The thief of Istanbul

April 12, 2020

How a late-night incident in which a pair of pants was stolen left me anguished for a good part of my stay in Istanbul

— Image: Supplied

The Azaan e Fajr implores the believers to pray instead of sleeping. This is precisely the time when one is in deep slumber, so the thieves can always kick into action. Something like this happened to me during my stay in Istanbul, Turkey.

While I was sleeping, I felt as if some child was tip-toeing over the wooden floor of my room. The creaking sound woke me up. From some distance, I saw no child but a full-grown adult walking about in a sitting posture. As I sprang out of the bed to catch the intruder, he got up and reversed without turning about. Grabbing a pair of my pants that was hung on the back of a chair, he exited through the door to the balcony, while I ran after him. He climbed the railing and jumped down into the street.

I had my exercise dumbbells lying about. I picked them up and aimed at him, as while taking the fall he had lost his balance. As I took aim, I saw an appeal for mercy in his eyes. As I hesitated, he managed to escape. I shouted “Hirsiz!” (thief). He too shouted the same, which led some people returning from their morning prayers to mistake him for the victim crying for help. Having diverted them to an alley, he followed a longitude.

With the culprit thus vanished, I consoled myself that it was only for a pair of pants. I didn’t know that the full extent of my loss was to unfold slowly and gradually during the course of many months and years. My much envied dinner jacket, that I proudly used to wear to parties, was now devoid of a matching pantaloon. Though I later bought a replacement, the passers by in the Gezi Park wouldn’t stop ‘marvelling’ at the contrast for the rest of my stay in Istanbul.

Some inquisitive ones even became friends with me. My knowledge of Turkish improved considerably as a result of these chance interactions. Another big consolation was that they campaigned to save the Gezi Park maybe because years ago, as a yabanci (foreigner), I had gone there in my mismatched dinner suit.

Changing, I hurried to my university where it was mandatory to show my student card. I did not have mine on me; it was gone with the garment. The gendarme believed me and let me in. On my return to my residence in the evening, I could not locate my keys to the main gate of the apartment. A neighbour of mine helped me get in. I could not enter my flat, because its keys too were gone with the pants. The caretaker helped me get in with his master key.

The following morning, I took a day off and hired a key maker who suggested changing the lock, because the thief having the original keys could easily walk in. The main gate lock too needed to be changed. So I had new keys and locks, which greatly upset my budget considering my meagre scholarship amount.

Towards the dusk, as my neighbours returned to roost, their original keys had already become redundant. Marvelling as to why the Sim Sim would not open in response to their keys, they all stepped back to see if it was the apartment they had been staying at all those years. Soon a large crowd consisting of Janissaries and Young Turks assembled outside the apartment suspecting some Byzantine intrigue. Some even muttered that “the lock has been raped,” but there was no connection with a Belinda.

I greeted them all with a surprised look. They were really thankful that I let them in using my new keys. Yet they all marvelled at my magical keys, the likes of which were last seen only in Jack Lemon’s film, Under the Yum Yum Tree. The jury pronounced its verdict that I should get duplicate keys made for each of them —35 in all.

The ring had also included a key to the university’s Architecture Department. While I related my predicament to my teacher, Prof Dogan Kuban, sharing my apprehensions that the bandit might break in again, he allayed my fears. I was relieved, because I could also have been obliged to get another set of keys made for so many of my colleagues. Instead, they helped me to get me another university card made as replacement for the stolen one.

A lot more was yet to come. My Ikamet tezkiresi (Residence Permit) too was gone with the pants. This meant that I had to report to the police. My landlord objected to the idea, maybe because he had not been paying taxes on his rented property. The document and the student card being of no fiscal value to him, I for many days kept hoping the intruder would drop-box these at my residence, especially since I had accepted his mercy appeal.

An offender likes to see the crime scene from a safe distance but never returns stolen property. Nothing doing, I went and reported the matter to the police. As I had stated that I saw the thief and could recognise him, they sent me to the Special Branch. They were very courteous. After obtaining a preliminary description of the person — he was of average height (about 5’ 6”), had a dark complexion and a squint that I had spotted despite the distance — they led me to the record room and showed me a voluminous album containing photographs of all persons with a criminal record. After going through some 40 portraits, I saw a familiar face and pointed at him. The officer asked me to have a look at some more. Yet another face seemed familiar. I was asked again to scan more photographs. It was pre-computer era, so everything was tangible — black and white photography, in fading prints, yellowed with hypo not thoroughly washed. I went through some more, till I got confused — all began to look the same, of similar lineage and parentage.

It was a great relief to be let off this hunt. Thankfully, they did not ask for my own photo. Later, my Iranian friend Sirus Hoshmandi told me that the thief might still be around and since he knew my whereabouts he could prove dangerous if I identified him. Nevertheless, I pitied the thief for his unprofessional handling of the ‘adventure.’ He had caused me so much anguish and financial loss but what did he get out of it besides a pantaloon that his Shrew would refuse to get into.

After the official verification of my credentials and cutting the usual Third-World red-tape short, I was finally issued a fresh Residence Permit (RP). I was supposed to carry it all the time. Besides, without showing it I could not leave the country.

By that time, my landlord had shown me the door. Renting another place was another uphill task for a 31-year-old chronic bachelor — as they say in Turkish, Otuzbir yasinda (pun intended).

In the end I found a place to my liking. It also suited my budget. I got the new address registered in my RP and moved in, together with my ‘arsenal’ — a pair of dumbbells. I was particularly pleased to rent the place because it was located in Bulbul Mahalesi. It reminded me of how a class mate of mine in Lahore had called me Bulbul whenever she found me sitting alone on college stairs. Incidentally, a Turkish sweet dish is also called Bulbul Yuvasi, meaning “the nest of a nightingale.”

But a nest it wasn’t meant to be for me. My first night there turned out to be more like a scene from a Vincent Price horror film, during which I felt too numbed to use my ‘arsenal’. I found out that there was a night club in its basement where they would start breaking the sound barriers by 11 pm and continue till Fajr prayers after which I was unable to sleep for fear of another adventure of sorts.

I felt like a nightingale whose voice-box had been throttled, and wings clipped — a scenario that the culprit would have relished watching, as Agha Hoshmandi commented.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Saadat Ullah Khan, the former IGP)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists’ Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

The thief of Istanbul