He quietly commands respect, we all pass by him timidly with our eyes lowered. Newcomers to our area quickly learn the unspoken rules. Most of us are afraid to admit it outside of our district, but we are all run by this canine master.
My husband, Can, and I moved to this flat in an apartment complex (site) almost three years ago. To get into our complex, we have to drive through a village. Here, as I have written before, city rules don’t apply. Outside of our complex, everyone knows each other. Weddings are celebrated in the street, with dancing, fireworks and gunfire. Roads are spontaneously closed so the teyzeler can spread out their carpets and bedding to be washed. Cows, chickens, goats and other livestock roam the streets and frequently graze on the verdant grass at the playground. Most of the street dogs and street cats are pretty unremarkable, except for the select few who dominate their respective sectors.
A mangy neighbor
It took a while for The Boss to accept us as part of the fabric of his mahalle. We too shuddered whenever we passed him, for I am not sure I have seen such an ugly dog in my life. He is massive, with a bull-like head out of proportion with the rest of his body. When he swings it laboriously to gaze at you, you feel sorry for making him exert the effort. He has black and gray fur, with light brown ruffs in an odd pattern along his back and legs. This hair is longer than the dark hair, giving him a persistent mangy look. His eyes are the same gray as his coat; in some lights it’s hard to tell whether his eyes are open or shut. His right front paw is kept bandaged by some kind-hearted soul. Still, the chronic injury causes him to limp, resembling an old man hobbling along with a cane. Despite his unwieldy gait, he commands a presence that is incredible.
He generally sprawls in the middle of the street that provides the only entrance to our complex. When we first arrived, he did not stir or even attempt to move out of the way. Dismayed, I thought that he was dead, hit by a previous car. Can made the huge mistake of honking the horn, at which point he slowly got up. Angry, he growled low in his throat, and moved toward the driver’s side window. He barked and chased our car to the security gate, jaws snapping perilously close. He then resumed his position sprawled across the middle of the street. While we waited at the security gate we watched as another vehicle approached. He too stopped his car for the canine obstruction, but surprisingly did not honk. For İstanbul drivers that are accustomed to honking for everything, this was surprising. After a few seconds the dog got up, smelled the bumper, and moved to the side to let the car pass on to the human-run security checkpoint. We learned rule #1 then and there.
For the first few weeks The Boss held a grudge against our car and us. Despite being hobbled, he could run when he was really angry, which unfortunately was directed at us. Can had honked at him, or had disrespected him in some way, and he wasn’t fast to forget it. An avid walker, I hoped that I would be allowed to walk through the neighborhood without being attacked by this dog. I asked our security guards if he was a guard dog for our site, and they laughingly told me no, he was the self-appointed gatekeeper for the whole mahalle. Finally he forgave us and we were able to pass into our complex without impediment. I felt comfortable enough to walk down the street, and he watched me closely. An old woman was sitting next to the door of her house, near our street. We had been chatting for a bit when The Boss decided to join us. That dog old? That dog crippled? Not around this woman. Suddenly he was all puppy again, whining, tail wagging, forepaws dancing back and forth in excitement. “Oh, all right, hold on,” she told him lovingly, before returning with some bones and kitchen scraps. I noticed a water dish near the door and some blankets spread in an old crate near the parking lot. “Is he yours?” I asked her. “No, but I take care of him.” It warmed my heart.
Caring for dogs
Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, yet most Muslims here don’t seem to be bothered by touching dogs. Certain branches of Islam throughout the world are more strict in regards to dogs than others, and how ritually unclean they are. Many Muslims will not touch a dog, enter a house with a dog or keep one as a pet. I was pleasantly surprised to find that most people in Turkey take pity on the many street dogs throughout the country. People like this teyze who feed them, provide water and aren’t afraid to pet them. While the street animal dilemma in Turkey is quite disturbing, at least the local people are not afraid to interact with the animals or at least tolerate them.
I nicknamed him The Boss, as everyone seems to have a different name for this colorful resident of our block. After he “accepted” us, we no longer had any problems with the other dogs that frequent our neighborhood. They all defer to him. Although he has aged considerably since we first moved here, he still inspects every vehicle that enters the street. Many times he causes a mild traffic jam but no one here seems to mind it. We all wait our turn, let him smell our car and let us pass. He disappeared for a week and everyone was talking about his absence. People in our complex were drawn together to find out what happened to our self-appointed protector. It turned out that the local vet operated on his bad leg pro-bono, and he was laid up for a week recovering. And where did he stay? In a cozy nook set up especially for him by the corner market. He could have retired peacefully in his posh by street-dog standards digs, but he was anxious to get up and back to work. We were all secretly relieved. Sadly, the people of my site and the village locals rarely interact. We get irritated when they close the streets to wash carpets. They get irritated at us bringing lots of unwanted traffic to their district. However, The Boss brings us together. The corner market was busy that week with people checking in on our favorite character, bringing home some treats and scraps to help his recovery. He is beloved by all, irrespective of class. The Boss is the one thing that ties our two communities together. He knows this, but only shows his affection to a few trusted people, the rest of us he displays a tolerant, royal detachment to that keeps us in our place. We were all relieved when he was back in his usual spot; it seemed as if our world was back to rights again.
*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul.
Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments or questions.