Mark arrived in Istanbul two days and one night after spending the Summer Solstice in a Greek field. He'd been looking forward to seeing the city since setting off on this hitch-hiking adventure during his gap year. In six months he'd be among the dreaming spires of Oxford but, for the moment, that was a different world away from the elegant minarets and towers in the age-old city on the Bosporus. Gateway to Asia; historic Constantinople, a rich alloy of Christian and Muslim that gleamed in the night. The far-away allure faded in the midst of tangled streets packed with bustling people going hither and thither about their business. The road around the city appeared to be nothing more than a race track; cars jostling for position, swapping lanes at random, speeding suicidally round corners, up hill and down, horns blaring indignantly at luckless pedestrians attempting to cross. He'd stepped off the boat and felt himself absorbed by the city like plankton into the belly of a great whale, an intimidating sensation to one brought up in the country and also exhilarating to a spirited youth on his first journey away from all that was routinely familiar. Mark took a deep breath, instantly regretting it as a suffusion of odours, predominantly fish from the smaller boats alongside the quay, assailed his nostrils. He pinched them together, grinned happily and shifted his backpack into a more comfortable position before setting off to find a hostel.
"Baksheesh." A scruffy man appeared at his side, drawn by Mark's obvious youth and the fact he was a tourist.
Mark shook his head and carried on walking.
"Eenglissh? Frensh? Gjermaan? Eetalliaano?" The man persisted, tugging the sleeve of Mark's weather-beaten jacket.
Mark smiled apologetically and pulled the empty pockets of his faded jeans out, shrugging his shoulders to let the scrounger know he had nothing to give or steal from.
His arm was released and, with a disdainful snort, the man wandered off to find a more profitable mark, absently scratching his nose as though trying to scent money.
The Rough Guide to Turkey had warned Mark of such people and he had taken the advice to heart, safely packing his cash into an old sock at the bottom of his pack. The pack never left his sight and he held onto it with a grip that wouldn't relax unless extreme force was used. Another good reason to keep his pack close was the stash of hash and an acid-blotter picked up in Amsterdam; an essential item of any teenager on the old hippie trail to the Orient. Mark hoped to find an authentic hookah here and realised he'd have to be circumspect in the land of Midnight Express, but was determined to find one despite the danger. Like anyone his age, he thought it would never happen to him. He was wrong.
After finding a cheap hostel he spent an uneventful night and, after a hasty breakfast, set out to explore his new surroundings the following morning, buzzing with excitement and a mild hit of 'Amsterdam Gold'. An old man sat at the corner of the street, rolling a cigarette with intoxicated care. Children ran barefoot along the cracked cobbles, past a bakery where the aroma of fresh bread tried to entice him in. Mark walked on, deftly stepping over puddles from last nights rain and around pot-holes, eyes darting left and right to take everything in at once, spurning a ride on the growing number of buses and taxi's that flashed past to save money for necessities such as food. His stomach grumbled as he passed several welcoming stalls with fresh fried fish sizzling in orderly rows, baked breads piled stoically on top of each other, dripping kebabs spinning slowly in their own fat as though sacrificed for his personal consumption; all accompanied by swarthy men with wide smiles which didn't quite reach their beady eyes.
The splendour of the Blue Mosque and the beauty of St. Sophia held nothing more than a passing glance as Mark made his way through the tourists and the followers of Mohammed, weaving amidst the crowds around an ornate pool between the twin symbols of Islam and Christianity into another crowded street, dodging a heavily laden mule and colliding with a swarthy youth. He apologised and tried to make his way round the obstruction but was held back by a hand on his arm.
"You want buy rug?" The youth said in a loud voice and leaned in to add in a conspiratorial tone "Maybe, hashish?"
Mark looked cautiously into his dark brown eyes and gave the second suggestion some thought, his interest piqued by the idea.
"Maybe," he replied. "Where?"
The youth's dark black curly hair danced as he nodded over Mark's shoulder.
"There," he said. "Not far. You come now, drink tea, very nice."
"Your shop?" Mark asked.
"No, no," the youth laughed. "My uncle shop, he give good price; make good tea. You come."
Mark decided to take him up on the offer of free tea and score a little hash. He'd, make a show of haggling for a rug with no intention of buying, and make his excuses then leave. He allowed the youth to escort him through the throng and into the cool gloom of the shop, keeping a tight grip on his bag.
A fat man wiped sweat from his bald head, twirled his thick moustache, and jabbered briskly at his companion who replied in kind and guided him through a jumbled maze of rugs and carpets. Mark wrinkled his nose at the spicy aroma of incense, coffee and assorted body odours and gazed around the walls at the dazzling assortment of brightly coloured wall-hangings then ducked through a low doorway into another cluttered room, smaller than the other which he guessed to be a storeroom. He sat on a bundle of cushions at a gesture from the youth and reminded himself to be careful: he could handle himself in a tight spot but didn't want to get ripped off.
"Mint tea!" The youth returned bearing a tray upon which two glasses of green liquid suffused with aromatic leaves steamed gently.
"Your English is very good," Mark noted. "Where did you learn to speak it so well?"
"My English not so good but I learn watching TV."
He put the tray onto a small table and sat opposite Mark with a broad grin on his unshaven face.
"I am Hassan," he said and raised his glass in salute.
"It's better than my Turkish," Mark smiled and told him his name after a careful sip of tea. The flavour surprised him; sweet, not sour or too strong. He liked it and took a mouthful, rolling it around his tongue before swallowing it down.
"Is good, no?" Hassan said, refilling Mark's glass.
"Yes, very good."
Hassan pulled a drawer open under the table and took a large brown block out. He ran it under his nose and winked.
"This very good, too. Smell!"
Mark breathed in the unmistakable aroma of fresh Lebanese Gold and whistled. There had to be at least half a pound. He asked how much for an ounce and translated the impossible number of Turkish Lire into Sterling. It came to about £45.00 and Mark tried to hide his elation. An ounce here cost less than half the price back home and for a moment he was tempted to ask for more then remembered he had a long way to go. An ounce would do. He haggled half-heartedly but when Hassan made it plain that was the going price and wouldn't budge he nodded and sealed the deal with more tea.
"Is it okay to smoke here?" He asked.
Hassan shook his head and reeled off a quick-fire stream of Turkish that Mark hadn't a hope of understanding but summoned the fat man into the storeroom. He gazed at Mark and said something to his nephew that Hassan translated.
"He ask if you like carpet."
Mark didn't like the way the fat man looked at him, like a dog eyeing a piece of meat. He stammered that he liked the carpets but didn't have much money after buying the hash. A wave of dizziness made him rub his eyes and when he looked at Hassan he saw that the fat man had moved to stand behind him and was caressing the younger man's hair, jabbering away ten-to-the-dozen.
"He say, you like carpet you buy," Hassan translated. "You no buy, you suck his dick. He think you pretty-boy and want suck his dick. You suck him now; he give good deal."
.... There is more of this story ...