If You Thought Being Black Overseas Was Easy, Try Istanbul
You know the feeling. We all do. That uncomfortable, paranoid, hair-raising tingle when you just know someone is staring at you. We all have that spidey sense — and sometimes it feels not like curiosity but danger. It’s a feeling my wife and I have become familiar with recently.
We have been living in Istanbul, Turkey, for two months. A year before settling here, we visited the city and were instantly hooked. The food, culture, landscapes, and people are all amazing.
Istanbul’s locals are caring and hospitable to the point of comedy: Just stand outside of a metro station looking lost for a couple of minutes, and, like magic, someone will go out of their way to get you to that adorable coffee shop you read about in a travel blog. Even the nation’s thousands of stray cats and dogs are fat and happy. People stop to pet them, share their food, take them to the vet, and even build houses for them. It’s an endearing quality that can make anyone — or anything — feel welcome.
What I’m trying to say is, the people are great; Turkey is great. We love everyone! But sometimes we get that paranoid feeling you get when you’re being watched. By “sometimes” I mean every single day.
There’s a sharpness to the gaze here that surprised us. At first, it was irritating. After a couple of weeks, I started reciprocating the looks, glaring back at them out of anger. It had no effect, but I didn’t know what else to do. I just assumed people were sizing me up. Unfortunately, my face announces that I’m a lover, not a fighter. I had no way of telling them not to mess with me.
Why do they stare so hard? Are they aware of the faces they make while staring? Why don’t they look away when you stare back? Is it just because we are foreigners? Is there anything I can do?
To add to my frustration, I speak zero Turkish. Which means I can’t say “Hey, guy! My wife’s eyes are up here, so if you’re gonna stare, do it right.” I also can’t say, “Ma’am, we’re on this bus for at least another hour. Do you mind taking staring shifts? Like, what if you alternated with the old guy next to you?”
Why do people here stare? Why do they stare so hard? Are they aware of the faces they make while staring? Why don’t they look away when you stare back? Is it just because we are foreigners? Is there anything I can do? I asked those same questions of multiple friends who are fluent in both Turkish and Turkish eye language. The answers weren’t surprising: The people are just curious. They see foreigners and wonder what any local would — where did they come from? Why are they in Turkey?
Such questions are reasonable, but I still wanted to understand exactly why. Before I went out yelling at every Turkish person by staring back, I needed to see things from their perspective. My wife and I are Americans, but I know that the stares are due to us being an interracial couple. I’m Black, and she’s White.
Mixed couples aren’t uncommon in America and, for the most part, are widely accepted these days. But I remember the things people would say with their eyes in America. Some Black women would look at us with an expression that said, “If I see another Black man with a pretty white girl, I’m gonna scream!” Similarly, some White people would look at us and say with their eyes, “That young girl has no good sense at all.” Not every time, but sometimes.
But there’s a key difference between American eye language and Turkish eye language. Let’s say you’re at your favorite pizza place in the States and you get the feeling that someone is staring at you. You look up and spot the perpetrator; your eyes meet for a second or two. Then what happens nine times out of 10? They look away. They’re satisfied with the way you eat deep-dish or the last time you got a haircut or whatever. Who knows; either way, it’s all over.
But in Turkey, there’s no eyeball etiquette. When you feel someone undressing you with their eyes on the bus and you make eye contact, all they do is stare right back. To try to get used to this, I tried to consider what I might think if I were a Turkish person and saw a random Black and White couple in my country.
What would I think if I lived in a place far from Western people and culture, but almost every TV show or advertisement glorified or even imitated it? And on a random weekday, I see a Black guy and a blonde White girl together. Interesting. Are they French? Is he Muslim? Are they students? Oh wait, they just kissed. They’re like, together. How in the world did that happen? Her hair is so long, and her eyes are so blue, just like the movies. I tried to translate what all the eyes were saying to us so that I could better understand, with possible empathy.
When you’re a foreigner anywhere in the world, people will look at you. Most looks likely come from a kind place. But the looks of others can say things like, “This country is not for you; go back to where you came from. There are too many foreigners here; it’s not safe anymore.” It’s no different from what we hear on U.S. national news every day.
It’s not like foreigners are uncommon in Istanbul. Turkey is a huge melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Locals are simply fascinated by visitors and take in as much as they can when they see them. I needed to accept the fact that my wife and I stick out a bit more than others. I also learned that people in Turkey these days do not feel secure and are uncertain about what the next day could bring. This unease causes some to stare at unfamiliar faces out of fear and skepticism.
After living in Turkey for a while, I realize that the people here are not out to get us. It would break the Turkish code of hospitality and kindness. Now, I move through the Istanbul streets with confidence. On the bus, when I see people saying with their eyes, “What do we have here?” I look right back at them and say with my eyes, “Yes, I’m not from here as you’ve surmised. This is my wife. We are different from you, but that’s okay.” When men shout sweet nothings at my wife with their eyes, I simply stare, “I know you don’t see many women like her in person. As long as you keep your hands to yourself, we’re cool.” What else can you do? When you’re a guest in someone else’s country, you learn the rules and play by them.
The eyes of Istanbul say a lot. It was up to me to listen closely and try to understand where they were coming from. Only then could I truly respond — with my eyes.