Two Tongues, Two People (A Memoir of Istanbul)

Turkish breakfast consists of a boiled egg, slices of cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, two kinds of goat cheese, and bread. That breakfast was served to me by the hotel the first morning I awoke to my new life in Istanbul. I felt somewhat like Don Juan the morning he cracked his eyes as a shipwrecked foreigner on a Greek island and was greeted with a breakfast of fish.  The famished Don Juan would have had a beefsteak. I would have had fried ham, eggs, and toast.  Or at least a bowl of cereal.

I’d been woken just before dawn by the azan–the Muslim call to prayer–a wailing chorus resonating from the loudspeakers of multiple mosques, echoing off the rooftops of the city. Alaaah. Alah akbar. The unmistakable sound of a strange land. Breakfast was my first jolt of culture shock, the six months of euphoria, depression, and rage that anyone who’s moved to a foreign country is likely familiar with.

I was twenty-four when I moved to Turkey to teach English, setting off abroad, like Don Juan, to distance myself from a life that wasn’t working out to my favor. Since graduating college I’d failed to find myself a meaningful career, wandering from job to job, getting fired more often than not, mainly out of apathy. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, English-teaching overseas is the last refuge of the chronically unemployed college graduate. To prepare for this move I borrowed money from my mother and went to San Francisco to get a certification, hoping that the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) would lend legitimacy to my plan to flee America and my apparent incompetence.

People ask me a couple of things about this adventure when I mention it. The first is why Turkey? The answer to that question is vague. Making decisions based on deliberate long-term planning was not how I lived my life. (That probably contributed to my failure to secure an actual career.) As it turned out, there were certain spots around the globe where an American could hope to make a decent living as an English teacher, and Istanbul was one of them. I happened upon a magazine article written by an English teacher in Istanbul who, by the sound of it, was having a rip-roaring good time. So I applied for a job in Istanbul via the Internet, at a reputable-sounding school called English First. And that is how, four months after stumbling upon the idea to teach English in a foreign country, I found myself strapped into an airplane seat, bound for Istanbul on a one-way flight, with just enough money to get me through the first month.

The other question people ask me is: Do you speak Turkish? At the time I departed for Istanbul, I’d taught myself a few phrases using a book I picked up a month before at Barnes and Noble. Upon arrival at the Istanbul airport, I uttered a couple of those: Merhaba (hello) and Nasil siniz? (How are you?). People, to my surprise, not only understood me but replied in this odd language.  I’d never heard real live humans speak Turkish. Up to that point I couldn’t be certain it was a real language.

You don’t need to speak the native language to teach English. In my CELTA course I learned just how English is taught on the progressive front of language acquisition theory. The methods I learned involved adjusting my speech to the level of my students’ understanding, a decent ability to draw, and a lot of gesturing and jumping around. A combination of child speak, charades, and Win, Lose, or Draw.[1] Any use of the native language is forbidden; translation is the last refuge of the lazy teacher. I became really good at illustrating with stick figures.

The way I learned Turkish was to plunk myself into the middle of Istanbul and discover the new immigrant’s panic at utter linguistic incompetence. Some Americans love to complain about signs and documents being translated into Spanish for the benefit of Latino immigrants, a thing that seems odd to me since the translations affords those immigrants a chance to obey the translation-detractor’s admonitions to “learn English, damn it!” In Istanbul I was grateful for the signs translated into English, which not only helped me pick up Turkish vocabulary but without which I’d have been screwed.

* * *

In America I had been an intelligent and articulate person, capable of handling all manner of transactions with grace. In Istanbul I became a bumbling, clueless foreigner: yabanci.

To my fortune, Turks, unlike certain other nationalities that won’t be named (the French), are happy to help the lost and linguistically disadvantaged. This I learned in my first week, when some coworkers suggested I meet them at Ortakoy Cami, a pretty little mosque, they told me, perched on the edge of the Bosphorus.

I couldn’t tell them I was afraid.

