The uneven worlds of Istanbul

A musings on the ancient city

Vaughan Winterbottom

Society and culture | Central Asia

17 March 2014

Vaughan Winterbottom takes us on a journey through Tarlabasi, Istanbul.

It’s 3 a.m., and dogs are barking. Not our dogs. We know our own. It can’t be Katya, a waddling Labrador who guards an invisible gate in the centre of our street, day-in, day-out. It’s couldn’t be Hugo, the cocker spaniel pup with a pink collar and a fondness for pawing at street-fallen blackberries. We live in Tarlabaşı – ‘the start of the fields’—and it’s the closest thing Istanbul has to a slum. Awake now, I head to the balcony, and the night is cool. Looking out, the neighbourhood sinks down, gasps out, and is eventually drowned under an embankment of tall skyscrapers on an incandescent hill. ‘Slum’, I think, is the probably wrong word. For sure, all the third-world descriptors fit Tarlabaşı. Dilapidated. Dirty. Poor. But ‘underworld’ may be better.

The neighbourhood is in the centre of a city of 15 million people, just north of the commercial blitz of Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s ode to cosmopolitan Europe-ness. Architecture students from the continent to the immediate West shuttle into Istiklal on field trips to study their own great-grandfathers’ work – Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, and all the rest. Most of this imported gaud was tossed up by the Ottomans around the turn of the 20th century in a Potyomkin ploy to Europeanise – save – their old empire. They didn’t succeed, and perhaps it’s that failure that led to the creation of the longest commonly used word in the highly agglutinative Turkish language –Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız? “Are you one of those whom we were unable to Europeanise?”

Istiklal to Tarlabaşı is a five-minute walk. I make the journey every day after work. Turning right at Galatasaray Lycée – the most expensive high school in the country – I follow the asphalt as it deteriorates downhill. I pass a kiosk selling fresh bürek, a traditional Turkish pastry that contains more oil than flour, and walk by the entrance to a a Turkish bathhouse in which hairy brutes repeatedly thump tourists in the back, claiming it’s a massage.

The road dives down to an underpass. Bridges are supposed to connect, but this one doesn’t. It’s more of a river, a boundary; more of a Styx. There’s no Cerberus here, only a middle-aged beggar lady with matted grey hair, selling old electrical wires and ‘80s Casio watches. She calls out from the shadows in a voice that sounds as if it’s produced by two rocks grating together, deep in her throat: “Will you buy something? Do you have any spare Lira?” Sometimes, nervous men hunch beside her, whispering. She disappears for an hour or two, after which she returns, collapsing back down next to her pathetic wares.
The pavement is worse now, and the sidewalk stairs that are supposed to ease the incline are just jagged rubble. I scamper right at the first intersection after the bridge – a cop out, really – and I’m home, having only just reached the Start of the Fields.

On the face of it, Tarlabaşı is Istanbul, old school; writhing alleyways squeezed in by steep hills, Sunday markets where fruit sellers sing their bargains, men-only teahouses, and jolly, moustachioed butchers with flecks of carcass under their fingernails.
Architecturally, the area even shares Istiklal’s foreign affinities. Every second residence on our street was built by the Greeks. The buildings are a hundred years old, with doors so heavy that elderly inhabitants have to wait on doorsteps for youths with a bit of pulling power to pass by.

So what is it about Tarlabaşı that inspires every Turk I meet outside the neighborhood, on hearing that I live there, to suggest without the slightest hint of humour that I buy a gun and keep it loaded? Dilapidated, dirty, poor – sure. But above all else, ‘immigrant’ is the reason. Immigrant, of course, is an English word. It’s generally a noun, but it gains extra menace when it’s used as an adjective to describe ugly things like ghetto, gang, and riot. Enquire about Tarlabaşı in Turkish, though, and you’ll most likely hear ‘Kürt’ – Kurdish. ‘Ü’ is pronounced like the ‘u’ in ‘flute,’ my textbook says. Careful with that one – ‘Kurt,’ no umlaut, means either ‘wolf,’ ‘maggot,’ or ‘trickster,’ although for most Turks, double-dotting your ‘u’ in this case makes very little difference.

