Grand Bizarre # 5
Return to the Ivory Tower
by J.A. McCarroll
December 13: 7 45 P.M.
In a stunning deviation from my original plan for this evening of hunkering down and ordering chinese food from the internet without talking to anyone, I?m in a fancy hotel in Çengelköy overlooking the Bosporus and the twinkling lights of the bridge. This is not a romantic occasion, sadly; I am surrounded by a room full of wealthy graduates and current academics from an elite technical university in the US. In an effort to be polite I?ll refrain from telling the name of the university, but I think I can mention that the young men who attend it are famous for being somewhat higher up on the autism scale than those of pretty much anywhere in the world but a hybrid model train and Japanese animation convention. As for the young women who attend the unnamed school, they are, as far as I can tell, largely theoretical. This could be why my girlfriend?s women-only university have been invited, in an effort to restore the gender balance dynamics. Unfortunately, she seems to be the only one who decided to attend, which makes me even more redundant and unnecessary. Since no one seems interested in talking to me, I keep my notebook out and try to look moody, which is largely helped by how hungry and sore I am from going to the gym. From my preliminary investigation of the room, it?s likely that I am the only person here who has that problem, but then again, I don?t have paper cuts on my thumbs from counting money, so it?s all even.
December 13: 7 47 P.M.
?Şarap lütfen,? I ask the waiter, one of the three who has been assigned to this party and who clearly doesn?t believe I belong. This is reasonable: I?m around twenty years younger than the next youngest man in the room, and I seem to have completely misinterpreted ?casual? dress code. Apparently it does not mean ?casual? per se, as in ?no worries bro,? but rather suggests that ties are optional or that gentlemen may wear blue shirts under their sports coats, many of which, as can be expected, have leather elbow pads attached. I?m not sure what it is about the academic lifestyle that wreaks such havoc on the elbows of ugly jackets, but I?m glad they decided to put fashion aside and reinforce the hell out of the area.
After about three seconds of mistrusting eye contact, the hands me a glass of red wine. Just in time too; the man next to me ends a long and rambling story with, ?well, you know what they say, Publish or Perish.?
?Or?? says his companion, ? these days, it?s more like Publish and Perish!? I take a large swig of my complementary wine. Thank god I didn?t eat dinner; I need to get drunk as fast as possible.
December 13: 8 18 P.M.
How should (university throwing the party) position itself to better compete against (other famous American university known for elaborate hazing rituals and producing presidential candidates)? This seems to be the question of the speech that is nearing its 18 minute mark and still going strong. My own personal opinion is a resounding ?who cares,? but I?ve been out of academia for a few years now, and it?s clear I?ve lost my edge.
In contrast to me, the rest of the room is reacting quite vigorously to the speaker. There have been several probing questions asked, tons of engaged body language, and several shocked outbursts. Through these signs, I can begin to recognize that the room is in the midst of a very serious debate, one that concerns them all greatly. The tension is killing me and has led me to consume three glasses of free wine, just so I?d have something to do with my hands. The waiters have made it clear through glares and pointedly ignoring me that I will not be offered a fourth, so I?m currently methodically eating carrot sticks, which makes me look busy, but also vaguely slow on the uptake.
I hope tomorrow is a bit more interesting, I think, leaning against the wall and counting elbow patches, goatees, and the minutes left until the last ferry leaves or they bring out dessert.
December 14: 1 35 P.M.
?This isn?t Fatih anymore, is it?? I ask the three very smart women in the back of the car after about an hour and a half of travel. Two of them, neither of whom know me well, laugh as if I were joking, which prompts me to laugh along. The other, who does know me, gently corrects my assumption; it seems that Fatih University is not, technically, in Fatih, and that I am the last person in this car to understand this fact. In place of the Fatih neighborhood, our chauffeur seems to be taking us on a tour of Istanbul?s more Thracian districts in the general direction of Edirne.
The four of us are representatives of Canimiz Sokakta / Hollaback! Istanbul , an anti-street harassment organization. The three of them will be speaking on their experiences in the city on an anti-harassment panel, while I will be taking photos for the website and taking notes for this very column. I am fairly certain they have not read any of my previous work.
December 14: 1 06 P.M.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by three extremely kind girls, the student leadership of Fatih University?s psychology club. As they are hosting us, their first responsibility is to ensure that we do not get lost. Sadly, through no fault of their own, they have failed in this task. I am lost, having decided that it would be inappropriate, given the conference?s anti-harassment themes, to ask one of the women to accompany me to the restroom.
December 14: 1 10 P.M.
?I got lost,? I inform everyone, just so they know why I was gone so long, ?sorry.? No one really seems to care, but I didn?t want things to get awkward. I?m also slightly concerned I might be in trouble for having walked into a faculty bathroom, so it?s best to let everyone know that I was confused and not doing anything untoward.
?I?m so sorry,? says one of our hosts, who insists on buying me a tea and tries very hard to get me some biscuits as well. After a few moments, the whole lot of us are summoned to the psychology classroom, which is one of the strangest buildings I?ve seen in Turkey. It resembles nothing so much as an open air mall and seems to be populated mainly by headscarf-wearing girls and very earnest young men, most of whom are playing pingpong on one of the many tables in the building?s central atrium. Next to the bookstore is a hairdresser, which sort of makes sense, and a butcher, which totally doesn?t, but I don?t want to ask any more stupid questions.
December 14: 2 48 P.M.
To my left, I see one of the panelists, a transgender student and ardent feminist, surrounded by probably 38 percent of the entirely female audience, many of whom have stayed after the panel discussion. Despite the tight rugby scrum they?ve cornered the panelist in, they seem polite and terribly inquisitive, clearly determined to mine as much knowledge as they can.
Behind me, a young woman confidently discusses publicizing the Canimiz Sokakta campaign, touring with the band she manages, and nomadic Iranian society, pretty much simultaneously, and to her credit, it all sort of does make sense, at least at the moment. The room is jazzed up and excited, and I have to admit that the atmosphere is catching. While the elite US academics had wine, a better view, and crudites to die for, this scene looks a lot more like academic progress to me even with the suspicious lack of elbow pads.
Note: Canimiz Sokakta is the Istanbul Branch of Hollaback! International, an American Non-Governmental Organization that uses social media and the internet to combat street harassment the world over. Their website is Istanbul-en.Ihollaback.org for the English page, and Istanbul.Ihollaback.org for the Turkish Page.