Until I could find an apartment, my school had provided me with a hotel room near Taksim Square. The wide plaza, the center of Istanbul, swarmed with people coming and going from Beyoglu, Istanbul’s central shopping district. Street vendors shouted over the din: human chatter mixed with the low whine of car engines, the squeak and hiss of the brakes of busses and a chorus of car horns. Vendors selling bottles of water shouted “Soguk Su! Soguk Su!” (Cold water!) Men hovering over the steam of roasted corn called out “Bir lira bir lira!” (One lira! One lira!) The sellers of lottery tickets yelled “Bu gece bu gece!” (Tonight! Tonight!), their cries mingling with others–“Buyurun!” and “Taxi, taxi!” Chaotic or not, Taksim was the only place, besides the school where I taught reluctant office workers sent by their employers, that was at least a little familiar.

I couldn’t believe no one was going to hold my hand and show me how to get on the bus. I’d lived in major cities and taken city busses before. This was not even my first time in a foreign country. What scared me was the idea of getting on this bus and going some place, by myself, far away from the relative safety of my hotel room, in an enormous city that I did not understand and in which, beyond numbers, I spoke and understood about ten words of the language.  I couldn’t tell my coworkers that I was scared to take the bus alone. I had not admitted to any of the other teachers at English First, who were seasoned ex-pats, that I was terrified, that I was not certain I could handle what I had impulsively gotten myself into. So I waded into the roar of engines and bus fumes at the stop in Taksim Square, where busses jammed together, and scanned the signs in the windows for the word “Ortakoy.”[2]

Once the bus started moving I realized that the stops were not being announced and that I would have no way of knowing when I had arrived at Ortakoy. My solution was to look around and say, “Ortakoy?” The people around me responded with unintelligible gibberish, which I was able, somehow, to interpret as No, this is not Ortakoy. It is further ahead. And so I waited, peering through the crush of people to see out of the windows, hoping for a clue, hoping to see a pretty mosque on the Bosphorus. But I couldn’t see the Bosphorus at all. After about twenty minutes, I was getting anxious. The bus stopped, a few more people than usual got off, the doors closed and the bus started to move.  Again I looked around me and said, “Ortakoy?”

A gasp erupted and the crowd around me shouted “Ortakoy!” and something else to the driver, which at the time I did not understand, but that was probably Dur! Dur! Inecek var! Direct translation: Stop! Stop! Getting off exists! The bus driver jammed the brakes. The bus halted and its human contents surged forward. The bus doors opened and the people around me, helpfully, shoved me out the door. Once I had been shoved out of the door of the bus, the smiling Turks waved and bid me good-bye or good luck or something. The bus pulled away, and I stood there, alone, still not seeing the Bosphorus or any mosque. I had memorized the Turkish word for mosque: cami, and to anyone I saw I said this word, walking in the first direction they pointed until I found the Ortakoy Cami perched on the shore of the Bosphorus, and there my co-workers, who said, “Hey, you found it!” as if they were surprised.

* * *

I’m an adaptable person. Two months after my arrival, the azan, rising over the chatter and tinkling of tea glasses in cafes, had become as familiar to me as the rising of the sun. In the coming months my Turkish improved. I never became truly fluent, but my skill was enough to get me by, enough to get through daily transactions in a way that became second nature to me. Conversing with shopkeepers, waiters, street vendors, and taxi drivers, I gained a fluency that allowed me to be once again charming, even cracking jokes. I moved through my daily life in Istanbul with a fluid confidence, floating through the flow of life in which I was a particle, adding my own voice to the cacophony. My Turkish came confidently enough in routine transactions to fool any fresh foreigner into thinking me fluent.

