There are a lot of street dogs in Istanbul. People seem to know about our cats. They’ve gone Hollywood. Some of them even attend prayer services. But our street dog population surprises many people. As of 2017, there are about 125,000 street cats and 130,000 street dogs in Istanbul. Many people feed and care for street dogs as though they were their own. It takes a village, you know? As far as I know, there are no kill shelters here. Though they’re part of the fabric of our daily lives, due to religious misunderstanding and long-seated cultural attitudes, a small faction of our community is at best, afraid of dogs, and at worst, violent towards them.
Five years ago, I brought two little doggies — Bailey, a cairn; and Molly, a teacup Yorkie — here from California when I moved in with my dad and stepmom to seek a better financial future. In Los Angeles, I could take them on hour-long walks across city streets, in neighborhoods where sidewalks don’t even exist. Here, dog packs roam the streets. Here, dogs are status symbols, fashion accessories. Here, people let seventy-pound dogs walk off-leash. Here, my heart has broken repeatedly, watching my babies grow sedentary and gain weight, trapped inside, because our walks have to be kept short for safety reasons, because our garden is littered with chicken bones, brought in by stray cats. Is it fear? Or reality? We can’t take the risk. I’ve realized I’ve started to distance myself from them because it hurts too much.
Enter Goldie. She glommed onto me — and my dog Bailey, which is rare. I didn’t attach back until I noticed the scar on her nose. I’m always drawn to the misfits, the imperfect ones. I kept a cool distance from Goldie and the rest of her litter, stray puppies born a year and a half ago, just outside our housing complex. My dad and stepmom encouraged me to spend time with the puppies, as a form of therapy, ever since I started actual therapy back in October.
Much like the rest of life, I wanted nothing to do with those dogs. They were just noise and stress. We were stuck formally adopting one after he started hanging around inside our complex too much. One night, a neighbor kidnapped him and left him to die in the woods. My parents searched for him for two weeks and, amazingly, found him alive. Once he took up permanent residence at our place, his siblings started visiting. Our own four tiny dogs were terrified of them. Neighbors complained when they chased their cars, when they barked all night. HOA meetings were held, solutions were found and unfound, a neighbor tried to run my dad over — but my parents didn’t give up. One restraining order later, we were taking in two more dogs and so was another neighbor. I begged for Goldie. She had chosen me, after all.
Her scar was the window in, but even still, my icy heart melted slowly; first, as she waited for me to walk Bailey every morning, her tail hitting the pavement in excitement when she saw us. She’d lie down flat on the ground, demanding her morning belly thumps. The morning I truly gave in, though? I had taken Bailey higher up into the greenery than I normally do and suddenly — another, unfamiliar, stray dog burst through the trees. Goldie came running from behind us and chased the dog away. She had protected Bailey. We were a pack. I was a goner.
As I’ve spent time with Goldie, getting muddy, getting my feet wet, not having to worry about big dogs and chicken bones — the perks of having a large dog — I’ve been able to open up to friends about what I’ve been going through. Depression, cutting, mood swings, suicidal thoughts, all those demons. Hell, I’ve been able to let myself write, dirty up a new notebook for the first time, compose this essay. Being with Golidie has allowed me to breathe again, let parts of me out that I’d honestly thought were dead.
When we walk together, she tries to lead me behind bushes, into creeks, up way-too-steep inclines, either not realizing I’m not a dog or just not caring. When she pulls me off the sad excuse for a half-kilometer trail inside my security-guard protected housing complex — a true testament to Istanbul’s lack of public natural spaces — into the overgrown grasses wet with dew, is she taking me back to my roots, or is she just looking for a comfortable place to poop? Both? Just your average existential crisis. At 6:45 AM. When you can’t sleep and you routinely wake up at 4:30.
There’s a fence separating our sad suburban trail and actual forested hills, the semi-wild. My dad loves to take our adopted strays there and let them roam free. This terrifies me, an indication of how much Turkey has changed me, stifled my personality. I’m no longer outspoken, no longer adventurous. It’s amazing what going back in the closet can do to a person. Hiding my sexuality was a choice made out of fear. Yes, homosexuality is legal here, but Istanbul Pride has been shut down since 2015 and public support for same-sex marriage is pretty low. I did what I had to do by moving here, knowing full well, making a conscious decision not to be out the way I was in Los Angeles, San Francisco, in New York. Where I had my own little queer family. Where I went to queer clubs. Where I had an OK Cupid profile.
But my career wasn’t moving forward the way I wanted it to in LA and my dad and stepmom were able to help me find a job in the media here. Other parts of my identity naturally changed along with my geography. I am half-Turkish. My name, my heritage, gave me a disadvantage in the US that didn’t affect me here. I was not a “white person” (or, if I was, I was always white, followed by an asterisk) back home. Here, because my complexion is white, I am white. There, I was Muslim by ethnic association. Here, Islam is so much more intricate, complex, complicated. But I have willingly played into the layered privilege game that I am afforded, at my own emotional expense. Disorienting, disconcerting, disgusting. Before I came here, many people warned me just to date boys while I lived here, so I held onto a Turkish boyfriend for two years too long, because he allowed me to navigate, hide within this culture. A tour guide, a translator, a beard.
