Part Two: Front Teeth
It was a natural vocation, both learned and innate. I’ve never lived in the same place for more than five consecutive years. And that brought with it an insight that grew as I grew older; as the backdrop replaced its predecessor, so too did the cast: Boston, North Carolina, California, Tokyo, Ohio, Beirut, (Istanbul,) Moscow. The more the repertoire expanded, the more I understood the extent to which humans are at the mercy of their circumstance. It was an equation, with the added spice of biology, that could output a writer, output a Turkish Londoner, output an American whose heart’s hometown was Tokyo (there’s no good English translation for 心の故郷).
And it could output darker things, as I’d seen in my previous home. The tales of what my friends’ relatives had done in the war; the buildings I passed on the way to school. My professor when he told the story about the time one of his students killed someone. The student came to him in his office hours and put a gun down on his desk. He told my professor of his plan, hoping to be talked out of it. My professor tried but he didn’t succeed.
Because there was an underbelly to Altan’s London stories; something I couldn’t shake. It had started on the day we met, when Chris, Altan and I sat around a small table and Altan told the story of how he lost his front teeth.
He said he’d been in a bar frequented by members of the local Turkish community and the night was winding down. He was tired, drunk and nineteen.
The fight (rather Turkishly) began after Altan engaged in conversation with the wrong girl, who, he reported, “wasn’t even hot.” He hadn’t been interested in her. She’d spoken to him first and he’d only entertained her for the lack of alternatives.
He’d sensed that trouble was brewing because a guy across the room was staring at him, but he didn’t care. When the unhot girl left, the guy came over on cue with a group of friends and tapped Altan on the shoulder.
“That girl you’ve been talking to is my cousin,” he said.
“Okay,” Altan replied.
“…Well you’re not allowed to do that.”
The crew reassembled outside, where the chuffed cousin and his cronies fanned out around him.
Altan had little patience for the situation. “Look, I’m really tired and I’d like to go home. If you’re gonna hit me, why don’t you just hit me?”
The cousin, taken aback, looked to his friends. Altan related that even then, in the drunken moment’s swirl, it was clear the cousin hadn’t expected a fight. He’d sought to elicit a public apology: a denunciation of face.
In his infinite teenage wisdom, Altan then decided that the fastest way out of the situation was to start the fight himself, as his adversaries were taking too long. So he turned and took a swing at the guy to his side, believing – in even further wisdom – that because he was outnumbered, the best strategy was to take out the biggest guy in hopes of deterring the others.
He bent over in laughter as he reenacted how little The Biggest Guy reacted to his punch. (“He didn’t even feel it, man.”) One of the cronies then shoved Altan from behind just as another was swinging up a kick. The kick landed on Altan’s mouth. One of his front teeth was knocked out instantly and the other had to be removed.
He’d had the fake teeth and story ever since.
I couldn’t deny I found the teeth story endearing. My lip had curled as I listened, hooked by the story’s boyish charm.
But what was charming, really? He’d put himself in danger – and for what?
I’d just left a part of the world rife with conflict and I was sensitive to thoughts of violence. I sought the variables of its productive equation. I’d spent hours deconstructing systems that induced it, deploring great films for romanticizing it. Yet through all my conscious effort, was I like this too? Did his violent stories somehow make him more desirable? What did that say about me as a person attracted to men? What did that say about masculinity?
Because Altan didn’t talk about his teenage fighting phase with any twinge of regret. He recalled it fondly, which intrigued me more. The discomfort: that thrill you only get when you’re a bit afraid.
Altan was a great storyteller. I recall one conversation clearly: he’d begun espousing the relative values of different kinds of fights and I’d scrambled to take mental notes, certain his words could be fastened into a great monologue. Winning a fight was useless, he said. When you win, you think you’re invincible. The real value was in losing because that’s how you learn what your weaknesses are. That’s how you improve.
Then I asked him to approximate how many fights he’d been in.
“Well, maybe 30 or so,” he mused, “but only around half of those were proper one-on-one fights, so the others don’t really count. In the others, either I was outnumbered or the opposition was outnumbered.”
