Turkey Book Talk episode #85 – Doğus Şimşek of Koç University and photographer Yusuf Sayman on “Çabuk Çabuk: Africans in Istanbul” (Pencere Yayınları).

The book features text by Şimşek and over 100 photos by Sayman, giving a glimpse into the lives of migrants from a range of African countries living in Istanbul.

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For more of a historical look at African migrants in Istanbul, check out an episode we published back in October 2016 – Professor George Junne on black eunuchs and slavery in the Ottoman Empire.

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[Published in Today’s Zaman (19th Jan 2012): http://www.todayszaman.com/news-269046-tarlabasis-getaway-hurriyet-hamami.html ]

It might come as a surprise to know, but after two years of living in Turkey I had yet to visit a Turkish bath until very recently. The fact is that hamams don’t really figure in the everyday lived experience of most Turks these days, so perhaps it isn’t strange that they also haven’t figured much in mine. During the Ottoman period hamams were considered important social centres, where the men got themselves washed and the women spent hours meeting friends and gossiping about the latest social news. Since this heyday they’ve been steadily closing down. Now only a fraction remain open, and those – particularly around the tawdry touristic theme park district of Sultanahmet – cater largely for foreign tourists. Number one in all the guidebooks is the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, an impeccably-restored historical hamam, built by Mimar Sinan in 1584, featuring in D.K. Publishing’s 1000 Places To See Before You Die. The price is the highest in the city, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its employees wore quaint period dress as they went about their work – you want the “authentic experience”, don’t you?

I certainly did, but was in the market for something a little earthier, something – to my own prejudiced mind – a little more “authentic”. I’ve always been intrigued by an imposing-but-exhausted-looking red building near my apartment on Kapanca Sokak, in the central district of Tarlabaşı, on the European side of Istanbul. This is the “Hürriyet Hamamı”, (or “Freedom Bath”), and if you try to find it in your guidebook you’ll be disappointed. Where better to have one’s first hamam experience? For that authentic historical deal there can’t be many more suitable places – the entrance is sandwiched between two bay windows protruding out into the street, underneath which outside are original signboards written in the Greek, Armenian and Ottoman Turkish that were once common currency around Tarlabaşı. If, however, it’s the authentic experience that I got, it’s certainly not one experienced by many locals these days, as the place was almost entirely deserted during my visit. With the planned “renewal” of Tarlabaşı continuing apace, it’s difficult to see how the place could survive. I’d put a regretful 10 lira on it not being there in a year’s time.

I walked in from a chilly December afternoon, and was greeted by the sight of a corpulent, grey-haired old man facing the entrance, snoozing on a bench. He lay horizontally on his side, his head propped up on a pile of white rags, a stained polo shirt barely stretching over a rotund paunch. He gave off a stale pong as he stood to welcome me in – not the greatest advertisement for a public bath you might think. Hasan was his name and, from the moment I handed over the 25TL for a bath and massage (“everything”, he said), he was fishing for a tip. I resisted, telling him: let’s see how it goes first.

Not being particularly well-versed in hamam etiquette, I was pretty tentative throughout my visit. I’m glad I took the time to sit in the “sauna” just before entering the bath though, as this was something unique. Despite the tray of hot stones sitting atop a dog-eared metal box in one corner (just for appearances), the only heat was produced by three industrial radiators, hidden underneath each bench and turned up to their fullest. Surprisingly enough the room didn’t smell too bad, although ominous patches of mossy dampness hung from the roof and down the walls.

The main bathing area however, (known as the sıcaklık), was splendid. A wide dome stretches above your head, studded with tiny windows like the diamond-encrusted lid of a jewellery-box. Of course – like Istanbul itself – they’re rough diamonds, but – also like Istanbul – that’s mostly where the charm comes from. The room is bathed in a half-light cast from these windows, and the tinkling of water drips steadily from the sink basins that surround the heated göbek taşı, or “‘belly’ stone”, in the centre. I stepped inside – still wearing my red shroud and sandals – and saw just one, solitary bather. That timeless image of the lithe, naked male, sitting bent-legged, bent-backed and dripping in soap, remained indistinct as it emerged through the steam from across the room. Whether out of arrogance, or absorption in his own toilette – this stranger didn’t so much as look at me throughout my entire stay. Brazen male nudity always comes as a shock, even when it is in a bathing context. I get exactly the same feeling of surprise in the changing rooms of a public swimming pool back in the UK. Nevertheless, off came my shroud, and my sandals: when in (new) Rome and all.

After washing myself once over with the sink, soap and bowl, Hasan emerged through the entrance and waddled over to my section to begin the service. He started by soaping me up and rinsing me down, before bringing out the dead skin remover. I may have been a neophyte in hamam procedure, but I’d heard rumours about this implement, and here I can only corroborate what I’d been told before: it was brutal. He scrubbed the infernal thing all over my skin, my whole body, over and over the same parts, hammering each before moving on to the next tender area. I closed my eyes in silent agony. It felt less like he was removing dead skin, more like he was ripping off layers and layers of quite healthy, quite live skin.

