English translation: Peter Byrne
(Swans - September 20, 2010) So you haven't asked for my expertise on Istanbul. That's your loss, but it's not too late to remove your head from that glossy magazine and lend me an ear. I know they write of unconventional, beyond-the-pale, romantic byways. Don't go that way. I've lifted a leg on those very spots and they are no more intriguing than a deodorized kennel. From down here with my snout to the pavement I have the true gen like nobody else, save one or two super sniffers whose credentials ought to be drug tested.
To me it all comes naturally. I only have to run through my daily round and those few but landmark events I've known since first seeing the light, dim with grime, of an Istanbul day. Travel writing having no secrets for me; I'm aware that insider revelations always appeal to gawkers from afar, whereas locals already know more than they can bear. Visitors will even find picturesque a dainty pile I might leave behind me.
That's the human element, I suppose. You folks spend your leisure boning up on what you have no time, desire, or power to do away with -- the full menu of poverty, political persecution, racial hate, prostitution, and the whole gamut of crime. And that's only for starters. You forget that curiosity killed the twat and take a morbid interest in forms of life that are beyond you entirely, including very peculiar venereal pleasures and riffs of freedom you can't sing along to.
Don't think I'm going to come on like a moralist. I'm no better than you are, though I don't strain my noodle about what "better" means. I'll go along if you want a new thrill, a kinky centerfold between the stock market numbers and a page of ads bookended with swollen tits. We'll do a tour in the city of emperors and sultans that not even a self-styled "way-out" tourist agency could offer you. There's only one genuine way to get "out" anyway, that's an exit from the human race. But come bark a while with me.
Dawdle, we shall, through the back streets, in rain and shine. I'll even talk about the weather, another subject that my kind finds decidedly overrated. Seeing through my eyes will convince you first of all that the biggest menace in Istanbul comes from brats. There are swarms of them. We might be taking our ease at the side of a road and sizing up a promising gutter when without warning three or four kids land on us, slapping, kicking, punching. They mean no harm. See, they are all grins. Their smiles say those aren't thumping fists, but pats on the back. Whatever they might be, I could do without them. I'd much rather be nipping friendly neck fur and rolling around in the dirt with my buddies who know the rules. Our teeth make it a rougher game but at least the odds are even. The kids hide their spite and play on our tender hearts to pre-empt retaliation. We keep clear of kindergartens.
Istanbul eating can be rewarding provided you know your way around and use your head. Night is the time of plenty and in the right place a meal will always be available. (The city's outskirts are not the right place. The poor people who come from the country to live there aren't much for the excesses of gastronomy.) Roundabout Sultanahmet there are restaurants galore though calm is in short supply. It can happen that with your teeth in a nutritious and tasty morsel, you have to dodge a tram, or a tourist bus, or a taxi whose driver -- don't ask me why -- tries to run you down. There is no leisure to devote to making your taste buds blossom.
The edges of the inner city are your best bet. People there manage to fill their bellies without earmarking the leftovers for grandma in the attic. I've actually had a whole beefsteak in those streets. Mad cow disease was all the rage just then and, after the ten o'clock TV news, vegetarians multiplied like fleas on a fluffy tail. But my philosophy is to leave ideology out of it and just chew. Traffic isn't completely insane thereabouts and most householders aren't so caught up in globalization that they refuse you a bowl of water. But if they do, here's a tip. You'll find the roads nicely bombed out and in season there's always a puddle to quench your thirst and freshen your outlook.
These are only my views, of course. For instance, you may not even drink tap water and hold out for the bottled kind or nothing. There are plenty of people like that, especially among the foreigners. For me the cloudy stuff in a crater of the blacktop has a kick to it that I can't forego.
Not that you could call me finicky. I'm an uncomplaining blind-date specialist when it comes to courting. In any case, Istanbul girls aren't picky when the season is right. They don't make a big issue if you're a shrimp or stout party, long or short haired, three-legged or somebody's spavined uncle. Enough that the day is right. Then they nod yes without enquiring when you had your last shampoo. On the wrong day you can be as dazzling as a kebab man with his cleaver poised and howl like a minaret tenor: No dice. They won't give you a roll. You get the picture: Females as usual. But I'm not complaining. At bottom these are ladies with their paws on the ground. You don't have to promise them the moon and a pair of planets for earrings. Should they take a liking to you, their only demur will be to commencing action in the middle of the road. Find a spot away from traffic and you can climb into the cockpit and take off forthwith. No questions from them about your "long-term plans" or life insurance. They won't assail you with protocol like "Let's wait till after sunset." "Why not take me to your place?" "Whisk me away to the park, please."
