Letters from Istanbul: The Journey of a Tissue Pack

selpakIn the city of Istanbul many poor old women sell packets of tissue in the streets, mostly to passing motorists and the people sitting outside cafes.

Have you ever considered the journey one of these packets of tissue makes? No? Well, I’ll consider it then.

It is a Tuesday morning, early autumn in the city. Outside a cafe in Bağdat Caddesi, an old gypsy woman approaches a group of people having breakfast. They see the woman but click their tongues to refuse her outstretched hands, which clutch packets of tissue paper.

So the woman turns, looks down the street and eyes a tall yabancı, who happens to be an English teacher. He’s carrying his bag of books, and waiting for his driver. As the gypsy woman approaches, he sees a gleam of sweat on her forehead. Her hair is hidden under a patterned headscarf.

“Lütfen, lütfen,” the gypsy woman says, holding out the tissue. “Bir lira.” She raises one finger to show the price.

The teacher is a bit embarrassed by the woman’s poverty. He hands her a coin and takes the tissue packet. He doesn’t really need tissue, but figures  it’s good karma, which in English means “conscience relief.”

The packet of tissue settles comfortably (well, not really) into the teacher’s back pocket, sidling up next to his soft, teacherly ass. It stays there over the next few hours. It accompanies him to a lesson at BP in Bostancı, and then back to the school in Suadiye. After a few hours of being sat on and squished, the tissue then accompanies the teacher back out to the street in search of a dolmuş.

Once, the teacher forgets that the tissue is in the back pocket, feels something  “bumpy” down there, so he reaches into the back pocket and finds the tissue. Oh, right, the tissue, the teacher says, somewhat disappointed. He’d been hoping it was something more exciting. Like what? He didn’t know, just something besides a stupid packet of tissue. He thought of the old gypsy woman. Where did she get the money to buy tissue if she was so poor? Lots of poor people sell them in the streets. Maybe there was some huge tissue dispensary somewhere, out beyond the city. A wholesaler of sorts. Perhaps there was some government program that issued free tissue packets. Maybe there was some organized cartel, a tissue mafia! (“All right, see, hand over da’ tissue or we dump you in da’ riva.”)

He wanted to just leave the tissue somewhere, like on the floor of the dolmuş, or even better, to just drop it in the trash. But he would have felt guilty if he had. The woman who had sold it to him was not begging; she was at least trying to offer something of use. So he kept the tissue, and when he got off the dolmuş in Kadıköy, he walked up the hill on Bahariye Caddesi past the Opera House and crossed over to Barlar Sokak, or “Bar Street.”

He spent a couple hours at Hera, enjoying a few pints and talking with a few people sitting at nearby tables. They talked of the war, of the IS troubles. Down in his back pocket, the tissue could only hear muffled noises, so it couldn’t make much of the conversation. It got bored and slept for a while, dreaming of cotton and satin, of wiping beautifully shaped noses and sensual, generous mouths.

After awhile, the tissue woke up. It realized they were moving again. He didn’t really like his new owner. He drank too much and sat on his ass too much – a very squishy fellow indeed. The old woman was really much nicer.

Meanwhile, the teacher walked back through the evening streets of Kadıköy to his flat. Now, somewhat tired and drunk, he got home and undressed. He hung his trousers on the door, and went to sleep. Inside the back pocket of the trousers, the tissue slept again too. It had a nightmare of being used, rolled into a ball and flushed down a toilet, spinning round and round in a whirlpool and going down, down, into darkness.

In the morning, the teacher showered, dressed (like most men, he wore the same trousers from the day before) and went downstairs to get a dolmuş to work. He was standing, waiting, when a woman approached. She was very nondescript, with a green shirt and green trousers, green hair, green face, green green green. She extended an empty, green hand, and in a very green-sounding voice, asked for money.

The teacher shook his head, but reached in his back pocket. He handed the woman the packet of tissue.

Just then, a dolmuş arrived. The teacher got on the dolmuş, and the green woman got on with him. She told the driver to take her to Caddebostan. The teacher was going to Suadiye.

Along the way, they picked up more people until the dolmuş was full. The green woman sat in the back seat next to the window, looking out at the neighborhoods that passed by. One by one, people got off at various stops, until finally the teacher and the green woman were the only ones left.

At the Migros in Caddebostan, the green woman instructed the driver to stop. He did, and when the green woman was getting off, she handed him something. The driver began yelling at the woman, cursing, and she cursed a green streak back. They threw insulting gestures at each other, and finally, the driver threw up his hands, and with one final curse, continued on.

But as they continued, the driver turned and looked back at the teacher. The driver was still cursing and shaking his head. “Can you believe this?” the driver asked. “She didn’t have any money and tried to pay me with this. This!” He held it out:

It was the packet of tissue.

“Allah, Allah,” the driver said, holding the tissue like it was a turd.

In all its life, the tissue had never felt so embarrassed.

“Allah, Allah,” the driver said again. He tossed the tissue out the window, and they continued on toward Suadiye.


James Tressler, a former journalist from California, is the author of “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1” and “Conversations in Prague.” He lives in Istanbul.

What are Letters from Istanbul?

Istanbul is a million villages woven, one might even say, thrown together, rather than a single vast city. The city is best understood by understanding little bits at a time, one person at a time. It is a city that defies perspective, for it is constantly shifting. It is an endless parade of street musicians playing simple, overlapping melodies, rather than a symphony orchestra striking a single majestic chord; it is an intricate mosaic rather than a grand oil portrait, the pieces of the mosaic each giving meaning and sustenance to the whole.

All that sounds a bit high-flown, I know. But to paraphrase James Joyce, the universal lies within the particular. So, that’s the intent of these Letters: to gather up those mosaic tiles one at a time, and to find the little stories that fall between the cracks. Hopefully the pieces of that mosaic will add up to an interesting portrait of this city a lot of us call home.

James Tressler
James Tressler is the author of several books, including Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches. He lives in Istanbul.


  1. Very much enjoyed! I miss the old midnight writing sessions we had when we were but young men with souls that were searching. 208 Russ Lane. Where we began


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