God at Knifepoint
I was in love.
Perhaps it was the aroma of roasted lamb over rice, yogurt and tomatoes. Perhaps it was the sea gleaming like a sapphire in the sun. Perhaps it was the chanting of prayers crackling through worn out speakers of nearby mosques. Whatever it was, I had been in love from the moment I’d moved to Istanbul six months prior.
I sat in a cafe as Turks shuffled past beyond the window. The men were always frowning, it seemed, smoking and lugging rolled up carpets under their arms. Their wives trudged behind, clutching the hands of children, sweating under their headscarves. I wondered where they were going and from where they had come.
Late afternoon drew the sun toward a horizon spiked with minarets. I stopped at a grassy hillside and sat down to read. A family picnicked just down the hill. I could smell meat roasting over coals.
“Can we join you?”
I looked up to see two young men approaching. They stopped within feet of me and waited for an invitation.
“Evet,” I said. Yes, in Turkish. “Iyi misiniz?” Are you well?
They nodded and sat down beside me. We exchanged names and pleasantries. They told me they worked in confections and I imagined them surrounded by great heaps of baklava and Turkish delight. They asked to listen to my Discman (the iPod wasn’t born yet) and the closest of the two smiled and cupped his ears, swaying to a worship song from the west. It was all so perfectly Turkish, this sudden encounter. But it wasn't long before I began to notice something strange.
The one who sat farthest away kept on looking around as if wary of prying eyes. He hardly smiled and spoke mostly in monosyllabic grunts. His companion, on the other hand, would not stop smiling and laughing and slapping me on the back of the neck as we talked. He was almost too happy. Like he was faking it.
It was then that a mental image struck my mind: the wary one pulling out a knife to threaten me. This was immediately followed by words inside my head: It is time to go.
The image and the words were so clear I felt I had to heed them. They were not from me. Without hesitation I stood and informed the young men I had to leave. They stood up as well and insisted they walk with me. The jovial one grabbed my arm as if to escort me and we descended the hill like the best of friends. When we walked along a ridge of dirt at a construction site, beyond the eyes of others, they stopped me short.
"Money," the jovial one said right as the other pulled out a knife and held it to my chest. I remember how his face contorted with hatred, lips curving into a scowl. The blade glinted in the sun and I felt he would not hesitate to kill me if I resisted. I handed over my wallet and cd player and cell phone. They took them and bounded down the hill, darting into an alleyway between two buildings.
Numb with shock, I made my way back to a crowded sidewalk and told the first police officer I found what had happened. The uniformed woman shrugged and asked me what I expected her to do about it.
For a week straight I stayed cloistered in my apartment. I ate entirely too much take out food, glutted on science fiction, and imagined knife wielding Turks hiding in every shadowed alleyway. Still, I couldn't help thinking about the image of the knife before the knife. God had been with me on the hillside when the blade was at my chest. I had not been alone.
Some American friends attempted to release me from solitary confinement by inviting me on a picnic. I agreed, albeit reluctantly. We ventured to a forested park north of Istanbul and passed the afternoon failing at building a camp fire. When a Turk approached out of nowhere I tensed. Something glinted like metal in his hand. But as he stepped closer, smiling, I could see that it was not a blade, but a sleeve of foil holding a filet of roasted fish. He was offering us his lunch.
That was over ten years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the knife or the fish, and how God was there as both were held out to me.