'You won't find any gay clubs in Turkey; they castrate gay people there''. Do they? You mean truck loads of mincing hairy Turks are carted off to a special place and in one foul swoop their legendary manhood is resigned to the nearest dumper?
Such was the late night chat room ramblings of a well-informed member of the American gay community.
Consequently, it was with not some trepidation that I arrived in the fabled city of Istanbul with thoughts of sad looking eunuchs reduced to singing 18th century castrati on street corners. Admittedly there were people on street corners, hundreds of them, old wizened men proffering razorblades, condoms and suspectly labeled Viagra, bescarved weather-beaten women displaying a bewildering array of power tools and dozens and dozens of darkly handsome men mesmerizingly attracting your gaze.
The noise and vibrancy of this city hits you like one of the hammer drills you are almost tempted to buy from that scary looking gypsy and you find yourself reacting like a rabbit in headlights not knowing which way to turn as you dodge traffic, blunder into groups of large women dressed entirely in black as they drift along the street like flotillas in full sail, fend off little urchins thrusting over priced packets of tissues into your hands and try, somehow, to find an empty space just to collect your thoughts and orientate yourself, when, all of a sudden, you are deafened by the ear piercing loudspeakers that convey the call to prayer from the hundreds of mosques dotted around the city.
What is this place? Where were the camels and dusty tracks winding into the oasis filled distance full of over burdened donkeys led by bearded merchants? Where were the sumptuous Bedouin tents undulating in the rose scented breeze containing reclining courtesans? These were all images I knew. For years, cigarettes, candy and indulgent decadence have been sold with this image of Turkey. So where was I? What was hiding behind this façade of moderninity, behind the chaos, cacophony of sounds and smells and most of all do they really castrate gay people here?
I was about to discover more.
Making my way up from the Bosphorus, the shimmering stretch of water that separates the continents of Europe and Asia, the city unfolds. Not just its overwhelming expanse as it disappears towards the Black sea, with buildings ancient and modern jostling for space along the shoreline but also the people, they too, ancient and modern jostling for position on the crowded streets. Scantily clad young girls with legs up to their armpits giggling and sashaying their way along the cobblestones begging the attention of conservative, tutting old women who pass. Dangerously handsome young men, wearing clothes obviously one size too small accentuating well hewn torsos, attentively walk arm in arm and there, struggling, trying to stop his cart running away down the hill, a lamp seller appeared. This was the land of Aladdin wasn't it? Somewhere there could be the Turkey I was looking for, the one I had been brought up to believe.
I was looking for someone who could divulge the underbelly of secrets in this confusing place and I had heard of someone who might help. I had found out about a couple who were operating a gay tour company based in Istanbul that was flogging Turkey as a sophisticated travel destination. Were they indeed eunuchs, why were they doing such a thing? I eventually found the office and expecting a small room in a basement run by a nervy type, I was whisked up to a plush, pristinely white suite of rooms to be greeted by a well tailored woman with slicked back peroxide hair.
'Sweetie, I'm Serra, we've been expecting you'. I was ushered in and caught a glimpse of the stunning view of the city from the window.
''Darling, how are you, take a seat, welcome to Istanbul, Tea?''
''Meet my partner''. Ahmet appeared, a man with a moustache that looked as if he'd been born with. He asked me what I thought of Istanbul, I told him; so far, I loved it and wanted to learn more about the culture. So, still with the image of the castration center in my mind, I broached the subject of gay life in Turkey. At first they both became silent at the suggestion of emasculation but then roared with laughter, almost uncontrollably at the thought. They asked me why on earth I could even think that.
''Let me tell you something'' Serra drew on a cigarette in a way that made smoking look healthy.
''Turkey has a long history of same gender sex, the old Sultans used to have harems full of foreign women but weren't adverse to a few buff young things!
Sexuality is more fluid here, sure lots of people are conservative here but lots of men indulge in gay sex. They don't announce it from the roof tops but were not so hung up about sexual preferences, you're too uptight in Western culture, it has to be defined, but here we have more important things to worry about, the economy, earthquakes, So, we just like to have fun''.
''There are lots of gay bars and clubs here, new ones open all the time. The scene is expanding and quite a few of our TV stars and pop stars are openly gay. No one loses their balls, we can find much more important uses for them!''
I asked why they had decided to set up a gay tour company; do foreigners want to come here?
