Istanbul: a Carpet Shopper’s Guide

This guy really wants you to buy a carpet!

I almost got into a street fight with a Turkish guy, which really isn’t my style. It wouldn’t have gone particularly well for me, because I really don’t know how to fight, and on account of the fact I was in Turkey at the time.

There were definitely some communication issues, which ironically were made all the worse when my girlfriend, who did speak Turkish, began translating for me.

“What is he shouting at me now then?” I asked her, very briefly halting his tirade by dropping my gaze and presenting him an extended index finger (that annoying kind of gesture you get occasionally from various government workers and such, that lets you know they are very very busy, and don’t have the time or manners to say, ‘please wait a moment’). This particular gesture has pretty much the opposite effect of placating anyone – anywhere. It is a universally annoying gesture. I knew this.

“He’s saying, ‘why is this woman speaking for you? Are you so weak you can’t speak for yourself?’”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I yelled. “What century is this guy from?” I was yelling in her direction now but he didn’t understand what I was saying, so he stopped yelling and just looked a bit confused, like might a man holding a gun whose hostages suddenly ignore him and start squabbling amongst themselves.

My girlfriend told me he was a conservative, “old school” Turkish man, as evidenced apparently (among other things) by his moustache. Judging by this criterion, I deduced that approximately 100 percent of Turkish men over 40 are “conservative, old school Turkish men”.

My girlfriend explained again to the man that she was simply translating, but he just didn’t buy it. I looked Turkish, my girlfriend did not, all this translating business was nonsense, and that was the end of it. There was simply no reason why she could speak his language or that I could not. I was impressed with my girlfriend’s ability to keep a straight face during all of this.

The whole ridiculous scene began when I had declined his offer to shine my shoes. Having heard my girlfriend and I speaking English he had learned of our insurmountable wealth, and was rather taken aback by my refusal of his services. He had no idea that it wasn’t the couple of Lira (about a Euro) putting me off.

Appearing from nowhere and armed with an assortment of rags and a small bottle of alcohol, he had very politely offered to shine my cheap sneakers. I thanked him for his offer and tried to explain without a word of Turkish that my ten-dollar shoes, with their matted cloth tops, were not actually a shine-able form of footwear and that I would rather not have my shoes, socks and feet soaked for the rest of the day with whatever liquid he was attempting to rub into them. He (my girlfriend would later explain) told me that I was a rich westerner and a visitor to his country, and should therefore just thankfully let him do his thing. I, bearded, dirty and already having had a few beers began to get irritated at his insistence (and the fact that no matter how bearded and dirty I look when travelling, as a westerner I am always assumed to be a gazillionaire).

I suggested kind of loudly that perhaps he might do better by just threatening tourists and demanding two Euros of them, lest he destroy their shoes (less overheads that way). He shouted something back at me which was not complementary, and another, older moustachioed man appeared silently from the shadows in his support. It was at this point my girlfriend, who’d been standing there trying not to laugh, decided to step in and keep the peace, which surprised the hell out of both of them.

Eventually, nothing happened and everyone was fine. I gave the guy a couple of Lira for his time, and bowed slightly at him a couple of times (just instinctively, ‘cause that’s the done thing on the other side of Asia, where I live). He took the money, grunted in thanks and looked at me like, ‘why is this idiot bowing at me?’

A few minutes later my girlfriend, still laughing, told me that I confuse Europeans (and Turkish people who live about three kilometres from Europe) because, culturally speaking, I am apparently not assertive enough and then they can’t understand why I suddenly get angry. I told her I thought this was bullshit.

This guy really wants you to buy a carpet!

A minute later, a very friendly looking young man, yet to grow into his moustache, invited us into his very colourful carpet store to see some of his family’s hand-made Turkish carpets. My girlfriend decided to teach me a lesson. We went inside.

Suddenly I was sitting on the floor with the young man’s 130 year-old great, great (great?) grandmother, drinking tea and being heavily pressured into buying a carpet. 45 minutes later I was still politely trying to get out of there and the young man was less than friendly, as though it was my fault the old woman who once met Mozart had to be wheeled out of the back room for no good reason.

I took my smirking girlfriend’s point, and suggested we get the hell out of the tourist section of Istanbul.

For the record, this was one hour of what was a great week in Turkey. It’s an amazing country. If you’re ever in Istanbul and a super-friendly guy asks you to come into his store and see his carpets (and maybe meet his family), don’t do it… unless of course you want to buy a carpet.

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