How safe is Istanbul – Sarai Sierra met the worst case scenario

On 5 February 2013 by Carolien Geurtsen

English ~> Nederlands

On the way to Bakırkoy

On the way to Bakırkoy

Immensely horrific what happened in Istanbul with  Sarai Sierra, the American lady. When she disappeared and did not show up quickly enough, my heart became heavy of anticipation for a negative outcome. Not so much because it is that unsafe in Istanbul, in general it is quite the opposite, although there is, like in other big cities, the risk to be robbed even by organized mini-gangs, especially in very busy or very poor neighbourhoods. And yes, as a tourist, or a touristy type of person, you can absolutely meet little or stronger harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse. And being a woman, especially a woman on her own, there are the gender defined extra risks, apart from the relatively innocent flirting of vendors,  the risk of sexual harasement and worse, is not bound to any city or time.

At the moment I am staying with friends in Tarabya, in Northern-Istanbul and had an appointment on Sunday to meet up with an old colleague of mine who now lives in Bakırkoy,  so I took the underground from Hacı Osman to Taksim to continue with a bus, but not before having a cappuccino in Mephisto.
The guys working there advised me on how to walk to the major bus-stop on Tarlibasi, just 300 meters distance.
As they suggested I took the short-cut and there starts the obviously gender and culture defined difference playing up. Within exactly one minute I was in a completely different scenery. Is the Istiklal Avenue, a large and lustrous shopping street, the little street I had to find my way in now, was much more narrow, real backstreet of a poor neighbourhood kinda way..
The contrast was immediate and very intense. For Turkish young men not threatening at all but for an elderly absolutely as such recognizable European woman, walking there on her own, a completely different experience.
So yes, I started feeling a little unsure and a little insecure., especially because I could not see through and further, no main road in sight.
Now  I have the luck to speak Turkish fluently and know usually what works best, indeed not only pretend that I belong, but really trying to radiate that in my body-language, indeed with my head up, without at any moment loosing respect for my surroundings and who is in there, sensing where it is better to make eye contact and ask for the right direction in a matter of factly way, or walk on ignoring the men standing sipping tea or sitting and playing backgammon.
So yes I had arrived within the blink of an eye in  Poor but proud Istanbul, at least according to the New York Times in their article about the renovation of Tarlabası
No doubt coloured by my anxiety I was a little stubborn and did not wait for the Dolmus or mini-van mentioned by my friend, which is bringing you faster than the half an hour usual drive (that is if you are lucky) due going a little part of the route on the ring road around Istanbul.
Instead I took the first standard city bus with the right destination on it. Not after checking with the driver though, whether it indeed would bring me to Incirli road, were I wanted to go.

One day later I read two articles worth reading about the murder on Sarai Sierra. In With your head up high dat van Frederieke Geerdin I reckognize a lot of my own experiences although as mentioned I do not always feel safe and sound here and also try to trust my gut-feeling as much as possible in those cases, as in the past my naivety brought me in various dangerous situations.
I had my share of gender defined difficulties and try to stay more tuned with my antennas.  Which includes the walking if I belong bit, like the Turkish women, with my head up. As well trying to get information about neighbourhoods, preferably from different sources, as there is a different story from, for example, a Dutch correspondent living here since 5 years, male, and a Turkish modern woman who lives here al her live. Compare notes, and learn.
But what Alyson Neel is experiencing on a day to day basis, or so it seems, i cannot reckognize in the least. She feels harassed every single day in Istanbul. I would love to spend one of those days together with her, and again, compare notes in the end, and analize.
I meet and that for 99,9% the case, only helpful, friendly people. A barber who I go and ask for directions comes out of his shop to show me on the street where to go. Street vendors go out of there way to pint out where the specific corner is where I have to go right. tattod ladies with a fag in there mouth nod when I ask if this is the right way to Tarlabsi. The one expetion being one busdriver uesterday who did not even take the effort to understand what I was asking him. I dont romanisize but this is my experience so far and not: In Istanbul street harrasment is a constant.

So yes, speaking the language is anextreme advantage, but also the combination of  attitude and a healthy portion of common sense all are quite valuable and importand, and like in every big city, staying aware of your surroundings.  Even a couplof words, especially the ‘No, thank you’ in combination sometimes with a polite but resolute ‘tesekurler’when you are invited in a shop guarantees more personal space than waking along and passing with a stiff face pretending you do not see or hear what is being said.
And I can only say: if you have to travel from Taksim, meaning Tarlabasi,  to Bakirkoy, do take the big city bus and let the Dolmus pass, beause I old fashionately feared for my life on the way back as the driver of the mini-van was indeed making a totally irrisponsible effort to get there fast.
I walked the last 500 meters as the traffic prevented him and us to move in the end.

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