Great, the park. Sure I'd like to stroll on the greensward all day long. But parkland is rare here, and asphalt, though everybody's whipping boy, is the place for fast food. Let's be realistic. If some well-wisher is going to award you a shaggy bone or a chicken's skeleton, he'll leave it on the pavement beside the plastic bags of garbage. He's not going to deliver it addressed to you by the bandstand in Yildiz Park.
Keeping amused is easy in Istanbul. To begin with, solitude never threatens. You always find someone in the street to team up with because he's in the same fix as you. Sniffing around your bailiwick, you only have to whine in some wanker's direction for him to come over hand-in-hand with his personalized pong. (The real stinkers are the mates of citizens in jacket and tie whose mink coats have consorted with mothballs.) We can then proceed to bite into a passing marshmallow rump or unexercised calf, or else have a go at each other, canines in canine, maybe the best stress reducer of all.
Istanbul is dog city. I'm talking about my sort, strays, real dogs, not those sexless wonders who primp and prance at the end of a leash. Local people aren't used to keeping us indoors. They feel rightly that we ought to get on as best we can in the streets. Some think we add a touch of color to the landscape, or see us with a nostalgic eye and a backward glance to their forebears who lived in our freewheeling way, happy nomads in the middle of Asia.
Not that our life is all dolce far niente. Brotherly love isn't exactly de rigueur amongst us. Often some Johnny-come-lately from Nowhere's-ville sets up as the big bowwow in the streets you call home. Other times, while working out with a buddy, you start to lay on the snarls, flashing your fangs, scrapping like a bulldog who thinks he's a bull in the arena. (The type out to prove he's vicious and worth all the free grub he's swallowed.) As you go through your repertoire, the old temper takes charge and you're ashamed to back down. Local residents can be put off by such shenanigans on their front stoop. Keeping them out of the way with the tooth-ends only worsens their disposition.
When things are sunny, people always fall all over us. But after a growl session, a strange calm can descend for a couple of hours. Then we find a luscious round kofte right in the middle of the street where we've only ever seen dust and mud before. We swallow it in a flash and down we go, stretched out dead as a you-know-what. We mustn't flex our muscles even in fun or people will treat us to a final spiked meatball. For them our role is to provoke their pity. We have to forget the fun and games, and go all out for the downtrodden look.
Though monotonous, you can't really complain about the music you hear in Istanbul. Four or five times a day singers belt out pieces a couple of minutes long that are amplified from the top of minarets. You get used to it. Myself I prefer the music of the ships, that deep throat serious tuuuuu they let out when sailing from Sirkeci or Karakoy. Apart from offering a more complete performance with movement as well as music, the port is great for dining out. There's fish around, which tickles my eager digestive juices. Usually we don't go in for it, but living by the seaside for a lifetime I've got used to the flavor. There are of course hard cases who won't go near fish flesh, and insist it's only fit for cats.
The reason for my tolerance could be that I actually resemble a cat. My muzzle is squared, my body small and slender, legs short and tail very hairy, grey to the tip. I also have long whiskers. The odd German shepherd, proud of his collar and leash, occasionally barks my way to let his lord and master know he's a cheeky devil, the terminator of pussycats. I'm supposed to be scared? I pay no attention. Even if five hundred pounds of meat bares its yellow teeth at me and growls like thunder, I coolly go my way. That kind of dude is as house-tamed as a W.C. with constant hot water. Can't you see it? Pap and mush out of tin cans, polished studs on his collar, extendible or ample fixed-length lead, three walks a day, a piss, a poop, a yap, and back to the ranch. I should foam my gums if that kind of comedian mistakes me for a cat?
I come from the street and so did my family. We don't bother with niceties, braided tails, or pedigrees. A bitch in the right month has the right smell -- it's astrology. (Am I repeating myself? Yes, but that's what love is all about.) The climbing urge comes. We don't queue up for an entry ticket. In the saddle and off we trot, hell bent for leather. Small, large, Dalmatian, Peke -- bitch is bitch. If the smell is right, the rest can't be wrong. And her litter? Que sera sera, maybe even a sportsman of my complexion might come out of it. Anyway it's not as though we have a roof to put the nippers under. A tug or two on a dug till they get the world picture and Hit the Road, Jack.
