Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Murder in Istanbul: The Sarai Sierra Story

In the past, visitors to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were greeted with an inscription that read: Know thyself!

Over the years the phrase has collected many  meanings. For our purposes I will assume that the god was saying that you should know that you are mortal, not immortal; vulnerable, not invulnerable.

Knowing your limitations and not taking unnecessary risks seems like good practical and spiritual advice.

Consider the murder of Sarai Sierra. As you know the Staten Island housewife flew off to Turkey in order to pursue her interest in photography. When she failed to make her return flight, the Turkish authorities launched an extensive manhunt. After a few days, they found her bruised and beaten body in a seedy part of Istanbul. She had been murdered.

Information about the case is spotty and unclear. Many have asked what she, a married woman, mother of two children, was doing traveling to an exotic foreign country. Some have found it strange that a woman who was going to take photographs had no photographic equipment beyond her iPhone.

And then there are the salacious rumors. When her husband hacked into her email account, he found that she had been communicating with a Turkish man. The man was brought in for questioning and admitted that he had had carnal relations with Sierra the day before she died.

It has also been reported that Sierra also took short side trips to Amsterdam and Berlin. On her trip to Amsterdam she stayed with a man she had only known through online communications. The man denies that anything sexual happened between them.

It seems unlikely, as some have imagined that she was a drug courier, but it does make sense to say that she went abroad in search of sexual thrills.

The Daily Mail report suggests that Sierra had been spending some of her time chatting up Turkish men.

Why Istanbul? Perhaps because it is reputed to be a fairly safe city. Perhaps because it has an exotic side that she found exciting. Perhaps she craved the kind of excitement that accompanies danger.

This hypothesis is supported by some of her husband’s tweets. The Daily Mail calls them "cryptic," but I beg to differ. Sierra’s husband tweeted:  “Don’t cheat in relationship. If you are not happy just leave.”

To me this says that she had been unhappy in her marriage, that she had been looking for an extramarital dalliance or two and did not want to break up her marriage and her family over it.

Sierra had been married for fourteen years; she had two boys, 9 and 11. Some people might consider it a good situation. Sierra seems to have considered it stifling and repressive.

But, if she was looking for some extracurricular thrills she apparently did not want to find them in her own neighborhood or in a place where she could be recognized and exposed.

Then, there is the matter of a woman traveling along. Some reports suggested that she had planned to travel with a friend. Later, the friend denied having committed to the trip.

Some people have dared to suggest that it is too dangerous for a woman to be traveling alone to a place like Turkey. Others retort that Turkey is far safer than, say, Chicago. Still others note that Muslim men have often abused Western and Westernized women. Turkey is surely not the worst of the lot, but the country has been becoming more Islamist and this is normally not a good thing for women. .

Writing in the Huffington Post Leyla Giray has taken serious offense to the notion that single women should not travel alone. She informs us that she herself has traveled around the world solo and has never had any problems. In itself, this means nothing. 

Giray adds that those who suggest that Sarai Sierra should not have traveled solo are bigoted misogynists or worse.

Responding to those who dared to suggest that Sierra did not use the best judgment, Giray responded:

This type of reaction has been beset by ignorance, prejudice and even xenophobia. Media coverage and comments about Sarai's murder uncover a clear subtext: She had it coming, and none of this would have happened had she stayed home where she belonged.

Some of the comments are downright sexist. If she had been a man, how many commenters would have implied "he should have stayed home with his kids" and "he deserved what he got"?

Unfortunately, Giray cannot do any better than to trot out a tired and empty idea that men and women are the same.

I trust that the priests at Apollo’s temple in Delphi would have accepted that you cannot know yourself if you do not know whether you are a man or a woman and if you don’t know the difference.

If a woman chooses to travel alone, she should take more precautions, because she is more vulnerable. This applies in particular to Western women. No one quite understands how it happened, but in many parts of the world, men have come to believe that all Western women are of dubious moral character, and therefore….

It is also possible that Sierra understood her vulnerability and the possible dangers she might face and found them exciting. Most women would not fly to Amsterdam to spend the night with a man they knew only from an online chat.

