Tripping in Tarlabaşı

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All photographs: Oliver Zimmermann

I lurch forward suddenly with the impact of another body hitting mine. To add injury to insult, I trip over a raised piece of concrete jutting out from the pavement, stubbing my big toe. Frazzled and overladen with shopping bags, I’m propelled onward amid the herd of people funnelling into the busy marketplace ahead.

Like so many increasingly popular locations in Istanbul, Tarlabaşı is changing rapidly. Over the past ten years many previously dilapidated, impoverished, and even dangerous areas of the city like Galata, Cihangir and Karaköy are now frequented by travellers, expats, artists, students and hipsters. As a result, Tarlabaşı’s weekend market is also benefiting from an increase in popularity and regular custom from foreigners and locals alike. In fact, the whole area is predicted to soon undergo the same kind of gentrification that has transformed Galata over the past decade.

If you take a trip down to the Sunday market in Tarlabaşı you will be engrossed by a sensory banquet of colourful chaos. Central Tarlabaşı is host to one of Istanbul’s many vibrant underbellies of street trade. The magnificent mishmash of stools has much to offer and is always packed with manic shoppers, falling over one another to grab a bargain as they binge-buy.

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One of the things that makes Tarlabaşı’s weekend market unique is its unpolished charm and, most importantly, its uncommonly low prices. It is not only notoriously cheap to shop here, it is also a cultural feast for the eyes and ears. You’ll be dazzled by streets brimming with mountainous piles of fruit and vegetables cascading from rickety wooden tables and lured in by the provocative cries of tradesmen advertising their wares left, right and centre.

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However, despite such positive predictions regarding the regeneration of Tarlabaşı, many here fear that an unavoidable consequence of development in the area will be the necessary sacrifice its currently rugged charm and unique atmosphere. The prospect of gentrification here also poses the problematic question of what will happen to the current lower income families living there, who will undoubtedly be pushed out as food and rent prices rise. While the rejuvenation of impoverished and neglected inner-city districts is perceived—on the whole—as a good thing, there are many potentially negative connotations for residence. The wealth predicted to flow into Tarlabaşı over the coming years will naturally exclude and further oppress poor and immigrant communities in the area, forcing them to move on to less desirable outskirts of the city, where their living standards will deteriorate further. A story too often told in tales of gentrification within numerous enterprising cities throughout history.

In a time when the average Istanbulian’s wages are grossly disproportionate to the cost of living, and when food and accomidation costs are consistently rising, the Tarlabaşı market is at once a refuge to low income citizens and a bargain-hunter’s dream come true. It is now one of the best places in Beyoğlu to stock up on the essentials for your weekly food shop. You can purchase all sorts here: from the practical and everyday, to the downright bizarre.

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You can buy luxury goods like spices, olives, dried-fruits and cheeses in bulk and for a much lower price than any supermarket. You can pick up other novelty items, such as miniature goldfish—sold at 5 tl a piece—in tiny glass takeaway bowls. You can also acquire a whole plethora of useful tat here: from cheap brassieres, track suits, kitchen gubbins and other brand knock-offs.

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Like the range of ladies underwear available, everything at Tarlabaşı’s outdoor market is oversized and underpriced. Despite being organic and homegrown by local farmers, even the cabbages here look like genetically engineered science experiments — weighing in at a hefty 7 kilos each!

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Today, Tarlabaşı is described by many as the “soon-to-be up-and-coming” place to live within the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. The young genrtifiers of the city are now choosing to settle in Tarlabaşı, over other more trendy areas. The new community of outsiders moving into Tarlabaşı are drawn here by the low rent prices and spacious apartments available; these young Istanbulites do not see the sense in living in the grossly overpriced Cihangir or Galata when they can live comfortably in the charmingly rough-around-the-edges and characteristic, Tarlabaşı. The benefit of the local weekend market here also means that residents living on low monthly incomes can do their entire weekly food shop for under 100 tl. Therefore, like so many impoverished areas of the city, Tarlabaşı is also considered as the place to invest in property and redevelopment, before the imminent boom hits.

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But Tarlabaşı is not there yet. There are still many dangers associated with living here as a foreigner. Drug dealing among the derelict back-alleys is rife and there have been numerous reports of rape and muggings after dark in the more remote areas. The high crime rates, poor living standards and low home security, mean that newcomers to the district have to wise-up fast. I have many female expat friends who live in Tarlabaşı and who have to avoid walking alone at night and habitually carry pepper spray in their handbags.

