"You're black wherever you go."

I am getting ready to leave Istanbul.

In a lot of ways, I have left already.  I have sort of contracted into a ball here, walking around the city in the morning and coming back to the hotel in the afternoons to sleep for a few hours.  Then going out in the evening for dinner at a couple of kebap houses near Tunel Station.  It's really great food and it's very cheap.
I think I have exhausted my time here.  
So many things were greater than I expected.  To see the work of Sinan, tiles from Iznik, the multiple layering of cultures, has been beyond belief really.  I have so many ideas for painting that I cannot wait to get back to my studio.  I have started making drawings and some things are coming into place for the work.  I am developing some ideas based on the grid that were not really available to me before I came here.  I also am wondering about the Tablet paintings and if they need to be figurative at all.  I have been really rethinking how I make these paintings.  Is color and light enough for the pictures?  Even the Savannah paintings have started to change with the insertion of various portraits into the schema of the grid.  The tiling here has really brought out the idea of pattern as an end to itself.  I am not sure if I can make a picture like that.  The figure to me has never been a thing about a way to investigate shape, it was the content of the picture for me.  To start making pictures without the figure is a thing that is coming up very much in my thinking and I have to start to deal with it.
At the same time, the ideas that I was looking at in the Tongue paintings have REALLY come back to the fore.  Seeing people walk in front of a tiled wall has really impacted me.  It is such a simple thing really.  I just started seeing it in a new way.  That space between can be flat and ornamental at the same time.  It is something Gregory Gillespie has done and even someone like Christina Renfer is doing now.  It is really the difference between painting the atmosphere and painting an area.  I was always the kind of painter who if I didn't know what to do with something, I just made it flat.  Now that idea is not enough.  I think the tile is a way into this, a way to have a dialog with pattern, flatness, content and character in the work.  I have been thinking of a way to bring the Tablets and the Tongues together.  Istanbul is giving me that, I think.
The other thing, the hard thing, the thing I did not expect, is that I have not really been able to relax here.  Turkey does not have a very diverse population.  I really stick out here, and people stare - a lot.  At first it was interesting to me because it didn't seem weighted with the racism of home.  I was like "The Brother From Another Planet," or something.  I took photos with school children who were shocked that I said "Merhaba" when they said hello.  That was the nice part of it.  The not so nice part was the cops, the stares on the subway, people putting my change on the counter instead of my hand.  The accusatory way they ask "Where are you from?"
Apparently, I look like I come from the Arabian peninsula, and since the end of the Ottomans there is not a great deal of love between the Arabs and the Turks.  Also, I have been taken for a "gypsy" or one of the Roma people and let me tell you, there is not a great deal of love for the Roma anywhere.  In light of all of this, I walk down the street feeling very uncomfortable and very vulnerable here.  I know that I am safe, but the looks on people's faces are not exactly welcoming.  I don't think I could ever get used to being looked at that way.  You might think that all of that kind of prejudice is the same, but it really isn't  In America, you get looked at like a criminal or a danger. Here it is like you are a freak or something.  It is very unsettling, especially since the Turks are such nice people and cannot understand American-style racism at all. But when they think you might be "arap" or from Iran, or gypsy, it gets a little weird.

I had a moment at Topkapi's Hall of Relics where I got a little worried.  I was in line to see the mantle of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) when I felt this man looking at me. I turned and he said "Where are you from?"  I usually start speaking French at this point (and I thank my mother for making me take 5 years of the language) but this time I answered in English that I was from the United States.  He glared at me said "I hate your President."  I said that I understood.  "Bush wants to kill all the Muslims," he said.  "Well, we won't let him," I said.  Then we both stood in front of the window that looked into the golden room, with the golden stand, holding the golden box in which was a piece of cloth worn by Mohammed.  We shook hands and departed each other.  My friend Michael made me promise that I would stop telling people I was from the United States after that.  I didn't, but I did speak french in public a lot more.
I think I was chasing the experience that James Baldwin had when he went to France and got treated like an American.  Not as a negro, or colored, just some knucklehead writer from the US.  I didn't get that in Istanbul.  I got a real reminder about being different, being outside. It is the position of the constant observer, really, the flaneur, the "Painter of Modern Life."
My father used to say, "You're black wherever you go."  It was a warning about the way the world saw my brother and I.  

