A Tourist Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest


The decision to travel to Turkey for vacation raised a few eyebrows, not that it was the craziest idea, just that timing seemed to be a little off. However, on the morning of Sept 2nd, I found myself breathing in the soft glow of Istanbul perched from the rooftop terrace of the small apartment I rented in Beyoğlu, I came to the conclusion that there was no where else I would rather be.

Istanbul rivals London in cosmopolitanism, Paris in aesthetics, and Rome in history, but has little of the smugness. A nonconformist at heart, the city seems to revel in foreigners. Perhaps it’s an appreciation for the tourist economy, especially at this time; or perhaps it’s being the intersection to three of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, homogeneity was never in its DNA.

The Tinder date

On my second day, I wanted Shisha and some local company. Naturally, I went on Tinder and matched with an art student from Istanbul University. We struck up a benign conversation and covered basic information about one another, then he asked me where I was staying, I told him around Galata, he said, “Oh nice, it’s a good place to bomb.”

In America, I probably would’ve considered calling the police. But this is Istanbul, a city that has seen three bombings in 2016 and a clumsy military coup in July. The aftershock doesn’t boast the visual artifacts of blasted buildings or an exaggerated policing presence, the Turks clean up too well. It comes in the form of cracks and shifts in the foundation of people’s habits and state of mind.

An Italian I met in Morocco who smoked hashish for breakfast once said to me — to not live in fear isn’t the same as to live in absence of fear. Istanbul felt confident, functional, the façade was a vivacious metropolis convulsing with the sort of duplicitous energy you expect from a geography that allows you to go from Europe to Asia in 20 min on a ferry ride. But even with a cursory peak underneath, you start noticing that things weren’t quite the same.

Metro stops were eerily empty during the morning rush hour when I went to Hagia Sophia, pubic transit is now avoided as a precautionary measure. The enumerable bars and restaurants around Istiklal bore empty tables and chairs before midnight, people don’t stay out late anymore and tourists have been scared off. In an uncharacteristically empty Grand Bazaar, a merchant struck up a semi-desperate conversation to persuade me to purchase a pair of knockoff Ray-Bans, he asked me what I was doing in Turkey, I told him vacation, he said “Oh, you are a brave girl.”

So I excused the art student, because dark times call for dark humor. The real danger comes when people can no longer joke anymore.

The Film Maker

A colleague insisted that I should meet a friend of hers, SR, an American expat living in Istanbul who’s an aspiring film maker.

And so we did, and we hit it off immediately.

SR has a naturally gregarious personality too big for walls or insecurities. She immediately opened up about her life in a way that would have taken a Canadian years to do— like how her ex, a kurdish journalist, just got out of prison for his alleged involvement with the PKK after the original accusation of him being part of ISIS was dropped due to the sheer absurdity of a Kurd actually being ISIS.

Not a breakup story you hear everyday.

She told her stories with exuberance, a self possessed confidence of appraisal that she, was interesting. A Dartmouth graduate, she learned Turkish upon observing that all the graduates who had meaningful employment after graduation possessed fluency in some Asiatic language; as if that really explained how Turkish got prioritized. During her employment as a researcher at Harvard, she became interested in film making and somehow wrangled an art grant from the school and moved to Istanbul to pursue her first production. A character of incredible resourcefulness and determination, she wrote her first script, found a producer from LA, scoured the ends of the world for the actors she needed, like a black Russian who spoke Turkish (yeah good luck), and somehow pulled everything together to make a short film that’s now in festival circulation.

SR has been living in Istanbul for three years and spoke the language without much of an accent.

“This was the world’s greatest city, you used to be able to find artists and musicians and entrepreneurs and writers from all over the world here. You can find anything you wanted. But now everyone’s left.” She lamented. She looked around, “This place used to be packed until 4 in the morning. Everyone would be out walking around and partying, now it’s empty.”

At dinner, she chatted gleefully with our waiter and conspired to make me try turnip juice, which tasted like regurgitated piss by the way. We morned over our broken love lives, amused over our mutual friend’s quirkiness, and at the end of the night, she invited me to her house warming party that Saturday.

The Party

SR shared an apartment with a half Turkish half American law student who was interning with the U.N. I arrived at their charming abode on a cobblestone street nestled between cafés and boutiques, it felt like the Turkish version of Le Marais.

The party was attended by a few dozen well dressed, young and worldly types, artsy, brimming with the subdued glamour of a cultivated society. The first thing I noticed was the number of languages being spoken in the room — English, Turkish, Arabic, German, Russian. I got to be the token Asian, a rare occasion I relished. A self-serve table of libations beckoned the gathering of the different species like a watering hole in the Serengeti. Soon, I became acquainted with half of the guests.

