At five in the morning a wailing comes up from the valley below as one mosque after another broadcasts the call to prayer, a coagulating chorus joining up together in one unified lament – Allāhu akbar, Allah, Ash-hadu an-lā ilāha illā allāh, Ash-hadu anna Mohamadan-Rasul ullāh……
It is weird and unearthly, and as I lay in my bed, listening to this otherworldly ululation coming from the minarets of a half dozen neighborhood mosques I am stirred to move; I can no longer sleep.
Midday, the great symphony starts up of Turkish mothers, grimy children, the junk men down in the street calling out for neighbors to bring out their broken wares, the yogurt man joining in, all in strings of agglutinated syllables with a follow-through of identical vowels, and added to this the honking horns and mewling cats, and then the midday muezzin coming up from the bottom of Tarlabaşı. Seagulls screech and fight over entrails tossed at them from the neighborhood butchers. And not to forget the police sirens. Every fifteen minutes or so there is a crime to attend to here in Tarlabaşı.
I am living here, in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul’s most famous slum, on Emin Cami Sokak, a wash-lined street full of dissolute houses, heavy with past and a well with an Arabic inscription which ceased functioning long ago. Below is Kasimpaşa football stadium, where Erdoğan used to play football before turning to politics. My flat is okay, but a little run-down, and there’s not much space; there used to be a living room, but for some reason they locked that off.
Going down the narrow musty stairs, on the second floor landing I am waylaid by an old woman in a headscarf, who comes out of her reinforced metal door and sticks out her hand and mutters something about a fee. What kind of fee! I want to know. She reigns in her vicious kangal guard dog. She is a Muslim, for whom dogs are haram, but she needs this one; Tarlabaşı is dangerous as Istanbul neighborhoods go, full of thieves and banidits. It is a district that is often associated with crime in the media. For this reason Tarlabaşı is shunned by most Istanbullus as a no-go area.
Across the street is a tekel, a bottle store, where a grizzled Kurd sits watching the TV in the corner, taking time out from his viewing pleasure to sell me an Efes beer (the only game in town in Turkey as far as beer goes), or rakıin a black bag so no one can see you are carrying alcohol. Alcohol is expensive here in Istanbul with the high sin tax.
Stray cats lounge in doorways and car hoods and a house cat with a collar studded with nazar –talismans to ward off the evil eye – saunters by. People stop to caress an old three-legged dog sunning itself in front of a grocery.
Why all the stray dogs and cats in Istanbul? This is one of the first things the visitor wants to know. It’s because there are no kennels here. Once, all the dogs of Istanbul were rounded up put on a ship and let loose on one of the uninhabited Princes’ Islands, where they were allowed to roam free and eventually starve to death. It was an event called the “Hayırsızada Dog Massacre” of 1910, the Mayor of Istanbul ordered the stray dogs in the streets to be rounded up and exiled to Sivriada. Around 80,000 dogs were transported to Sivriada and many of them died during the ordeal, mostly due to hunger and thirst on the barren island, and some due to drowning as they tried to swim towards the boats that departed. Today stray dogs are just castrated, their ears tagged and set free again. On sunny days they lay on the sidewalk, basking in the sun, sad, bruised, mad beasts, cowered by traffic and entirely unthreatening.
The people in my neighborhood are Gypsies and Kurds. Some of the women wear the hijab, just like back home in Berlin, in Neukölln or Wedding – Berlin’s immigrant melting pots. When it’s cold out the women wrap their faces in scarves so that only the eyes are revealed. And here comes the old paper collector, pulling his oversize burlap sack down the streets; often these rubbish men are Gypsies, sometimes women with their children tagging along — just like the flower women, Gypsies as well, sitting on street corners in the more well-off neighborhoods surrounded by roses, cradling sleeping babies, clothed in colorful dresses and headscarves.
It is interesting that there is very little racism towards Gypsies in Istanbul. It seems that the farther south-east you go from the countries of the north, from Berlin, through Czech Republic, Hungary and Serbia to Turkey the more hate seems to dissipate.
