Storytime: I Got Sniffed at in Istanbul

As a (mostly) solo female traveler, I’ve experienced my fair share of weird situations. When I travelled to Istanbul, Turkey a couple years ago, I experienced my absolute worst cases of female harassment. At the very surface layer, I got catcalled at every turn. It seems like I was just unlucky, or perhaps I looked like an extra naïve little thing, because it sounds like my experience was unique.

For the sake of not losing faith in men, I’ll just lump them all as bored shopkeepers trying to ‘charm’ you into their carpet/jewellery/souvenir shop, since this was a pretty common follow-up:

“Hey beautiful where you from!”

“…”

“You want to see my carpet shop!”

There was one particular exchange, however, that was so extra… peculiar, that it pretty much defined the trip.

The Corny Meeting

I arrived into Istanbul the first day of Ramadan. In the evening, right after the mass break-fast event, the Sultanahmet area was bustling. At this point, I’ve gotten my fair share of incessant catcalling in the daytime. My general response was to ignore and walk on.

Close to the Hagia Sophia, there was a lone cart hawking grilled corn. Sounds like a delicious snack – but first, let me take some photos. I felt someone sidle up close to me.

“Hello, how are you,” said a voice.

I pretended not to hear and snapped a couple more unnecessary photos to, you know, signal my busy-ness. Then I pulled up my phone and took more photos.

“Hello, how are you,” said the voice again, louder this time. “You like corn?”

“Haha,” I said nonchalantly, and began walking away. I was realising that having to wait for the corn meant that I might need to tolerate this weirdo’s obsession with my corn preferences.

I’m so corny it hurts sometimes.

I walked away, my sight deliberately lingering on my phone. I’ve not seen corn-man at all, not planning to. The moment I looked up from my phone though, corn-man waved his hand in front of my face with a grin so wide I momentarily stopped in my tracks.

“Hello! How are you!” said corn-man. He’s this twenty-something, skinny dude with a shaved beard and shiny gelled hair, coiffed expertly at the front.

“Great,” I said, as I quickly walked away and past him.

“Sorry, I’m actually training to be a tour guide, and I’d like to practice. I hope you can let me speak English with you,” said corn-man-and-aspiring-tour-guide-now. Let’s call him Ali from hereon.

“Haha,” I said again, with the same nonchalance as before to shake this guy off.

“Where are you from?”

“Singapore,” I answered quickly, still not breaking my speed.

“How nice! I love Singapore!” he continued, with an enthusiasm to rival the illuminated dancing water fountain in front of the Hagia Sophia.

As he persistently trailed behind me, he began rattling off some facts about Sultanahmet Square. It was extremely crowded and I could barely get what he was saying – but still, he committed.

The Tour Guide

I somehow found my way to a handicrafts market within the square. There were a lot of interesting stalls here. Besides traditional Turkish snacks such as Turkish delights and Boza, there were craftsmen showcasing cotton-making, glass art, ceramics and calligraphy. Ali said that it was a special bazaar only for the month of Ramadan. At this point, I began responding politely; I could see he was trying hard to spew information after information.

“These,” he said, pointing to a store with beautiful brass vases. “are from Anatolia. It’s special from that region, and they brought it here just for the bazaar.”

I thought perhaps he really was a tour guide.

Ugh, do I need to tip you after this,” was my initial thought. “Fine. I got a lot of questions for ya then, tour guide buddy.”

He actually proved knowledgeable and helpful.

The Whirling Dervish

“You know those spinning men? Where can I see them?” I asked.

“Oh! Whirling Dervish! Come!”

Ali led the way to a back alley which opened up to an alfresco café. He urged me to sit at an empty table, and disappeared. When he reappeared, he had two cups of Turkish tea with him.

“Now, we’ve ordered something. So we can sit here and wait,” he said, clearly pleased with himself.

While we await the Whirling Dervish to perform, we sipped on the tea. In that dim setting, I wasn’t as guarded towards him as I initially was. I asked him some more personal questions about living in Istanbul. Ali’s family owned a carpet shop nearby, and they lived on the upper floors of the shop’s building. As an only son, his dad wanted him to take over the store, but his dream was to be a tour guide. I was beginning to think Ali might be a genuinely friendly guy with no ulterior motives. His slightly downturned eyes looked kind even.

