Love is messy business. So is religion. And when they get mixed up it’s hard to tell right from wrong, up from down, yours from mine. An agnostic Fulbright scholar living in eastern Turkey witlessly undertook the complicated pursuit of a local Muslim girl. Here he reflects upon the paradoxical coupling of society and religion, how this coupling affects the individual, and his culpability in the results.

She was 18 or 19 or so – I wouldn’t find out for sure until later; on the verge of womanhood. Long black hair, curly if she didn’t straighten it, which she always did. And long eyebrows that curved around behind her eyes. She looked at you kind of sideways, peering out the corner of her eyes, not like she was afraid to look you full in the face, but like she didn’t need to. We went out once or twice; I kissed her. No, I insist that she kissed me. Maybe I stood a little too close, where the jasmine from her hair and the vanilla from her perfume got mixed up and I could see the cracks on her lips. Maybe I’m just a coward. But she kissed me or I kissed her or whatever and some people came around the corner and we ran, laughing, and kissed again and then she asked me if I loved her.
I don’t think I’m a coward. How could I love her? I had known her a week. She began to cry.

“How could you kiss me if you don’t even love me? How could you hold my hand?” She wept into her chest for a few minutes, and then reached up and pulled my face down to hers. “Kiss me,” she said. So I did.

She was a devout Muslim. But she was also a teenager, a female, and part of a burgeoning society that valued Hollywood blockbusters, Shakira and marijuana. Of course this society struggled against old, well-installed, pious Turkey.

“What is your necklace?” I asked her. Around her neck she had looped a leather band with a triangle pointing down to her chest, Normally it hung low enough to hide under her shirt, but it now was exposed.

“It is cevşen. It is a prayer to Allah. It represents my commitment to Him.” She tucked it back under her shirt like she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“We cannot be friends. You can be my boyfriend, or we will never talk again.” It was not blackmail; it was fact.
“This is not America.” Did I want to be her boyfriend? We had only been out on two dates. I tried to explain.

“Things don’t work like that,” I said rather lamely. “You cannot classify emotions
into black and white, yes and no. Look,” I stumbled, “a kiss does not make us a couple. I cannot love you after two dates. A relationship needs to build, needs time to grow.”

“No. This is Turkey. You are not only my boyfriend. You become a part of me, forever. When my friends talk about me they will also be talking about you. I can never be just me again. Not in my eyes. And definitely not in anyone else’s.” She was right, of course. I had become entrenched in a society that I did not quite understand, but was certainly different from mine. A society in which everyone knew who wore their headscarf and who didn’t. A society in which a woman on the street after sunset meant that she would forever be labeled as a whore. A society in which –in some places- women were still killed for the crime of being raped. And she was willing to risk her reputation for me.

“So, are you my boyfriend?” she asked.
“Yes,” I lied.

What she didn’t know, and couldn’t yet understand, was paradox of her sexuality. She wanted me, on a level that she could not refuse. How can a human, no matter how strict the societal pressure, refuse that call so deeply ingrained in us that it is almost forgotten? She didn’t know what it was though, and it confused and scared her. I did I know the depths of her craving and I refused to recognize the rules of society. And so I lied, and lied again. Her arms were too warm, her skin too soft. She wanted to hold hands, to hug, to hear beautiful things as she pulled me to my bed and put her chest in my face. She ripped off my shirt.

“Stop,” she said, “it is forbidden.” She was straddling me, supporting herself by her hands on my chest. Her perfect, young breasts hung in front of my face.
“I don’t care,” I said. “Am I your Valentine?”
“You are my valentine.” She reached behind her neck and unclasped her necklace. It fell away, leaving nothing between her and me. I could not enter her; that was forbidden. The kind of forbidden that no amount of sweet words could overcome. But the outside was not forbidden, and there I frolicked. I was the first to touch her, and she was nervous, not knowing what to expect, what to do, but wanting it so badly, wanting it with every tense hair on her body: with erect nipples. Her back arched under my caresses and her fingernails dug into my shoulders. She came. Openmouthed and wide-eyed, she came. Her first sexual experience, she came. Then she cried. She turned away, refusing to look at me, and cried in spasms. Suddenly she grabbed me and clung to me, arms wrapped in an embrace that was more than physical.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“No, it was wrong.”
“Did you not enjoy it?”
“Yes, but it was wrong.” Later, she would ask me to be wrong again. And she would cry again after.

She wasn’t the only one. Elif baked me a cake before finally taking me. Seda belly danced for me but would come no closer. Mine took off her headscarf and her shirt once the blinds were drawn. It was always the same. An urgent, demanding pull and a sudden stop. It was deception. Yes, of course I was guilty, and so were they. But how could they be blamed? They lived between the prison walls of their religion and society, which had imposed contradictory and impossible laws. Society itself was a battlefield between the old and the new – between parents who imposed 6 PM curfews and friends who wanted beer and freedom and mini skirts. Religion demanded piety and abstinence. Human nature urged for sex and love. And so, impelled by guilt-ridden desire, they tried to navigate this world that made doing so nearly impossible, unable to decide which right was right, which wrong was wrong.

Because of this turmoil, relationships were formed quickly and deeply. Relationships founded upon a glance and a whim. Inevitably they ended in debilitating heartbreak (or rarely marriage). Without the freedom to make mistakes, there was no chance to experiment, and learn from those experiments. These girls took a chance to experiment with me. And I broke all of their hearts. I could not give them what they needed, and they did not know what they wanted.

I caught up with my friends from Eastern Turkey recently; whereas life goes on as normal for most, many of my ex-lovers have moved to new cities, even to new countries. They are studying and working, learning English and management. I wonder if it is because of me. And if so, are they running to or from? As for me, I know now better than to unlatch a girl’s cevşen. But sometimes I still do anyway.

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  • Anon

    Wow, someone else has experienced this. Thank you.