It’s summer, and I just moved to Harlem, up by City College — all green trees and brownstones and grand churches, choirs reverberating with melodious spirit on Sunday mornings, electric.
“Let’s have dinner at Red Rooster,” my friend from college says, to celebrate my new ‘hood.’
“Of course.” I’ve never been. I’ve always wanted to go.
There are no tables upstairs, so we hang downstairs at Ginny’s Supper Club, where jazz bass and bourbon and crispy catfish leave me feeling all warm and tingly.
We talk and talk and say goodbye. The Harlem night is washed clean by an earlier downpour… leaves heavy on their branches, traffic hum on my back. It’s warm but blissfully un-sticky. I decide to walk the twenty-some blocks home. Maybe it’s block three, of four, when I start to regret my decision.
It’s not that I feel unsafe…or maybe I do. It’s a skin-crawly, stomach-churny sort of feeling: Just too many jeers, comments, eyes on me like I’m meat (I hate the word catcall. It comes from the mid 17th century, originally denoting a whistle of disapproval at a theater. The term feels jokey. These guys are not funny, and this does not feel like a joke).
I’m relieved and happy to get home, turn on the AC, close the door.
There’s a difference between a compliment and harassment, of course. Compliments are lovely, harassment is horrid. Sometimes it’s nuanced, some fuzzy line with lots of grey area, and I don’t have any answers about what’s ok and what’s definitely not. But I know how the latter feels; aggressive, sinister, and deeply unnerving. It’s yucky and unjust.
Last week, Hollaback’s catcalling video went mega-viral, followed by a torrent of conversation and controversy. But it’s not the video that got me thinking about this; it’s Istanbul.
My best friend Urs and I arrived in the heart of Kadikoy a week ago — a charming, narrow streeted, buzzy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul — thrilled for sunshine, juicy figs, fresh fish, and hookah. We drank Turkish coffee so dark and gritty it gave us goose bumps. We rode the ferry to Eminonu and ate mackerel sandwiches from guys on boats, the briny fishes stuffed into fluffy bread with a pile of bright onions, prayer calls ringing, thrilling, beautiful.
But walking arm and arm, we kept squeezing each other’s shoulders.
“These guys! Oh my God.”
Istanbul is a modern city of some 12 million people. There are women in berkas, and women in tank tops, occasionally strolling together along the Galata Bridge, laughing and arguing.
We make sure to dress conservatively, long pants and nothing tight or revealing. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. And yet: The stares — the intense, open-mouthed, relentless, intrusive, shameless stares. Men walk past us and turn around, and continue to stare us down, wide-eyed, open-mouthed.
It happens on the streets, on the metro, sitting outside and drinking our fiercely strong tea, savoring syrup-soaked baklava…in the early, foggy morning, in the afternoon, in the evening…by busy Taksim Square, at the Spice Market, on the sleepy Princes’ Islands….everywhere, always.
“Hi lady…Lady! Lady!” is the favorite salutation, followed by Turkish words we do not understand, but the most common is long, hard, intense stares. We shudder.
Urs and I have spent time together in Brooklyn and Barcelona, San Francisco and London, Bangkok and Tulum. We’ve told guys to fuck off or walked by fast, eyes averted. I don’t want to let the despicable behavior of the world’s population of atrocious men get me down or cramp my style.
Last night Urs and I had dinner with a lovely friend, Turkish by way of New York. Ege grew up in Istanbul, and has been living on the Upper West Side since 2007. She’s an actor and a teacher, and her husband is a musician and composer. We have a lineup of questions about this ancient, gorgeous city we can’t wait to ask her.
At Ciya Sofrasi we eat piles of rainbow-colored mezze on spongy bread, radish salad studded with plump pomegranate seeds, fava beans with verdant herbs, goat stewed with sweet, autumnal-spiced quince. We talk about fresh bread and goat cheese and olives and then, I ask her about the harassment.
All of a sudden, her obvious, lovely pride and joy about her city turn to apology, disgust.
“They’re awful,” she says, and we nod vigorously.
Of course, they’re not all awful. She’s married to a wonderful Turkish man.
“Sex is still totally taboo here, so when men see tourists, they think the can sleep with them.” She explains some of her observations, a sexism embedded deeply, differently, here. She tells us that women don’t speak too loud, or laugh too hard.
“This is one of the major reasons I don’t see a future here,” Ege says. She wants to have kids, and she doesn’t want to raise them in such a place.
I’m flying home today, but I know the story doesn’t end when I cross the Mediterranean, or the Atlantic.
Street harassment is a human rights issue. Women should be able to live their lives peacefully and safely, including the part that gets lived in public, on the streets of Istanbul and New York City and everywhere else. Too often, we can’t.
I don’t really know what to do. I assume middle fingers are not the solution. There are a million places I want to go, delicacies I want to eat, inside and outside and walking down cobblestone streets and wide boulevards, laughing as loudly as the spirit moves me to laugh.