In perfect timing, the Whirling Dervish came on soon after. Our spot was prime; directly in front of the stage.

It was a magical show. A man, fully decked in white robes, spinning in a gentle trance to live, soulful Arabic instrumentals. His white robes swirled in the air as colourful lights washed him in mesmerizing, temporary hues.

“He’s reaching God like that,” said Ali, and I felt him leaning in close to my ears.

“Hmmm,” I nodded my head in response, eyes never lifting off the Whirling Dervish.

After the Whirling Dervish left the stage, we finished our tea. I raised my hand to call the waiter to make payment for the drinks, but Ali immediately shooed me away, head shaking incredulously. He’s already paid for the teas. He absolutely refused to accept any money from my end, his face screwed up when I offered. I immediately felt guilt for suspecting Ali. He was just trying to be a good host to this little old lost wide-eyed tourist all along! I thanked him so profusely that looking back, it was embarrassing.

“So now,” said Ali, his confidence boosted. “You want to see gorgeous view of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia?”

The Rooftop

We walked further away from the main Sultanahmet area and came upon a quieter street. We stopped at the entrance of a crowded restaurant. Ali spoke to the greeting waiter in Turkish, who brought us to an elevator. We went up to the top most floor of the building.

The doors opened to an empty, dimly-lit floor – a completely different scene from the first floor. I was slightly taken aback at the contrast, but any wariness shook off when a waiter appeared.  Ali said something to him in Turkish, and the waiter nodded and walked away.

Ali beckoned me towards a door at a corner of the room. I walked through and found myself in a glass-encased room with a clear view of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

Ali was legit in his claims. The building overlooked the two iconic monuments in a distance. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia were lit majestically against the dark night sky, surrounded by the twinkling hustle and bustle of the Sultanahmet Square. Any apprehension I had gave way to awe.

I immediately took out my camera and attempted some photos. Unfortunately, the reflective glass, along with the lack of light, made photo-taking a bit of an endeavour. After some failed attempts at adjusting apertures, I gave up. I suddenly became acutely aware that the only source of light on this rooftop was the dim glow of room we came out on. There was no one around us. Even the waiter earlier seemed to have disappeared.

Up to this point, Ali seemed authentic and hasn’t given me any reason to be wary of him. My alarm bells rang anyway. It wasn’t that I was scared of Ali per se… it was just a discomfort with the thought of being alone in this dark space.

Mr. Fiancé 

I turned to tell Ali that I was done so we can leave, only to see him sat comfortably on an empty bench with two cups of Turkish tea on the table.

“I got us tea, come sit!” Ali exclaimed, patting the empty seat. So I did. He did bring me to this rooftop and as promised, delivered on a stunning view. Plus, he ordered some more tea for me, how gentlemanly… right?

“Let’s just drink this tea up and get out of this place,” or so I thought.

That tea was piping hot. The tiny little Turkish glass cups traditionally comes with no attached handles, and I couldn’t even pick them.

Without much of a choice, we were pushed into real conversations.

Which was really Ali asking some very prying questions about my personal life.

For the most part, I was truthful. I’m a terrible liar and some of his questions were too… uncommon, for me to even attempt a fake-through, such as: “What are your parents working as?” “Do you have brothers and sisters? What are they working as?” Ali has an obsession with my corn preferences and my family’s job history seems like.

And of course, the dreaded…

“ArE yOU SinGle?”

I gave him the usual practiced spiel: “Yes I do have a boyfriend. In fact we just got engaged.” I lifted my left hand, pointing at my fake engagement ring. As expected, Ali then went Sherlock Holmes on Mr Fiancé. I answered flawlessly – rehearsed to perfection.

“He’s an average white-collar accountant who’s a part-time photographer because he loves it. We lead a middle class, but happy life together. He proposed on a beach where luminescent plankton lit the beach blue.”

The last line wasn’t necessary, but you get to stretch that one conversation explaining the beach and the blue plankton. Basically I was trying to dwell on one topic for as long as possible. Feel free to steal my narrative, you’re welcome.

“Oh what a lucky guy…” Ali sighed, and looked away.

Sniff Sniff

And then I heard a soft sniff.

“Is he… is he CRYING WTF,” I thought in panic as this kid that I just met literally not more than a couple hours before is that… heartbroken, that a hot accountant/photographer has claimed me as his? I was admittedly extremely flattered, but even more so, I was getting a bit freaked out at this suspicious reaction.