Along with my new language skills came a new set of cultural expectations and habits that I came to think of as my “Turkishness.” I developed habits such as drinking little cups of tea and shoving people when exiting any form of public transportation. I said no by a click of the tongue and a raising of the eyebrows, and yes by a slow closing of the eyes, that gesture being exclusively feminine. I expressed frustration by saying “oof, ya,” or “Allah! Allah!”, or by jutting one hand in the air and saying, “Bu ne?!” What’s this?! I was even able to rattle off, with no hesitation, “Sadici sik gibe orta’da kaldim,” which means I just sat in the middle like a fuck. Oddly enough, I found myself speaking English like a Turk, adopting the errors and twisted phrasing I was trying to teach out of my students. I developed the Istanbulu’s reverence for and fascination with the Bosphorus. Even my fashion sense veered towards the modern, feminine Turkish style—skirts and boots, scarves and big earrings. I chose a favorite football team and a favorite Turkish rock band.[3] My friends, other foreigners, sometimes joked with me, “You’re turning into a Turk.”  To function in Istanbul meant not only learning the language but inventing a new self, a literal “second nature.”  This other identity was my Istanbulu-self.

There is an expression in Turkish: Bir dil, bir insan. Iki dil, iki insan. One tongue, one person. Two tongues, two people. The meaning is that to speak one language is to be one person, but to speak two languages is to be two people. Language, to the Turkish, is directly linked to identity. According to certain premises of social constructionism, thought is dependent on language. And so to speak like a Turk is to think like a Turk. Not only that, but in another language you are perceived as another person, representing yourself through a whole other set of vocabulary and phrasing. How others perceive us rests largely on not only the words we speak but how we speak them.

In a British novel called Darkmans, there is a character named Gaffar Celik, a recent immigrant to England from the Kurdish region of Turkey, around Diyarbakir. Like me and Don Juan, Gaffar has fled his homeland to escape a few personal missteps. The writer, Nicola Barker, notes his English speech in italics and his Kurdish in bold. All of the characters (except one who, improbably, speaks some Kurdish) take Gaffar for kind a comic simpleton, and by reading only his English speech one would get that impression. But through his translated Kurdish, Gaffar is a completely different character than the others realize him to be: intelligent, sarcastic, and contemptuous.

In Kurdish, Gaffar is articulate and witty. In English he is childlike. My experience was similar. While on the streets of Istanbul I was a confident immigrant, cute for my funny way of speaking, admired for my ability to speak Turkish at all. But the deeper and less rehearsed exchanges of personal relationships revealed the true limitations of my Turkish, reducing me once again to childlike simpleness. And the more I ventured from the cloistered, mono-linguistic world of Istanbul ex-patdum, the more apparent this became.

* * *

My first apartment in the city was in Cihangir, a trendy neighborhood known as home to foreigners, homosexuals, Turkish television actors and, most famously, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. After my first year in Istanbul, though, I moved into a six-room flat just on the edge of Taksim Square. “Lamartin,” as it was referred to, was a musty-smelling, drafty dive with sagging wood floors, moldy ceilings, and kitchen cabinets that hung precariously from the wall. The place was an asylum of sorts for a revolving stock of poor, fringe-dwelling dreamers of varying nationalities. At the time I lived there we had one American—me—one Italian, one Russian, and two Turks. The flat was linguistically dual, with conversations and individual sentences bobbling back and forth between English and Turkish. My own speech was peppered with Turkish when I had it.

Everyone in the house spoke fluent English except Arzu, the struggling Turkish actress, who spoke only a few words. The other foreigners spoke Turkish. But, despite my efforts to learn, my Turkish, when I attempted it beyond the stock phrases I had mastered, remained bumbling and uncertain. As much as I regretted my lack of fluency in Turkish, Arzu was ashamed of her poor English. And the two of us regretted our language barrier. In matters of household discussion we required a translator. When we were in the same room people had to say things in both English and Turkish. We were weights at either end of the linguistic spectrum of the house, and I felt guilty at times thinking that my English end weighed more heavily.

Despite the language barrier, Arzu and I made efforts at friendship. It was a relationship that strained not only against a language barrier and a cultural barrier but also a tension of distrust between two women co-existing in high-drama and sometimes sexually-charged social world, a circumstance that rendered our interactions awkward but also mysteriously intimate. A major function of Lamartin was to throw big parties full of foreigners and the most liberated of young Istanbul Turks. Arzu and I were sometimes to be found reclining on her bed amid these late-night wine-drenched revelries, inspiring paphian conjecture on the nature of our relationship. Really, though, all that lay behind the suggestive physicality and wary glances was a sensed kinship struggling to articulate itself, reaching across the divide between her English and my Turkish, forming in that space a private world not really understood by anyone else in the house. It was only inside that space that we knew each other.