I met a Syrian hipster, if there was ever such a thing, after we both went for the same wine. He brought with him a French Bulldog named Habibi, a term of endearment in Arabic like baby for brother, boyfriend, friend etc. When he first introduced himself, he said, “Hi my name is X, I’m a Syrian refugee and this is my therapy dog.”

I had no idea how to respond.

Someone later told me he was contracting with a few media outlets in the U.S as a Middle East “specialist” and because of that, he was just granted asylum in the U.S.

From a small sample size, I gathered that everyone was trying to get out in whichever way possible except for the expats. They chose to stay. I asked a freelance journalist from South Africa if she was scared, she told me when the F16s flew over her house on the day of the coup, her and her boyfriend put their mattress against the window and hid in the bathroom, they weren’t sure if the loud booms were from the plane or from bombs. “Why don’t you just leave?” I asked. “I don’t know.” She said, “It’s not that bad now.”

X came with a photojournalist from Time magazine, an American who spent the last 10 years in Lebanon covering the Iraq war. He married a Lebanese woman and now has a family in Beirut. After a few drinks, he became sullen and brooding.

“The 4th amendment is a fucking joke.” He rambled. “If you live here you are as good as a terrorist to people back home. Every time I go back the boarder guards try to confiscate my shit and I work for the fucking Time magazine. I have to get the lawyers involved every time. It’s bullshit.”

I asked why.

“They think everyone’s spying for ISIS these days. Things got a lot worse after the Arab spring.”

The post-party party

After everyone left the party, a Syrian refugee, an American photojournalist, a Turk who works for NATO, and myself, a Chinese Canadian tourist, all staggered half drunkenly to a bar in the trendy neighborhood of Cihangir. The other three seemed to know each other well and conversation was lively, part in English, part in Arabic between the Syrian and the American. Half way up a hill, Habibi took a shit on the beautiful cobblestone street. X glanced at the steaming mound with a moment of indecisiveness then continued walking. The Turk got upset and yelled “What is it with you fucking Jihadists, never cleaning up after your own shit.”

Impolitic humor, the spoils of wars. We all laughed, I uncomfortably.

Arriving in Jordan

After a week in Istanbul, I decided to hop over to Jordan to cross a few things off of my bucket list. At Queen Alia Airport, The custom officer took my Canadian passport and looked at my name, a Chinese transliteration. Like most Jordanians I meet, his first question was “where are you from?” I said I’m Chinese. He smiled, “Ah, I have many friends from China, nice people, welcome!” He waved me through and the whole process including the line took no more than five minutes.

My hostel arranged an airport pickup for me. When I exited the gates, I saw a man holding up a sign with my name. I felt special. He took my bag and led me to his perfectly clean and air conditioned Toyota, then asked “would you like to use wifi in the car? I can turn on the router for you.”

I thought this was the greatest country ever.

Airport security

A few days after, I ran into two French nationals in Petra of Arabic descent, one from Morocco and the other from Algeria, both born and bred in France and coy when speaking Arabic. They related to me a much different experience at the airport.

Upon arriving, they were pulled aside into separate rooms for questioning, their bags were thoroughly searched, and they were asked the same questions repeatedly for holes in consistency. They landed at 2am in the morning, by the time they got through it was daybreak. I was a bit surprised at this rigor in a Muslim country, seemed somewhat counterintuitive. They told me a lot of recruits had travelled through Jordan to Syria to join ISIL so security is extremely tight if they sense there is a chance you are one of “them”.

I can’t blame airport security.

Being Muslim

The french nationals and I had dinner together on my last night in Petra. We gushed about the staggering beauty of Petra like 16 year old girls swooning over the latest boyband. We smoked Shisha and traded notes on where to go next. Towards the end of the night, conversation took on a more somber tone. They were frank about life becoming harder and more isolating in France for Muslims. One considered moving. I suggested Montréal, he shivered and said “But it’s so cold.” I sensed a slight indignation in his voice, for him it was a false choice. A waiter came by to give us our bill, they exchanged a few lines in Arabic and laughed together at something before the waiter walked away. The French Moroccan sighed, “It feels so good to be here.” I could feel his relief.

He paid for my dinner without asking me, when I offered to pay him back, he said “No please, it’s my pleasure. It’s nice to finally meet a friendly face.”

My heart swelled a little.

Political tourism

The region’s instability is costing Jordan its tourism industry. If you are a tourist, you are the shrinking freshwater pond in the middle of the Arabian desert and everyone wants a piece of you. In this sliver of arid land wedged between Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Jordan tries hard to stay buoyant above all the regional conflicts. Their Tourism Minister wants to assure you that Jordan is like the Switzerland of the Middle East — it’s safe, it’s moderate. Growing increasingly desperate, Jordanians are going to greater lengths to secure tourist business and to ring every Dinar they can out of you.

