I’m in Istanbul to see my company’s International Sales Director. I’ve met him before. I don’t like him. He has one of those flapping tongues; a little red kite in a storm of bullshit. I’ll meet him in the morning.
I decide to take a stroll down Istiklal Avenue. It is half under construction, littered with heavy machinery huddled around piles of torn-up concrete. I find a bar with outdoor seating. Just one beer, then back to the hotel. The night is hot and the heat is clingy. A man stops. If Frosty the Snowman were made of sand, he’d look a lot like this man. “Do you have a lighter?” he asks.
I nod, holding it out to him.
“Where are you from?”
“America,” I tell him.
“Oh?” he motions to the seat across from me. I nod my approval and he sits down. He smiles. His head is tanned, more stubble than skin.
“What are you doing here in Istanbul?”
I shrug, “just here for two days on business.”
“Me too–well, just the one, have to head to Dubai tomorrow.”
Dubai is nice, I think.
“Dubai is nice,” I tell him.
“It is a jewel,” he nods, “A jewel hidden deep in the world’s most expensive turd.”
I laugh. He orders a beer. He points to my empty glass. I shrug. He orders another beer, Effes.
“How old are you?” he asks, “If you don’t mind me asking?” he asks.
“Not at all, twenty-eight.”
His dark eyes go a little wide. “You look younger.”
“It’s the hair,” I tell him. I’ve been needing a haircut.
He smiles, “I thought you were Turkish with all that hair. What about me, how old do you think I am?”
“Mid-thirties,” I say, politely. He chuckles.
“Thank you–no, no forty-two.” He pats his belly, “Won’t be looking much younger if I keep it up with this beer.”
I laugh. “I suppose not.”
He picks another cigarette out of his pack, I do the same. He frowns at my pack and flips it over.
“Ek, I hate that name!” he spits.
I frown at my pack, “Camel?”
“Yes. I hate it.” He glares at the pack. He leans back and smokes his Marlboro. “Do you want to know why?” he asks.
He leans in. “Well, when I was a kid I grew up in a small village– I was the biggest boy. You know there were many children, but I was the biggest. So, all of the other kids would follow me. They’d follow me and my grandfather would call after me and say, look at the camel, carrying all the little ones, bad camel–you will lead them to trouble.”
I laugh, “And did you?”
He smiles, “Often, often I would go to the river with my friends, to jump–you know, and my brother he was small and he would always follow. I told him if he follows, I will drown him in the river. So, he went and told my grandfather. My grandfather calls me over, “Bad Camel,” he’d say, and he’d beat me. And so I’d beat my brother, but still, he always followed. He just couldn’t help himself. Too curious!” The man ends on a laugh.
I find myself laughing, too. It was a good story and he has the kind of laugh that’s easy to catch. We catch our breath.
“Watch it,” he smiles.
“Okay, okay. so what do you do?”
He smiles, “I work for a big furniture company, selling in bulk to hotels and the like–lots of business in Russia and Dubai and Germany.”
“Oh? I worked out of Russia for a while.”
“Do you speak Russian?” he asks, in Russian.
“A little,” I tell him.
He smirks, “Russian women are very beautiful,” he says in Russian. Then, switching to English he adds, “My wife is Russian.”
I smile, “Oh, very nice, mine too.”
He high fives me.
“Oh boy,” he smiles. “You know, would you like to go somewhere else? I have this night free–I mean, I love my family, but I really am happy to have a night away, no work, no kids, should we have fun?”
I finish my beer and shrug. “My meeting is in the afternoon so I’ll have one more with you at least,” I tell him, feeling good.
He claps his hands together, “Great. Here, let me.”
Camel leads me to a door, stairs; women are dancing on poles in the dirty-blue light. Their clothes are on, at least. We sit in a booth. I frown around. The tables are stocked with older Turkish men fondling eastern European looking teenagers. Men in white dress shirts roam about, one approaches us. I frown at Camel.
“This isn’t really my kind of place,” I tell him.
He nods. “Whiskey or Vodka?”
“Look, I only have fifty lira.”