On the surface, anyone could see that Arzu was beautiful, her skin a smooth olive and her face sharply angled. She was fire-tempered and lustful, always with some young lover hanging around. She smoked a lot of pot and often seemed unhappy. Beyond those characteristics, much of what I knew of Arzu’s character came from second-hand interpretation. I might have had my own opinion, a whole different one, otherwise. I might not even have liked her, or perhaps I would have liked her more. Would there have been more tension between us, or less?

One night she said to me, unexpectedly: “Eugene, he go you house?” We were sitting on her bed, smoking. She fixed me with a sharp gaze that wasn’t angry, but pained.

Eugene had been a lover of hers when I still lived in Cihangir. He spoke no Turkish and English with a thick Catalan accent that made him difficult to understand, even to a native speaker. What verbal communication between them could have existed I don’t know. But it only could have been like that of Don Juan and the Greek girl Haidee who, “. . .  though their speech/ Was broken words, they thought a language there—/ And all the burning tongues the Passion teach/ Found in one sigh the best interpreter . . ..” All well and good for Juan and Haidee. But for Arzu and Eugene, a lack of common language proved less idyllic.  When Arzu came to understand that Eugene the world-wanderer meant to leave Istanbul, she flew into a rage, attacked Eugene violently and locked him in the flat from the inside, tossing the key.  As Eugene explained,  “I try to talk to her, and I am trying to explain to her, but like this is very difficult because I am saying things to her and I am not knowing if she understand something. And she is just shouting to me in Turkish and throwing the things at me, and I am not understanding nothing. She says to me ‘you stay! you stay!,’ but I cannot stay. She does not understand this. I try to tell her again and again. Why she doesn’t understand this?” Arzu didn’t give up easily. She stalked him, appearing at bars and shouting at him in Turkish. Because Arzu didn’t know where I lived, Eugene hid in my Cihangir apartment. And I’d feared that if she ever learned that she’d shred my face.

“Evet,” I admitted, after a moment. She took a drag from her cigarette and exhaled slowly.

“Okay,” she said, tipping her cigarette in the ashtray. “No problem. Now, Eugene no problem for me. Finish.”

“Tamam.” Okay.

“I manyac. You know?” she said, pointing to her head, looking intently at my face. She always looked at me like that–intently.

“Evet. Manyak. Crazy,” I replied.

“Evet. I crazy. Sometime.”

“Ben da,” I said. “Manyakim. Sometimes.” Me too. I’m crazy. Sometimes.

And that was the extent of our conversation about it. I assume that had one of us been more nimble in the other’s native tongue, there’d have been more discussion on the subject. But I’m tempted to believe it’s better that there wasn’t.

* * *

In May we threw a party for Arzu’s birthday. A few of her friends, performers from her hometown of Bodrum, had come up to visit. They were all in her room smoking a joint and Arzu invited me in. No one in the room spoke more than a few words of English. This was a new situation for me. Turks are fascinated with Americans, and having captured one they fixated on me and barraged me with questions. I tried to answer—squirming, blushing, stuttering, scratching my head. They urged me to speak and then giggled at my comical foreignness: my accent, my twisted grammar, my confusion. Were they being mean, or just playful? I wasn’t sure. They exchanged comments between them and I couldn’t understand. They spoke to each other while looking sideways at me and laughing. It seemed they were testing, to see if I really couldn’t understand. I had seen this before. My students would do this to me sometimes. By then I’d left the job teaching reluctant office workers and found one I liked more, teaching the twenty-somethings of the Istanbul middle-class. The upper-level students behaved themselves, but in the lower-level courses the men (full-grown, believe it or not) slouched in their chairs and challenged my authority, trying to impress each other and the (petulant) girls by ridiculing me, muttering things they thought I would not understand. Using Turkish in class was forbidden, but sometimes I would glare at them, narrow my eyes and say, sharply, “Anladim, yani.” I understood, you know. Sometimes this would shut them up, even make them sit up straighter in their chairs. Sometimes it only made them laugh harder, and I had no choice but to exude an indignant huff and continue the lesson.

