Istanbul Story: Up In (Hookah) Smoke

“Just suck and blow, you know how to do that right?”

Vicky cackled, passing me the hookah hose.

As white smoke filled the milky base, my head filled up with sleek and sexy images of desert sheikhs and curious caterpillars, puffing on long slender pipes, exhaling delicate, swirling plumes.

Self-consciously raising the plastic mouthpiece to my lips, I sucked in a series of tiny cappuccino-flavored clouds. My cheeks puffed up like a blow fish, then quickly deflated. An ugly tangle of smoke spurted out of my mouth and hung in the air, like a gray cloud on a gloomy day.

Smoking hookah in Istanbul

My first hookah experience in Istanbul.

Not quite the romantic hookah elegance I’d imagined.

Vicky laughed again, enjoying the spectacle. “Haven’t you ever smoked a cigarette?”

She couldn’t believe I was such a noob. I couldn’t believe I was smoking, or more accurately, attempting to smoke—an act of treason in my health-conscious family.

I looked out at the elegant tombstones in the courtyard below. How many ancient Turks buried here died from smoking? Would I be next? Would God punish me for smoking? Or for doing it so clumsily? 

Flustered, I handed the hose back to Vicky.

Exhausted from sightseeing, we’d come for a little apple tea and hookah relaxation at this understated tea garden, tucked into the corner of the Türk Ocaği Culture and Arts Center in the Fatih district.

We’d spent the afternoon touring a dizzying array of mosques, museums, and monuments from Istanbul’s long and varied history. Our last stop—the Topkapi Palace—was home to generations of Ottoman sultans since 1465, until becoming the newborn Republic of Turkey’s first official museum in 1924.

Amidst grand exhibits of Ottoman weaponry, armor, and decorative urns, one thing stuck out in Vicky’s mind.

“I can’t stop thinking about the harem.”

Imperial chamber of the harem at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Imperial chamber of the harem at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

I could understand why. The nearly 300 rooms of the remote wing of the palace were thoroughly decorated with mesmerizing geometric patterns, filigree Islamic calligraphy, and dreamy stained glass windows. You could almost imagine the Sultan and his consorts lounging on the long, sumptuous couches, or washing in the deep marble basins, an Orientalist fantasy. But the harem’s beauty masked a cruel, sometimes brutal history, and it was this aspect that had Vicky bothered.

“Can you imagine? Hundreds of beautiful women, locked away for your personal enjoyment. Take your fucking pick.”

Most of the harem women were foreigners, brought to Istanbul as spoils of war. Others were directly recruited, often from needy families, from throughout the vast Ottoman empire, or exchanged with foreign dignitaries as prizes in diplomatic negotiations. Once in the palace, they were rarely allowed outside again, forced to vie for the attention of the Sultan and his men—their only hope for social standing and a modicum of comfort. Overlooked women were destined for a humiliating existence as chambermaids to the other women and slaves working in the harem.

“Fucking men are all alike.”

Her eyes reflected the bitterness of a woman scorned.

Vicky took another puff of smoke and watched as she spewed it into the air, lost in thought. She thrust the hose back at me defiantly, seeming say, Pick a side.

But how could I pick a side? Why would I? As a feminist I was obviously against the exploitation of women, but what could I possibly do about the misogyny of a long-defunct empire? The harem was now a museum. What could I say besides, “That was terrible, wasn’t it?”

Flashing a weak, sympathetic smile, I took another puff of hookah, inhaling successfully this time.

“I caught my husband cheating on me.”

Vicky’s words suspended in the air like smoke, echo-less in the graveyard silence.

I gripped the arm of a divan as the room began to spin, grasped for a sip of apple tea to relieve the unfamiliar dizziness. When I recovered, all I could ask was, “Why?”

Vicky launched into the saga of her rocky marriage with characteristic intensity. Late night phone calls, unfamiliar numbers, late arrivals home unexplained. When she confronted her husband, he denied any wrongdoing, but the suspicious activity resumed. At her wit’s end, she hired a private detective and placed a GPS device on her now ex-husband’s car. One night she watched the map as the blinking light stopped in the location of a grocery store parking lot across town. Fuming in the shadows, she staked out the car for hours, amazed to see him emerge from behind the door of a strange house across the street, tip-toe back to the parking lot, and drive off at 1:15 AM.

“At least the Sultan was fucking honest.”

Suddenly I understood what was happening.

By railing against the cruelty of history, Vicky tried to project and displace the agony of her present.

Lithe beauties lounge by the baths under the watchful eye of a black eunuch.

The harem as depicted in Orientalist Western art.

The sensual delights of the harem have been the fodder of Orientalist fantasy for centuries.

