Street children are a sad fact of life in İstanbul. I would even argue that they represent one of the greatest dangers in this massive city, as a lot of their activities exceed merely pick-pocketing.
My friend's mom still bears massive scars on her right arm from a gang of street kids who tried to steal her purse. When she refused to let go of one child's braid of hair, the gang attacked her with knives. The police and bystanders caught many of them, the oldest of whom was 10 years old. I warned my family when they arrived two weeks before our wedding that these children and not “terrorists” would be the most dangerous thing they would come across during their visit. This could not have been more colorfully illustrated than on my wedding day.
Cars gaily decorated with flowers, sometimes so much so that you wonder how the driver can even see to drive, are a common sight especially on weekends. These wedding vehicles are covered in ribbons and flowers and often leading a caravan of other cars who tie towels around their side mirrors. For our wedding, we had the decorated car but not the towel-bedecked caravan. These decorated vehicles attract the street children like magnets.
Generally, the children or other interested bystanders will stand in front of the vehicle and not let it pass until they are given money. Most people nowadays put either one dollar bills or one lira coins into several separate envelopes to help “buy” their way through. While at times this can be fun, and also nice to give to the poor, things can also get out of control. I was afraid of this and begged Can and his family to not have our car decorated. Many of our friends had warned us not to do it since they had had a lot of problems at their own weddings with these street children who had lost control. Can's father insisted, and our car was decorated with white lilies in the front and ribbons that stretched from front to back. The lilies, I had peevishly noted, had had the pollen carefully picked out. The same florist had forgotten to remove the pollen from my bouquet, and now I had yellow stains all over my dress. The florist must be a guy, my thoughts simmered, because he thought to protect the car from pollen stains but forgot to protect the bride's dress.
Both mine and Can's family met us at the hairdresser and with the photographer we went to have photos taken at Ihlamur Kasrı, an old Ottoman mansion and park near Şişli. Lots of other couples were also having their pictures taken there, and the green gardens were dotted with couples dressed in their black and white attire. This popular wedding photo destination had not escaped the street children's radar, and they surrounded the park in swarms. My heart sank as we drove up and watched an unfortunate couple exiting. The kids jumped on the bride, tearing her dress and hair, while the photographer and the groom tried to beat them away. Some of the children nearby held small bags to their faces, with what I presumed to be glue or some other inhalant that made them high and far more dangerous. Their eyes were too old for their bodies, and they looked fearless, aggressive and even deadly. As a teacher, many looked the same age as my students. It saddened me to think what circumstances had brought them to this fate. Can told me to wait in the car, while our families and some nearby police who had come to the aid of the other tattered bride helped me get safely from the car and into the guarded entrance of the park.
My mom and sisters could not hide their fear and did not stop shaking the entire time we had our photos done. The park was guarded, and while the children could not enter the park, they shouted epithets and threats from the perimeter. Many climbed the fence and inadvertently were in our pictures and had to be photoshopped out later. Can made the mistake of yelling back at them, and they took an especial liking to shouting out what they planned to do with me when we tried to exit the park. I quaked with fear and tried to smile for the pictures even though my insides were tied in knots. Their threats were very real.
When it came time to go, Can's friend pulled the car as close as he could to the entrance, but it still left about 10 feet that we would be exposed to the street kids. My parents and sisters had already left, with a street ruffian lying across the hood of their car. He finally rolled off when Can's brother, who was driving the car, made an abrupt turn. Can, my friend Pam and the photographer surrounded me, and we hurried to the car. Some kids tried to grab at us, but Pam beat them away with a bottle of wine she had brought to steady our nerves. We did not know it would serve a greater purpose. Even after we were safely in the car with the doors locked, the kids started to beat the car. An older girl with a baby approached and put the baby's head right in front of the tire. In order to leave, we would have to run over the baby. Even though we had the envelopes of money ready to hand out, we were too scared to open the window to pass them out. The eyes of the children around our car were like animals ready for the kill. Finally the police came, and some of the kids scattered. The police told us if they got in our way again, to just run them over. They were tired of constantly putting them in jail, only to have them back on the streets again in a few days. Still, running them over was not an option as far as we were concerned.
They continued to run next to our car until we managed to get on the highway and speed away from them. We were stopped several times along the way by various people and more children, who thankfully accepted our envelope of money and let us continue on our way. We safely made it to the hotel where our wedding was being held, and with shaky legs, I got out of the car, and we walked up to our room. Thankfully, we had a lot of time to compose ourselves before the ceremony began and eat a long overdue lunch. Already we had been through so much, and we were not even married yet. I knew the drama was not over, and I was glad to have a few hours to rest in our huge suite with a few close friends and family members. I was thankful that despite a pollen-stained dress and a scary photo shoot, all the other major details seemed to be on track. Someday we would be able to laugh about all of this, but that time had not yet come. I tried to steady the butterflies fluttering in my stomach as we got ready to become husband and wife.