My driver to the Dead Sea was a veteran who actually fought in the Six-Day War back in 1967. He pitched to me that he could take me within a meter of the Northern Palestinian and Israeli boarder. “You can see ISIS and their flag and you can see the Israeli military. You can take pictures, it’s safe with me, no problem.” He said. I didn’t respond which he mistook for fear rather than distaste. “Don’t be afraid. Many tourists ask me, they love it.” He assured me.

I remembered meeting a couple of girls who just came from traveling in Palestine and repeated to me the platitudes of ‘Oh, people there are so nice’ as the privileged often say to level themselves with the less fortunate and misunderstood.

Another driver asked me if I wanted to visit the Syrian refugee camps. I had no idea you could just visit the camps. “Yeah, of course, I take many people there.” He told me with pride. “You can take some pictures and talk to them, maybe give them some money, it helps. You know the children really like it if you give them sweets.”

One can argue that voyeurism is just a form of curiosity, necessary even for someone to step into another culture, so foreign, so comfortless, to see and understand what it’s like. I’m still negotiating where the line should be drawn.

Eid Mubarak

This year, The week long celebration of Eid al-Adha fell nervously close to 9/11. To everyone’s relief, Saudi declared 9/12.

I was in Aqaba and spent the day walking around the southern shorelines of the Red Sea. The water was a stunning sapphire blue chiseled from an otherwise monochrome landscape painted with one large brushstroke of sand. It was unbearably hot, yet the beaches were teaming with families and large groups of friends, mostly male, out to celebrate Eid. Snapshot — children kicking soccer balls at unsuspecting crowds, men jostling around cat calling at foreign girls, and women (mostly in burkinis) yelling with mouth and hands deriding both. For some brief moments, I thought this and home could almost be commutative. They are not.

When I hailed a taxi to go back to the hotel, the driver doubled the price I paid earlier. I called him out on price gouging and he said “Lady, it’s Eid, I want to be home but I have to work because the I have to feed my children and pay everything else to taxes. Little money, but high taxes. No tourist, still taxes. Inshallah!”

I paid, like a tourist.

The American Vet

Back in Amman on my last day in Jordan, I was feverishly banging away on my phone at breakfast when an older gentleman sat down across from me and said hello. I looked up and was surprised to see someone of his age in this hostel full of precocious millennials, he looked about 70. I put away my phone and struck up a conversation. Soon, I learnt he was a Texan on vacation with his wife in Europe, she decided to go on a cruise so he decided to use that time to take a trip to the Middle East by himself.

Happy marriage I’m sure.

He came on a tour of the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo with me and it became clear that he had a keen interest in the history of this region. With a charming Texan drawl, he conversed effortlessly with our driver about the Six-Day War, about Egypt’s power over Jordan, about Israel’s settlement plans in the region.

At dinner time, I offered to take him to Hashim, a-hole-in-the-wall falafel house that is an institution in Amman. Story goes King Adhulla and Queen Rania go there to eat once a month.

During dinner, he told me to my surprise he had fought in Vietnam and more recently in 2009, did a tour in Iraq as a helicopter pilot. He neither possessed the cynicism nor the self grandeur I expected of a war vet, granted I’ve only met a couple in my life.

“I’m a devout Christian.” He told me. “My wife used to run Bible studies in our little town and I used to invite Muslims I know over so everyone could talk to each other.”

The scene in my head was almost comedic.

“People are terrified of Muslims where I’m from, you can’t change their minds. People have made up their mind already so there isn’t much you can do. You can only try to give them exposure and see if that develops into anything. It took my wife about 7 years to come around.”

I asked him what made him different? He shared the same background, same upbringing as the people he talked about, what allowed him to look beyond the myopic lens of xenophobia?

“I traveled a lot” He said very simply.

We had called him David all day. When I left, he sent me an email saying goodbye with the name Ted. He said it was just a name, David worked as well as Ted.


In the ruins of Gadara at Umm Quais, Arabiouss’ grave stone had this inscription:

Whoever is passing through her, the way you are now I was, The way I am now you shall be, enjoy life because you are gone.

As I look upon the banal driveways of suburban Ottawa a mare 20 hours after leaving Jordan, the ephemeral beauty of travel strikes me as both romantic and nauseating. It’s not only the body that’s jet lagged, emotionally and cognitively, there’s a gap you can’t close.

I stare at the sun taking comfort in the fact that at least, it’s still the same sun.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I think — I don’t want to be a tourist anymore.