Arzu’s friends were making sport of me. “Yeter,” she said. Enough. She touched the joint to her lips, exhaled a thick plume of smoke, and passed it to me.

That night I met Cagdas (pronounced Cha-dash). While the others played at mocking my Turkish, Cagdas sat in the corner, bouncing a juggling ball and occasionally glancing up at me. He approached me later that night and said, “You Turkish good.”

We met again a few days later at a rooftop party. We managed, between his broken English and my broken Turkish, to make conversation. There was a lot of head tapping and finger snapping involved. Cagdas’s honey-colored hair and fat nose suggested an ethnic origin other than Turk, as did his urgent desire to sail across the Aegean to Greece. He wore glasses, a thick beard, and a red and white scarf tied around his head. He asked if I would go to Bodrum, where he lived. Bodrum is a resort town on the Aegean Sea, so a visit in the summer, when I’d finished my teaching contract, was likely.

“Evet. Gelerim,” I said. Yes. I’ll come.


“Bilmiyorum. Belki iki ay sonra.” I don’t know. Maybe two months.

“Two months?”

I nodded.

“Tamam. You me phone.” He took his mobile phone from his pocket. “I number give.”


“You me phone?” he asked, pinkie and thumb extended against his head.

“Evet.” I nodded. “I’ll call.”

“Call,” he repeated. “You call.”

A month and a half later I was staying at a British hostel in Bodrum. Cagdas and I exchanged text messages, and he came to pick me up by motorbike.  “We go motorbike. Turgutries. Okay?” he said.

“Tamam.” I said. “Cok guzel. Giteriz.” Very good. Let’s go.  It was late afternoon but still hot. The sun bounced blindingly off the whitewashed stucco of the buildings.  Lacking an extra helmet, he gave me his.  I put his helmet on my head, tightened the chinstrap, and swung my leg over the seat of the bike, holding tentatively to his ribcage. He kicked the starter.

“Hazir mi?”

“Hazirim.” I’m ready.

He pulled out into the street, passing the bar full of British tourists. Soon we were leaving the town and traveling the high coast road, winding along the undulations of the rocky coast with the fragrance of oleander and the sea wafting into our nostrils, the azure blue Agean Sea to our left, the islands of Greece just barely visible in the distance. We stopped at a store to buy beer and cigarettes. Near sunset, we arrived at the harbor in Turgutries, where we boarded a small sailing yacht and descended into the cabin. Cagdas made a meager living as a performer, mostly at children’s birthday parties—juggling, walking on stilts, doing magic tricks. He also worked as a boat hand. This was his boss’s boat, but I understood he slept here most of the time.

“Here,” he said, pointing at the floor, “This boat. My house. You stay my boat tonight. Beer. Smoke. Okay?”

“Bu gece, kalim.” Tonight, I will stay here, I replied.

“Iki insan. Beer. Smoke. Good.”

“Çok güzel.” Very good. Two people. Beer. Smoke. On a boat. A good plan if I’d ever heard one.

This was my first time to be nowhere near an English speaker, relying almost solely on my tenuous grasp of Turkish. No translator. Cagdas and I, as we had sensed when we met, had a lot to say to each other.  Down in the cabin of that boat we smoked pot and cigarettes and drank tall cans of Efes Bira all night.  Our birthdays, we discovered, were three days apart, in June. We were both Gemini. Ikizler. Twins.

He pointed to his head “Kafa?”

“Yes, head,” I said. “Kafa.”

“Head,” he repeated.” “My head, iki insan var.” In his head there were two people. “Anladimisin?”

“Evet. Anladim” I replied; I understood. “Ben da, ben da,” I said. Me, too.

