Street in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul. Photo: (c) Luke Michael. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the photographer.

Tarlabaşı: A Slum Quarter in Istanbul

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. 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 ten minutes or so.

Tarlabaşı, Istanbul’s Most Famous Slum

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 soccer 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 waylayed by an old woman in a headscarf, who sticks out her hand and mutters something about a fee. She has a reinforced door and a vicious 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 dodgy characters and break-ins. It is a district that is often associated with crime in the media. For this reason Tarlabaşı is shunned by most people as a no-go area.

Across the street is a tekel, a bottle store, where a grizzled man sits watching the TV in the corner, taking time out from his TV viewing to sell me an Efes beer (the only game in town in Turkey as far as beer goes), or raki in a black bag so no one can see you are carrying alcohol. Alcohol is expensive here in Istanbul with the high sin tax.

The muezzin floats across the air.

A girl with a saz slung over her shoulder walks by.

A woman whacks a carpet on the clothesline.

An old man balances a tray with a pile of simits (a kind of round, sesame sprinkled roll) on his head.

A woman lowers a bucket from window for her husband to fill with groceries.

Women talking on a street in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul. (c) Luke Michael
Women talking on a street in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul. (c) Luke Michael

A City Of Stray Dogs And Cats

Stray cats lounge in doorways and car hoods and a house cat with a collar studded with talismans to ward off the evil eye saunters by. People stop to caress the old three-legged dog sunning itself in front of a grocery.

Why all the stray dogs and cats in Istanbul? It’s because there are no kennels here. At one point in recent history all the dogs of Istanbul were rounded up and let loose on one of the uninhabited Princes’ Islands, where they were allowed to roam free and eventually die of hunger. But, the story goes, many of the dogs swam back to Istanbul. Today the 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 and cowered by traffic and entirely unthreatening.

The people in my neighborhood are Gypsies and Kurds. Some of the women wear the hijab, just as at home in Berlin, in Neukölln. When it’s cold out they wrap their faces in scarves so that only the eyes are revealed. The old paper collector pulls his oversize burlap sack down the streets; often the 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.

Segregated Worlds

It is interesting that there is very little racism towards Gypsies in Istanbul. It seems that the farther south-east you go from Berlin, through Czech Republic, Hungary and Serbia to Turkey the more hate seems to dissipate.

We say “Gypsies”. The Turks say, “Roman”. Some say “Çingene” or “Cigan”.

Normally there aren’t problems between Turks and Gypsies. The Gypsies live in their own neighborhoods. They marry each other. They sell flowers on the streets, collect paper and bottles from the trash.

“I have no problem with them,” says a Turk of my acquaintance. “But I don’t like them, the Çingene. I don’t know why, but I have a kind of prejudice against the Gypsies. I don’t like their complexion.”

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 call 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. A woman sits on the street separates wool.

Down in the street a Gypsy wedding is in progress. Or is it a henna night? Only women are gathered. Women in glitzy gowns link hands and dance halay to oriental music. The men stand in the background. Boys play marbles in the dirt.

It’s Wedding Season In Tarlabaşı

It is summer in Tarlabaşı and wedding season. Calvacades 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 stand 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.

Boys kick footballs, the girls play jump-rope or dodge-ball. On the terrace of a house elderly women in florid headscarves sit under the eaves and watch as musicians in traditional get-up bang their davul and blow their zurna, emitting a screeching, archaic sound. Little girls pass by the musicians, holding their ears.

Of White Turks And Black Turks

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 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, the gentrification here is more brutal. In Berlin the gentrification is creeping; first the artists and students move in, hip bars and alternative boutiques open up, gradually the rents go up, higher wage-earners move in and gradually the old inhabitants move out.

Driving Out The Poor

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 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. I had been told 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.

I went out to Sulukule one day sunny day in the spring, hoping to catch a bit of action, 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. A Gypsy man started yelling at me, the disoriented Gadje, in Turkish to get the hell out. That was the last time I ever ventured into Sulukule.

Kerim’s Dreams

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. There will be a whole minute focusing on a burning house in Anatolia, a minute on a traffic accident in Istanbul, another minute on the latest suicide bombing in Bagdad. The Turks 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. The first time I enter I almost stumble over him 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.

“Florida. Miama. Florida beach, beach, sun, woman, Ferrari, bikini, naked so much girls. Non-stop dance, enjoy everything. My dream. My imagine,” says Kerim.

“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 with plenty of foreign 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 English, drinks and eats, looks around.

Kerim wants to leave Turkey. Maybe he will find a good girl for himself and then leave Istanbul. He will go to Denmark. 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 is 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.”

He would pick up on a foreign girl on the beaches of Bodrum. Or he would find one here and show her around Istanbul and Turkey. Grand Bazaar. Taksim. Bodrum, Antalia, Marmaris. “She would like it to me with a Turkish boy together.” And then she would bring him to where she was from. Wherever that may be: London, Norway, Finland.

Sex And The Missionary

He had 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 write me, ‘Kerim’ – last Thursday – ‘I go back to Egypt. Kerim, don’t 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, 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 you non-stop here’.

‘I don’t know, Kerim,’ she writes. ‘I am Christian. You are Muslim. Kerim, you musn’t love me. Your heart pain. I don’t want hurt you. You know? You must delete me.’ Miriam, her name. Miriam Jacob. One week ago we were in Taksim. I hug her so much.”

“What about Turkish girls?” I ask.

“Turkish girls the same, nice, but I can’t relationship with Turkish girl in this time. I am not lucky. Stranger girl good. Arabic, European. South America. Doesn’t matter for me. I like all country’s girl.”

Naber?” I say to Kerim . What’s up?

“Fine, thank you. Çalışıyorum. Working. You want tea?”

“Today busy or slow? Yavaş?”

“Morning Yavaş. Maybe afternoon come more people.”

Tomorrow is Kerim’s day off.

Yarın tatil,” he says. “Tomorrow holiday. I will not working. I will relaxing. I will sightseeing. Like a tourist.”

We speak about Baran. Baran is now in Bodrum, working in a beach café.

“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. So many people, speak, speak only. One month, forty-five days stay in Bodrum. Every day speak English. Would you like something to drink? Strawberry, so very frozen. Marguerite, Sex On The Beach’. You know? Hospitable. Every day speaking English. Very bad speak English my cousin. 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 loved her, Kerim abi, what can I do? She love me. I am crazy now. London, Denmark, Finlandia, English, Monica, Victoria,’ he told me. ‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Baran, go home.’ Too much non-stop fucking. He study high-school, last year. Next year finish, starting university.”

And then an old man enters the grill house, maybe in his late fifties with a graying full beard, conservatively dressed in baggy şalvar trousers, a long jacket and headgear. He selams us and we return the greeting. The old Muslim sits down next to me and gives me religious pamphlet. In the back the Shahada, the Muslim confession of faith has been penned in, along with its English translation.

La Ilahe Illallah Mohammed Rasululah…There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger”.

“Missionary,” says Kerim.

The old man takes out a bag full of plums and makes us take some.

“It protects you from dangers. Please read it,” says the old man about his tract.

Laundry day in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul. (c) Luke Michael

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.

It’s just another lazy afternoon in Tarlabaşı.

Robert Rigney

This report was originally published on Robert’s site EXPORT – IMPORT. Read more of his stories also on Balkan Stories Blog.

Photos: (c) Luke Michael, reproduced here with the express permission of the photographer. All rights reserved by Luke Michael. See more of Luke’s photos on tumblr.