Magic carpet ride....

OK.  I think a sufficient amount of time has passed since the purchase of my Turkish carpet to begin to talk about what happened.

I had just come out of the Basilica Cistern.  I had gone there at the suggestion of my friend Cecilia because she said it was one of the things in Istanbul that had a great impact on her.  I have to say I feel the same way.  The cistern is so incredible (despite the music they play down there) that it is really like descending to another time, not just a different space.  I was trying to get my bearings and let my eyes adjust to the light when a tour guide started to talk to me.
He was handsome and charming and, like the majority of Turks, very friendly.  We chatted for a bit and I told him I was on an extended visit in Istanbul to look at art and design.  He mentioned that he worked at a store nearby and that he would be happy to show me some carpets and kilims for my research. It was early in the day, around 10:00 a.m.  I told him I was on my way to Topkapi Palace, but I would love to come by another time.  I gave him my card.  He said that he had his cards at the store and that it was on the way to the Palace, so I went with him to get his card.  I was not interested in buying a rug.
When we got to the store, there was a lot of talk in Turkish and the guide gave me his card.  He offered me a seat and introduced me to another gentleman named Hakim.  Hakim got me a glass of apple tea and the three of us started chatting about nothing really.  Then I noticed that the guide was gone, and Hakim and I were alone in the showroom.  Hakim spoke to one of the men in the store and suddenly rugs were being rolled out in front of me.  The most beautiful designs and colors and textures.  Hakim was really great at explaining the differences, how they are named for the region, why Turkish rugs are better (the double knot) and details about color and dyeing and all sorts of things.  It was really an education.  I was looking, but still I had no plans to but a rug.
More tea and more tea.  Hakim asked me which one I liked best and I told him there were so many that it was impossible to choose.  He told me he would make it easier for me.  He asked me which ones I did not like.  It did make it easier to eliminate some.  Hakim kept saying "Which is your champion?"  I was really enjoying myself looking and deciding which I liked. It finally got down to a really beautiful rug.  I told Hakim I was not interested in buying a rug, certainly not one for so much money.  He was very friendly and said "Didn't you come to Istanbul to see beautiful things?"  I agreed and he told me that this rug, which was from Cappadocia, he would sell me for half of the price that was on the tag.  I gasped and thought, well, that is a really great deal.  So we shook hands and I gave him my credit card and I thought that was that.
Now Turkey is often blocked by credit card companies.  I called my bank before my trip to let them know I was going to be in Istanbul for an extended stay.  Still, there had been some trouble with my bank with daily limits and such.  Also, I had only been in Istanbul for 2 days at this time.  So when one of the men told Hakim my card was declined, I really thought nothing of it.  "Please try again," I said.  "This has happened a couple of times."  
More tea.  And more Turkish conversation.  Hakim tried to call the number on my card but said he could not get through.  I offered to try but he said not to worry.  "Banks are a pain," he said.  He asked me if I could go to a bank machine and I said sure.  He had one of the employees walk me to a machine, but, because of my daily limit, I was unable to take out the entire amount.  He walked me back to the shop.
"Let's go up to the office," Hakim said.  I followed him.
From the colorful airy light of the showroom we went upstairs and around a few corners to the office, which was dark and low ceilinged but well appointed with a sitting area and a large office desk.  The lights were localized around the desk area.  One man in an Italian suit sat smoking on a sofa.  Another man with white hair and a knit sweater sat behind the desk.  Another large man with a doughy face in a suit was standing behind him.  Hakim offered me a seat at the desk with the Sweater Man.  He handed the Sweater Man my credit card and said something in Turkish.  The Sweater Man looked at me and started bending the card.  He picked up the phone and dialed the number on the back.
"How are you?" He asked.
"All right," I said.  "You?"
"Banks." He said.
"I don't know what the problem is,"  I said.
"We'll figure it out."
