I was going to marry a Turk. But first I would face a cultural gauntlet meeting his family in Istanbul. My fiancé Burç stressed gaining approval from his influential mother Ayten, a pretty woman in her late 50s. She would be tricky to charm since Ayten treasured the central position she commanded in the lives of her unmarried sons, and spoke little English.
“She won’t be able to follow your accent,” briefed Burç, insisting language would not bar my proper acquaintance with his polished and instinctual mother. “It’s not what you say, it’s how you behave.” But Ayten’s character was complex: A modern European sophisticate, she possessed vintage morals, frozen in nineteen-sixties Istanbul when the family relocated to Belgium for two decades. I had heard enough.
Over the Atlantic heading to Turkey, Burç lightened the mood, regaling me with festive stories of Turkish dinner parties and moonlit boat trips on the Bosporus. All were punctuated with belly dancing – göbek atmak, “to throw the belly” — by paid entertainers and guests alike, men shaking it, women clapping.
The manliest of Turks erupted into dance during tame moments. “Whenever the generals came to dinner, they’d end up belly dancing,” Burç recounted, digging deeper into his memories to the days when his family lived in Belgium and his father Süleyman worked for N.A.T.O.’s military command. Upon resettling in Istanbul, the dignified septuagenarian was famous for unrestrained shimmying after polishing off a few glasses of anise-flavored raki, the national liqueur. This I had to see.
The plane set down on the outskirts of the sprawling, hilly city of Istanbul and we made our way across the Bosporus Strait to Anadolu, the Asian side of town. Family introductions went smoothly in the leafy neighborhood of Saskinbakkal. Süleyman supplied me lounging slippers, subtle acceptance. Then he donned the collared Banana Republic sweater I brought even though it was too small, leading Ayten to scoff that he was showing off his physique.
She was a tougher read, putting away the Chanel bath products I gave her with a small nod of thanks. Ayten doted on Burç, her hand on his shoulder as she set plates in front of him. I detected the shrewd
instinct he had described. If she didn’t focus on me my importance would be minimized. We commenced with tea and meat pastry borek, in her mushroom-colored dining room dotted with crystal figurines and Lladro porcelains. Süleyman drew on his pipe while Ayten gossiped about the neighbors. I sat looking pleasant. No hint of belly dancing on the horizon.
Two nights later Burç and I celebrated a local Turk’s 45th birthday party in the remains of a fifth century Byzantine cistern, an underground water reservoir. Candles illuminated the rough-hewn bricks of the subterranean disco, accessible through the lobby of a seedy hotel on the old town’s main road. An air of boredom permeated the affluent crowd in trendy sequined tops and business suits as they grazed from huge platters of nuts, cheese and grapes.
“After cake, we have belly dancers,” the pixie hostess revealed. “Perfect for my husband,” she bopped to the music, glancing at her spouse who hadn’t moved a muscle all evening. Then with a shriek she ran to greet new arrivals.
A thrill shot through me as a secret wish was granted: to witness authentic belly dancing on the soil from which it sprang. Having a simmering fascination with the art since I was a young Californian peeking through the window of a Middle Eastern dance studio, the mincing and shaking of the harem dance could be the ultimate seduction, something to learn. I had made it to the source, and belly dance’s dormant role in my life was about to change.
The DJ switched to a percussive track by Tarkan, a local pop star influenced by traditional music. Two scrawny, tanned Eastern European girls with dyed blonde locks appeared, moving through the crowd, venally eyeing the men who would slip them tips. The women guests regarded them with mild displeasure. “Excuse me, I will be sick,” announced one slender dark-haired woman as she pushed past.
Good sports, the Turks clapped like robots although no one joined the uninspired show. I’d seen better technique on a beach in Oregon, when my cousin Calley demonstrated her years of study, ample belly undulating like a stormy sea. But there was nothing sensual about these Russian performers, padded silver bra tops creating a semblance of cleavage on birdy chests, transparent pantaloons slung low on adolescent hips. Limber, their moves were more acrobatic than dancerly.
“Kicked out of the gymnastics program in Belarus,” theorized Burç in my ear, as we watched well-connected Turks settle for pale imitations of harem performers.
“Too skinny to be belly dancers,” allowed a man with graying temples as he chomped a cigar, his eyes glued.
Interest waning, Burç and I leaned in for a kiss when a dancer whipped us with her hair. Making clear it was no accident, she pivoted twice more. We stopped kissing.
“That’s a real Natasha for you,” Burç observed when she moved off in search of other victims. He used the blanket term Turks have given female emigrants spilling into the country since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
New emigrants fill jobs that natives reject due to the same local mores that once populated the harem of Topkapi with foreign women, he explained.
“No decent Turkish woman would put on a costume and dance,” Burç pronounced, sounding like the son of a decorous mother. So being Natasha was twice as detrimental, synonymous with prostitute.
The next night a family invited us for dinner at their yali, a traditional wooden mansion overlooking the Bosporus. Toward the end of a civilized evening, the jovial host, who I had met several times in New York, tried to draw me into a dance. Süleyman did a few turns and retired to smoke his pipe. I stood there, the same extroverted woman he had enjoyed in the States now watching him twitch his right hip, arms raised shoulder height, fingers snapping. It wasn’t much of a belly dancing move, easy to master. If I did it, my host would be delighted.
Behavior spoke more than words, and now I had fresh information: appearing eager to belly dance could be deadly for a prospective foreign daughter-in-law with a Russian name. There was one option, even if it were pure theatre.
So I shook my head, refusing to imitate my host’s moves. A smiling Ayten patted the spot next to her on the sofa, where I joined her in respectable solidarity. “Crazy, that one,” she said to me, shaking her coiffed head. I’d have other chances to dance, ones that would cost me less.
“Good move,” said Burç later, relieved and proud. “That was definitely a test.”
Back in New York, the trip was judged a success. Everyone had found me presentable, including the primly modern Ayten. Then Burç revealed how much territory she had covered to reach a positive conclusion: When she first heard of me months before, Ayten thought my name was Natasha.