How I Got into a Fight in Turkey (or, Learning Cultural Differences the Hard Way)

WARNING: The following contains graphic depictions of stupidity.

Meanwhile in Seljuk...

It wasn’t so much when the big guy was trying to throw me to the ground, but more so when his girlfriend jumped in and started slapping me on the back of the head that I realized maybe–just MAYBE–I had made a mistake.

I had spent the afternoon visiting the incredible ruins of Ephesus, one of the most perfectly preserved ancient cities in the world, and was feeling high on life. 

I was based in the city of Izmir for this leg of my trip through Turkey, but had taken a train to the town of Seljuk and then a minibus to the ancient city. As I got off the dolmus back in Seljuk, I realized I had an hour or so before the train back to the hotel. I decided to stop by a sidewalk cafe to get some adana kebab and Turkish coffee. The lamb was delicious, the coffee was strong, and I was eating in the shadow of an ancient Roman aqueduct. Life was good.

The little restaurant was one of many situated on a pedestrian walkway off the main road. It was dark out and there were other people seated and standing around, including an older guy, probably in his 50s, standing maybe 15 feet in front of me. I only noticed him because at some point he began to have words with another guy. 

The other guy was young, probably mid-20s, and had showed up on a scooter. My command of the Turkish language ended at ordering kebap and coffee, so I have no idea what they were arguing about; perhaps something about the younger guy not riding his scooter in a pedestrian walkway.

The words became shouts, the shouts became screams, and the screams became the young guy aggressively gunning his scooter at the older guy. He missed him by an inch and ran into some chairs stacked up right in front of my table. You didn’t have to speak their language to understand that things were about to get ugly. They were speaking with a language older than the Roman aqueduct, older than the ruins of Ephesus, older than words themselves; the universal language of two dudes about to beat the shit out of each other.

The young guy put hands on the older guy, pushing him back into the storefront as people around them began to object. When the two fighters emerged a few tense moments later, the fight was already over: the young dude had the other guy in a headlock. Not a headlock…a chokehold. It doesn’t take long to choke someone out like that, and sure enough he went limp and fell to the ground.

My forkful of lamb had frozen in mid-air as I watched this ludicrous display. Seeing that the fight was over, I shook my head in disbelief and went back to eating. But the young guy wasn’t done; he picked the dude back up (who was just now coming to), and proceeded to put him in another chokehold. He added kneeing the dude in the back to the mix.

I’d like to take a second to say, just for the record, that I’ve been in my share of confrontations in life. None of them ever came to blows; I have a bad habit of talking my way out of situations.

So if you asked me what possessed me to put down my fork and knife and get up from my table and walk towards the crowd, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. All I can tell you is I know an asshole when I see one. Not that that’s justification for what happened next, because, in the immortal words of Haha Davis, “That ain’t the move.”

I came out of the crowd like a dark horse, got ahold of the big guy’s neck, and wrenched him to the ground. He was down, his victim was safe. Heroic Deed completed. Crisis averted.

What wasn’t averted was that crucial turning point: when the big guy got back up.

He lunged at me, grabbing the shoulders of my jacket and tried to throw me to the ground. He threw a hook or two, but mostly he tried to knee me in the groin. Luckily I had taken just enough martial arts classes to be able to check his cheap shots, but I wasn’t able to sweep his legs. Things were happening fast.

It was in the middle of this frantic struggle that I heard a particular scream cut the night air–a feminine scream. In the fog of the fight, the screams materialized into a series of slaps to the back of my head; his 110-pound girlfriend had jumped in and was doing the windmill on me. So much for my Krav Maga awareness training. Fueled by adrenaline, I spastically ducked most of her blows but now my bomber jacket had gotten pulled off and was dangling at the end of one arm. Heroic, indeed. 

The dude bore down on me as I backed away from him down the pedestrian street. I distinctly remember thinking that I could throw a haymaker or even an uppercut and end the fight…but for some reason I didn’t. I knew what to do, I just didn’t want to. 

I don’t remember if the guy kicked me or threw me, but it’s just as likely that I tripped on my own f***ing jacket and crashed into a stack of chairs. I remember seeing fine leather chukka boots coming at my head, but I managed to clumsily avoid them. I got up with murder in my eyes–Alright bro, enough with the kicks, it’s hands now!–but instead of my opponent, I came face to face with some random bystander. He was desperately pushing his hand out at me, the universal signal for “that’s enough.” My mortal enemy was being escorted away by the crowd. It was over. I shrugged, pulled my jacket back on, and went back to finish my meal. The dude who had been choked out was nowhere to be seen. 