Something inside me shrank and I missed the window of seconds where I could’ve asked for clarification on the last part of his sentence. The detachment; the passive form.
What did this mean: “the opposition was outnumbered”? Altan and his friends had beat up someone who never stood a chance? Had these victims also gone on to tell nostalgic stories of their defeats, or might the experience have been something more sinister to them?
Though I hadn’t experienced violence myself, in my quest to understand, I’d turned to words of those who’d known it best. I didn’t think of them as people, I was avenging a friend, I was just following orders, I was just giving orders. Japanese soldiers in China, German soldiers in Poland, American soldiers in Vietnam. People who’d journeyed into the darkest arenas of human experience, witnessed and participated in acts that could’ve previously only been the stuff of devils’ dreams, and returned to the rest of us to lay out the memories they couldn’t explain, perhaps in hopes that others could. And through it all – memoirs, letters – something soon became simple and clear. Any given group of people is equally predisposed to violence; some of us are just subjected to stronger influences towards it. Teenage boys who’d returned home to throw mice in the fire, in a broken experiment to see if their bodies burn the same way as a human’s (they do). And in those involuntary dark writer daydreams, I’d sometimes re-envision lives of friends lucky enough to be away from institutionalized violence, if whatever part of their personality that was innate could be set free to crystallize in bleaker environments. Altan in faraway places and times.
Perhaps there was an understanding among those on the streets, that it was all just a bit of hormonal fun that should stop before anyone got seriously hurt. I made excuses for him. I made excuses for myself for making excuses for him. But those four words would echo in me again and again. The opposition was outnumbered.
Though it had been phase, a teenage time. He said the teeth fight had been his last, seven years prior, because that’s when he realized it was going too far. Though something did happen that made me curious as to his definition of “fight”.
Because one night towards the end of our time, Altan called me while drunk on the train going home from a party and asked if he could come over. This was annoying: I was trying to sleep, we’d declared again we were through and he knew I had work the next morning. Inevitably, I said yes.
Alcohol is supposed to be a depressant but for Altan it was a stimulant. And it was with this animation that he bounced into my Soviet living room and related the story of how, earlier that night, he’d gotten into a tussle on the street with a hot-headed Irish guy named Aidan. And as if that scenario wasn’t enough of a caricature of itself, Aidan’s initial attempts to provoke Altan had included insistent jabs that London wasn’t “such a rough town then.”
Altan was uninterested in the bait. Aidan then moved to insisting he’d never lost a fight, which Altan only found more childish, as this was somehow clearly impossible.
This escalated to the point of Aidan’s girlfriend locking him in the bathroom to keep him away from Altan. Later when the group was walking outside, Aidan wasn’t letting up and Altan’s patience had grown thin so once again he decided that the fastest way out was just to get it over with. So when Aidan wasn’t on guard, Altan threw a snowball at the back of his head. Aidan went for a tackle and the pair scuffled until Altan pinned him down and began shoving snow in his face and mouth.
After Altan let him up to breathe, Aidan stood, coughed, brushed off the snow and proclaimed, “That was a good fight,” more than once.
Months later, I would ask a close friend – another boisterous Londoner – for insight on this issue. “Goo, why are London boys so goddamn rowdy?” I enquired. “I dated a London boy and he was really proud that someone kicked his teeth out of his face.”
“Of course he was proud,” Goo replied. “That’s a badge of honor.”
Though another friend was more critical of the Altan/Aidan situation. We disagreed on the fight’s severity and how to allocate the blame.
“I don’t think they really intended to hurt each other. This is just British Isles pub culture. You know this is normal where they’re from.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s normal. That doesn’t make it okay.”
But Altan didn’t need to fight with Irishmen for his Britishness to show. That was another thing I knew: that ability to slip between worlds.
When I complained to Altan about the “English bubble” at work, he agreed at all the right moments (“Yeah, English people are like that,” he’d say). Yet most of his friends were English and none of the remaining few were Russian.
Because just as easily as he could criticize English people from an outsider’s perspective, he could retreat into the little English world, leaving me in the dust. But Altan had been the first person to understand why I didn’t fit in well at work. He’d been the first to not think I was crazy for going to university in Lebanon.
