Sympathy From Strangers
Like everyone else in my generation, I remember exactly where and how I found out about the tragedy on September 11, 2001. But September 11, 2002 has also remained a clear memory for me.
“Where are you from?” He pronounced each word slowly and deliberately but without any threat and his large friendly eyebrows rose higher with each syllable.
He did not know how complicated this question is for me to answer. That I was born in one country but had spent most of my life in other countries and that this was my new unknown home but also another country I would never be from. That this was one of my first ventures outside of our bare new apartment to try to get to know my new city of residence.
“I am from America,” I said very softly hoping none of the brightly-scarved shoppers nearby would overhear. I quickly picked up another pair of jeans to inspect so I would not look even more out of place on the busy pedestrian-only shopping street.
“Oh. America.” His large mournful eyes stayed fixed on mine as he slowly and deliberately shook his head back and forth three times. “I am very, very sorry for what happen your country. It. Is. Terr-i-ble. Worst thing.”
I looked up at him surprised as I set the jeans back down. This response was so unexpected that it took me a moment to even register what he was referring to. Apparently in my jet-lagged-mind-fuzziness I had forgotten that today was September 11, 2002.
“Thank you. It is very sad,” I said not sure how else to answer in very simple English and shook my head in rhythm with his. I hoped he knew how much I appreciated his sentiment. Of course he could not know that my family had also been personally affected by the tragedy – that my mother had lost a cousin that fateful morning.
“How long you here Türkiye?” he asked.
Was he asking how long I had been here? Or how long I would be here? I was still trying to program my brain to quickly interpret English from a Turkish accent and grammar. I hoped he knew that I was answering slowly not because I did not appreciate his kindness but because it takes me time to acclimate to new accents just like it takes me time to acclimate to the new sounds and smells of a place. The salty, crisp air of Istanbul usually mixed with smells of tea and bread and sometimes sugar had been immediately appealing and welcoming to me. The sounds of honking buses, yelling mothers, barking foodcart men, and early morning calls to prayer – less so. It was going to take me time to learn to appreciate those sounds as well – sounds that I would eventually miss and be homesick for. But neither the kind jeans seller nor I knew that yet.
“I arrived seven days ago,” I finally answered wondering if he knew the word “arrive”.
“Ooooh. Seven days!” His scruffy handsome face opened up into a huge smile and he reached for my right hand with both of his large hands and shook it vigorously. “Hoşgeldiniz! Welcome!”
“Thank you!” I said much more warmly this time and smiled back. The noisy background already seemed a little less threatening.
Then his face fell again and he paused obviously searching for words. I wished I knew enough Turkish so that he would not have to struggle in a second language to find the words that were obviously so important to him. But he found the tricky English words on his own anyway.
“Türkiye is good. Türkiye people is good. We good Muslim. They is BAD people.” He waved his hand somehow both emphatically and dismissively. I knew he was trying to explain that he did not condone the actions of those young men on that day exactly one year before. Still at a loss for words, I just nodded and matched mournful eyes with his.
He did not know that I was unafraid of Islam. That I had already lived in a Muslim country where I had been treated like a cousin, daughter, friend. That my Muslim friends had fed me warm rice pilafs, and taught me how to roll out flat bread, and invited me to their weddings and bridal showers where we danced until our feet hurt. He also did not know that even with my warm and amiable experiences in the past, I was a little worried how that history-shaping day was already changing my world and my friendships. I was aware that all over the globe, subtle shifts and fractures were already forming. I was afraid these divisions might mean that I would lose some of those relationships and invitations. I wondered if they would even want an American girl dancing on their wedding floors anymore. I must have still looked unsure because he reiterated,
“Türkiye is good. Türkiye people is good.” Then his smile and arms spread even wider as he said a little too loudly, “I LOOOVE America people.”
It was the kind of kindness that makes you smile through teary eyes.
“Thank you,” I said and meant it even more than the first two times. Neither of us knew what foreign policies were being written up in both of our governments’ capitols. Neither of us knew what public statements our presidents might make. But right here and right now, we knew that we would not let the bad guys win. We knew that we could be kind and receptive and welcoming to someone who does not speak the same language or practice the same religion.
He closed his eyes and nodded knowingly. Then opened them wide, clapped both hands together, and pointed to the pile of denim in front of him and asked, “What size? Medium? Large? X-large?”
And I laughed. Grateful for the moment of connection and grateful that ordinary life continues even while the world changes.