Normally there aren’t problems between Turks and Gypsies. The Gypsies live in their own neighborhoods, they marry each other, sell flowers on the streets, collect paper and bottles from the trash, harming no one.
Down in the valley a couple days a week is a bazaar, a covered market offering cut-rate textiles, fruit and vegetables under blue awnings. On hot summer days boys no older than ten selling bottled water, calling out, “Water, cold water”. A man sits under an umbrella and sells tiny baby chicks with yellow fur in cardboard boxes. Shirtless boys stand around and stare at the chicks and occasionally try to touch or grab them; the merchant shoos them away. A woman buys a chick, which the merchant sticks in a paper bag and gives to the lady along with a plastic bag of feed. A couple of brown-skinned Gypsy boys walk up the street pulling plastic crates after them on ropes.
There is a türkü bar above a dingy fly-blown café where men sit drinking tea and playing tavla. Faded posters of Turkish singers who have performed at the bar hang in the window. Nearby, barefoot Gypsy women in florid dresses and headscarves soap down oriental carpets on the street. The carpets lie on large pieces of plastic. Across the street a woman sits on the pavement and separates wool.
Down in the street a Gypsy henna night is in progress. Only women are gathered there in glitzy gowns, linking hands and dancing halay to Oriental music. The men stand in the background, while boys play marbles in the dirt.
It is summer in Tarlabaşı and wedding season. Cavalcades of cars drive up Irmak Caddesi, honking horns and streaming white and red ribbons. The Gypsies celebrate their weddings on the street under strung-out lights with Oriental music. The Turks, that is, the non-Gypsies, celebrate in wedding salons, the wedding guests in all of their glitzy finery standing outside the salons, men in pointy-toed patent leather shoes and slicked up hair.
In front of one salon where a wedding is getting ready to be celebrated there are men got up in elaborately embroidered women’s dresses. The one bangs a davul, another plays a zurna, the third belly-dances, playing finger cymbals. They are köçek, male dancers and musicians dressed as women, a tradition going back to Ottoman times when women were forbidden to perform before the sultan, and so men dressed as women took their place.
Here in Tarlabaşı you are aware that there are two kinds of Istanbullu. There are the “white Turks” the Istanbullus who have some education and move along the main arteries of the city, only a couple of streets removed from where I am now. Although Istiklal Caddesi is only ten minutes away, the “white Turks” there have no idea what goes on here, and if they came here they would feel like strangers in their own city.
The inhabitants of Tarlabaşı belong to the second type of Istanbullu, the “black Turks”, who constitute the majority in Istanbul today. They are the poor, also strangers. What goes on in Şişli or Kadıköy doesn’t interest them. They make no effort to find out what the adjacent street is like, who lives in that building over there.
But Tarlabaşı is changing. Unlike Berlin, gentrification in Istanbul is more brutal, crasser. In Berlin the gentrification is creeping; first the artists and students move in, hip bars and alternative boutiques open up, gradually the rents rise, higher wage-earners move in and the old inhabitants are pushed out to the peripheries. In Tarlabaşı gentrification is drastic. Old buildings are razed and new ones built in their place, the old inhabitants removed to soulless housing on the outskirts.
A lot of urban renewal takes place in Istanbul on the pretext that many of the old buildings are not earthquake-proof and therefore have to be replaced. The move to revamp old neighborhoods came into effect after the last big earthquake in 1999.
But some people question whether safety is the real motivation for these urban renewal initiatives. Many of these old, decrepit neighborhoods, like Tarlabaşı, house Gypsy communities, and the feeling is among some that the government wants to break up the cohesion of these communities, and this is the real reason for the drastic slum clearance, like in the Sulukule in Fatih, right under the old city walls, which took place a couple of years ago. The buildings consisted of so-called “gecekondus”, literally, “houses built over-night”, and inhabited by Gypsies for as long as anyone can remember.
