On a bright spring morning, I was crossing Istanbul’s Taksim Square with my friend Aphrodite, who is still a red-haired beauty at seventy-one. We were talking about Turkey’s precarious situation, the relentless terrorist attacks, and the worsening refugee crisis, which had made us feel as if a sinister cloud had passed over our city. On every street, including my own, Syrian mothers sat cross-legged with babies in their laps.
During Ramadan in 2014, I bought food for a Syrian woman who, although she appeared twenty years older than me, was actually nine years younger. The first time I delivered a package, her children immediately devoured its chicken and pilaf. The second time, the woman didn’t seem to want the meal, but her seven year-old son gave me a stare that said, “Don’t pay any attention to her. I’m starving.” The third time, the woman didn’t even acknowledge me. Apparently the presence of food prevents monetary donations, which the refugees need even more. So I started giving to vetted relief organizations, but I didn’t want to ignore the Syrians I passed, nor the Iraqi refugees who reverently kissed the doors of the Orthodox church at which I worked.
As Aphrodite and I entered Talimhane, her neighborhood, I caught sight of a refugee woman lumbering toward me. Her swarthy face bore the characteristic blue tattoos of a Syrian Bedouin. A cloth bundle dangled from her hand. She’d probably carried that makeshift bag across mountains and deserts. Perhaps even across Anatolia. I smiled at her. Not a momentary, embarrassed simper, but a warm I’m-glad-to-see-you-on-this-beautiful-day beam. She held my gaze with her cactus-green eyes, returned its warmth with a toothless grin, and continued on her way. It was a Namaste moment, even if she had never heard the word Namaste.
Aphrodite and I ascended to her apartment, my favorite place in all Istanbul. There is something about its two pendulum clocks ticking just out of step, its old mahogany furniture and crystal, and the aroma of bay leaf and moth balls that makes me feel more at home than anyplace else. Over coffee, we leafed through old photographs of Taksim Square, circa 1950. Instead of the current cement sprawl punctuated by MOWAG Eagles, we saw a ring of manicured trees circling the Republic Monument. Where AK47-bearing policemen now stand guard, ladies in calf-length dresses promenaded with gentlemen in suits.
In an effort to uplift the conversation, I told Aphrodite about the Bedouin woman’s smile, which she had missed while staring down at the pavement. “Ach, little mama,” Aphrodite sighed, her legs dangling over the chair arm as if she were a teenager, “a smile isn’t going to save us.”
In a material sense, she was right, but on a higher plain, I couldn’t agree. As the humanity in me saluted the humanity in that woman, her otherness vanished for me—just as I hope mine did for her. My winter sadness lifted, and the Bedouin woman’s smile settled into its place.
Nektaria Petrou has published essays in The Huffington Post, Al-Monitor, Daily Sabah, and Mashallah News. Her short story “The Evil-Eye Expert” won an honorable mention in Ruminate Magazine’s 2015 Story Contest. Other pieces are scheduled to be published soon in Sixfold and The Shanghai Literary Review. She recently completed a novel about the Greeks of Istanbul.