Another part of knowing yourself is knowing that you are a parent with responsibility toward two children. Perhaps, Sierra saw her role as an oppressive burden that she needed to overcome. Perhaps she was seeking liberation. Perhaps she wanted to live an alternate life. After all, when she signed in at her hostel in Istanbul she declared that she was unmarried.

Had she known herself to be the mother of two children, perhaps she would have been less reckless. Had she weighed the consequences for her children against her wish for a dangerous thrill, then perhaps she would have done otherwise.

Apparently, Sierra did not want other people to know who she was or what she was doing. One appreciates that if she had been indulging in some sex tourism, she wanted to do it in a a place where no one knew her name. In that way she would have been protecting her husband, her children and her reputation.

So, Sierra went to Turkey to indulge her concupiscent longings because she did not want anyone to know what she was doing.

In a brutal irony, her behavior has now been put on public display and her reputation has been tarnished. Her children have not only lost a mother, but they will be forced to remember her for having done things that she never wanted them to know about.


Anonymous said...

This story speaks so much to what is wrong with our society.
"I'm not happy in my marriage, so I will use his money, OUR money, to get my thrill elsewhere."
"I am infallible."
"I will put all others at risk in order to maximize my own excitement."
I hope that, by exposing this story, we can start to shed the light about what we are doing to ourselves and our loved ones when we take our commitments and responsibilities with such disregard.
Men and women bringing diseases home to their significant other after secret trysts with others "because they are bored or not being energized enough."
Men and women putting themselves in harm's way like Sierra did, to get some extramarital excitement instead of building that excitement right at home.
"I just don't get the same rush I used to get when you come home."
No, honey, you may not after 10 or 15 years. You have to CREATE it. Light some candles. Send the kids to grandma's. Write a love note. Take a bath.
Don't expect the other to be your endorphins for the rest of your life.
I am constantly appalled by the fairy tales we see, and the constant need for the new white knight.
Stuart - this is a sad story to read, and hits to the core of so many of our issues today.
The primary ones I see keep coming back in headline after headline:
-Instant Gratification
-Lack of Personal Responsibility
-"Someone else" must make me happy
-Lack of ethics/integrity
-Short-term thinking, and someone else will take up the slack

Anonymous said...

Ignorance, prejudice, xenophobia and sexism all in one? Wow.

Actually, Ms. Giray saves her best part for the end of her article:

"Sarai's murder should never have happened. That it did wasn't her fault. The mere thought that any woman exercising her independence and self-reliance could be blamed for the subsequent violence against her is an insult."

I don't know how to engage someone like this. How do you have a conversation with such a person? Where would the disagreement be? Her entire piece is a non-starter.

Of course it shouldn't have happened. Of course it wasn't her fault. Of course she could exercise her independence and self-reliance. Of course she can't be blamed for the subsequent violence against her.

We are in full agreement. She didn't travel to a foreign country to get murdered. If she did, that would make her suicidal. She did things she is fully responsible for and the trip didn't turn out the way she wanted it to, which she is also responsible for. But that doesn't matter now, does it?

We are left with the nagging fact that she is still dead. What "should be" doesn't matter. Whether it's her fault doesn't matter. That her independence and self-reliance were compromised doesn't matter. The "insulting" things people are saying don't matter. She's dead.

People seek meaning from events like murders. They want to figure out what this means. What many have concluded is, tragedy aside, this woman made some really wacky choices, and was motivated by interests that are incongruent with her responsibilities as a wife and parent. When we take bold action, we are wise to consider the risks. In the case of something dangerous, we may take pause and consider those we may leave behind. If we don’t act prudently, what does that say about us? After all, life is for the living.

Wishing the world was different does not make it so. This Peter Pan reality Ms. Giray expects the rest of the world to fit into requires their assent... regular folks and weirdos alike. Clearly there are some who don't conform to the rules Ms Giray thinks are best for the rest of the world.

And what is to be done about that? Is it unjust? Sure. Is it unfair? Yes. Is it a double-standard? It is. Does it work to pretend that these things shouldn't apply to you? Ask Ms. Sierra that question. But you can't. She's dead.


Leo G said...


Webutante said...

Great piece. I've had some adventures in Istanbul that scared the wits out of me, even though I traveled with a group of wonderful people. Don't kid yourself, this city like any big city in the world can be dangerous at certain times of the day and night and with or without companions.

