From the moment we crawled into Iskender’s truck I was unsure if we could trust him. He was only thirty but was already balding and many of his teeth were brown and decayed. He was unmarried, which is unusual for an Azeri his age, and he claimed, if I understood him correctly, to live — at least when he wasn’t driving his truck — with twenty other men in a communal house in Tehran.
He had picked me and Miranda, my traveling companion, up on the highway near the Turkey-Georgia border.
Miranda had never hitchhiked before but I had somehow convinced her that it was perfectly safe. Up until this point, however, we had avoided it, ostensibly because of all the male attention she’d been receiving in Turkey and particularly after an incident a week ago when some old man grabbed and tried to kiss her near our campsite in Dogubeyazit.
Nonetheless we desired to reach Georgia that evening and had been stranded, with no buses running over the border until the next day. The only way to get there was to hitchhike.
Then along came Iskender with promises to have us in Tbilisi by nightfall.
At first he seemed like a very pleasant man. He gave us snacks and tea and smiled a lot, but then his gaze began to linger too often on Miranda. Later he startled me by launching into a conversation about prostitutes, boasting of ones he’d slept with and commenting on different nationalities. Georgians, he said, were tamam, Russians guzel. Ukrainians, however, were chok guzel. He showed me some of their pictures on his phone.
The conversation then somehow drifted into my sex life. He asked me how many women I’d slept with and at what age Americans usually first have sex, and whether I was having sex with Miranda.
Miranda, by the way, didn’t speak Turkish and had no idea what was happening. I didn’t interpret anything, knowing that the presence of yet another concupiscent male would upset her. She sat smiling, looking out the window, totally oblivious, admiring the endless, treeless, undulating steppes.
Then around 7 p.m. we pulled off the highway into a roadhouse parking lot and two of Iskender’s friends, also truck drivers, one of whom was wearing some sort of a hat, came trotting up laughing to greet him.
When I opened the door they smiled and waved cheerfully, but when I helped Miranda down their smiles dropped into solemnity. It seemed they had never met a Western woman before and were uncertain of how to greet one. After embracing me with a kiss on each cheek they extended their hands nervously towards her before withdrawing them to their hearts with a bow.
“We’ll stay the night here,” Iskender then announced unexpectedly. “You guys can sleep with me in my truck. No problem.”
When I interpreted this for Miranda she smiled wanly at Iskender and then looked at me with fright.
We followed them into the building. Everything inside was damp and a web of half-burnt-out Christmas lights hung from the ceiling, blinking catatonically. The only other patron was a glum-faced Russian, who was drinking vodka and staring at a table of scantily-dressed women playing poker next to the bar. The bartender, a woman with hair down to her hips, was wearing lace hosiery. It reminded me of a saloon out of some Western.
We sat down and even though we protested Iskender ordered us beers. On the other side of the table Iskender’s friends indicated to Miranda with a nod and winked at me. After that, however, they generally ignored her, or pretended to ignore her, not out of rudeness but because she didn’t speak Turkish. And also, I think, because Western women stressed them out.
After my beer I felt like exploring. I excused myself to the toilet and went venturing down some long, dark, strange corridor in search of some clue as to what sort of place this was. Along the right side the corridor were half-opened doors, some of which exuded lubricious fragrances. I peeked through one and saw a heart-shaped bed with disheveled covers and a nightstand cluttered with unguents and creams. From some of the other rooms came sounds of exaggerated passion.
When I returned to our table Miranda seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She stood up and walked hurriedly outside and I followed her. I knew what was wrong but asked anyways. She’d had too much, she said, bursting into tears. The last few weeks of traveling with me had been a nightmare — the riots and tear gas in Diyarbakir, the harassment she suffered everywhere, and now this. She couldn’t stand it anymore. She wanted to leave.
I went inside and spoke with the only person who knew English, a middle-aged hooker wearing four-inch stilettos and a red latex skirt. I told her we needed to get to Tbilisi because my wife was ill and asked if she could help us. Of course, she said, and led us out to the highway. Iskender trailed behind, pleading with us to stay, promising that he was an honest man and that we had nothing to worry about.
I don’t know what we expected to happen. The woman thrust her arm out and tried to flag down a ride but I knew nobody would stop for her. To passing motorists we must have seemed like a hallucination: two twenty-somethings wearing giant backpacks standing on the side of the road beside an Azeri truck driver and a prostitute whose skirt barely stretched over her ass. The situation was absurd but there was nothing I could do about it. After thirty minutes of standing there Iskender helped carry our things back to his truck.
Back in the brothel the other Azeris were now merrily intoxicated. They were slow-waltzing with two prostitutes, holding them affectionately, snugly. Afterwards one vanished into a back room and the other, the one with the strange hat, sat down at our table, arm around his girl. He winked at me and then whispered something into his girl’s ear. As he did I suddenly realized that nobody in this entire building seemed the least bit ashamed about what they were doing. In fact everyone, except perhaps the Russian, seemed genuinely to be enjoying themselves. Even Miranda had relaxed after she accepted that there was no chance of escaping this place. She was, after all, being treated with more respect here than she’d experienced over the past few weeks in southeast Turkey.
And so I decided to silence all judgment about these people, to accept them, however abrasive, for whom they were: flawed and lonely people, just like everyone else.
But I was still worried about how the evening would conclude. I assumed Iskender would pass the night in the arms of a prostitute, but he had showed no interest in them. The whole evening we remained the cynosure of his concern, and when we left around midnight for bed he followed us.
“You can stay inside with your friends if you want,” I said, prepared for a confrontation as I crawled into the truck.
But he laughed and crawled in after us.
“Without me here people will bother you,” he said. “Believe me.”
And then he told us good night and fell asleep in the bunk above, having sacrificed his entire evening to make sure we felt comfortable.