When it comes to Istanbul’s nightlife, many usually think of Taksim – that stretch of European Istanbul, north of the Golden Horn, intersected by the Istiklal Caddesi a pedestrian thoroughfare which slices through the district of Beyoğlu from Taksim square in the north to Tünel Square in the south.
Here, and in its dozens of tributaries and small, dark side streets, was where – up until now – Istanbul’s nightlife simmered, with its Türkü bars, rock clubs and Gypsy jazz locales, neon-lit cellar dives, atmospheric meyhanas and loft clubs.
With the quashing of the Gezi park protests in 2013, the Erdoğan regime effectively put an end to the freewheeling nightlife in Taksim. Now that the AK Party has lost its foothold in Istanbul, could this mean a return to Taksim?
The whole mystique of Istiklal and its surrounding side-streets was captured wonderfully in Fatih Akin’s evocative 2005 docu-film Crossing the Bridge, which was one of the reasons I came to Istanbul.
The movie ran at Moviemento in Berlin, Kreuzberg for one year non-stop, out of solidarity with the neighborhood’s dominant Turkish population, and I must have seen at around five times in the theater, not to mention countless times on dvd.
The movie followed Alexander Haacke, the bassist of Berlin industrial band Einstürtzende Neubauten as he traveled through Istanbul making street recordings of the city’s acts and artists, — some of whom I would eventually meet in Istanbul – ranging from psychedelic underground band, Baba Zula, to hip-hop legend Ceza, Duman , The Replikas, Gypsy clarinetist Selim Sesler, Aynur and Orhan Gencebay.
Not only did the movie paint a portrait of an incredibly rich and diverse music scene, but it also presented tantalizing images of the city of Istanbul, from bustling Istiklal Caddesi to the lively slum quarter of Tarlabaşı, to the Thracian landscape east of Istanbul, Turkey’s Balkans.
The movie came at the right time for me. I had been travelling through the Balkans beginning in 2003, and the further I got into it, the more I began to feel the magnetic pull of Istanbul, looming there between Europe and Asia, the source of so much that fascinated me about the Balkans. So that after watching the film, I think it was in 2006, I made the trip through Bulgaria, from Plovdiv by night train to Istanbul, where I spent a frantic week walking around the city.
There were a number of reasons I came to Istanbul to live in 2011. The one was to escape the alcoholic swamp of Berlin — which was funny because already on my first night in Istanbul I couldn’t resist the heady Istanbul, rakı infused nightlife of the city.
But there were other reasons too. I wanted to flee a messy relationship was one. Another was a better English teaching job, in a city that wasn’t already saturated with English teachers, and where English teachers were held in high regard. Yet another primary reasons was to gather material for stories. I had a collection of Balkan stories under my belt, and now what I was after was the next chapter — a collection of Istanbul stories dovetailing with my Balkan tales. After all Istanbul was where it all began, the beginning of the Balkans. You couldn’t understand the Balkans without understanding Istanbul. And that was why I was here. I guess I wanted some kind of closure.
It was the winter of 2011. Days I taught businessmen English in a nondescript European style neighborhood on the Asian side. Nights I caroused through the bars and nightclubs of Taksim, dancing to Gypsy music and drinking large quantities of rakı.
Going home I would buy mussels with a dash of lemon, simits or roast chestnuts from street venders. And then I would take the dolmuş – the minibus share taxi – across the Bosphorus bridge – what would later be called the 15 July Martyrs Bridge — 15 Temmuz Şehitler Köprüsü to the Asian side where I lived and worked.
But before I moved to the Asian side, I had digs in Tarlabaşı, a notorious Istanbul slum, with narrow wash-hung streets lined with run-down turn-of-the-century buildings, where everything was in a state of decay – the abode of Gypsies, Kurds ,Africans — and transvestites.