Just walking in all those curtained Turkish markets convinced me, I or anyone could be grabbed and abducted in a heartbeat, never to be seen again alive.

This naive woman was walking on the wild side and had left her sense of reality behind. She must have read one too many exotic travel pieces in the NYT that fueled her wildest fantasies.

Anonymous said...

huYes Webuntante, or a piece of crack travel journalism in HuffPo by Leyla Giray.

Not sure if "Midnight Express" is a film the Turkish tourist board recommends for prospective visitors, but maybe it should be?

Anonymous said...

When it comes to asking the questions "Shouldn't I be able to travel to the same places as men?"
I remember what I learned when I was 5.
Life isn't fair. It is life. So I think about the environment before I travel there. If I am in Amsterdam, I only walk in the heart of the city, and only mid-day where there are tons of tourists.
In Istanbul, only with my tourist group en masse.
In Mexico, in an armored car.
In most US cities, not past dusk with or without the buddy system.
I am a grown woman! That isn't fair!
It isn't fair that I am weaker by biology than the majority of men, and certainly of men looking to abduct women like me!!
Life is so unfair!!
But I still choose life. So I understand each environment, I choose wisely, I choose the buddy system, I choose to stay indoors.
I choose to learn from Sarai Sierra and the others that have gone before her. My sympathies go out to her family.
But no, I will not ignore the environment because I am mad at this unfairness life has for the "fairer sex."

Miva said...

Sarai Sierra's killer Ziya T also seen in this video, http://dailyentertainmentnews.com/breaking-news/video-turkish-homeless-laz-ziya-ziya-t-sarai-sierras-killer-photos/ very disturbing!

Dennis said...

I almost spit orange juice all over my computer screen at the line "dubious moral character." Now where would they get that opinion from I wonder? Couldn't be from feminism with all its references to vagina's talking, slut walking, dressing up as vaginas, the persistent attacks on all things male, et al? This from a group that claims to represent American women.
Color me surprise that a number of people, especially in the MIdEast, might question the basic morality of American women. Of course most of us know that feminism does NOT represent most American women, but the loudest noise gets most of the attention.
I find it meaningless that Turkey may be safer than Chicago. Some combat situations are safer than Chicago. At the very least one can be prepared to fight back.
As a young man stationed in Washington DC I walked all over day and night. There are places in Washington DC now I would not go with armed guards. Its called situational awareness.
To have an obvious feminist NOT understand the damage they have done to the standing of American women in the world is what should be the main point. They have a bit of responsibility here and I can understand why they might immediately go back to its all men's fault. It worked in the past. Throw enough rocks and maybe most will not notice your failures.
Not to be too trite, but when one takes responsibility for their actions great things are possible. Part of that is understanding the world as it is and not as one would want it to be.

Sam L. said...

"No one quite understands how it happened, but in many parts of the world, men have come to believe that all Western women are of dubious moral character, and therefore…." Taking a stab at it, I would suggest they have seen our movies and TV, read our magazines, read our websites...

Anonymous said...

This post makes me sick. Do you noticed how misogynistic, racist and ignorant you sound? Why the hell all of you, people, this poor girl instead of HER KILLER. I just returned from a SOLO trip as a woman in Istanbul and was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever have. Turkish people are nice, kind and very funny people! You guys need to get over yourselves and stop blaming the victim for doing what she loves!! Awful people here.

scp1957 said...

"No one quite understands how it happened, but in many parts of the world, men have come to believe that all Western women are of dubious moral character, and therefore…." Positively breathtaking, how far you've buried your tongue in your cheek.

scp1957 said...

Re Anonymous (Oct. 21, 2014), who wrote: "You guys need to get over yourselves and stop blaming the victim for doing what she loves!!" Dear, what would your reaction have been, had the sex tourist in question been a married FATHER of two preteens, who was spending money which his family could ill afford, while his loyal breadwinner wife was left at home alone to worry? A hundred to one that you and your GF's would be angrily condemning that man as a "dirt bag, who got what he deserved." The gals at both "The View" and "The Talk" would be ripping him apart like a cookie, eliciting enthusiastic applause from their misandrist studio audiences.