''Sweetie, gay guys have been coming here for centuries, they love the hospitality and well, Turkish men are quite exotic''.
It was then that I looked out of the window and as I took in the view before me, scenes of the Crusaders battling their way across the city led by King Richard and Alexander the Great and his armies sweeping across from the West filled my mind. Weren't they both gay? Wasn't I visibly drooling at all the cute young things on the street as I walked to the office? This was a sexy place. The very atmosphere leaked electricity; the people outside dressed to kill, immaculately dressed, coiffured hair, preening themselves in shop windows. They want to look sexy; they don't want to be ignored. Was this natural sexuality, free from the constraints of England's Victorian reticence?
Ahmet and Serra took me to dinner that night in a swish restaurant that wouldn't have looked out of place in any up market district of London and after, we ended up touring some of the city's clubs. They knew everyone, the club owners, pop stars, film stars, A list celebrities.
''Sweetie this is why we started the company, we can show our country from the inside, My God we have so many connections''. And indeed they do. ''Our clients can feel comfortable with us, we give them the best that the city has to offer, the best hotels, gourmet restaurants and this, are you having fun darling?'' Yes I was, a lot of fun. They told me that friendships in Turkish culture were close, with an intimacy alien to Western culture but kissing cheeks, patting backsides, holding hands and delicately removing a stray hair from your friend's cheek does not automatically indicate that you're sleeping with him, everyone does it. ''Sometimes English people will barely shake your hand'' Ahmet laughed.
The bars were full of hedonistic young things, sultry dark eyes peering across the room, older savvy men, smart and groomed, glittery tee shirts and smiles, lots of smiles.
Maybe Turkey isn't as liberal as Western countries, but its people seem more genuinely friendly and probably more tolerant. The city of Istanbul, as a crossroads between east and west, has been a mix of diverse cultures for centuries, all living together in harmony. Maybe as the gay culture, in its own right, develops here, it will find its own place in that centuries old tolerance. It won't be easy. It's a relatively new country, shaking off its misunderstood image of the past whilst incorporating everything western, along with its values and perceptions, Perhaps new influences will demand pigeon holed sexuality and the Emperor will realize he really isn't wearing any clothes and the sexual fluidity will be lost.
During that week I met quite a few ex pats. To the question of ''why do you live here?'' they all answered ''I don't know, there is just something that keeps me here, a kind of magic that encompasses the old and the new''
I'm sure they are right, there is something. Maybe the thought that there are always new things to discover, the unexpected, the unusual.
The city itself is a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells, from the bustling harbor where ferries carry thousands of people everyday between the continents of Europe and Asia where the aroma of freshly fried fish and spices pervade the air to the tranquil serenity of the Blue Mosque. Here in Istanbul over 6,000 years of history come to life with every street corner you turn. Overhead and underfoot unexpected gems of architecture appear. Sometimes old ruins ýncorporated into much newer buildings stand out as reminders of the cýty's ancient past.
The daily life in the city in the maze of streets continues much as it must have always done, allbeit the wares the pedlars and merchants sell may have changed, but their insistance on making a sale and the obligitory haggling still remains the same. In the Bazaars you can purchase anything from Beluga caviar to a camel bag, shops jostle for position selling goods ranging from the exotic to the mundane. On the Asian shore I even saw live crocodiles for sale but resisted the temptation to buy a new playmate for my lanquid goldfish. And everywhere hands were shaken, tea offered and lasting friendships made.
As I was driven to the airport to fly back to England, I reflected on my short time in Turkey. Admittedly it wasn't how I had expected it to be. This wasn't a place stuck in the past. In fact, centuries ago sophisticated civilization had began here while most of Europe was bedding down for the night in mud huts. People have always adapted and moved forward and the present day is no exception. Maybe I didn't find my flying carpet or a harem of dusky maidens but I suppose I did find the unexpected, a place where I felt safe and secure, a place where everyone was disarmingly friendly, a place of infinite diversity, a place to where I'll return.
The sun set over the Bosphorus, the final call to pray came, this time softer more delicate, drifting over the city and there, the lamp seller appeared, 'Do you know what he says?' asked the taxi driver, ' I buy your old lights; I sell you new lights'. Of course, new lamps for old. The magic of this intriguing place was complete.
Serra and Ahmet run Absolute Sultans, which has a web site at www.absolutesultans.com.
I stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul web site at www.perapalas.com
and flew with Turkish Airlines at www.turkishairlines.com