One of the cooks came out and asked if I spoke English, then pulled up Google Translate on his phone. First he made sure that I was okay, and I was: the dude wasn’t much of a boxer and I hadn’t taken any punches to the face. That only thing that limped away into the night bloodied and indignant was my ego.

“It was a fight between them,” the cook said through Google Translate.

“Not much of a fight,” I said back, miming a chokehold. 

My Krav Maga situational awareness training came running back, like a guy arriving 30 minutes to a meeting asking “Has it started yet???” I looked around to see if my enemy would come back with his boys. In fact, as I was finishing up my meal, that’s exactly what he did.

Only he didn’t have his boys with him; just an old man. 

The old man spoke to me in calm English: “I’m sorry for what happened. It was a misunderstanding.” Motioning to my opponent, he added: “He wants to apologize.”

The young guy said something to me in Turkish, and mimed putting someone in a chokehold, but it was no threat. I felt like he understood why I had gotten involved. I was taken aback by this civility.

“This was a fight between them,” the old man continued, “And I’m sorry that you got involved. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, although truth be told my ankle was beginning to feel a little funny. 

Finally, the old man asked, “Is everything okay?” He fixed me with a direct look, checking for the slightest sign of bad blood in my eyes. 

I looked at my opponent. There was not a trace of malice in his eyes. It was like nothing had happened at all. What the hell.  

“Yes, it’s okay,” I said. “I’m sorry, I should not have gotten involved.” The old man had us shake hands, and that was that. I paid my bill, collected my bag, and went off to wait for my train back to Izmir. I was able to make it around the corner before the pain began to stab through my ankle.

The next day, as I laid up in my room at the Piano Hotel in Izmir, with my foot severely swollen and turning alarming shades of purple, I desperately wished I had just punched the guy and put his ass in a chokehold. The fight would have been over much more quickly, and I wouldn’t have sprained the shit out of my ankle in a foreign country.

I also thought back on the few fights I had seen in my life back in the US; where two dudes who didn’t know each other could summon intense hatred out of the ether and beat each other senseless, with no level-headed elder to mediate between them. 

About a month and a half later, I was back home in the US. My foot was healing well, and I could run on it again. But it still required stretching to get the range of motion back. 

I met up with my friend Ibrahim, who had come to the US from Bosnia. After hours of talking about all the wonderful things I had seen and experienced in Turkey, I got around to telling him this story. I could laugh about it now, but Ibrahim got serious. He folded his hands and stared at me from under his eyebrows. 

“Never get involved,” he said. “I grew up in a culture like that. We are very expressive. If we have a disagreement between the two of us, we could yell and beat the shit out of each other. Afterwards we go to get drinks together. It’s just how it is.”

As an American who grew up in the suburbs, I struggle to see what could be serious enough to put a dude into a chokehold and knee him in the back, but trivial enough that you could grab drinks with him right after. But that’s the thing: there are things I’m NOT going to get, because it’s not the culture I grew up in. Their unspoken rules are not my unspoken rules. 

Something I’ve thought about: If, in the future, I were to be in another country, at another restaurant, watching another act of violence, would I find another justification for intervening? 

The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that I don’t know, that everything is a case by case basis. At the time, I felt like I had a perfectly justified reason for coming to the other guy’s defense. In hindsight–and I’m stretching my ankle even as I write this–I could have done without a broken foot from a bullshit fight I didn’t even win trying to defend some dude I didn’t even know. I was alone in a foreign country where I didn’t even speak the language. It was stupid, plain and simple. 

At least I don’t have to worry about the fight ending up on World Star.

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4 Responses

  1. Greg says:

    At least you have the right take-away. It is good that you stand up for what seems to be a lop-sided injustice, but yeah, bullshit shirmishes between two people sometimes should be left to those two people. Glad you got out of it okay, and that was pretty decent of the assailant to bring someone back to explain and apologize.

  2. intellichick1 says:

    You walked away with numerous good insights as you mention in your article (and a great story to tell).. However, at the end of the day, also applaud the fact you followed your human instinct to help someone. I think it is our human instinct to help one another that ultimately make this world a better place. Glad your ankle is healing.

    • No I agree, but at the end of the day, I didn’t know the language, and in another situation it could have gone very, very poorly for me. It really is a case by case basis–and obviously if it’s you or a friend, definitely defend yourself–but the prevailing wisdom is Don’t get involved.

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