Presented In Istanbul: Tiptoeing Through The Taboos

I was going to marry a Turk. But first I would face a cultural gauntlet meeting his family in Istanbul. My fiancé Burç stressed gaining approval from his influential mother Ayten, a pretty woman in her late 50s. She would be tricky to charm since Ayten treasured the central position she commanded in the lives of her unmarried sons, and spoke little English.

“She won’t be able to follow your accent,” briefed Burç. Yet he insisted the language barrier wouldn't impede my proper acquaintance with his polished and instinctual mother.

“It’s not what you say, anyway. It’s how you behave.” Way to freak me out.

 

HIS MOTHER'S CHARACTER WAS COMPLEX. A modern European sophisticate, she possessed vintage morals, frozen in nineteen-sixties Istanbul when the family relocated to Belgium for two decades.

Over the Atlantic heading to Turkey, Burç lightened the mood, regaling me with festive stories of Turkish dinner parties and moonlit boat trips on the Bosphorus. All were punctuated with belly dancing by paid entertainers and guests alike, men shaking it, women clapping.

"Whenever the generals came over for dinner they'd end up belly dancing," Burç recounted, digging deeper into his memories to the days when his father Süleyman worked for N.A.T.O.’s military command.

Resettling in Istanbul, the dignified septuagenarian was famous for unrestrained shimmying after polishing off a few glasses of anise-flavored rakı, the national liqueur.

This I had to see.

The plane set down on the outskirts of the sprawling, hilly city of Istanbul and we made our way across the Bosphorus Strait to Anadolu, the Asian side of town. Family introductions went smoothly in the leafy neighborhood of Şaşkınbakkal.

Süleyman supplied me lounging slippers, subtle acceptance.

When my father-in-law to-be donned the collared Banana Republic sweater I brought even though it was too small, his wife Ayten scoffed he was showing off his physique.

Ayten was  a tougher sell. She put away the Chanel bath products I gave her with a small nod of thanks.

 

SHE DOTED ON MY FIANCE, her hand on his shoulder as she set plates in front of him. I detected the shrewd instinct he had described. If she didn’t focus on me my importance would be minimized. We commenced with tea and meat pastry borek, in her mushroom-colored dining room dotted with crystal figurines and Lladro porcelains. Süleyman drew on his pipe while Ayten gossiped about the neighbors.

I sat looking pleasant. No hint of belly dancing on the horizon.

Two nights later we helped celebrate a local Turk’s 45th birthday party in the remains of a sixth century Byzantine cistern. Candles illuminated the rough-hewn bricks of the subterranean disco. An air of boredom permeated the affluent crowd in trendy sequined tops and business suits as they grazed from huge platters of nuts, cheese and grapes.

“After cake, we have belly dancers,” the pixie hostess revealed.

“Perfect for my husband,” she bopped to the music, glancing at her spouse who hadn’t moved a muscle all evening. Then with a shriek she ran to greet new arrivals.

A THRILL SHOT THROUGH ME, SECRET WISH GRANTED: to witness authentic belly dancing on the soil from which it sprang. Having a simmering fascination with the art since I was a young Californian peeking through the window of a Middle Eastern dance studio next to my Judo dojo, the mincing and shaking of the harem dance could be the ultimate seduction, something to learn. I had made it to the source, and belly dance’s dormant role in my life was about to change.

The DJ switched to a percussive track by Tarkan, a local pop star influenced by traditional music. Two scrawny, tanned Eastern European girls moved through the crowd, venally eyeing the men who would slip them tips.

There was nothing sensual about these performers, padded silver bra tops creating a semblance of cleavage on birdy chests, transparent pantaloons slung low on adolescent hips. Limber, their moves were more acrobatic than dancerly.

I’d seen better technique on a beach in Oregon, when my crafty cousin demonstrated her years of study, ample belly undulating like a stormy sea.

Good sports, the Turks clapped like robots.

“Excuse me, I will be sick,” announced one slender dark-haired guest as she pushed past.

“Kicked out of the gymnastics program in Belarus,” Burç whispered in my ear, our attention drifting. We leaned in for a kiss when a dancer whipped us with her blonde hair. Making clear it was no accident, she pivoted twice more at close range. We stopped kissing.

 

“THAT'S A NATAŞA FOR YOU,” Burç said, using the blanket term Turks have given female emigrants spilling into the country since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. They often fill jobs natives reject -- for instance, “No decent Turkish woman would put on a costume and dance,” Burç explained, sounding like the son of a decorous mother.

Point taken. Being 'Natasha' in Turkey was synonymous with foreign prostitute and possibly much, much worse -- trafficked woman. Major unfortunate. Mixed up with the mob.

The next night we were invited to dinner at a family's traditional wooden mansion overlooking the Bosphorus. Toward the end of a civilized evening, the jovial host, who I had met several times in New York, tried to draw me into a dance.

Süleyman did a few turns and retired to smoke his pipe. No other takers.

I stood there, the same extroverted woman the host had enjoyed in the States now watching him twitch his right hip, arms raised shoulder height, fingers snapping. It wasn’t much of a belly dancing move, easy to master. If I did it, my host would be delighted.

Yet, if behavior spoke more than words, appearing eager to belly dance might be deadly for a prospective foreign daughter-in-law with a Russian-sounding name.

 

I HAD ONE OPTION, PURE THEATRE. So I shook my head, bashful and refusing to imitate my host’s moves. A smiling Ayten patted the spot next to her on the sofa, where I joined her in respectable solidarity.

“Crazy, that one,” she said to me, shaking her coiffed head.

I’d have other chances to dance, ones that would cost me less.

 

Back in New York, the trip was judged a success. Everyone had found me presentable, including the primly modern Ayten.

She'd covered a lot of territory to reach a positive conclusion about me, I found out. Burç admitted when she first heard of me months before, Ayten thought my name was Natasha.

[This essay first appeared in Cornucopia magazine, 3/03]

Read what happens next, when we get married in a glitzy Istanbul ceremony.

+++++ What high-stakes cultural gauntlet have you faced and how did you maneuver your way through it?