We agreed to finish out our tour in Ankara, Turkey, by filling an unexpected staffing gap at the Consulate in Istanbul. In exchange for camping out for five months with only 400 lbs of air freight trucked to us from Ankara, we had a brief opportunity to live and work in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. It was something we could not pass up.
The Consulate provided us a furnished apartment in the suburb of Bebek, a nice area with cobblestone streets on the European side of the Bosphorus. Those familiar with Istanbul knew Bebek as the address of many of Turkey’s “nouveau riche.” It was (still is) a high-end place where monthly rentals can run as high as several thousand dollars. There were fancy restaurants and quaint coffee shops, ice cream parlors and pastry shops. While we were there, one of Bebek’s landmarks was a McDonald’s. The home of the Big Mac had established itself as the gathering place of the area’s well-heeled twenty-somethings. They jammed the coastal thoroughfare, Bebek’s main street with their double-parked BMWs and Mercedes Benzes and seemed to spend inordinate amount of time glued to their cell phones.
On weekdays while my husband was at work at the magnificent Palazzo Corpi in the Tepebasi district, I went on my own exploration of the city. Bus fares cost less than fifty cents, so I rode the bus everywhere. I explored the European side of the Bosphorus, crossed by ferry to the Asian side, and braved the stench of the Golden Horn, the estuary at the northern end of the walled city. But more often than anything else, I strolled through the narrow side streets of the old city and the former European district of Pera.
The further I ventured from the Bosphorus, the lower I found the economic situation of the residents. Along the Golden Horn, my senses were assaulted not only by the foul smell of the river but also by the sight of houses so dilapidated they barely provided protection from the elements. Stuck occasionally in traffic right in front of a Big Mac sign, I often wondered what ordinary Turks really thought of the ostentatiously rich crowd hanging out at the Bebek McDonald’s. I did not want to offend anybody by bringing it up so, I never asked.
My first real shock after moving to Istanbul was finding that a bunch of asparagus that I could get in Ankara for about $5 cost an outrageous $40 in affluent Bebek. The first time I saw this price, I actually called over the green grocer for help and asked if he had mistakenly added a zero onto the nine million Turkish lira price tag. I quickly learned to shop in the open markets instead of the fancy grocery stores frequented by ladies who never looked at the prices.
I found the disparity between Turkey’s rich and poor, especially in Istanbul and its surrounding areas, palpable. While most comfortably situated city dwellers burned heating oil or soft coal for warmth in winter, many of the rural poor burned dried dung mixed with straw. For this single reason alone I would not want to be poor in Turkey. In Istanbul, a city known for its opulent palaces and commanding imperial mosques, I was repeatedly struck by the poverty-stricken appearance of the homes of most residents. Many wooden houses in the old city appeared ready to collapse on their occupants. In poorer sections of the city, gecekondus (literally “built overnight”) had been sprouting up for decades with no end in sight. Built quickly, cheaply and sloppily, these housing developments were commonly occupied by recent arrivals from the rural areas.
Istanbul is also a city where a tiny fraction of nearly 15 million people in the 2200 square miles metropolitan area lived in splendid mansions along the Bosphorus. Traditionally, these dwellings were summer houses called yalis in Turkish. Their modern-day counterparts were occupied all year round and ranged in luxury from the well-appointed to the magnificent. Occasionally they could be glimpsed from ferries on the Bosphorus, enjoying the privacy provided by high walls and ancient trees. It was not hard for me to imagine that those who dwelled in the modern yalis, living daily among Byzantine and Ottoman collectibles and rich Turkish carpets, sipped raki and bottled water and went about their affairs forgetting that the world of gecekondus existed.
In Bebek, we counted among our neighbors a Japanese executive and a top guy of a pharmaceutical company. We also developed a nodding acquaintance with an elderly couple that tied up their motor launch immediately across the two-lane coastal road from their palatial home. Another neighbor was a portly middle-aged gentleman who enthroned himself at the wet bar of his family room every afternoon and played cards. A gigantic bottle of Johnny Walker could be seen on display behind him, guarded by a porcelain pug that stared menacingly out the window at the Bosphorus.