In contrast, areas like Galata have been transformed over recent years into city hot-spots, boasting multiple trendy bars, cafes, pop-up shops and art galleries. However, many residents recall a time when local mafia ran the streets of Galata. In those days Galata was rife with crime and the roads were blocked-off at night, so that even the police could not enter after dark. Yet, ironically Galata is now one of the safest, most picturesque areas on the European side of Istanbul. Tarlabaşı, on the other hand, still looks and feels relatively crude by comparison.

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Today, the streets of Tarlabaşı remain murky and smell of coal-smoke. Currently undeveloped, rough-and-ready Tarlabaşı is made up of a ramshackle maze of timeworn buildings. Rubbish bins overflow onto jagged strips of pothole-riddled pavements and the roads are filled with rickety old cars. It serves as a kind of mirror of a former Galata or Cihangir, like a window into the not so distant past.

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Living here may be cheap but the area is still insecure. The buildings here quite literally crumbling at the corners – not somewhere that particularly inspires confidence in light of Istanbul’s imminent earthquake. The streets are made up of cramped, jagged structures surrounding the numerous claustrophobic labyrinth alleyways. As with most built-up inner-city areas of Istanbul, there are few rooms with a view beyond another wall of concrete.

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Yet, Tarlabaşı remains an increasingly desirable location to the new generation of expats and travellers in Istanbul. The streets have an alluring grittiness to them, a vibrant, yet mystifying energy. Despite a looming sense that you could have your wallet nicked at any moment, Tarlabaşı is a genuinely interesting and exciting place to explore — particularly on the weekend, when the market is in full bloom.

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I for one sincerely hope that Tarlabaşı retains its quirky and exhilarating charisma as it continue to develop and evolve.

All photographs Copyright of Oliver Zimmermann http://www.oliverzimmermann.com/ and all rights reserved

Simple Pleasures: Chicken Rice at Haciosman

In many respects, Istanbul-life is what happens while you’re making other plans. The subtle transition between the unknown and the familiar occurred in my daily experiences here without me even noticing. One day I was a wide-eyed yabanci (foreign) alien and the next, Istanbul had somehow become my normality. I now rarely catch myself noticing the more bizarre elements of life in Istanbul, of which there are many, and of which I was all too acutely aware of in my first few weeks here. I have now become accustomed to the pace of this great city; no longer a complete stranger, I now feel strangely at home amid its landscape, its people and its culture. Subtly, and without intrusion, the city seems to have woven itself into my subconscious, the relationship between us becoming more intimate as time passes. As I move through the city day after day, going about my routine, I feel myself becoming ever more intertwined in the city’s complex tapestry.

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I have now developed my own habits and rituals here. I am now known by my Galata neighbours, local coffee shops and takeaway services. As I travel back and forth across the city each day, I recognise the same familiar faces staring back at me on the metro and hold the same conversations with street sellers on my route home. One of the absolute highlights of my busy working day has become my evening ritual of stopping to eat pilaf tavuk (chicken rice) outside Haciosman metro station. Due to the amount of time I spend commuting across the city, this habitual evening snack is often the first chance I will have had to eat since breakfast. The mobile pilaf tavuk cart at Haciosman sums up why I love Istanbul — the food is fast, tasty, cheap and continuously available. For me, Istanbul is all about the thriving street food culture.

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In order to avoid what Adam Smith referred to as “The deadening effect of familiarity on curiosity” I try, when I can, to seek out new perspectives of the places I visit daily in Istanbul. On my commute to work, I reflect on the beauty of my surroundings. I take note of the facial expressions and mannerisms of people on the bus and metro, the swerves and turns of the furious traffic whizzing by, the colour of the skyline littered with buildings and the red flags rippling on the ocean breeze sweeping in off the Bosphorus.

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The main difference from when I first arrived is that, where these things once overwhelmed my sensory experiences, they now make me feel strangely at ease. I have grown increasingly accustomed to the texture and tone of Istanbul. The things that used to baffle, horrify and amaze me have become so normal to me now that I hardly notice them. I have come to find solace in the dirt and the smells, the constant noise and frenzy. Of course, from time to time I become deeply frustrated with how difficult everything seems to here — Istanbul is the very definition of juxtaposition — but I feel at home amid the chaos of this urban space, in all it’s glorious paradoxical charm.