Recently large portions of Sulukule were destroyed and modern, upper-end housing built on the site of the old gecekondus. It had been told me that on sunny days in the spring the Gypsies who used to live in Sulukule and had been resettled elsewhere in the city, would return to Sulukule and play music and eat and dance. So I went out to Sulukule one day sunny day in the spring, hoping to catch a bit of action, a bit of life, and found myself lost in an old Gypsy rat-alley lined with one-storey gecekondus, the doors flung open , gaudy Gypsy clothing hung out on wash lines. Suddenly, a Gypsy man started yelling at me in Turkish, the disoriented gadje, to get the hell out. And that was the last time I ever ventured into Sulukule.
Here in my Tarlabaşı neighborhood, on the corner stands a grill-house, where I always order the same Adana durum with hot peppers and ayran every night, warmed in the winter time by the hot coals while the TV plays seventies flicks with Orhan Gencebay or tacky arabesk music videos full of pathos and lamenting lost love. Or else brutal Turkish soaps where the women are always getting slapped around and beaten. Or else there will be Turkish news which basically offers up a round-up of the juiciest violent catastrophes in Turkey, the Middle East and around the world. The Turks, one concludes, thrive off violence.
The restaurant is a small and cramped local with only two tables. When the muezzin issues the call to prayer, the owner takes out his prayer mat and prays in the corner, bowing to Mecca. The first time I enter I almost stumble over the owner as he performs his prostrations.
In addition to the owner, there is his 38 year-old son Kerim and Kerim’s teenage cousin Baran. Kerim is a Beşiktaş fan and has “Fear of God” tattooed in English on his right forearm along with the Beşiktaş eagle. He dreams of making it to America one day.
“Florida. Miami. Florida beach. Sun. Woman. Ferrari. Bikini. Naked so much girls. Non-stop dance. I want to enjoy everything. This is my dream; my imagination,” says Kerim in strings of English key words and phrases he has garnered over the years from rap songs and chats with tourists. “One day I will go Miami. Very different, yes, I know, very hard for me, but life is life, everything is possible, why not? You send me maybe invitation. Consulate American Turkish I am go. My friend, Robert guest me. Come here invitation for me. Impossible? Possible?”
Kerim comes from Tarlabaşı. Father is from Tarlabaşı. Mother is from Tarlabaşı. Kerim was born here. Tarlabaşı is “not so nice,” says Kerim. But what can he do? He didn’t choose to come from here. There are plenty of other places he prefers to be: Marmaris, Bodrum, Antalya. Somewhere on the sea, preferably, with plenty of foreign women tourists. When he gets off work he goes to the clubs of Taksim. He has DJ friends who get him in for free. So many clubs. So much music: house music, electronic and r & b. He dances with girls, meets tourists, speaks broken English, drinks alcohol and eats mezze, looks around. There’s always something to see in Istanbul.
Kerim wants to leave Turkey. Maybe he will find a good girl for himself and then leave Istanbul. He will go to Denmark, or maybe Holland. He will get money from the government there, and then he will work, making one thousand, two thousand euro a month, which for him would be a small fortune.
Kerim wants to know if I have a Turkish girlfriend. Turkish girls are very nice, he says. “Original. But not to trust.” He likes “stranger girls”. His favorite: “Italian. Espagnol. Portuguese. Agentine. Canada. Norwege. Copenhag. London. Arabic – maybe.”
Even a German girl, possibly:
“Wie gehts? Who wohnst du? Willkommen. Auf wiedersehen. Ich heiße Kerim. Ich bin Kerim. Ich bin Türke.”
