#6 Istanbul: where east meets west

I’m leaving the EU for good this time. I first get a lift by a Bulgarian guy who happens to speak German. During my journey through the Balkans, I’ve been surprised to find out that speaking German comes in handy in this part of Europe. Many of my drivers didn’t speak a word of English but expressed themselves comfortably in the language of Goethe. This is due to the important wave of immigration from Yougoslavia to Germany, Switzerland and Austria in the 1990s. Although many came back to their home country after the war, numerous families decided to stay on their new homeland and regularly travel back to pay a visit to their relatives. The Turkish diaspora in Germany also becomes more and more conspicuous as the border draws near. More than half the cars have German number plates.

I cross the border with a family from Morocco. They drop me off in the center of Edirne, a small border town that remained the capital of the Ottoman empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The change of scenery is profound, the Orthodox world gives way to the Muslim world. The days are now punctuated by the calls to prayer of the muezzin perched atop one of the mosque’s minarets. As I was expecting, the journey really starts here. European influence is now going to wane as I make my way east.

Edirne no longer plays any role on a political level but its architectural splendor reminds us of its passed glory. The Selimiye Mosque, a genuine masterpiece of islamic architecture, looms over the city center with its four highest minarets in the world. I meet Mehmet, a Turkish guy from Antalya who is spending a few days in Edirne. He shows me around the city, teaches me a few useful phrases in Turkish and gives me valuable advice for my time in Turkey. We also try a few traditional dishes: Turkish cuisine is delicious and goes well beyond the famous Kebab.

After this pleasant introduction, I can’t wait to go to Istanbul, the immense city at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. A Turkish truck driver who doesn’t speak any English takes me to the western suburbs of the city. From there, I can reach the center with public transports. I remember writing that Marseille or Genova looked big, then what should I say about Istanbul! My notion of a big city was until now limited to Paris or London, while Istanbul is home to over 14 million people. It is hard to find adequate words to describe the city’s hugeness, vastness, immensity. A sprawling city probably comes closest to reality, although you need to see for yourself it to believe it.

 

I’m going to a hostel near Taksim, a famous square of the European side, where I found a job in exchange of accomodation and food. A great way to limit my expenses while making the most of the cultural capital of Turkey. All the more so as the job is not the most tiresome. I’m in charge of taking pictures of the dishes prepared by the small restaurant of the hostel for their Instagram account. The atmosphere with the other volunteers is friendly and we spend our free time exploring the city together. I’m filled with excitement when taking a boat to Üsküdar or Kadiköy, neighbourhoods of the eastern side, technically setting foot in Asia for the first time.

Due to its exceptionnal location and eventful history, Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city with numerous facets. First Byzance, then Constantinople and finally Istanbul: the city went through centuries and empires. Istanbul spreads out on either side of the Bosphorus Strait which constitutes one of the continental boundaries between Europe and Asia. This geographical divide symbolises the mixed identity of Turkey, oscillating between east and west. Although recent political events have pointed in the other direction, Turkey is a modern and secular state. However, the country has islamic – in other words eastern – roots.

Istanbul is fascinating: the countless mosques, the fishermen, the grand bazar and its spice sellers, its colours, its scents, its tastes. It’s also a real goldmine for street photography, there’s always a thousand things going on. Istanbul is one of those cities where you could spend months and keep discovering new neighbourhoods, new nooks, new facets.

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Before coming here I read an article about the bostan, endangered shared gardens in Istanbul. I’m using the opportunity to learn more about them. The bostan are urban agricultural areas where local inhabitants grow fresh vegetables and fruit. They have been around for centuries but their very existence has been jeopardised by the neoliberal policy of urban transformation implemented by the AKP, the ruling Party for Justice and Development. While numerous old bostan have already disappeared, new ones have been emerging illegaly over the past few years, and especially since the contestation movement of Gezi park in May 2013. They are not profit-driven but increasingly pursue a political aim. Locals who get involved advocate alternatives to existing capitalist models of production and consumption. More than mere agricultural spaces, they foster intergenerational sociability among the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and constitute spaces for debate and political opposition. Given the current political context in Turkey, it comes as no surprise that they have become a target of the municipality.

To hear some first hand perspectives, I’m going to the bostan of Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of Istanbul. There I meet Oya, a retired lady from the neighbourhood who has been cultivating a plot of land of the bostan for years. Oya tells me in an amusing mix of English, German and Turkish that she grows tomatoes, aubergines and peppers for her family. She likes to spend time here with her husband, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Oya tells me how important the bostan is to her. “Istanbul is already lacking green spaces, how on earth can they think of destroying the few ones we’ve got left!”. A few years ago the municipality launched the construction project of a private hospital instead of the shared gardens. Yet the bostan is over 700 years old and has high sentimental and patrimonial value for many locals. The inhabitants of Kuzguncuk swang into action through several petitions, gatherings and demonstrations, alongside important media coverage to condemn the project. After lengthy negotiations, a compromise was found to guarantee the survival of the bostan, although it resulted in an institutionnalisation at the cost of its protest dimension. Once a libertarian and self-managed space people could use as they wished, the bostan is now subjected to a strict set of rules and fixed opening hours. The plots are allocated by drawing lots and the lucky ones have to pay to be able to use the land. Oya misses the way the bostan used to work, but she’s relieved a solution was found to ensure her beloved shared gardens continue to exist. The example of the bostan of Kuzguncuk is striking and raises the question of the place of nature in the city. As the bostan constitute a resonance chamber for dissenting Turkish voices, it is legitimate to question their future given the current political context in which freedom of speech has been ceaselessly curtailed.

After two weeks full of discoveries and encounters, it is time to resume the journey. With four volunteers from the hostel, we’re off to work at a music festival near the Marmara Sea. A good occasion to enjoy the coast and earn a bit of money for the rest of the trip.

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