My room gave out on a small balcony overlooking a courtyard where the pigeons cooed all day and night. I would go to the balcony to smoke cigarettes, looking down into the apartment below me, where the neighbors kept big jars of tuşu — pickled vegetables on the window ledges.
That first January night in Istanbul I set out to explore the neighborhood, which was home to small shops, odds and ends shops, small groceries, a bistro with a charcoal grill that specialized in Adana durums, grilled meat on a spit, served up with vegetables in a pida wrap. Istiklal Caddesi was only about a ten minute walk from my digs in Tarlabaşı.
In the twenties the part of Beyoğlu around Istiklal, then called Grand Rue de Pera, was a quarter in which people of different cultures, religions and languages lived together: Greeks, Armenians, Jews – bourgeois, cosmopolitan, urbane. The quarter’s ethnic minorities were driven out or emigrated abroad in 1922 so that in the eighties, it was a part of town you didn’t dare go into – seedy, down at the heel, where the dregs of society congregated in the area’s ramshackle cabaret bars and nightclubs and half-hidden brothels where women sang and worked as hostesses in stove-heated basement nightclubs, avoided by families and young people.
In 2011 it was quite the opposite – the place Istanbulus went to paint the town red. Buskers played saz, a kind of long-necked lute, kemençe, an upright violin and the national instrument of the Black Sea Laz minority, and darbukas next to venders selling corn on the cob, boiled or roasted, kokoreç – chopped lamb intestines, midye dolma – stuffed mussels, which some say was haram, yet sold well in Taksim.
The air was filled with music, the din of crowds and the staccato rattle of metal spoons as the ice cream seller in ballooning şalvar trousers, embroidered vest, and fez beats out a rhythm with his implements. They said three to four million people cut down Istiklal Caddesi weekends.
My first night on Istiklal I got ripped off in a big way. A thick fog had crept in from the Bosporus as I walked the street jam packed with Turks, a veritable sea of bobbing black heads in a tide of neon and twinkling, glimmering lights, a din of buzzing talk around me, pounding music at times Turkish at times European, interspersed with the playing of street musicians.
I had seen nothing like Istikal before. There was nothing comparable in Berlin. Here the canvas was bigger, the scene comparable to Hong Kong or New York. I was so immersed in the sights and sounds that I got completely turned around. The fog, the crowds so discombobulated me.
Walking up Istiklal Caddesi from Tünel, two Turks sidled up to me. They said they were tourists from Bursa, in Istanbul for the weekend. One thing led to another and the one guy suggested we stop for a drink at a place he knew.
The place was a cellar dive off of Istiklal, with sepereés and a dance floor. It was empty accept for a cluster of dubious looking women in the far corner of the club and a European kid — a victim like myself — who was being cajoled out of his money by a couple of Turks and cheap women.
All of a sudden Shantel’s Disko Partizani came on and the party hit the dance-floor, the European kid dancing with a look of naive amusement on his face.
Meanwhile the two guys I was with ordered a couple bottles of rakı and meze, which is like tapas, melon, meat and cheese, to facilitate the drinking. And then a group of cheap whores came over to our table and did their whole routine, the one latching on to me, a blond, who said she was from Moldova – the type of Turks call a “Natasha” – an east European hooker. She asked me what music I liked, and she said she liked Lady Gaga and promptly asked me to buy her a drink. A bought her a white wine. She downed it and asked for another.
Seeing what kind of place this was and worried things were going to get out of hand, I said I had better be moving on. When I got the bill for 600 euro I hit the roof. For all I knew such scams were tolerated by the law. I just said I didn’t have the money on me.
So a big burly guy came up to me and said he would accompany me to the nearest ATM. Once outside on Istiklal and surround by masses of people I decided to pull a runner, and at an opportune moment when the bouncer’s face was turned, I dodged into the crowd and pegged it, adrenaline racing like mad as I shoved my way through the multitude. I hadn’t been a day in Istanbul and I had already learned my first lesson about the city — don’t trust anybody.
— Mungo Park