City of the Blind (part 1)

Posted on November 12, 2011


Cold winds sweep through the streets up all sides of the hill to crash and then mix at the top. Sea breezes and car fumes, mainly car fumes, swirl around a large statue of a bull guarding his turf here on the median. This is Altiyol (Six ways), and the bull is a handy meeting place for people in Kadıköy. I notice an old man standing resolutely against the wind. He is waiting for someone. He isn’t taping his feet impatiently or cocking his head looking for a familiar face in the crowd. I hate waiting for people. As I continue to watch, I notice the Zen-like restfulness he seems to possess. He has a dignified repose which makes my twitchy nature jealous. He is wearing Ray Charles shades and stained wooden cane. How in the world did a blind person make it to this median alive at rush hour? I barely make it alive.

I stand up for Kadıköy. I defend it in all conversations. When I describe Kadıköy, it sounds like a spacious outpost of variety on the Asian side. Too often overlooked and unvisited, it is able to maintain an authenticity which is hard to find in tourist spots on the other side. Below the feet of that nice old man with the cane lie the ruins of an ancient Roman city. The municipality had to make a decision to pave over it. Located nearby, the Fıkırtepe mound boasts of remains dating back to 5500 BC (Thank you wikipedia). From this time the area appears to have been continuously inhabited due in large part to the fact that this place simply rocks. However, you can’t please everyone. The Persian general Megabazus, whom historians believe was almost certainly a pompous troll, was said to have remarked that…the founders of Chalcedon (Kadıköy 685 BC) must have been blind to have settled in a location so obviously inferior to that which was in view on the opposite shore.

According to Pliny, the oracle of Apollo told the Megarians and Athenians to build Byzantium opposite the city of the blind which was interpreted to mean Chalcedon.

When I think about blindness, it is usually only in this same abstract sense. I guess all of us living here are too ‘blind’ to see that there are far better places in the city to live. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the phrase “spiritually blind” from church pews. So many of us are ‘blind’ to this, that, and the other. Mom, there’s nothing to eat in the fridge. “Are you blind! I don’t know why I slave away cooking for you people…yada yada”

I almost never think about blindness in the literal sense. Now, I wonder what it is like to be this old man waiting for a friend. The swirling wind, the horns and whizzing of speeding cars, the brushes from countless strangers. Waiting for a familiar voice to call your name then firmly take your hand.

Istanbul ‘sidewalks’ are no place for people, much less people who can’t see. Yet, I see blind folks confidently traipsing all over this city. Once I saw two young blind men being led around by two smiling young women. Those two men seemed very happy.

What is it really like to be blind? How is their experience of the world different from mine?

It would never occur to me to go to a concert that promised a blind experience. Thankfully, this is the kind of thing that does occur to my friend. He went to a blind restaurant back in the States, asked if I would be interested in going to a blind concert which promised a glass of mulled-wine. This is a question I’m not accustomed to answering.

I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect. As my wife and I got ready for the concert, my imagination began offering up suggestions of what the experience would be like. I cautioned Cari to “wear something grubby because those blind waiters are bound to spill that wine all over you.” She gave me a sideways glance, but skeptically wore black. I dusted off my good-natured open-mindedness which served me so well in college, and we headed out.

After meeting my friend and his wife at the Galata tower, they took us to Karanlıkta Yemek We went upstairs to a humble room where a handful of strangers were awkwardly awaiting a very strange experience. I have to say it took every ounce of trust in my fellow-man just to get pass check-in at this place. According to the rules, you had to hand over everything. Your coat, your cellphone, your purse and 40 bucks. My gut was telling me we were all being duped. This is some kind of scam.

I was struck by a large paper-backed book on the coffee table in the waiting room. A braille Playboy. Now this was a real puzzle for my brain. It was all I could do not to just open it for a split second, but I didn’t want to be the guy in room full of strangers who starts looking through a Playboy. A braille Playboy. The thought had simply never occurred to me. Thankfully, my brave friend Jeff hoisted it off the table and opened the mysterious object. Mystery solved. It was just pages of braille. I guess blind folks might be the only people who really do read Playboy only for the articles.

Finally, it was time to descend to the basement where we would be bound and gagged as they made off with my leather coat and my wife’s purse. Walking down the stairs the light slowly faded until we found ourselves illuminated by black-lights. We were instructed to place our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us and not to let go. We walked in kind of conga line through a black hanging cloth and it wasn’t long until we were in absolute darkness.

The only other time I have been in this kind of darkness before was deep in a cave in Kentucky.

Walking through the cloth in the darkness reminded me a hell house I acted in as a teenager. If you don’t know what a hell house is then you should watch this very good documentary: In the Southern United States, some evangelical churches put on hell houses during the Halloween season. They are like haunted houses where people follow one character to hell and the other to heaven. One year, for our hell scene, you had to conga line through a dark humid room and listen to the Devil mock the new arrivals.

While hell house was fun, what we experienced walking into the concert was unnerving. My wife was getting claustrophobic, and the only way she could manage was to close her eyes. I have to say it felt weird. It really felt like the darkness was closing in on you. I thought for sure there was only an inch or two between me and the walls around me, but when I reached out, there was nothing there.

Paradoxically, all the sounds I was hearing felt like they were coming from far away. My eyes told me I was in a small dark cubical, but my ears told me I was in the Library of Congress.

Still, I was keeping it together. For me, it was still exciting. That is, until it came time to be seated. Our waiter, instructed us to wait while he helped us one by one to our places at the table. Suddenly, a hand tomahawks down on my arm. I hear “You come!” in broken English. I’m lead away from my wife and friends to the other side of this ‘room’ and then to a chair. Not sure what to say to this person, I just sat down. He said, “Glass is in front of you!,” and then he walked off. I realize that he didn’t bring my wife and friends over, but instead sat them across the room.

I tried to look around, but all I could see was the moving constellations of light that appear in utter darkness. I find it difficult to truly describe the feeling. I could hear my wife and friends talking. While I felt like I was in a small cave, their voices sounded very far away. I heard them laughing and exploring their surroundings, tasting the mulled-wine, and finally realizing that I wasn’t seated with them. I had no idea who if anyone was seated next to me. Was there anyone down here who could see and monitor what was happening? Was there a waiter around? I timidly raised my hand and almost called for a waiter but stopped.

What if there wasn’t a waiter anywhere near me? I would feel so foolish. I felt defeated. I folded my hands in my lap in resignation. Eventually, I began to grope for the glass of mulled-wine in front of me. I really needed a drink.

As I groped across the tablecloth, I realized it was wet. Someone must have spilled their wine. I began exploring further with my hands hoping there wasn’t a stranger sitting next to me doing the same thing. Just then, someone slapped the table near my arm and said, “No, No, No!”

Frozen from bewilderment, I drew my hands back into my lap. I heard a voice that sounded like the waiter from before. Then I heard a woman’s voice next to me, “He said you shouldn’t touch the table because there is glass.”

I thanked the stranger. Oh broken glass. Great. So now I don’t even get a drink. Before I could tell my situation to the waiter, it felt like he wasn’t there anymore. I don’t like talking to strangers in general. Social situations make me nervous. I really didn’t want to talk to a stranger I couldn’t even see. Things were going downhill fast.

I had to take action. I had to make it to my wife and friends. But how? They sounded so far away. I really didn’t think I could walk so far. I would run into someone or something or fall down.

I sat there and listened to the sound of glasses breaking from far off tables. There was definitely a growing sense of pandemonium here in this restaurant. I decided to go for it… (to be continued) Part two:


Posted in: Istanbul, Neighbors