So I'm macho. What do you expect of a dog? But listen, my delicate human, supposed best friend, at least I don't tout my endeavors up in statistics, inflate my prowess, or blame my philoprogenitive shortcomings on my ma and pa.
What if my mother was a cat? Every once in a while when I hear a meow, the question comes up. Why shouldn't it be true? I never saw my parents. I've made my own way since I was a pup. There was a time -- okay, I'll own up -- that I moved in with a family. For a while I too was at the wrong end of a leash. The little girl in residence was crazy about me. But the rest of the family held their noses. The set-up was no more than passable, even though the kid had a solid gold touch in petting. It was different from mounting a bitch, and in some ways better. Except that petting isn't enough. When a fido wants his fidola, no leash is sufficiently extendible. Maybe my father, not finding his heart's desire, got desperate and sunk to pleasuring a cat. That would explain me and my face. If so, amen. No species prejudice for this sansculotte.
As it happened, the day came when family life got on my nerves. No longer a fresh-faced junior, my thoughts turned bitch-wards in a big way. The next-door neighbor had a couple of mutts, a male and a female, a dreamy arrangement that made me throb with envy. In no time the Miss was a Mrs. with buns in the oven. Final score, three pedigree pups. There was joy in Mudville. But after a second litter, the proud papa was escorted to the vet. When he came home again, a character change was noted to the sad tune of "Where are the nuts of yesteryear." Hot damn! The decks were clear for me.
The first chance I got I paid a quick visit, bim-bam thank ye ma'm. Her people caught on, and there were hard words to and fro over the back fence. Tears came to the eyes of my little mistress and a mean glint to those of her parents. One evening my boss man stood before me, a traveling cage in hand. My knell was tolling. I saw the scenario: In through the back door of the pet hospital, scalpel please, thank you nurse, snip-snap and out the main entrance, one perfect little lapdog.
I took no thought but a permanent powder straightway. Since then I've never looked back. When you think of it, nothing is more foolish than to run after a ringmaster in Istanbul. Freedom's a scarce commodity hereabouts and if even dogs lose it the end is nigh. And I with my kitty-cat mug can do pretty well in the streets. If they throw me a bone, great, if I find what's left of a doner kebab, better yet. But if some pussy lover leaves me a bowl of milk, I don't get on my high horse. Call me pussykins if you like, but don't forget to lay out the grub. Some might say I have no sense of honor. My reply is simple. I've got to my venerable age of circa fifteen quoting that fatso booze hound -- he drank sack, whatever that is -- who asked whether honor made a grave more cozy. Honor! I'd purr between yaps if I could!
Istanbul is also a city full of oddballs. One of them actually followed me for days. I decided he was a perv. He would stop to observe me while I lazed in the sun. He scribbled all the time in a notebook. When I went off on a stroll, he would hurry after me. Stopping, I found that he stopped too, thirty feet behind me, out of breath, but still scribbling. Siraselviler Caddesi, Bogaskesen Caddesi, along the Bosphorus, Karakoy, Galata Bridge, Eminonu, Sirkeci -- wherever I went he would be treading on my tail, this four-eyed penman going thin on top and writing in his notebook. I took him at first for a vet, possibly from the city hall Gestapo, then for a detective hired by the snooty master of some bitch I'd rogered. In the end he came up close and I got a gander at what he'd written. There was a tale under a pure tabloid title, flypaper for rubes. The busybody wrote stories! I couldn't believe it. He pretended to set down my very thoughts without knowing anything about my, hmmm, inner life. For what could he know if I myself know nothing, not where I live, who I am, or even what year it might be? At least this fantasist stopped short of piling on the last straw and giving me a name like some Disney punk.
Of myself I know only that I'm alive and very old, one extremely tired spectator. I also know that the sun has scheduled a guest appearance above the minarets of St. Sophia towards the end of a slow-motion swan dive, stage left to stage right. I know that the arc lamp of the sun, like my life, will be switched off soon. I know that this chorus line, one moment rollicking, the next awesome, signifies no more than an old dance routine that I delight in. For I'm nothing but a dog, if not a cat, and as such have no future, no soul. I can remember only that mighty finale born in the east and traveling west in grand opera style against Topkapi's painted backcloth. With the sun now simply the peel of a stage-property orange shriveling second by second, what can I say except that the performance was all beauty.
Author's Note: This is an English version by Peter Byrne of Erotismo bestiale by Fabio De Propris that appeared in Italian, January 1999, in La Gazzetta, Mensile del Circolo Roma, No.13, Istanbul, Turkey.
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)