Yet its fantastical imagery—curvaceous, lounging beauties, flowing silk robes, stern, sexless eunuchs—tell us more about ourselves than the harem itself. To the ordinary man, the harem represents the fulfillment of his deviant sexual fantasies, an imaginary escape from the bonds of “traditional” marriage. I Dream of Jeannie.  One desperate housewives finds inspiration in the feminine mystique of harem girls—If only I were like Jeannie—another consoles the ache of quiet infidelities, comparing fact with a fiction—At least I’m not a slave like Jeannie. Even a century after the real Ottoman harem was disbanded, we still project our deepest desires and darkest fears onto the blank canvas of a mysterious world rarely glimpsed by Western eyes.

I took another puff of smoke, pondering her conundrum.

How should we act in the face of such human cruelty and suffering? Vicky had taken extreme measures to preserve her dignity, yet still had nothing to show for it. How could I help her? I reached my hand forward at rising grey tendrils; smoke slipped through my fingers, wafted defiantly over tombstones and divans.

I felt powerless.

And a little nauseous.

Was it the hookah?

Without soothing words or actions plans, I shared my only asset: the perverse comfort of solidarity. 

Tilting my head slightly, I pointed to a faint, dotted line along my cheek—a crusted scratch mark.

“I was just trying to protect him, and he attacked me.”

I was at an 18th Street bar with my boyfriend Juan, one of those feverish, Friday-night celebrations of the mundane, of nothing in particular. Three long island ice teas, I decided it was time to leave, and Juan decided he was fine to drive. I asked for his keys, he refused. I asked again, he mocked me. I wrestled them away from him, he flew into a rage. Hoping he’d regain his senses, I delivered one, steady slap to the cheek, then suddenly found myself pinned to the sidewalk at 2 AM, fingernails digging into my cheek, dashing into a nearby McDonald’s bathroom, washing the blood from my cheek, shaking as my voice echoed in my head, “Somebody help! Why don’t you do something?”

Half a dozen passersby stared at me and Juan—tangled in a pile on the sidewalk—then quickly vanished into the night.

Somehow Juan made it safely home that night, and after a week of groveling, I took him back. I wasn’t entirely sure why. My friends howled in protest. I wasn’t even that into him. But everybody deserves a second chance. But he needed me. But it was my fault for slapping him. But just because I can’t handle three long islands doesn’t mean he can’t also. But I Corinthians 13:4-8.

But bullshit.

There was no excuse for Juan’s tantrum, no excuse for my slap, no excuse for harmful relationships.

Yet here I was, in Istanbul, agonizing over the perfect souvenir for Juan.

Here was Vicky, agonizing over her deadbeat husband.

Here we were, trapped in harems of our own choosing.

When I finished my story, a wave of mixed emotions washed over Vicky’s face. The understandable surprisehe did what?!—the familiar, burning ragethat motherfucker!—and then an emotion I’d never seen in her icy blues before, disappointmentHow could you take him back? You?

I instantly regretted my show of solidarity.  I only wanted Vicky to know she was not alone, that there was hope. But what hope could I show her when I kept dating a stubborn alcoholic, and I didn’t even know why?

I finally understood that Vicky was projecting onto me the hope she’d lost for herself. Her wild biker chick stories, her cringe-worthy tales of deception and heartbreak, were both a confession and a warning—Kid, don’t do what I did.

The uncomfortable truth was that I was already mired in mistakes of my own. By revealing them, I denied Vicky the hope she so fervently desired.

Grasping the hookah with trembling hands I sucked in great lungful of smoke and looked out over the graveyard again.

The graveyard at the Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II

The graveyard at the Mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud II, next to the tea garden.

Nothing lasts forever.

The smoke swirling around our heads. The loving bonds we make and break. The lives we create.

All are ephemeral.

Despite grand Sultan’s ambitions, the Ottoman empire still crumbled, the Topkapi palace still became a museum. The Turkish luminaries buried at our feet could not have guessed that less than a century later, tourists would blow smoke over their graves.

The dizziness slowly deepened into a sharp sense of unease.


In the safe solitude of my tiny room, I collapsed over the toilet, heaving. Nothing came out of my churning stomach. Beads of sweat dropped one by one, creating ripples in the bowl.

I blamed it on the cappuccino hookah. Who ever heard of smoking milk? Surely, that was what made me sick. But in my gut I knew my nausea came from an empty place, deeper than an Ottoman grave.

July 29, 2007

Researching this story I discovered that the Türk Ocaği Cultural Arts Center’s tea garden burned to the ground in 2014. The cause of the fire is still unknown. Proof that truth is stranger than fiction.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *