What does it take to make a few new Turkish Lira in Istanbul
For the city’s short-skirted, oft-shunned trannies, it takes sex for money in a crooked side street of Tarlabasi. A stink hole of moral and legal corruption according to many a Turk, Tarlabasi was my home for four months.
It’s not what you think. Having weaseled my way into an ESL teaching job amidst growing lust for all things Western, my daily wage matched the going rate of a blow job, hence, my modest digs in a slum notorious for its brothels. At times I felt like a glorified prostitute teaching bored businessmen who mastered English pick-up lines before English grammar. One July night, buzzed and ambling home, I caught a glimpse of what it really means to strut in Deniz's (formerly Demet) skyscraping, size eleven stilettos.
I had been out with a fellow teacher at a local bar run by a dreadlocked lawyer-turned-science fiction writer named Ozgur. By midnight I had said good night to the angry poet, the lonely transvestite, the long-haired gypsy guitarist who went by Jesus, and, of course, my very drunk Kiwi friend. In lieu of taking a taxi, I had decided to walk the few hundred meters to my apartment, alone.
Passing a police station located near the seediest few blocks of Tarlabasi, I caught the eye of an officer standing outside an idling police van.
“I.D. card, please,” he barked after me in perfect English.
I was stunned. How could I raise suspicion when three young men in sparkly miniskirts and blue eye shadow were catcalling passers-by just one block over? Then I noticed the officer pondering the lack of fabric between my collarbone and breasts. His gaze trailed down over my naked knees and settled on my bare toes.
“Show me your passport.” This time more pointedly.
Ah. Could it be, after one look at my far-too-plunging neckline for a Muslim country, he mistook me for the other kind of sex worker one comes across in the city? Heterosexual. Female. Russian.
I was an English teacher working illegally like so many other Anglophones in Istanbul, so of course, I had no residence permit, no work visa, and I certainly hadn’t brought my passport out for a night on the town. Brilliantly, I launched my defense: “Well…”
“Get in the van.”
Now I was panicked, but more than that, I was offended. I’m not a terribly modest person, but I certainly don’t look like I have a rate sheet tattooed on my chest.
“What do you want?” I asked indignantly sliding across the passenger bench toward the officer at the wheel. The driver and his cohort beside him were no more than 19, too busy leering at my exposed skin to pick up on the insulting tone with which I had addressed them.
“I ask the questions, not you,” said the senior officer, the man who had first ordered me into the van. He slid in next to me and slammed the door. My haughty demeanor seemed to shock him given the circumstances.
And then it struck me. No one saw me get into the van. My flatmates were likely sleeping. I wouldn’t be missed anytime soon. I’m normally not mistrustful of the police, but nothing in this situation seemed right. I had to get out of there.
In his limited but polished English, the senior officer drilled me for 45 minutes as we drove up and down the wide avenue. His gun-toting goons snickered up front while he tried to figure out why a fair-skinned, young foreign woman like me was taking a midnight stroll through the slums. He didn’t seem convinced I was a tourist (a lie, of course), an American, a generally harmless human being. When it became clear my appearance had provided the answers he needed, I started planning my escape.
“Take us to your apartment! Show us your passport! Prove to us what you say,” exclaimed Goon #1, the driver. Goon #2 echoed the demands.
I agreed, knowing for the first time in my life I’d have to do something incredibly brave and spontaneous and, well, stupid, to end up safely in my bed that night.
I got my chance. The senior officer slid the back door open as we pulled up to the pedestrian street where my apartment was located. As the three men convened to decide my fate, I leapt out of the van and ran like a fugitive (from that moment on I really was a fugitive) down the lamp-less corridor I had only journeyed in daylight. Goat feces. A gang of underfed Tabby cats. Bent metal from a truck’s fender. My feet found every obstacle as I slid along the building facades to my doorstep.
Please don’t let them see me. Please don’t let them see me. I’m not sure whose graces I was appealing to, but I figured I’d need all the help I could get. On all fours I mounted the black, spiraling staircase, wrenched open my door, bolted it behind me and huddled in silence. I heard the van rumble slowly down the street minutes later, illuminating every nook with its high beams in search of their runaway sex worker: me.
The van passed. I was not found.
The next evening I met with a middle-aged banker, and couldn’t help but unload the previous night’s ordeal on him. His smirk grew with every detail. When I had finished, he chuckled and said to himself: “Natasha.”
Natasha: a word commonly used by the Turks to describe heterosexual prostitutes. It's also a not-so-coy reference to the Russian women who, in Turkey, often happen to be them.
His laughter grew. “Very good! So now we call you Natasha.” Great. I’d been branded.
Walking home from the lesson, as twilight glossed over the peeling veneers of Tarlabasi, Natasha passed Deniz (formerly Demet) smoking against a wall. With a slight nod and bated smile, Natasha conveyed admiration to the leggy brunette about to begin her night. She knew it was going to be a rough one.