Needless to say, we did not have a boat to tie up near our apartment. Our air freight consisted of clothes, a few kitchen utensils, a CD player, and perhaps more books than it should have. But we felt no cause to complain. We had a spacious apartment and we did not have to burn dung to keep warm. I remember our time in that apartment as quiet and solitary with only our cats, the books, and music to keep me company while my husband was at work. We felt comfortable and secure, while around us Turkey was contending with economic uncertainty, its future in Europe, its often conflicting secular and Islamic traditions, and a seemingly far-off Kurdish insurgency. We found ourselves exactly where we wanted to be.
One day I decided to go to Yedikule, the Castle of Seven Towers. This was part of the Byzantine city wall located at the junction of the land wall and the sea wall. A walk along the land wall, which stretches six and a half kilometers, can be interesting, I was told, but it was something I was not prepared to do in a day. I disembarked from a city bus and was contemplating where to start my tour when the watchman, Alaattin Cakir, found me. He told me I was sitting on one of the cannonballs from the old days of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, I was in a field of cannonballs, which I thought was some kind of art installation.
Alaattin Bey was friendly and seemed genuinely pleased to have somebody to show around. He complained that very few tourists came to see the towers these days. In fact, at the time of my visit, there was no other visitor in sight. We stood by what used to be the Golden Gate of Byzantium, now padlocked and overgrown with grass. I tried to imagine it in the days of its full glory as the Byzantine triumphal entrance to the city but could not quite make the leap of imagination.
To the left of the gate was a small door to the tower where one of the sultans was imprisoned and subsequently executed. My guide had difficulty unlocking the rusty lock, but when he finally did we climbed the tower’s stone steps slowly, with only my penlight to guide us. A dim bulb faintly illuminated each landing and daylight slipped through the narrow windows. It was dank and cold inside. The watchman showed me the execution room, then the small room where the seventeen-year old sultan, Osman II, was imprisoned prior to his execution in 1622. It was not a place to hang around for long.
We climbed to the top of the tower and were granted a panoramic view of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the skyline of old Stamboul. Alaattin Bey later led me to another tower known as the Diplomat’s Tower. He solemnly told me this was where diplomats who displeased the Sultans spent their tours during the Ottoman period. My own tour concluded, I expressed my thanks to Alaattin Bey, who insisted that I join him for a glass of hot tea in his small office, the traditional mark of Turkish hospitality.
The warm tea was a welcome change after the dank, gloomy towers. When I finally said goodbye to my guide, I walked to a shelter and waited for a bus that would take me home. Soon, two elderly women joined me. I stood up and gave one my seat. She smiled and said thank you. When I replied in Turkish and added a common greeting, the woman smiled even wider and told her companion I spoke “good Turkish.” “Turist?” she inquired. No, I told them, I lived here. They became very friendly, squeezed together on the narrow bench, and invited me sit down again. We passed the time talking about our families and America. Then one of the women asked, “Where do you live?” I said I lived in Bebek.
“Ah, Bebek,” the woman said knowingly, her words falling like a black shutter. The conversation after that excluded me completely. A middle-aged woman joined us in the shelter and the two women greeted her. They rehashed our prior conversation as if I were not there. More than once, my residence in Bebek was emphasized, as if as if it were the symbol of my entire existence. The newcomer nodded, apparently understanding something I did not. The three women seemed to scrutinize me in a critical light. The friendly smiles were gone.
The bus arrived soon thereafter. The women sat tightly together like hostile musketeers. I felt like saying “I don’t even have a tablecloth; we just live there.” But I stopped myself, realizing I was simply caught in the great divide of a simmering Turkish society.
© 1999 Ruby Carlino
Ms. Carlino writes poetry, travel essay and stories for children. Her work has appeared in various publications. She lived in Ankara and Istanbul from 1996-1998; she now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and works as an analyst for an interactive multimedia company.