Phone harassment

ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ

February 24, 2012, Friday/ 17:13:00

As a young girl back in the American Midwest, my friends and I used to “prank call” the boys we had crushes on.

Too shy to actually talk to them in person, we used to call them and pretend to be telemarketers or something in order to hear their voices. It was childish and harmless. Similarly, I was the recipient of many a “prank call” by my classmates. We all chuckle at our high school reunions, looking back at our childhood games in amusement. When I moved to İstanbul in my mid-twenties, I was shocked and not pleased to be the recipient of several at times scary incidences over the phone. In nine years of living here most of my expat female friends have confessed to having experienced similar problems.

When I first moved to Turkey I lived alone. Occasionally, I would get a random wrong-number call. Anyone who called me could immediately tell that I was a “yabancı” by the way I answered the phone. My Turkish was limited, and my accent hard to conceal. For some reason, this would invite some men to repeatedly call me back. It was obnoxious and at first scared me. I quickly learned to hand the phone off to a male, Turkish colleague if the call came while I was at work. He would pretend to be my husband, and the person would usually refrain from calling again. Even though I had Caller ID, the person could hide their number before calling. Gradually I learned not to be frightened by these childish calls, although they were grown men on the other end of the line. These random, disturbing phone calls became more problematic as my understanding of Turkish increased over the years, and I could comprehend the disgusting things being said to me over the phone by a total stranger.

The worst case happened my third year in Turkey. For days a guy had been calling my phone from a hidden number at all hours of the day and night. I had my colleague yell at him, had threatened to call the police, but he wouldn’t stop. Finally, I just shut my phone off for a few days and contemplated getting a new phone number. I was angry that some idiot had made me so helpless. When I turned my phone back on, there was a blessed silence for a few days. Then, it started again, but this time it was a woman on the other end. “Why is your number on Ahmet’s phone? Who are you?” she screamed at me in Turkish. I had absolutely no idea who Ahmet was and said so. “Don’t lie to me, you Natasha!” she said, referring to me with the slang name used in Turkey to denote a Russian prostitute. Apparently, a woman speaking Turkish with an accent must be Russian. She was even more persistent than her husband. Finally, I had enough and went to the police. This harassment was out of control. Who was Ahmet? How had he gotten my number?

I was nervous going to the Turkish police. What could they do? Well, I was in luck because the woman called while I was at the police station explaining my situation. The policeman listened to the woman and asked some questions. Surprisingly, he got a lot of answers out of her, something I had been trying to do for over a week. He also told her that I was planning to file a case of harassment against them if they did not leave me alone. He then spoke to Ahmet, who confessed how he got my phone number. A few weeks earlier I had gone to the Biletix ticket office near my work to buy concert tickets. The man in the ticket booth asked me for my phone number when collecting information for my ticket. There was a long line of men behind me eagerly waiting to purchase tickets for the next Galatasaray match. Ahmet was behind me and took my phone number down as I verbally gave it to the Biletix worker. The harassment started after that. His suspicious wife went through his phone numbers and discovered all of his calls to me, and understandably was very angry. But, instead of confronting her husband, she instead blamed me. It was an awful situation and left me pretty shaken up. The thing that scared me the most was that I did not even know what this guy looked like. He had stood behind me in line, gotten my phone number second hand and made my life miserable for weeks. I advise all of my expat friends to never verbally give your phone numbers out. Whenever I am asked, I always write it down, pass it to the bank teller or whoever is asking, then destroy the paper when they hand it back.

Just irritating and not dangerous?

Recently, someone called our home telephone, and I answered the phone. The man on the other end has been calling us at odd hours, despite angry shouts from my husband. Can is surprised at my nonchalance, not fully understanding that my nine years in Turkey have occasionally been marked by these episodes. I have learned, though, that these things are generally just irritating and not dangerous. I also know that if a call gets threatening enough, that I can open a case against the caller. The police told me that I just need to file a complaint, be taken in front of a judge, and can request my phone records all in the same day. Usually this is enough to deter these kinds of calls.

Harassment of any nature is intimidating, doubly so when you are in another country. There are precautions you can take to try and prevent yourself from becoming a victim, such as being careful when giving your phone number out. If you find yourself in a bad situation, know that there are resources at your disposal. In my case, my local police department was very helpful. I was pleasantly surprised that it was pretty easy to get a “restraining order” in Turkey. Here, I have found that most Turkish men’s bark is worse than their bite. This was the case with Ahmet, who stopped calling me when he was spoken to sternly by the police officer. Meanin g, they usually back off when you show your strength. In America, this is not the case. I had a very scary incident at my American university, and the police did nothing to help, saying that I had ‘not been directly threatened’ by my harasser. Three years later, after I graduated, a girl was raped and murdered in my old dormitory. She too had complained of harassment, and nothing was done. In Turkey, I feel like my voice is at least heard even though my Turkish is far from perfect. The fact those friends and the police were willing to help put my mind at ease. Now, when I get annoying phone calls, I just feel irritated rather than powerless. There are things I can do about it should things escalate. Turkish women also experience this harassment, but they don’t stay silent about it. Neither should us expats! Have you experienced phone harassment in Turkey? Do you have any recommendations you can share?

*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.