[Hürriyet Daily News (21st May 2012): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/the-bridge-a-journey-between-orient-and-occident-.aspx?pageID=500&eid=53]

Geert Mak – The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident, Random House UK, 2010, 160pp

The Galata Bridge is one of the more obvious metaphors for all those oppositions that Istanbul is famously caught between: Occident and Orient; east and west; tradition and modernity. The half-kilometre stretch across the Golden Horn connects the “historic” old Stamboul – with the imperial mosques, palaces and bazaars – to the “modern” Galata and Pera – originally settled by Genoese merchants and later the quarter of European ambassadors, diplomats, traders and artists. Geert Mak roamed the entire European continent for his impressionistic 2004 travelogue “In Europe,” but this book offers a complete contrast in terms of scale.

As Mak himself wryly states, “The Bridge” is “a travelogue covering 490 metres,” his focus having infinitely narrowed to one bridge, in one corner of the old continent. The book is subtitled “A Journey Between Orient and Occident,” but I suspect that’s a marketing decision from the publisher, rather than from the author. Mak is wise to the cliché, and he makes sure not to labour it. Instead, his book mainly focuses on the vicissitudes of today’s bridge-dwellers, and in this it is a triumph of understated sensitivity.


Over the years a total of five bridges have been built on the site: two wooden, two iron, and one (today’s) concrete (“not a pretty sight”, Mak laconically observes). Istanbul, he says, “is a classic city […] poverty has pitched its tent in the heart of the old city, the middle classes, ring after ring, live further and further away from [it].” As the city’s breakneck modernisation continues apace, this old arrangement is coming under increasing pressure, but it still largely holds true. In a sense, the Galata Bridge is the centre of this pitched tent, so much of the book concerns itself with giving the reader a vivid sense of the consequences that an urban hand-to-mouth existence, (“an economy of spare change”), has on those who spend their lives on the bridge. “The lives of the tea seller, the cigarette boys and the insole vendor are set against the backdrop of a remarkable corner of the globe, but precious little good that does them,” Mak suggests.

To anyone who has crossed the Galata Bridge recently, or got trapped in one of those underground shopping tunnels that take you across the roads on either side, the sights described in the book will be familiar. Those knock-off children’s action figurines crawling mechanically in the lids of cardboard boxes; the fake perfumes; the fake mobile phones; the cheap sets of pens; the cheap tea; cheap shoes; jeans; umbrellas; insoles; shoelaces; smuggled cigarettes; condoms. However, I doubt anyone has stopped to take such an interest in the people behind these items as Mak, and this is where “The Bridge” is a revelation. We are introduced to the drifters selling those petty goods, as well as the indefatigable fishermen dangling rods (with steadily diminishing returns) over the bridge’s rails, the lottery ticket sellers, glue-sniffers, and pickpockets. Most are displaced migrants, having come to Istanbul from somewhere in eastern Anatolia, perhaps from a village now deserted, or one that simply can’t support them anymore. This mass of rootless internal migrants makes up an ever increasing proportion of Istanbul’s uncontrollably booming population, and Mak gets most of his material by simply mining them for stories, painting an authentic picture of the bridge’s unique fauna. He lets the people he meets on the bridge talk about their backgrounds, their daily routine, the starkness of their prospects, the financial knife-edge that a living scraped by selling cheap plastic umbrellas from a cardboard box entails, the psychological contortions required to maintain some sense of personal dignity or honor. As one man (and this is a resolutely male landscape) says: “Everyone here, almost all of us come from the back of beyond […] But there’s nothing there for us. Unless you want to go into the mountains, to join the terrorists. If you don’t want to do that, you have no choice but to make the best of things here, to sell tea, or flog pirated CDs, or shift stolen mobile phones, or sell fake perfume…” Almost all harbor dreams of migrating to Europe. One of the umbrella sellers once tried to smuggle himself into London, but was detected by the immigration authorities at Heathrow and sent back to Turkey, and now dreams of suing Britain.

The narrative is divided between these personal ruminations and more widescreen historical vignettes, which elegantly sketch the background that has shaped the way the bridge – and the city itself – have come to be the way they are today. Mak vividly describes the historical, Ottoman Istanbul, a city of all creeds of Christians, Jews and Muslims. It was, he says, “perhaps the most multicultural city of all time,” but at the same time it was run according to strictly defined lines of demarcation: Istanbul “consisted of communities that worked and did business together, but were otherwise imprisoned in their own compartments of neighbourhood, house, family, gender, rank and standing […] all these peoples and cultures inhabited worlds of their own. The city’s tolerance depended on looking the other way; contact with those other worlds was devoid of all curiosity.” Interestingly – and perhaps a little fancifully – Mak finds some kind of continuity between those historical hidden lines of division and modern ones constructed by the displaced internal migrant drifters. The bridge has its own intricate sociology of “economic compartmentalisation.” “Countless tightly knit immigrant communities exist in this way, all of them operating in isolation from the others and within the strict borders allotted them […] The fishmongers all hail from the eastern city of Erzincan. Most of the professional anglers come from Trabzon, on the Black Sea. The rods and tackle, on the other hand, are sold generally by immigrants from Kastamonu […] And if you’re Kurdish there is no sense in trying to rent a space and fry fish, for that monopoly is in the hands of another group.”

Mak is never boring, but he is on less sure ground when trying to chart a course through the choppy waters of the city’s modern political situation. One pages-long section in particular – attempting to unknot the delicate “headscarf question” with little more than platitudinous observations – feels too deliberate, like a hunk of meat thrown only because he knows the audience back in western Europe is interested in these things.

Describing the brutal realities of a life spent in perpetual, unbreakable poverty, it would be easy to slip into mawkishness, but “The Bridge” never does. This is an admirably warm-spirited, well-judged book. It’s occasionally lyrical, but never patronises or succumbs to sentimentality. Mak spent his time on the bridge wisely, observing and talking to the people he found, always with an eye on the history that has formed the city. It is this dual vision that makes the book a success. He pulls off a smart trick: by focussing on a small geographical area and a limited cast of characters, he is able to give us a convincing, holistic portrait of a wider society and its conflicted place in history.

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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