Istanbul is a world unto itself, with a population (between 15 and 20 million) that is larger than many countries. Just picture it: six times bigger than Berlin, about the equivalent of ex-Yugoslavia in population, with crass discrepancies between rich and poor, Asian and European, modern and traditional, religious and secular. If you live on the European side you have no idea what people in Asia are doing. If you live in Asia you have no idea what they are doing in Europe. There are Istanbulus, they say, who have never in their lives seen the sea.
During my year in Istanbul I make it a point to visit also the unpopular, uncool peripheral neighborhoods, home to the göçmen, migrants from Anatolia or the Balkans, many of them Kurdish, who make Istanbul Turkey’s biggest Kurdish city. I gravitate to the underdog, the unsung neighborhoods, soaking up this city’s underbelly like a sponge, seeking out those European neighborhoods outside the city walls, places Orhan Pamuk, on his footloose peripatetic Istanbul adventures, never deigned to visit.
Today I walk from Eyüp through Gaziosmanpaşa, almost to the end of Istanbul, but still the city goes on and on, hill after hill of concrete and Istanbul never stops. Heading west, up and down over hills and gullies built up with cheap concrete housing at odd angles and jerry-built gecekondus (substandard housing, literally “built overnight”, in many cases illegally). Here and there one finds a shining new, almost fake-looking apartment building in the midst of general squalor. Or a “sitesi” gated community – every Istanbulu wants to live in one. Earthquake resistant to boot. The government is in the process of tearing down four million old houses across Turkey and replacing them with up-to-par housing. This over-eagerness to destroy old urban fabric irritates to some extent.
Interesting part of town, Gaziosmanpaşa. It puts me in mind of some south-east Anatolian towns I’ve been to. Rough and tumble mix of commerce, small factory workshops, outlets, the world of Kurds and other göçmen, who live in cheap concrete buildings constructed in the sixties or seventies, or even eighties or nineties – you just can’t tell, everything is so beat looking. Gecekondus. Guys walking down the street covered head to toe in grime & soot & grease. You used to see these factory workers and characters in Berlin, but not any more. Berlin too afraid of getting its hands dirty these days.
Headscarved women in colorful şalvar trousers, such as one wears in Adana, Antep, Urfa soap down oriental carpets or else sift through wool to be stuffed later on pillows and covers. They are immigrant women from the South-East mainly, probably Kurdish, with relatives in the countryside who supply them with wool and fruit and vegetables and everything they need. They live completely self-sufficient lives.
My students at Berlitz tell me best stay away from districts like Gaziosmanpaşa, Bayrampaşa and Kasımpaşa – in fact, I am to stay away from all quarters with “paşa” in the name. They are tough areas, dangerous. Naturally, it’s to these places that I am inclined. They say these neighborhoods are hotbeds of PKK activity and even the police are afraid of entering.
One of my students was driving through Gaziosmanpaşa one evening, lost. Suddenly something exploded on the hood of his car; someone had thrown a firework from a balcony; it was the birthday of Öçalan, the imprisoned PKK leader and the Kurds of Gaziosmanpaşa were in a festive mood.
Another one of my students, a man with a nice apartment in Erenköy, a short walk from Bagdat Caddesi on the chic Asian side, laments that children today no longer have the freedom to play outside on the streets because of traffic concerns and what have you. But passing cars never hinder the kids of Gaziosmanpaşa, Bayrampaşa or Kasimpaşa in the dusty, rubbish strewn streets lined with graffiti smeared walls, full of swarming children playing gutter football, careening on bikes and rollers.
The closer one nears the edge of the city the more stray dogs one sees, many not tagged. Two children armed with bows and arrows shoot at a sleeping stray. The dog sleeps on, impervious.
In the outer reaches of European Istanbul one encounters a Bosnian mahalle, a little pocket of the Balkans in this sea of Turks and Kurds. A Montenegrin Muslim with headscarved wife and children in tow points the way through dimlit streets. Unmistakable Bosnian faces at the local Yusufbey mosque for evening prayers and on Şht. Kamil Balkan Cd. bistros with names like Stari Most and pictures of iconic Mostar bridge. The Bosniaks here dream of one day visiting the Sarajevo Sebilj or the old Mostar bridge, yet most here prefer Turkish over Bosnian language, as they are fast on their way to becoming totally assimilated.
Then turning back, a man fixed to a respirator is wheeled on a stretcher from an ambulance into a hospital trailed by a weeping woman.
Walking through Istanbul’s outlying siren-mad streets you see more street drama in a day than in a year in Berlin.
On the way home, I speak to an internet-cafe shop clerk with journalistic ambitions in Gaziosmanpaşa, who is flabbergasted at seeing an American in the neighborhood. Gaziosmanpaşa is decidedly not worth writing about, he says.
Later he sends me an email.
“I admit that you were so interesting person whom we don’t usually see around here and who walks around Gaziosmanpaşa. So it was a please to meet you.
“I remember that you want to write about the stories, yet, im afraid there are not much interesting things to write about here in Gaziosmanpaşa. As I also told you before, here is a stubborn district of Istanbul city. Although Gaziosmanpaşa is one of the oldest and most crowded districts of Istanbul, it couldn’t thrive as its competitor districts can because of there being so many mostly Kurdish citizens who have fanatical connections to the PKK terrorist organisation and due to the old bloody incidents no one wants to come here. It’s also a place where mostly poor people from other cities in Turkey come to live and work. So as a result of being poor and lacking on education the youth of Gaziosmanpaşa are mostly tough guys who are able to fight for any excuse or who disturb the neighbours till midnight with their noise and also their drug taking and alcohol habits. Yet, with the changing face of entire Turkey thanks to our Tayyip abi, Gaziosmanpaşa too has been changing for the better.
Take care of your self and feel free whenever you want to come again to visit me in the armpit of the world.
Best wishes… Cihat”