His wore a sleeveless t-shirt revealing a thick tan shoulder with a tattoo—a grimacing clown face with a beard shadow and a bulbous red nose. Below that, on his bicep, a jester squatted on a stump. Cagdas was a clown, palyoço, but he was also korsan, a pirate, he said. He pointed to his chest and said “korsan,” then squeezed one eye shut and said “arrgh.”

“Anladim!” I shouted. I understood. “Pirate!”

“Pirate,” he repeated. “I am pirate.”

It is well known that a little alcohol is good for the foreign language skills. Marijuana, however, is not so helpful, and our ability to communicate verbally was a bit hindered. However, what we lost in recall ability we made up for in a shedding of inhibition and an eagerness to communicate. I being an English teacher and he a clown, we were both well-practiced in the art of mime. We filled the night with a discussion of our philosophies on life through a kind of bartering of English and Turkish, supported by a lively game of charades. It was a great way to  have a conversation. One might imagine that this is how language was invented in the first place.

Humans use language to draw each other into our mental worlds and build our identities. And I do believe that the proverb is correct, that the identity I built with Turkish wasn’t the same as the one I built with English. In English I was a teacher, but in Turkish I was ogretman. In English Cagdas was a clown, but in Turkish he was palyoco. Direct translations don’t tell everything. A clown and a palyoco are not the same thing. A palyoco is a dark character, an outsider. And in Turkey, an ogretman is a position of much more status than a teacher would be in America. The word itself has a different sound, one that sounds like a declaration and that brightens faces in response. Norman Mailer believed[4] that the very sounds of certain consonants have associative qualities, and different languages evoke different reactions in the senses. As verbal articulations were first assigned to things in the world (I like to think that the first sentence in the world was “Tiger! Run like hell!”), the humans assigning them had different ideas of those things. They may signify the same thing, but the idea of a palyoco is, on a visceral level, a different idea from that of a clown.

And so that night Cagdas and I came to know each other in two languages—two people stepping into each other’s linguistic worlds.

The next day, however, when  Cagdas brought me to his mother’s house, he stepped again out of my world and I remained in his, far out to sea in Turkish culture with no island of the English-speaking one in sight. I was a guest for lunch, a social moment in which conversation is crucial. I feared my end would involve a lot of blushing, head shaking, and apologetic shrugs. Instead, as I perched on my chair in the white afternoon sun, my Turkish passed as naturally over my tongue as the lentil soup, borek, and stuffed grape leaves. Out on the Turkish sea I came to the island of another self—not an American speaking Turkish, but more like an Istanbulu speaking Turkish, thinking like a Turk, eating like a Turk, feeling as at home in Turkey as I had anywhere.

Three years after I left Turkey and returned to the United States, I made a trip back to visit Istanbul. My Istanbulu-self, just as any Istanbulu would, had been traumatized by the separation, the distance from the Bosphorus, the lack of tiny cups of tea. As I stepped off the bus into the din of Taksim Square, the American girl that had first arrived there trembled again in terror, but the Istanbulu awoke, breathed in the smell of bus fumes, roasting meat, and cologne and thought: “Praise Allah, eviyim geldim. I’m home.

[1] These new skills proved extremely handy, in my first two weeks in Istanbul, when I had to go to the hardware store in search of a piece of pipe for my washing machine, one that would connect two hoses to one hose receiver. I explained the whole thing by charades, a triumph I considered greater than having explained it in Turkish.

[2] I’d moved to Istanbul during a major holiday—Kurban Bayram. Because of that I was confused about a lot of things in Istanbul. For example, I thought people routinely kept cows in the city and slaughtered them in storage sheds. (That’s actually illegal.) I also did not understand that on the last day of Bayram, which this was, the busses are free. So when I held out a random amount of money, the way I’d taken to paying for things, it took someone who knew how to say in English “no money” for me to understand. But I was still baffled that the city bus was free.

[3] Mainly because they had a song whose refrain I could immediately understand: “Yok1 Yok! Yok! That means, “Dees not exist! Des not exist! Does not exist!”

[4] As expressed in On God: An Uncommon Conversation