It is a glorious summer morning in Istanbul; colours of the sky resemble a messy oil painting; both resplendent and melancholic in one go. After roaming around the ancient Roman road in Sultanahmet, Divanyalo Caddessi, searching for a cheap but tasty joint to have breakfast, I find myself standing outside a quaint pastry and fresh juice café observing a young man set freshly baked cheese pastry on a plate.
Sitting down and planning the day in a café that lies adjacent to the ancient Constantinople-Rome road, seemed a rather fair, albeit admittedly ostentatious thing to do.
Istanbul, touted for centuries as “the city” of cities, the grand juncture between East & West takes splendour to the spectacular; it is difficult to imagine a more extravagant ancient city.
I share a table with a well built, slightly tanned man in what appears his early fifties. He sports a moustache, shoulder length curly black and grey hair and is dressed in a dark blue NYPD t-shirt.
Except for the seemingly inconsistent t-shirt, he was really the Turkish version of He-Man, Rambo or even Hulk-Hogan; the WWE version of Atatürk.
Sure, both Rambo and He-Man never sported moustaches and Hulk-Hogan was blonde even when he turned grey, but you get the picture.
“I am from South Africa,” I introduce myself to him, easing into my seat.
“Oh! You’re a long way from home!” he replies with a strong American accent that suddenly seems to make sonorous the bodacious letters across his chest.
I agree since Durban is, well, some distance from Istanbul.
He takes a bite of his delicious looking pastry, nonchalantly glances at me and asks how South Africa was doing since “the Blacks took over”.
“They have fucked it up haven’t they?” he says with a straight face.
I almost choke on the ice-cold coke streaming down my throat.
No exchanging of names, no discussion of what we did outside pastry cafes, no shared vision on the long legs of the passing dame; no ice-breaker -this guy went straight for the jugular.
“They are all a bunch of monkeys,” he adds as he laps up another bite of his pastry.
I try not to react, but my face creases and my eyes squint unceremoniously as I try to literally stomach the comment.
“I see you don’t like what I say”, he says nonchalantly, crowding the meagre morsels with his bulky sinews.
I feel rage creep up my oesophagus and I vow never to sit next to a stranger and gulp ice cold coke on an empty stomach again.
A waiter comes over and delivers my simmering spinach and feta pastry.
“Look”, I attempt finally at He-Man sitting across me, “our new government has done some really childish things and things aren’t rosy, yes. But it is not as if they inherited a country in good shape you know”.
“But the country is not the same as it used to be; these niggers can’t do anything right”, he retorts.
The vulgarity of this bloke unashamed to throw racist expletives at a stranger with his mouth full; what did his mother teach him anyway?
As I pull out my bread knife to slice the pastry into little cubes, I see it morph into a silver plated machete; this could only mean war.
It was easy to remind a fellow South African back home that his/her racism was unwelcome; I could even throw the first punch and be touted a hero for fighting the cause.
But I don’t remember agreeing to face up to Master of the Universe. Certainly not in Istanbul at least. This was not on the memo.
I felt the trepidation knot itself around the ribs of my chest; seriously now, was this really the moment for that fight?
I decide to take a bite of my pastry to mull over my situation.
The cheese spreads slowly in my mouth, sending love to all parts of the solar system. For split seconds my bitter disposition is forgotten, then returned even drier.
Why couldn’t he have said that Cleopatra was a man or that Gandhi was really a homosexual Moslem or that Osama bin Laden was a recovering nymphomaniac.
That would’ve at least been a little entertaining.
This was just not funny; not in this century at least.
I could try address the racism and he would probably break my knee-caps and dunk me into the Bosphorus or I could be more productive and focus on correcting his misconstrued sense of history.
But how do I get him to reconsider his racist views; to deter him from equating poor governance with “blacks” without me tangibly addressing his racist remarks?
This guy obviously got a hard-on from his racist talk, and I refuse to consummate his racist sentiment by acknowledging it.
At the same time I really did not want to be overtly defensive about the South African government whom I had limited faith in myself, but for different reasons.
So while I might think our politicians were a bunch of wankers, this is only because it has yet to be proven otherwise. They remain a species of their own, a worldwide phenomenon.
Life is about timing and this was not the time to sound like a brownish-pink-faced liberal defending the natives, I decide.
“I don’t know what you know about South Africa”, I begin, “but it was not one country before 1994. With the dawn of our democracy, two totally different, unequal worlds became one complicated country” I argue.
“Also”, I continue politely, “the idea that South Africa was some thriving country before the new government took over is just wrong”
“But they have taken a beautiful country and messed it up!” he presses on.
I shake my head determined to chew my food slowly just how my mother taught me.
“If you really want to talk black and white, South Africa had a white face, with a black behind. The country that you saw thriving was the front-end of a farce, while it attempted to hide all its shitty politics, inequality and prejudice, along with everything else detergent couldn’t whiten in its backside”
He motions a retort; his mouth viscerally opens to advance his position, but I stop slicing my pastry and look him in the eye.
“Look, what I am trying to say is that the country was pretty fucked up already”
His mouth freezes brusquely and his eye brows rise as he stares at me with scepticism.
The man, it seemed, was not accustomed to back-talk.
“Oh”, he says after a sizeable, contemplative silence had permeated the air.
“So do you think there is hope for your country?”
“I am not sure. There were a bunch of politicians running a brutal system before, and now, after ‘freedom’, we have a new bunch of politicians…whether they care about the ordinary South African is up for debate. And so no, this has nothing to do with being black or white. This is just politics”
I really didn’t want to be pedantic about colour; I fail.
He continues to stare at me (albeit with his mouth now closed) and I order a fresh orange juice.