She came home one day around dusk, this woman I had met and befriended for the few days that she was in town. I often did that back then. I was moving a lot, too, an extended wandering around the world, encountering many people along the way, heart connections, brief and deep.
This was 2014. I was living in Istanbul then. I had left Cairo a few months earlier, in the wake of a military takeover in Egypt that had rendered our nascent revolution stillborn. I was broken, trying to put myself back together, and Istanbul was a balm. I found an apartment with high ceilings and big windows, awash in light and air. I grew edible plants on the balcony: radishes and purslane and mint. And when I craned my neck out of a side window, I could catch a little glimpse of the sea.
She was a woman in her early thirties, like me; I had invited her to stay at my place while she was in town. And one day, around dusk, she came home frazzled and frightened. A man, she said, her eyes still darting around her though she was indoors and safe now, had been following her all the way here. She had tried to dodge him, to trace her way back through better-lit streets, to break out of the grip of this relationship she had not chosen — but he had tailed her almost all the way home. She had managed to escape him, somehow, in just the last couple of blocks.
Later in the evening, when I suggested that we go down to the seafront for a walk, she hesitated, still uneasy. I made a pot of herbal tea for us: ihlamur, linden flowers, which hang in generous boughs over Istanbul in the summer, perfuming the city. I told her about the seafront promenade, the balloon sellers and the picnickers, the skateboarders and guitar players, the families out for evening strolls. After the steaming cup of ihlamur she felt calmer, brave enough to venture out again.
We walked to the end of my street and onto the promenade. It was quieter than expected, darker, even a little colder; perhaps the summer was already slipping away. We walked toward the water, picked our way over the big, flat boulders, and found a place to sit, looking out onto the dark sea, the small waves swirling around the rocks, and the distant lights.
There were not many people around tonight. But there was a group of men, young men, to our right. Rowdy with their beer bottles and their jokes, and growing rowdier. Shooting glances in our direction. Pushing each other over the rocks. Inching closer.
I could feel my new friend next to me, the warmth of her body, growing tense. They yelled over, offered us beers. We said no. I kept looking out over the water, trying to keep our conversation going, but I could sense her breath — which had started to flow long and loose again after she had finally arrived home and rested, after we had talked — tightening in her chest.
A dog appeared. One of the huge, lumbering street dogs of Istanbul. After Cairo — where packs of barking dogs stalked the neighborhoods, easily agitated, sometimes aggressive — Istanbul’s dogs were a revelation. They were everywhere: big, gentle, lackadaisical, often found snoozing on the pavement.
So a dog appeared, one of those slow Istanbul dogs, with a smooth golden coat. He came to rest on the rocks, close to us, between us and the group of men, who continued their calls and jibes, pushing each other around and swigging their beers, their eyes in our direction, their voices growing louder. Showing off, they called the dog over to them, but he didn’t move. They had some leftover food, some kind of bread and meat, and they offered it to the dog with a flourish, dangling the treat within his line of sight. The dog raised his head, looked at the meat, and wouldn’t budge.
I don’t recall now if he barked, if he made a sound. How did it happen, that the rest came? They must have been summoned somehow. But it so happened that another dog appeared, lumbering toward us, followed by another, and a third and fourth, until there were five dogs gathered on the rocks. Five huge Istanbul dogs. One had three legs, her torso swaying as she moved. They sat and lay, each a few paces away from the other, forming a loose semicircle around us. It was unbelievable, yet unmistakable: they were standing guard between us and the men. I could feel my friend’s breath ease, the laughter beginning to bubble up in our bodies at the sight of these strangers who had somehow intuited, communicated, and come to our rescue.
I don’t know how much longer we stayed there, on the rocks with our new companions, listening to the sea. The group of men had quietened down, receded like the water. The huge dogs rested around us, their silhouettes like a spontaneous formation of soft and mysterious stones.
After a while we stood up. And as we did, the dogs, one by one, got up, too. We picked our way back over the rocks and onto the promenade, and they did the same. We walked to the mouth of my street, and they followed. We walked the short way down the road, Yaver Bey Sokak, to the last building on the left, and they came. I took out my keys, and we let ourselves in, laughing all the way up the stairs, giddy now. We looked out of the windows at each landing, following them with our eyes as they ambled down the last stretch of road, rounded the bend, and disappeared.