Kurds are everywhere and nowhere. Numbering around 30 million, they live on the margins in countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. Kurds occasionally win headlines in the international press, but most of the time as dastardly clichés like “terrorist threat,” “ethnic nationalism” and “protecting territorial integrity.” At between 15 and 25 million, Turkey’s Kurdish population is the largest of any country. Most live in the southeast of the country, where the Eastern Taurus Mountains drop down onto the searing Mediterranean plain that extends to the Levant. ‘Between 15 and 25 million.’ An awful statistic. Somewhere along the way the census makers lost count of half an Australia. But it wasn’t really their fault – who is and who isn’t Kurdish is a wishy-washy business in Turkey. For Kurds themselves, the obvious marker is speaking the Kurdish language, which is completely unrelated to Turkish. English is closer. But ask a ‘real’ Turk what makes a Kurd and you’ll probably be told ‘esmer’ – ‘dark.’ Like in most places, dark equals bad, and esmer is usually mentioned in contrast to ‘beyaz Türk’ – ‘white Turk’ – a kind of bronzed European type normally associated with regions like the Iberian Peninsula, or the Balkans. White Turks are the Beautiful People; they weep in the country’s mawkish melodramas, party in Istanbul’s poshest nightclubs, and pose in advertisements for skin-whitening cream.

Tarlabaşı equals Kurd in the white Turk consciousness, by which most really mean esmer; dark. The sad, classic ‘other.’
That isn’t to say that there aren’t esmer Turks outside Tarlabaşı in Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire in its prime extended from modern-day Morocco to Budapest to Iran. It was multiethnic and multicultural, and populations naturally gravitated to the capital, Constantinople, now Turkified as Istanbul. Perhaps the most surprising thing for a first-time visitor to the grand old city is the variety of faces one sees. Everywhere, there are esmer, beyaz and any other racial stereotype that you care to think up. Once, while riding a bus in the suburbs, I watched as a freckled, redheaded man sent of his two freckled, redheaded boys off to school. Any one of them could have modelled kilts in Scotland. I scouted for an accent in the man’s Turkish when he gave instructions to the bus driver, only to find none. On the whole, ‘national look’ means nothing in Turkey.

So what makes Tarlabaşı so woefully special? First of all, it does have a look. The concoction of colour in other parts of the city fades here; esmer remains. Secondly, everyone is an immigrant. Well, not really. Most are technically migrants, having moved here from the eastern parts of the country. But the difference between the regions is so vast that it’s worth tacking the ‘–im’ on migrant. Besides, most ‘real’ Turks would say Tarlabaşı’s folk aren’t Turkish anyway, since they speak another language at home. Never mind that their families may have lived in Istanbul for generations, or in other parts of the country for hundreds of years, or were around even before the Turks claim Anatolia as their own in the 13th century. Of all the ‘non-Turkish,’ Kurds are the ‘non’-est of all, probably because they loudly demand mother-tongue public schooling and broadcasting for their majority regions. Extreme Kurdish groups like the PKK have murdered for these causes and demand complete independence. All this controversy means Kurds are high profile, and so the esmer population of Tarlabaşı is branded with a big, capital K. Walk down any alleyway and you’ll see at least one woman in a colourful headscarf hollering guttural Kurdish at a shopkeeper from her balcony, instructing him to fetch a cucumber and put it into her basket, which she’s hoisted down to street level with the couple of Lira inside. But as we know, esmer doesn’t mean Kurd. Tarlabaşı, like other parts of the country, is home to Arabs, Circassians, Lazes, Ossetians and Roma, to name just a few. These minorities came to – or their territory was carved into – Turkey long ago, but those who maintain their own language are still immigrants in the eyes of the majority. They are many, and so its all too complicated – whoever they are, if they are dark and babble away in some other tongue, it seems ‘Kurdish’ will do to describe them.

