Shoppers at the Istanbul spice market

A Downside of Istanbul: Those Pesky Hustlers

Shoppers at the Istanbul spice market
Shoppers at the Istanbul spice market (photo by E. Gerson)

In Western countries, we are independent and like to make our own decisions. If we want to shop at a certain store, we will go to that store. If we want to go to a certain restaurant, we will go eat there. Nobody is standing outside of establishments trying to lure you in elsewhere or make you feel guilty for your choices.

When I arrived in Istanbul in late February, I was flabbergasted by how aggressive the men were. Outside of every bar, restaurant, or shop, there was a man standing there trying to hustle and charm us into his business. As two obviously foreign young women, my friend and I were unfortunately the prime targets for these pesky men.

Rather than pitching their service or product, they first try to engage you in conversation. The usual opening line is, “Hello! Where you from?” Due to my dark complexion nearly everyone there thought I was from Spain, so men were constantly shouting, “Hola!” at me. Once inside a store or booth, they often quickly serve you a cup of piping hot apple tea, a drink so sweet and delicious that it tastes like liquid candy. It’s hard not to stay until you finish it, and during that time period they attempt to convince you to buy their products. If you try to leave before the tea is gone (or reject the tea outright), they act personally offended.

These hustlers try to use emotional appeal to make you feel guilty. One time, a man pressured us so much and wouldn’t leave us alone (and made promises of discounts) that we ended up in his restaurant without even really wanting to eat there. After scouring the menu, we decided we just didn’t want to have dinner at that place. At one point, the man came over to our table and was acting a little too affectionate, hugging me and making me feel uncomfortable. Soon after, we tried to quietly sneak out, but the man saw us and tried to make a big scene about how we were breaking his heart. We left anyway.

There were several times when I went into a shop just to be nice because the men were so pushy and I felt like I couldn’t say no or get away. While they weren’t holding a gun to my head, they are so good at charming and hustling that it can be hard to say no without having to put up a fight, especially if they follow and keep pestering you. They will give you every reason and excuse in the book.

At first you may think it’s flattering to have the attention of so many men. Sadly, it quickly becomes exhausting and a total hassle. You get tired of people yelling at you, approaching you, and doing anything they can to get your attention. You simply want to go where you want to go without being bothered. It’s on every corner, so you can’t get away from it. At first I tried to simply say “no” or “sorry” to the men we passed by, but I soon became so frustrated that I began to ignore them completely. I just kept my eyes focused ahead and walked straight, acting as though nobody was there. It was comical how many languages they tried on me — they often thought I just couldn’t understand them. Some would follow us, trying out new lines to convince us. One man even shouted out, “I promise I will not hustle you!” One man actually meowed at me.

I have been to Mexico and Jamaica and other countries where they operate like this, but Istanbul was especially difficult. I have a feeling it was as bad as it was since we were two women — I was there with my 6-foot-tall boyfriend, I have a feeling they wouldn’t have been nearly as aggressive with me.

Have you ever had a situation like this in a foreign country? How do you usually handle it?

A generation 'y'er from Ireland, living his dreams and convincing you to do the same. Traveling through more than 90 countries around the world and showing no signs of slowing down