rent for a single room a 20-minute walk away.

Was a stranger story ever told?

In 1955, Sadat Hassan Manto published Toba Tek Singh, a short story on the partition of India and Pakistan.

It begins in Manto’s inimitable fashion:

Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.

And follows the fate of Bishan Singh, a lunatic from the village of “Toba Tek Singh”, desperate to know if his village is now in India or Pakistan.

In the insane asylum there was also a lunatic who called himself God. When one day Bishan Singh asked him whether Toba Tek Singh was in Pakistan or Hindustan, he burst out laughing, as was his habit, and said, “It’s neither in Pakistan nor in Hindustan – because we haven’t given the order yet.”

On June 29, powerful explosions ripped through Istanbul, killing at least 41 people, as three suicide bombers detonated their vests in the waiting area of Ataturk International Airport. The violence, executed by ISIS, Turkish authorities believe, is the most recent and terrifying sign that the war in Syria has followed those fleeing it.

The day before brought news that CIA-supplied Kalashnikovs, mortars and RPGs intended for the Syrian rebel faction palpable to the West had ended up on the Middle Eastern black market courtesy Jordanian intelligence. In the meantime, the British opted to leave Europe, rather than offer him a home.

For the loneliest man, home and security were neither in Syria, nor in Turkey. Who was fighting ISIS and who was arming them? He had no answers because some lunatic somewhere hadn’t given the order yet.

Credit: Aman Sethi

The loneliest man in Istanbul pulls up a photograph of his nieces in London. Credit: Aman Sethi

But then he pulled out his phone and found a photograph of his nieces in London, two young Syrian-Uzbek girls grinning awkwardly beside the Queen of Hearts at a village fair somewhere in the English countryside.

He Skyped briefly with his mother (“Mamma, I’ll call you, I’m sitting with someone”). His phone filled up with news and photographs from friends and family around the world – he dragged the journalist to a Syrian-owned cafe for an unending series of meats, sweets and minty lime drinks. And at the end of the meal, he insisted on paying because, as he suggested, this was a difficult time, but we could also “make time” – capture a moment when lives on different time scales could coexist and converse. We can make time for each other, make time for a coffee in Fatih, to talk Damascus and Delhi.

We can make time for a next time – when we can return a gift of a generous meal offered amidst ungenerous times. Because, as the loneliest man in Istanbul taught me, we cannot let war strip us of our humanity, and we cannot let our struggles make us ungenerous.

The waitress smiled – she was Syrian too, a man walked by and waved – “He’s like me – Turkish passport, but grew up in Syria.” Istanbul’s loneliest Turk had built himself a world.

The reporting for this piece is part of a broader project sponsored by the Goethe Centre, New Delhi, and the Appan Menon Memorial Grant. A version of this reportage shall appear here.