None of the other teachers knew about our relationship, so Altan had experienced a funny awkward moment while out drinking with his work friends, when Helen, another teacher, had asked him in pure coincidence, “Altan, do you know Dakota?”
Altan did that London thing of ending lots of sentences with “yeah.” “And I didn’t know what she was gonna say about you, yeah?” he laughed as he recounted the incident. “So I almost just said to her, ‘Yeah, I know Dakota. You better watch your fuckin’ mouth.’”
Flustered by this, I insisted that Helen probably wasn’t going to say anything bad about me and that was her right even if she was. He seemed to find it odd that I was fussing over such a minor detail of his story and waved my objection away as he talked on.
But something was there again: some attraction of violence. I was
appalled but somehow oddly flattered too: that he could get so worked up about me and rush to defend my honor. But why would such a trait be good? In what situation would that be useful?
I couldn’t concentrate on his story as thoughts further dawned and I rearranged the scenario in my mind. If he could almost say that to her, could he almost say that to me?
But then I just said it again in my mind: “You know this is normal where they’re from.”
Part Three: Seasons of Migration
It’s a mark of similarity and a peculiar irritation when you dislike in someone something you see in yourself. I loved my global upbringing but I knew it had unpleasant sides: when you adapt to a culture, you adapt to the bad things too. This had always proved true for me, through active attempts to fight it. In Japan I learned not to stand up for myself or others, even in the face of what I knew was wrong. After two years in Lebanon I automatically tried to guess the religion of everyone I met. Moscow taught me to walk away from strangers asking for directions.
By nature, I’m quite calm. I rarely argue, as I’m rarely incensed enough to care. So it was a frustrating testament to my compatibility with Altan that I was capable of getting angry with him after just a few days. And the first of such incidents was rather ironic, given his occasional Turkish pride.
I already had some idea of Altan’s impression of societies in the Middle East region, though I’d tried to put it out of mind. I had a hint of it when we met. When he asked me what the people in Istanbul were like, I said they were wonderful. “And did the men give you lots of trouble there?” he laughed. “I hear they like blondes.”
I’d fielded this countless times: this bombardment of negativity. It makes you so weary to leave a place you love so much, only to be reminded over and over of how negatively outsiders perceive it. So often their first questions weren’t about the friends I had made, the adventures I’d had, the lessons I’d learned. They wanted to know if it was bad. Then, through all that frustration and annoyance, I’d remember I was only getting it second-hand. I had Iranian and Palestinian friends in Germany who dreaded telling people where they were from. And though it’s fine to be curious about such things, it was rude and distasteful when a stranger went for it right off the bat. Isn’t there like, war there? Didn’t you feel oppressed as a woman? Don’t people hate you because you’re American? Did the men give you lots of trouble? I hear they like blondes.
On the fated evening we’d been equally charmed to find Efes, Turkey’s beloved cheap beer, and we’d been through a few when some path of thoughts brought us to the topic of religion and he asked if I knew whether the Quran says it’s a sin to be gay. I answered that with the Quran there’s some dispute but there are hadith that more clearly say yes. He asked me what a hadith was. I made a brief mental note that Altan clearly wasn’t raised with religion, explained that it’s the compendium to the Quran but not the word of God, and paid it little other thought.
He was after something, though. It became clear from the way he fished:
“But what do you think of Islam? I mean… you think it’s a good religion, right?”
His intonation, the question tag: I’d heard it before. Tepidly, I answered that as an outsider to all three, I didn’t have different feelings towards the main monotheistic religions and thought of them as much the same. They all struck me as equally silly and wise, I hadn’t spent much time evaluating their tenets but I’d never been interested in that anyway.
He then asked (as if it were rhetorical) why the Middle East was so much worse off than Europe if all monotheistic religions were created equal.
I inhaled slowly at the question’s implication, said I wasn’t an expert and didn’t have a short answer to that, but that the Middle East was politically messed up for a number of historical reasons, that for extremists, religion was just a tool for organizing feelings of discontent, and to assess the surface without reading into the past and assume you could ascribe the region’s conflicts to the predominant religion that just happened to be there was not only offensive, it was intellectually absurd.