Tarlabaşı may be heterogeneous, but within the neighbourhood itself, there is one thing that binds inhabitants. Here, Islam is more visible than anywhere else in Istanbul, one of Turkey’s least religious cities. July 31st was the first day of Ramadan, and the community came together in the spirit of asceticism. On that last day of July at 20:05 – and not a minute before – the fast breaks as the mosques crackle into loudspeaker prayer. Five minutes uphill is the short-skirted glitz of Istıklal street. Ramadan is observed there, but tucking into kebab at midday in August won’t raise too many eyebrows. Tarlabaşı braces itself against this infidel influence; a bare female shoulder or uncovered strand of hair will get comments at any time of the year, while a bite to eat on the street during Ramadan is strictly taboo. But Istiklal’s influence seeps in. In the dog days of summer speakers are stacked in alleyways and the latest national hits blare out. The video clips to these songs, if we could see them, invariably show white Turks rolling around in silk-sheeted beds, or partying on beaches. Crowds form around the musical festivities; men dance, clicking their fingers to the beat, hands suspended wide apart above their heads in a sort of hanging-out-the-washing manoeuvre. Girls watch and grin, hesitantly, except for those under covering-age, who are having a rollicking good time copying the men.

Islam is the glue in Tarlabaşı’s cracks, but those who scorn the religion fall straight through. Outcasts in the underworld, done-in no-hopers. Some of them reside in a narrow building with a crumbling staircase opposite Tarlabaşı’s police station. Uniforms are always standing around here, looking for troublemakers. If there’s enough of a reason – Molotov cocktail-throwing is the usual one – a couple of them will hop into the full-sized tank parked behind a fence in the street, and plough off into action. But the police don’t bother protecting the residents in the building opposite. “They bring the beatings on themselves, dressing like that,” they say. Transvestites don’t have a place in Tarlabaşı’s Islam, nor are they accepted by the society up the hill. Homosexuality was actually fairly widespread in the Ottoman Empire, the sources say, but gay sex was only seen as a bit of good fun for the bathhouses. Living one’s life gay was taboo, as it is today in Turkey. There are about 10 transvestites living across from the police station. They work in the brothel downstairs for a regular clientele of sneak-aways and self-haters, who get as much pleasure from beating them as from their genitalia. I recently journeyed to the brothel with a photographer friend. She’d become well acquainted with one of the girls there, Cahide, and took me along as a translator. Cahide was wearing a fishnet top over her stubbly chest, and tight, sequined jeans. She’s Circassian, a descendant of the exiled people whose homeland was annexed by the Russian empire two centuries ago. We went to sit and drink vodka on the medium strip of a busy highway nearby. It’s 10 a.m., and Cahide says she drinks all day, every day. Cars pass, and there’s honking, catcalling and pointing. Cahide occasionally flashes an angry middle finger in rebuttal, but turning back to us, she looks dejected, and tired. She scratches at the scars on her arms. I broach the subject of religion. “I pray, sometimes. I’m sure that Allah, unlike the people here, can see past my clothes,” she says.

It’s 4 a.m., and a drummer is walking the alleyways to wake up Tarlabaşı for Suhur, the early morning meal during Ramadan. There’s only one dog barking now, and its yelp fills the spaces between the alarm-call bangs. I strain to see in the predawn, and make out a small, blurred figure on the low roof of a building to my right. The building is empty, I know – it’s one of those being knocked down next week to make way for an urban beautification project. I strain harder, and seem him – Hugo, as we’ve named him, the pup with the pink collar. He’s somehow managed to get himself onto this roof, to which no door seems to lead, and is lying with his maimed front paw tucked under his belly. His bark changes beat, and disappears under the thump of the drum.

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