DNA tests have proved the seven-year-old girl taken from a Roma family in Tallaght on Monday is their daughter. The parents arrived back home with their daughter at 9:45 pm. The little girl was rushed into the house with a blanket over her head. Her father spoke briefly to the media with one of his daughters translating. She said: “We don’t want it to happen to any family. That’s all he wants to say. He is very happy.”
– The Independent, October 23, 2013
As this bizarre story played out in a media frenzy this week, it brought to mind a trip I took to Istanbul, fifteen or so years ago.
I visited Istanbul for the first time with a publishing colleague one October, after the Frankfurt Book Fair. We stayed in a hole-in-the-wall inn, and wandered the streets, enchanted. I planned one business meeting with our Turkish agent to justify the trip — I don’t remember her name, but she smoked like a chimney, as I did then. She had an elegant cool style, but was warm and engaging up close. We met in the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel just down the road from the Hagia Sophia. It was the slow season and a dark damp afternoon. Only the bartender and the two of us were in the bar.
We drank a glass or two of wine, talked about why the books I was selling would never work in Turkey, laughed, and traded industry gossip. When it was time for her to leave, I walked her to the door of the bar – turning my back on my papers and my bag. I hugged her, watched her cross the empty lobby of the hotel, called a final goodbye, and walked back to my table. My bag was gone.
I turned quickly to the bartender: “Have you seen my bag?”
He said nothing.
“My bag is gone,” I repeated dumbly.
“The Gypsies must have taken it,” he said.
“The Gypsies. They go everywhere doing horrible things.”
“Do they walk through walls? No one was here except you and my colleague.”
“I heard something while I was washing glasses, but didn’t see. It was the Gypsies.”
I asked to see the manager. He arrived quickly and was tall, urbane, with Warby Parker-like glasses and a thin polite smile. His name was Marcus as I recall.
“I understand that Gypsies have stolen your bag.”
“Someone has stolen my bag indeed, but I doubt it was Gypsies. A bartender perhaps?”
“Our employees are beyond … measure. Clearly, it was Gypsies.”
In the bag was my wallet, a few hundred dollars in cash, a string of pearls I’d taken off while wandering and forgotten to store in my room, and a notebook. And my green card. I wanted my bag back.
“Let me find my friend Issan,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll be able to help sort this all out.”
I left the bar, walked out the front doors of the hotel, and across the street to Issan’s carpet shop. The carpet salesman was an old friend of my publishing colleague. The night before we’d stayed up until the wee hours, listening to stories about the night in the 80s when his village was illuminated by electricity. He spoke five languages, loved Leonard Cohen and suffered from a weak stomach he was forever complaining about. I’d known him for 2 days and loved him.
I dragged Issan back with me across the street, explaining what had happened. I was spinning into a panic. Marcus and Issan barked at each other, aggressively, in Turkish, both massaging their evil-eye key rings, not really looking at each other, and ignoring me. Finally, Issan turned to me:
“The Gypsies took it.”
I may have actually stamped my foot: “A Gypsy DID NOT take my bag. Someone in this hotel did. Please take me to the police.”
This caused more back-and-forth chatter, but louder, and with a new edge. Thirty minutes later Issan and I were sitting in a grimy police station. I was drinking apple tea and smiling politely at a gray-faced man Issan told me was the big boss, the police chief. Once again, Issan was translating:
“He says you are wearing a dress like the women in his village. You must be a nice woman.”
I was wearing a blue, empire-waist, old Jones New York dress I pulled out then when I travelled – you could roll it into a ball and wear it anywhere – to a police station or a cocktail party. I miss that dress to this day.
“He says he wants to apologize to you on behalf of the good people of Turkey. He will give you a document for your insurance company, but he wants to find the evil ones who committed this crime.”
Issan and he chattered back and forth some more.
“He wants us to wait in the other room. Someone on his team will bring us pictures for you to look at.”
Out I went from his office. I was handed another glass of warm sweet apple tea. We waited. Soon the boss himself returned, carrying what looked like a box of photo albums, the kind you have at home with kittens on the front cover. He smiled gently. I understood I was expected to open the albums and find my criminal – the bartender? — and so I opened one. And then another, and another.
The bartender wasn’t there. No one who looked like him was. The albums were filled with image after image of Roma faces — some blank-eyed, some frightened, many with bruised or cut eyes and cheeks. I touched the pictures. I saw women, old and young, children of every age, husbands and fathers, grandfathers. Page after page of broken, depleted, beat-up faces.
“Do you see the Gypsy who did this horrible thing?” Issan translated.
This story goes on and on for a while. Other remarkable, odd things happened that day in Istanbul, before my green card was returned to me — which it was — but I will tell you all about that some other time.
The essential point of this story is the same today, in 2013, when the week’s headlines brought to mind those battered faces from an old photo album, as it was that afternoon, so long ago: Forever assumed to be guilty, what the Roma do mostly is suffer. Yet again, the Gypsy didn’t do it.