“Okay,” he said in a voice that indicated he was not okay with that.
I think we both sensed we were approaching a minefield but when Altan got hold of something he couldn’t let it go. Soon, this returned moments later when he said the following:
“You’re really smart and I agree with some of what you’re saying.” Diplomatic pause. “But I think you’ve been brainwashed by the Muslims a bit.”
Tense seconds passed while I tried formulate my least explosive response to that.
“Well I think you’ve been brainwashed by the Europeans a bit.”
Altan, who had not known what a hadith was just minutes prior, then endeavored to teach me that it’s not discriminatory to weigh the inherent moral differences between the monotheistic religions. It’s not discrimination to acknowledge that Islam is fundamentally more sexist and violent (for example), and in fact not doing so would just be willing blindness in the name of wistful liberalism.
I held still and fumed silently while Altan continued to emanate everything I hate about Westerners. Naturally, his conclusion was that I may have been unable to see these realities, as I went to university in “a Muslim country” (a foreigner who casually calls Lebanon “a Muslim country” doesn’t know anything about Lebanon).
Offended and patronized, I snapped back that I was only willing to discuss the bias of my education if we were discussing his next, and how he’d grown up in the city that was until quite recently the capital of one of human history’s vilest empires, which systematically subjugated and mutilated a great deal of the Muslim world, is continuing to do so today and maybe that had affected what he’d been taught about Islam. He thought I was joking, which only made me angrier.
This is a particularly Western sort of arrogance: this presumed entitlement to analyze. Altan’s left-leaning parents had kept him away from religion. He’d never had curiosity for it himself and though he kept Turkey close to his heart, he cared little for the region at large. Even with Turkey, he treasured its art but its history, less so. Instead, he’d taken Western standards for granted, his part of the world implicitly set the norm and distance from Western thought was distance from objectivity: the fact that I’d been educated in “a Muslim country” made me less qualified to speak about Islam. Because it is an especially Western thing to just assume you’re endowed with some intrinsic enlightenment on the world’s most multifaceted religion shortly after asking the question, “What’s a hadith?”
The episode called to mind an encounter I’d had two years earlier in Lebanon, when I’d run into some American missionaries who’d lost their way while looking for my university. They took an interest in my existence, as an anglo-American who would choose to study history in Beirut.
“And where are your history professors from?” one of them asked.
“I have three history professors right now. One’s Lebanese, one’s Palestinian and one’s French.”
He considered this for a moment. “And do you feel that your Arab professors are biased?”
I was unsure of how to respond. Of course my Arab professors were biased: all humans are biased. But the notion that my Arab professors should be inherently less trustworthy academics than my French professor, and that I should have the authority to denounce their credibility, was racism pure and true. France and the U.S. were far from neutral in the history of the Middle East. As if only certain people could correctly assess the world. As if my education was only safe in certain hands.
But how much had Altan had to endure to? Constant flickers: even off-hand comments had the power to slice. They could slip from a British guy with 22-year-old bravado, just a few weeks after Altan and I had stopped speaking. “I don’t like London,” he said with a flick of his wrist. “It’s full of foreigners.”
It was a couple days after our Islam disagreement that Altan and I drunkenly fell into the supermarket by my apartment at 2 AM, to buy only condoms and more alcohol. The Moscow city government, for reasons we didn’t understand, was actually enforcing the ban on the sale of hard liquor after 11. I stumbled into myself by the beer, and regarded with slow confusion the roped off aisle, with the sign explaining it was too late to purchase these items.
“Why is this sign here?!” I asked the universe out loud. “Beer is less than 5%!”
Altan swung back around and sighed to catch me in such a pathetic state.
He shook his head, as if I were his child, and came to remove the rope. “Dakota, I can’t believe you don’t want to move this sign,” he said as he collected the beers. “You’re such a Westerner.”
Dakota is a teacher and writer currently somewhere in Europe. She has aTwitter <https://twitter.com/DakotaTweeting>