I was only in Turkey for a total of four months, but I swear to you it felt like way longer. Something about the city just draws you in. Its so chaotic, everything is always moving, but then there are those small neighborhoods like mine that make you feel like you're in a village. What a weird combination, Istanbul. It was such an eclectic mix of ethnicities, yet it was still mostly Turks. People rarely spoke English, so I had to get by with gestures and the few words I had picked up along the way. The hustle and bustle. It blew my mind.
When I first arrived I learned that indeed, the English language was just as confusing and boring as I anticipated it to be. I was enrolled in the area called Kadikoy, right on the water, at a TEFL school for a certification. I had made the plan to teach English in Turkey to extend my stay with my Syrian aunts that were living there after escaping from the conflict in Syria. I hadn't seen them in around seven years, so I wanted to be around them for a while. During that time I learned how to take the buses and not get (that) lost navigating my way to and from the language center downtown. At the center I practiced teaching English to retired Turks from around the area, and they were absolutely charming.
After I was certified I landed a job at a university in an area also close to the water, called Uskudar. There I taught at a preparatory school for students going into university for the first time. I learned how nationalism was popular for young Turks in this day and age. How many students, especially the males, would boast about the infinite wisdom of their president. It was an interesting parallel to the presidential race in the United States happening at the same time.
I realized then that authoritarian leaders rise in every country at different times and for different reasons. But also that there seemed to be a larger plan in the world that was being pulled in different directions by strings shrouded in mystery. The question I always seemed to have on my mind was who the true puppet master could be. Every country seemed to have different stakes in this global game of thrones. From an outside perspective looking at the United States, it was clear to see that maybe we were no longer the first world power. It looked like Russia was battling for the top, and the U.S was struggling with its grip on the world.
This kind of shattered my glass ceiling, and shifted my perspective of the world. Things are really not all what they seem. My time in Turkey was marked by moments like this for me. Weeks went by with this feeling of transparency in time. I knew I was in a moment that would come to be marked down in history as a time of change. I kept asking myself what my place was in this giant story. That could be a result of the big-ness of a city like Istanbul.
The city was crawling with people. Each person walking along had their own story. Each had their own voice, that they could choose to keep silent, or they could use for change. There's a word for this feeling- being overwhelmed with the existence of each passerby's individual story- and I was feeling it hard in Istanbul. I asked myself, in this crowd of people, how could I possibly change a thing? I guess you could say I went through a minor depression, or at least a loss of purpose.
Then I had kind of an epiphany. I examined my own individual mix of identities. I came to the conclusion that there really isn't anyone with my same vision, voice, or perspective. My mix of identities had always contained being American-born, half-Syrian, Muslim-raised, artist and designer, third-generation kid who lived all over the globe, and most recently; queer woman in a heterosexual relationship. I had that last realization about a year ago now.
I had reflected on my childhood and young adulthood while in Istanbul, and the explanation was clear for the way I had been feeling. I had been bi-sexual all along, but I hadn't been able to get past the mental blocks nailed in my head by religion to admit it to myself. Things I had thought about, felt, and done as a young teen now made sense to me. I reflected back on having my first crush on a girl, back in middle school.
I don't remember thinking of it as a crush, though. All I felt was a strong sense of wanting to be closer to her...and that she was the prettiest girl in the whole class. She had auburn hair and freckles across her face. When it was her birthday, valentines day, or any other excuse holiday, I would make cards and gifts for her. I would make them for my other friends too, of course. But hers I would take extra care with.
I look back and remember small instances in time like that, before I even knew anything about sexuality and what it meant to be attracted to someone. Flash forward to this past summer at a job, and I knew for sure that I was queer. This was the confirmation anyone could have asked for. Ironically this girl had red-ish hair and freckles too. And she made my heart pound fast. I think what made it more alluring was that it was clear she was not straight either. I wanted to talk to her so badly.
It was in Istanbul that I found the strength to tell my family (my mom for now) that I was bisexual. She reacted okay. I knew my dad, with his cultural Syrian roots and religion, wouldn't really have the tools to deal with a discovery like this. I didn't tell him just yet. I knew I had to tell him when I could see him face to face, back home. I knew the transition was going to be difficult. I was revealing a part of myself I had kept in the depths of my mind for so long. I knew it would be hard for my family to adjust to the idea.
People ask me, how do you know you're bisexual if you have never had sex with a woman? I ask in return, how do you know you are straight when you are young and haven't had sex yet? They get it then. Its about attraction. Its about how your biology is wired. I didn't choose to be attracted to women, that's just how I feel right now. The only choice I made wasn't to have these feelings, but to be transparent with this part of my identity.
When I first began to identify as queer, I suddenly had this feeling of not being genuine. Through all the support I showed to the LGBTQ community, I still hadn't been able to be “out” myself. I knew it was time to change that. In this world that paints Syrian women as one thing, or Americans as one thing, or even Muslim-born women as one thing, we need voices saying no. We are not a monolith, we are individuals. Syrian women are not all desperate refugees, but are strong, resilient warriors. Americans are not European/white people, America is White, Black, Brown, Asian, Arab... and Muslims are not all terrorists, we are normal people with normal struggles, like juggling our identities and discovering our sexuality.
I learned in Istanbul that I am part of the many people who are missing links. We hover in the limbo between worlds, between identities. We show the opposite of the stereotypes people paint us as. It's voices like ours that will change the perspectives of the world. This realization gave me my purpose back. I have this vision in my head and I carried it back home with me. It's time to work.