I dare say this torment lasted for rather less time than it felt, and once it was over Hasan rinsed the flakes of newly-dead skin from my red-raw body, before struggling across to the göbek taşı, and beckoning me over for my massage. I followed, gingerly lay myself face down on the edge, and tried to find the most comfortable position on the hard stone for my head. Things started fairly pleasantly: some gentle prodding here, some cautious probing there. Predictably enough though, things soon got rather more robust and rather less comfortable. All over my back, my legs, every pressure point was hammered relentlessly. Make no mistake: no concession was made to the inexperienced foreigner. I tried as best I could to stop myself wriggling around in discomfort, and found myself sliding uncontrollably around the göbek taşı, almost slipping off the edge because of the soap that was being slapped all over my body. Hasan manoeuvred me around like a helpless children’s toy: onto my back, seated, standing, arms up, arms down, legs crossed, arms crossed. At one point my face was squeezed against his own beefy göbek as he pushed his fingers mercilessly and methodically into the small between my shoulders, cracking my neck in both directions.

After drying off and cooling down, I sat down to talk with Hasan and one of his friends over tea in the lobby. I tried to draw them out on the history of the place, but I couldn’t get far. Apparently it was built in 1908, and from the look of it I can’t imagine the building having ever been anything other than a hamam. Hasan couldn’t tell me, as despite appearances he’s only been working there for 11 years: a relative greenhorn. He certainly felt like a confident, authoritative old hand though, and had well-earned the tip that he’d previously been fishing for. As with all massages, it wasn’t until an hour or two later that I really began to feel the benefit. I also felt a lot cleaner than I did before I went in, which itself couldn’t be taken for granted as I considered the “Hürriyet Hamamı” from outside.

The noise of Tarlabaşı never stops. Street cats cry incessantly during the day and fight each other at night; street hawkers struggle with creaky wooden carts around the winding alleyways, crying out their wares of breakfast poğaças or carrying wooden boards full of fresh simits on their head; housewives call out of windows to the nearest greengrocer and lower baskets on string for goods, in summer groups of them in floral headscarves sit out all day gossiping on the pavement; children don’t sleep until the early hours, screaming as they play hop-scotch or kick footballs around; during Ramadan traditional drummers and singers pass every building, waking everyone up to break the fast before sunrise; for me, the chaotic street market each Sunday is one of the most colourful parades of human activity Istanbul has to offer. Taksim Square – with its shiny malls, modern cinemas, and thronging restaurants and bars – is considered the commercial and cultural “heart” of the city, but it takes just two minutes to pass down from the smart pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi, cross the six-lane duel-carriageway Tarlabaşı Boulevard, and arrive in the impoverished backstreets of Tarlabaşı itself. In two minutes it feels like you’ve crossed into a different world. With the Turkish economy booming and Istanbul developing at such a rapid pace, it’s a world coming under serious threat.

Tracing the history of Tarlabaşı illustrates the fluctuating fortunes of Istanbul’s minorities over the past 200 years. Situated on the European side of the city, across the Golden Horn from the old town, the area was originally home to prosperous non-Muslims. The sturdy stone houses were built for Greeks and Armenians – lower-middle class artisans, small tradesmen, and merchants – whose economic prospects waxed even as the Ottoman Empire’s waned over the course of the nineteenth century. Istanbul’s Armenians were largely untouched by the tragedy engulfing their eastern Anatolian kin during the First World War, and its Greeks were exempt from the wholesale population exchanges that took place between the states of Greece and Turkey during the 1920s, but the situation of minorities became increasingly precarious during the republican years of the twentieth century. Official discouragement found expression in the punitive “Varlık Vergisi” (Wealth Tax) aimed at Turkey’s minority groups in 1942, and in the 1950s pogroms were organised against the Greeks of Istanbul, after which the vast majority moved swiftly away. Many of Tarlabaşı’s grand buildings were left empty and unaccounted for, and an area that was already going to seed went into accelerated decline. At the same time, rapid industrialization meant that significant numbers of Turks were moving into urban areas, and many found homes in the unoccupied but decaying townhouses of Tarlabaşı. In 1990, further waves of migration took place, this time of Kurds from eastern Anatolia – fleeing economic deprivation and the intensifying civil war in Turkey’s south-east. Thus, right in the centre of Istanbul, something of the atmosphere of an Anatolian village has been recreated in Tarlabaşı. But that isn’t the whole of it – alongside Kurdish migrants can be found Arab and African refugees, Roma (gypsies), Zaza-speaking Kurds, itinerant foreign language teachers living on the cheap, and even pockets of transsexuals (many of whom ply a trade in the seedy brothels along Tarlabaşı Boulevard). At a time when most of Turkey has become a state-sponsored monoculture, Tarlabaşı seems to reclaim something of the anarchically multicultural heritage of Anatolia.