He turns to the waiter, a thick-set Turk in a white dress shirt.
“Two whiskey,” he tells the man.
“I’m sorry?” Camel asks, turning
I lean closer. “I only have fifty lira!” I call. As I do, the table is laid out with all manner of food. There are cucumbers and peanuts and olives. Two pale glasses of whiskey are set in front of us each.
Camel smiles. “It is okay, I have a card,” he tells me.
“Well is it at your hotel?”
“I don’t have much money.”
“We can go get it at your hotel.”
I frown, feeling a bit sick in my stomach.
“No, I just came for one drink. I will drink this with you and I’ll pay for whatever it costs and go, okay?”
Camel looks disappointed but he shrugs, “Okay.” He sits there tapping a finger along the rim of his glass. Then, he looks at his phone.
“Hold on!” he calls. He gets up and walks back up the stairs, out.
I look around, one of the girls makes eye contact with me, one of the men in white shirts grabs her hard around the arm. He points at me. As she gets closer, I shake my head. She turns and looks at the man in white, he looks at me, then points her to a different table.
I look around the room. More large men in white dress shirts are walking around, serving no one. At the door, the biggest of them waits, watching me.
“Fuck,” I whisper into my glass of whiskey. I stand up and sigh. I go to the waiter.
“How much do I owe you?” I ask.
He looks at the table of untouched food and drink. He nods.
“Your friend left?”
I nod, “Your friend left,” I tell him. He chuckles, “okay, okay.”
He takes out a sheet of paper and starts writing a whole lot of Turkish. In the end, he circles a number. 1,200 Lira.
I pull the fifty lira from my pocket.
“Look, I have fifty Lira. I told your friend, and he left. I have no card, so, that’s all I have.” I shrug.
The waiter nods, he calls over a bigger man. He is wearing a black shirt. The waiter tells him something in Turkish. The big man frowns, they exchange a look. I smile, awkward.
“I’m sorry–I,” I hold up my hands, “I did tell him.”
The big man takes up my fifty, pockets it. He nods.
The street outside is empty of familiar faces. I pick up a bottle of water at a small shop, handing over my credit card. Back on the street, I light up a Camel and start heading back to my hotel. I walk onto Istiklal, kicking up a little dirt. The street is filled with laughter.
It feels as though God has just told some joke and I’m the only one in the room too dumb to get it.
Halfway to my hotel, I catch something out of the corner of my eye. It is Camel, he is leaning in close to a young English looking guy, getting his cigarette lit. I start toward him then stop. I duck into an alley. The pair begin to walk, I follow.
The streets are crowded with meat, but even through it, I can see camel pat his belly and laugh.
He is high fiving this English guy like some old friend. I feel jealous–sick. They turn. I round the bend just in time to see their backs disappear into the club I’d just left.
I stop and stand there. I notice a few men in white dress shirts mulling about outside. I walk past, cross the street. I stand and wait. A few minutes later I see two more men in white shirts come out of the club carrying a third man. They toss him into the dirt. I can see the stubble, the belly, and there is blood. Camel crawls to his feet and turns as though he might say something to the men. Instead, he walks off, out the other end of the street.
I step out, meaning to follow, then realize the men in white have all turned, one is pointing. I look to my left. A man, homeless, is staring up at me. He looks scared.
I frown and look back to the club. There is another man now, that makes five. Someone tugs at my shorts. I step away and look down. The homeless man is looking up at me.
“No,” is all he says. His voice, cracked. My fingers feel cold, despite the heat.
I look back. The men in white are starting to walk towards me.
“Shit,” I say. I start walking, fast. As I go I turn and see that all but one have gone back to the club’s entrance.
After a minute I stop near a police van, I light a cigarette. The man in white passes me by, casual. I start walking, slowly. The man stops. I slip down an alley before he turns. It is riddled with bars, live music, a crowd of hot sticky meat. I make my way through to the end, a bare street. I look toward my hotel, but instead, I turn.
I stop. The English man isn’t with him. I smile.
I see his eyes–they aren’t laughing. His face is bloodied. I look at his hand.
“Bad Camel,” was all I had time to say.