He dialed a few times and then put the phone down.  He looked at me, bending the card in his hands.  He said, "This card is bullshit."
"Excuse me?"
"This is bullshit.  This is a bullshit number on this card.  How do you call a number like this?"
"What do you mean?"
"This B-A-N-K.  How do you dial that?"
"Use the key pad to spell out the word."  I showed him how.  He dialed it and held the phone to his ear.
"Do you want some more tea?"
"We have a bathroom."
"Thank you," I said.  "But no."
The Sweater Man laughed and handed me the phone.  I heard the recording from my bank asking to call back during normal business hours.  I had forgotten about the time difference.  It was about 4 a.m. in Boston.
It's hard to remember, but I think now is when I started to feel frightened.  Hakim was gone. The door was behind me and I was pretty sure it was locked.  The man on the sofa was staring at me and the Doughy Man was somewhere behind me.  The Sweater Man was glaring at me now.
I looked past him to the monitors on his desk which I had not noticed before.  It was closed circuit television - camera in various parts of the store, and on the street.
"There's a time difference," I said.  "There's no 24 hour service at my bank."
From behind me, the Doughy Man said something in Turkish.  He went to a phone and got out an olde time charge plate slider.  He called Visa and got the purchase approved the old fashioned way.  I surmised this from watching him take my credit card and slide it through the machine, writing an approval code on the sheet and giving it to the Sweater Man.
"It's all set.  We had to do two transactions to get it in right," the Sweater Man said. "My cousin," he said, indicating the Doughy Man, "he does a lot of business in America.  He knows how to get around all this."  I thanked the Doughy Man in Turkish.  He nodded.  The sweater man put the receipts and a small card on how to care for the rug in an envelope.
"The monitors," I said.  "You can see everything."
"You need to," the Sweater Man said.  He glared again. "People try to rob you sometimes, gypsies pretend to be customers."
"Gypsies?  Roma?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.  "You have to be sure."
Hakim reappeared and patted me on the back.  I almost jumped out of my skin when he touched me.  "It's all right," he said.  "Everything is ok.  Come and get your carpet."
In a stupor, I went down stairs with Hakim.  He packed up the rug and put it in a satchel with handles. He put the receipts inside and told me to carry it home in my luggage.  He shook my hand and thanked me for being the first sale of the day.  I stepped out into the cold air of the street.
Everyone tells me what they would have done.  They would have gotten up and left.  They would have told the guys to fuck off.  They would have done all sorts of things.  Maybe they would have.  I don't know.  I do know that everyone handles situations better than you after you have had to live through them.  A pleasant moment turned very ugly very quickly and I cannot explain how.  I was probably swindled and probably paid way more for my rug than it was worth.  Because I was alone in a foreign country, I didn't think I had any recourse.  I felt (feel) very stupid about the whole thing.  They were probably looking for American suckers on their closed circuit TV and were waiting for me the minute I came out of the Cisterns.  I was shaking all the way back to my hotel.  I completely forgot about my plans for the day.  I put the carpet in the wardrobe of my room and went to bed.  I didn't even want it anymore.
I had to go back the next day.  For reasons too complex to explain, the Doughy Man charged me in YTL instead of dollars, so I needed to pay the $60 difference.  I could have blown it off and kept my money, but I wanted to be ethical even if I felt like they weren't.  Hakim was very sweet and very kind and showed me more rugs and gave me more tea.   He told me about his favorite piece (the guy is holding it in the photo).  This is the rug in his office.  I told him about my website and showed him my paintings.  He was impressed, or at least he pretended to be.  He wanted me to buy a silk rug that was created as a dowry piece.  He asked me to come back tomorrow to have lunch at the store with him and his family.  I said I would.
I went back to my hotel.  I haven't returned to that carpet showroom.  When guys on the street say hello to me now, I smile and keep walking.  I wear my sunglasses all the time to avoid meeting their gaze.  When I leave the country, I will post the name of the place.
The artist Pippa Bacca was found dead outside of Istanbul a few weeks before I arrived.  She was trying to prove that trusting people was key to human understanding.