I ended up working for state media, maybe one of the most conservative places I could have been employed. With my security blanket of a boyfriend — a coworker — I could have short hair, keep my nails trimmed and polish-free. My ex knew I was bisexual, queer. I knew he was only about 60% comfortable with that. I stuffed that down and pretended we could make that work. For two years. I told no one at work, save for one American and Canadian. I deleted any trace of my online queer life, even my Autostraddle profile, listened silently as people debated whether homosexuality is an illness, tried to figure out whether being transgender is a sin. Bisexuality wasn’t even on their radar.
Growing up, my mom and dad had a fairly egalitarian relationship — my dad did a lot of the housework. I remember once cross-dressing for a school party and him helping me with my tie. But after they split up, my mom told me my dad had asked her if I was gay. She had responded affirmatively. His answer? I only thought I was queer and if I moved to Turkey, I’d get a boyfriend and be “normal.” That was my biggest hesitation about moving here.
While he has been more supportive through my mental health battles than I could have ever imagined, my dad has really changed here. He went from doing the household’s laundry to not even picking up his own shirts off the floor. He asks me why I don’t go to the beauty salon and get my nails done, says “woman nails” will help me fit in. For nearly five years he never mentioned my queerness. At the same time, he’s become the stereotypical uber-supportive Turkish dad who lets me live with him until the end of his time. Culture shifts people.
I’ve only officially come out to my dad and stepmom in the last couple of months, though they obviously knew. I had not realized how much inner chaos, how much the noise inside the closet reflects that of the city. Being a thirty-one-year-old boomerang who moved to a new country, with a new family dynamic, it feels like being a kid all over again. Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in a yard, trying to find ways to escape.
Goldie and I have that in common. She has found every which way out of our yard. Our garden looks ridiculous: barbed wire, fencing, chairs, sticks, boards. To be trite for a moment, it’s an absolute issue of freedom to versus freedom from. We’re trying to protect her from cars that may run her over, neighbors who may dump her in the woods, leaving her to die. However much she loves us, it’s clear she wants to roam and crash here at night.
I’ve never been a camper, but I’ve always enjoyed hiking, needed it. Not, like, super rigorous stuff. I’m not a trekker. But get me out to a nice trail, near or within a city, and I’m happy. It calms me, allows me to gather my thoughts. Whenever hustle, grind, pavement, cars, smog, and people become too much, I find the dirt, I find the trees. The air changes when you’re sweating in nature. I can write inside my head, practice Spanish, paint pictures, or have deep conversations with carefully selected human beings. Most of my old hiking companions from Los Angeles are queer. Now I have Goldie, who takes breaks while we walk, just to jump up and kiss me. She places her paws just over my heart.
She tells me: Turkey, Istanbul, they didn’t break you. You broke here, lost your mom three years ago, when you were barely on speaking terms. Four months later, an attempted military coup left you churning out lots of pro-government pieces for your job. Eight months later, you lost that job because they were suspicious of your national loyalties. You became a kindergarten teacher because you’re not ready to move home, not ready to work in the media again. Besides, you’ll never work in Turkish media again. Fell into a depression, didn’t treat it. Hated sex. Kept doing it anyway, because you felt guilty about using your boyfriend. Seizures increased due to stress. Didn’t realize you’ve been having mood swings for nearly two decades. Finally, it all built up and you wanted to die.
This city didn’t provide the infrastructure I needed to heal. I had to find it. There’s little space to breathe in a city of at least 15 million. A city with few parks, little sense of public space. Build, build, build, a developing nation. I live in the nature-heaviest area of Istanbul, with the only public hiking trails on the city’s European side. Yet, I sometimes feel like I can’t breathe. The public space that does exist isn’t well cared for. It feels like there’s no refuge, no respite from this maddening crowd. And yet…
One morning while walking with Goldie, I saw a tiny hedgehog sleeping in the grass. Actually, I don’t know if it was hurt, hiding from us, or sleeping. I choose to believe it was sleeping. I felt so lucky to be there in that moment, so close to something so beautiful and rare. I’d’ve never been there if it hadn’t been for Goldie. She didn’t touch the hedgehog, though I was terrified she might. She left it alone in that quiet beauty, the only sound a few birds chirping and the hum of trucks passing by. I can ignore those trucks for one moment, pretend not to see the litter in the grass when we’re out together.
Goldie seems to read my needs so well. We’re connected. Together in my tiny green space, safe, isolated, protected. I can breathe a little in the relative quiet of 6:45 in the morning. She helps me escape the chaos, even if for just half an hour, even if it doesn’t work every day.
Her little scar reminds me that nothing and no one is perfect, and yet, we all are. And that all these things that frustrate me, every thing that makes me feel wrong to be who I am… maybe they’re what’s wrong. I hold onto her leash and imagine a future when I’m free, when I’m a writer, an entrepreneur, when I love life. When she jumps on me and gets me muddy, showering me with kisses. When she’s Houdinied her way out of “jail” to roam around our complex, but still comes when called, I feel beyond loved, beyond special. I don’t think a person has ever made me feel that way; optimistically, she’s grateful for me; pessimistically, she’s dependent on me.
We go exploring the unknown together and I cling onto her.🌲