“Gentrification” has taken place in all major cities striving to modernise, (it seems as inevitable as the carbon-copy Starbucks cafes popping up everywhere), and it’s already happened in many areas of Istanbul. Hard to believe now, but thirty years ago Istiklal Caddesi itself was a down-at-heel backwater; only relatively recently has it been pedestrianised, tidied up, reintroduced to its picturesque “nostalgic” tram line, and lined with the gleaming chain stores. There have been murmurings of tension in nearby Tophane, where the traditional inhabitants find themselves surrounded by growing numbers of small art gallerys, boutiques, and fashionable bars. Cihangir, on the opposite side of Istiklal, has become a chic enclave for expats and young professionals. Such examples follow a more typical, ‘organic’ process of gentrification; that planned for Tarlabaşı, however, is exactly that – planned. In 2005, an ‘Urban Renewal Act’ (Law 5366) passed through the Turkish parliament authorizing municipalities to work with private building companies to ‘regenerate’ areas of Istanbul. The historic Roma district of Sulukule, also on the European side, was one of the first declared an ‘Urban Renewal Area’. Eventually almost 1000 families were evicted from their homes and given new – unaffordable for most – apartments 45km away. The majority of these people have since become homeless and the area’s historic fabric has been ripped out, gradually replaced by more faceless modern apartment blocks. In 2006 Tarlabaşı was also chosen as a renewal area, and the contract for the project was awarded to GAP Inşaat, a subsidiary of Çalık Holding, the CEO of which is the son-in-law of the Turkish Prime Minister. Plans were soon released for the redevelopment of a 20,000 m2 area, a total of nine “building islands”. The website for the project (www.tarlabasiyenileniyor.com) is full of “before” and “after” pictures: photos of out-at-elbows back streets teeming with scruffy children and shady-looking men (the present Tarlabaşı), are contrasted with digitally-generated images of urbane, be-suited couples strolling down spotless, wholesome avenues (the projected Tarlabaşı). It must all look rather seductive to the prospective flat-buyer, but two major concerns persist: will the area’s historical character be preserved? and – perhaps more pressingly – will current residents go the way of Sulukule’s?

Tarlabaşı is an incredibly charismatic place. Its buildings are unique examples of late nineteenth century Ottoman Levantine architecture, elegant four and five storey stone townhouses with slim bay windows jutting out above the street. Clearly most haven’t been touched since being built – the majority are filthy, stained black with dirt, and some are now nothing more than shells, thick carpets of weeds and stumps of struggling trees behind a crumbling façade. Sanitary conditions in many places are primitive. It’s obvious that the area desperately needs improvement, but GAP Inşaat’s project goes beyond simple renovation, to what looks like a radical reimagining of the entire area’s fabric. A four-storey underground car park is planned, and whilst the developers insist that most buildings will be preserved, questions remain about what form this preservation will take. Many fear that Tarlabaşı’s unique historical character will be irredeemably destroyed by the changes. Mücella Yapıcı, from the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, claims that “the cultural and historical heritages of Tarlabaşı are going to be sacrificed to financial benefits of some people or companies.” Appeals have been made to UNESCO and the European Court of Human Rights, but look unlikely to halt developments that are, ultimately, in the hands of the elected municipality. Whatever happens, current residents will undoubtedly be priced out by the new plans. In August 2010 the holding company claimed that agreements for purchase had been reached with 70% of the owners of houses in the area, and that apartments are being offered in a brand new suburban development to those evicted from Tarlabaşı. This development is almost two hours away by public transport in a little–known satellite city, Kayabaşı. Aside from the cultural jolt of having to move from Tarlabaşı to alien high-rise apartment blocks, miles away from where some have worked for years, it’s unlikely that many could afford the 1000TL upfront price and 309TL monthly mortgage payments for the cheapest apartments anyway, (let alone commuter costs).

It’s easy to sentimentalise from a distance. The fact is that amongst Istanbullus, Tarlabaşı is a no-go area, notorious for crime, poverty, violence, illiteracy, and overcrowding. At night the women leave their spots on the pavement and organized gangs move in. These problems won’t be solved by the municipality’s plans, but they will be moved elsewhere, which is probably what is wanted. My neighbour, Ozan, has lived with his family in the same building (which he owns) for 40 years and is under no illusions, “you have to be careful,” he says, “there are thieves all around here at night, life isn’t perfect.” But he’s tied to the area, working twelve hours a day, six days a week in a cheap restaurant just a five minute walk away, “our life is here, where else could we go?” Many people have already left, and a lot of the seedy bars, shops and brothels along Tarlabaşı Bulvarı have already closed down, making it look even more forlorn than before. Significant numbers have decided to stay on anyway, despite their houses being sold and expropriation procedures being threatened. The municipality has given no clear updates since last year, and a project that was due to be completed in 2010 rolls on without any end in sight. Threat of eviction hangs over the area like the sword of Damocles, but right now it’s difficult to see how it could be entirely vacated without the use of force, as – make no mistake – Tarlabaşı still teems. I’ve lived there for over a year, and if anything the population has increased in that time. I write this on a sultry weekday afternoon and the street outside my flat is as raucous as it has ever been. As Ozan says simply: “we don’t want to go anywhere.” Whether they want to or not, the decision may well be out of their hands, but – for the time being at least – Tarlabaşı remains stubbornly defiant.

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