I am a pretty ardent runner. Now that I am in Istanbul, when the weather permits I usually go on hour-long runs along the Bosphorus, either west toward Sultanahmet or east toward Ortaköy.
When I do choose to run on the sahıl yolu behind Sultanahmet, I often elicit some noticeable commentary from local street vendors, recreational walkers, fishermen, or homeless. Physical exercise, and the female gender, have different cultural valuations here than in the west. The fact that I am foreign, a woman, alone, outside, often at night, engaging in visibly strenuous physical activity, in public, from time to time elicits colorful and unpleasant remarks. Usually I block out the comments by keeping my eyes straight ahead, my face expressionless, my body moving fast, my senses attuned to other things besides the unsolicited outside commentary. Surely the comments are something chauvinistic or demeaning, that would make me feel threatened, or something derisive about exercise, which would piss me off. But one night I listened.
“Kosarken nefes al, nefes!” one man instructed as I ran past. “Breathe when you’re running, breathe!”
“Helal, helal!” another man cheered from his perch on a boulder. “Breathe, breathe!”
I kept my face flat and composed as usual, but as soon as the audience was behind me, I broke into a small smirk. I hadn’t been breathing properly, in fact. So I breathed.
Sometimes, the world is only as threatening as you go out expecting it to be. Not always–after all, we can’t be naive–but sometimes.
Photo: The colored stairs in Kabataş.