“Are you… ok?” I ventured cautiously.

“Yes, yes, no I’m fine sorry,” he said in the most dramatically startled manner. You’ve seen this scene in all the cheesy dramas – exact same. I don’t know what Ali’s deal was, but I knew that I was getting even more uncomfortable and I needed to get out of this situation, like 10 minutes ago.

Turning my head away, I gingerly held the tea up to my lips and blew at it fervently. “Just a couple of sips of politeness and then I’m out.”

Suddenly I heard an even sharper sniff.

“Oh my God,” I thought in a panic, head still turned away. “What is going on right now?! Is this kid going to cry? Why even?”

I pretended not to notice, exhaling air more forcefully on the tea that it reverberated and threatened to spill over.

And then I heard yet another sharp sniff, noticeably louder this time.

I whipped my head back and before I could even say anything, he held his hand up.

“No no, wait.”

He leaned in and took in a long, slow breath.

“What are you doing?? Are you smelling me?” I said, coiling my body away. Disturbed, I threw all caution to be polite out the door, totally forgetting that I’m on a dark rooftop with this dodgy stranger.

“No no, no! Please,” he said. “Please, it’s just that, your smell!”

“Stop. You’re not being respectful,” I said. I was on the verge of hysterics and it took me all the fight to remain calm at this point.

“No, you see, this smell. It smells just like someone I used to love,” Ali quickly said, his tone urgent but purposefully soft.

“I had a girlfriend, one year ago. She was my true love and we were going to get married. This smell… it smells just like her…”

“Excuse me???” Struck shock, I could only stutter stupidly at this bold person.

“No, no wait. She’s dead. She died in an accident,” he continued.

“You smell just like my dead ex-girlfriend.” 

To say I was dumbstruck was an understatement. How do you react to someone who sniffed you and said you smell like his DEAD EX-GIRLFRIEND.

I could only let out a feeble “I’m sorry to hear that, but you have to stop smelling me.”

“Oh no, please. The wind. The wind just sent your smell across again,” he said wistfully.

“You smell just like her…”

Soap Actor of the Year

“OOOOOKK. Yeah ok sorry, but I gotta go,” I gathered my things and got up. I was silently berating myself for even talking to this sociopath.

“Ok no, sorry please no more smelling. I’m sorry,” he said pathetically as he followed after me.

The elevator down was awkward to say the least, so I tried to make light of things: “Soooo you ok?”

He let out another soft sob and whispered, “Yes, don’t worry. I’m sorry.”

I should be more sympathetic; except the drama he’s putting on… it was too much. I cannot even exaggerate this scene – a grown man with a pout, head turned away only slightly, making sure I could still see his depressed expression. Think of all the old-school cheesy dramas, exactly that.

He insisted on walking me back to my hotel, saying that there’s a lot of bad men out there.

RIGHT.

We were a street away from the hotel, I told him: “I’m going walk by myself now, will you be ok going back home?”

“Yes, but I need to make sure you’re back safe,” he said.

“Let’s just… not.”

There was no further protest as my hard tone signaled my resolve. He asked for my number, “so I can make sure you’re back safe”.

For the sake of him leaving me alone at last, I gave it up anyway. I gave him my real number because it was my first day there and he could very easily hunt me down later on if he wants to. My hotel was within the Sultanahmet area, literally all he needed to do was wait at any corner and there’s a 90% chance I’d come around.

That night, as expected, his message came in.

“Hi angel,” he started. Cue my cringe, please and thank you.

I texted him straight up that Mr. Hot Accountant/Photographer Fiancé was not comfortable with his presence.

“Ok that’s fine, I respect your relationship,” was his text reply.

“Thank you for respecting us,” I texted back. The word of the day that day appeared to be ‘respect’, having thrown this word back and forth. I like the word “respect”. It seems like men take you more seriously when you use authorative words such as that.

“Goodnight.” I continued, hoping that would be the end of all of this.

“…”

I stared cautiously at how he’s planning to end this message.

“…”

“…”

“You want to see my carpet shop?”


In case you think I’m joking, I went back to the handicrafts market and had this made:

And that’s how you take back your power from an otherwise negative and discouraging incident, into a hilarious lesson. #antisniffing

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