Maybe he’ll pick up a foreign girl on the beaches of Bodrum. Or he will find one here and show her around Istanbul and Turkey. Grand Bazaar. Taksim. Bodrum, Antalia, Marmaris. Please. Very nice. “She would like it to be with a Turkish boy together.” And then she will bring him to where she is from, that fabled Western land wherever that may be: London, Norway, Finland…
Just recently he seemed ready to marry an Egyptian girl, but she broke up with him: “She went Egypt back. But I don’t believe her. Maybe she is still in Istanbul. I don’t know. She texts me, ‘Kerim’ – last Thursday – ‘I go back to Egypt. Kerim, forget me. Why? Because I will don’t back to Istanbul again. You find for yourself a new girl’. I write her, I wrote her, I told her, ‘No habibi, my darling, baby, I can’t make this, I don’t forget you. You are on my mind. I can’t stop thinking about you. I will wait for you non-stop in Istanbul’. ‘I don’t know, Kerim,’ she writes, ‘I am Christian; you are Muslim. That is why, Kerim, you musn’t love me. In your heart is pain. I don’t want hurt you. But you must delete me.’ Miriam her name. Miriam Jacob. One week ago we were in Taksim. I hug her so much. I can delete her never.”
One day I am back again at the Adana Grill after a morning of ambling around Taksim.
“Naber?” I say to Kerim . What’s up?
“Fine, thank you. Çalışıyorum. Working, you know? You want tea?”
“Today busy or slow? Yavaş?” I say, trying a few tentative words in Turkish.
“Morning Yavaş. Maybe afternoon come more people.”
Kermin informs me that tomorrow is his day off.
“Yarın tatil,” he says. “Tomorrow holiday. I will not working. I will relaxing. I will sightseeing. Like a tourist.”
We speak about his cousin Baran, now in Bodrum, working in a beach café, living the high life with blond chicks everywhere from every imaginable Western utopia.
“Beach boy,” says Kerim. “He is beach boy: Hello Mrs., please here, free some bed, jet-ski, chalet, parasailing. What would you like to take? Mojito, fresh orange. Baran English little good. Everyone speaks English there. So many people, speak, speak only. Baran stays there one month, forty-five days in Bodrum. Every day speak English. Would you like something to drink? Strawberry, so very frozen. Marguerite, Sex On The Beach, you like? Hospitable. Every day speaking English. Very bad speak English my cousin, Baran. Not like me. But he is winning money, enjoying swimming, dancing, so much girl, every night. He call me yesterday: ‘Kerim, abi, yesterday I am fucking young girl London baby. I love her, Kerim abi, what can I do? She love me. I am crazy now. London, Denmark, Finlandia, English, Monica, Victoria, so many girls,’ he told me. ‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Baran, go home.’ Too much non-stop fucking.”
And just then, as we are contemplating poor Baran besieged by so many sexy Western girls, an old Muslim enters the grill house, maybe in his mid sixties, with a gray, full beard, conservatively dressed in baggy şalvar trousers, a long jacket and turban, like some kind of Ottoman throwback. He selams us and we return the greeting. The old Muslim sits down next to me, smiles, places his hand on his heart, inclines his head, mutters something about Allah and gives me religious pamphlet. In the back the Shahada, the Muslim confession of faith has been penned in, along with its English translation.
“Missionary,” says Kerim.
“It protects you from dangers. Please read it,” says the old man about the tract he has given me. Then he takes out a bag full of plums and makes us take some.
Outside the simit seller walks by calling out, “Simiiiiiitci. Simiiiiitci. Simiiiiitci….” A guy pushes a wagon with old irons, bike wheels etc. calling out for people to bring there broken wares. “Eskici, eskici, eskici geldi!” The junkman has cometh, and it is just another lazy afternoon in Tarlabaşı.
Ultimately, it is not long before my slum idyll comes to a conclusion. After three months in Tarlabaşı, the school I am teaching at moves me out to a cold and lifeless Asian-side mahalle, or neighborhood. There the Gypysy flower seller on the street corner, and the neighborhood junkman to boot, have to travel an hour from Tarlabaşı by dolmuş. The streets are clean, the stray dogs few and far between, and neighborhood dead after ten. My apartment is modern, but I miss my old digs in Tarlabaşı – which will always remain for me the real face of Old Istanbul.