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The mobile food cart at Haciosman metro station is owned and run by two friendly gentlemen, Mohamed and Gulnur, and the food they make and sell is simple but utterly delicious. My work colleagues and I are such regulars customers that Mohamed and Gulnur know exactly what time we will arrive each day and always great us with big smiles. Both men seem so delighted that a group of yabancis has become their most frequent group of customers. Every evening at 18:30 when we get of our school service bus at the entrance to Haciosman metro, Gulnur beckons us towards him, beaming with pride as he bellows “Hosgaldinez” (welcome). On approaching the cart, Mohamed flashes us a shy smile and nods politely as he extends a hand containing a small plastic bowl filled with boiled white rice and shredded roast chicken.

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At this point in the day, I finally relax. The food is homemade and heartwarming — real ‘food for the soul’ grub. At the back end of the cart there is an array of condiments available, including jars of Turkish green pickles, yellow peppers and chilies. I take my chicken rice scattered with as many spicy yellow chilies as I can pile on top and drenched in mayonnaise. It may sound and look disgusting but I think it is the bee’s-knees of simple, home-cooked, Turkish street food.

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The food is served in small half-ball shape portions and cost 3.50 tl per portion. The chicken is soft and flavorsome and the rice is creamy and buttery with boiled chickpeas mingled among it. Seeing as Turks don’t really believe in vegetarianism, if you ask for a portion without meat, Mohamed and Gulnur will simply scoop around the chicken piled up at one side of the rice pan and—voilà!—you have a veggie portion. Haci Osman Pilavcisi’s food is so popular with locals passing by during rush hour that Mohamed and Gulnur have even created a Facebook page for their mobile food stand, which boasts over 420 ‘likes’: https://www.facebook.com/HaciOsmanPilavcisi. The friendly atmosphere and high standard of service that Mohamed and Gulnur uphold has enabled them to create a culture uncommon of the average street food stand in Istanbul. Their customers are not only plentiful, they are also loyal and, like myself and my colleagues, can be counted on to keep coming back for more. Everyday, I glance about and see the same familiar group of commuters huddled around the cart, shovelling chicken rice into their mouths at speed. We are all there, everyday, no matter the weather, for the same reason – we are all really, really hungry after work.

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What I like most about eating at Mohamed and Gulnur’s food cart is the strong sense of community there. Everyone eats together and everyone is welcome, regardless of class, gender, age, or even species, for that matter. Even the street dogs are welcome at Haci Osman Pilavcisi and I routinely see people purchasing whole bowls of chicken rice to feed the hungry stray pups with. While street food sellers in central areas of Istanbul would chase off begging dogs, in the misty mountainous district of Sariyer, man and beast happily dine together.

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As I am sure Mohamed and Gulnur have realised, one of the things that makes Haci Osman Pilavcisi so successful is its location in the remote Northern district of Sariyer. While there are thousands of identical street food stands scattered all over Istanbul, not all of them have managed to cultivate such a great sense of community or highly loyal customer base as Mohamed and Gulnur have. This is because the pace of life is a bit slower up in Haciosman (which happens to be the last stop and farthest point of the city’s Northern metro line). People are not in such a mad rush up there. They know each other and they make time to stop and speak with each other on their way to and from the office. In fact, we all rely so heavily on Mohamed and Gulnur being there to meet us with warm bowls of chicken rice after work, that on the rare occasion that they are not, my colleagues and I literally don’t know what to do with ourselves. The only reason that Mohamed and Gulnur will not set up their stand is if the rain is too heavy during the winter season, yet we all still whine like spoiled little children if we are denied our beloved chicken rice.

My daily dining ritual with Mohamed and Gulnur is now so established that we have even managed to teach each other some basic language skills. While my Turkish is still appalling, neither Mohamed nor Gulnur speak a word of English. Everyday, after I have finished stuffing my face with chicken rice, Mohamed takes my empty bowl away and offers me a peçete (napkin). This routine is in fact how I learned to pronounce the word “Peçete” and how Mohamed learned to pronounce the word “Napkin”, which he very proudly demonstrates for me every evening. Bowing his head as he passes it to me, Mohamed proudly says “Nap-et-ken!”, to which I proudly respond “Pej-ita!”. Then he waves me “Iyi akşamlar” (good evening) with a broad-beaming smile. I respond “Iyi akşamlar” and we part ways, knowing we will do the same familiar dance again tomorrow.

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*A Turkish Delight 

The Man Time Forgot: Gokhan and His Ottoman Tünel

It’s surprising how, for such a gigantic city, Istanbul can feel remarkably village like, once you have spent more than a day in one area. I have had no shortage of bizarre experiences since arriving here and this random encounter was one of the sweetest.

Last weekend, as I was setting off to buy a washing machine for our new apartment in Galata with my boyfriend Oli and his stepfather Cem, I noticed a large Victorian-looking chimney opposite the entrance to the Füniküler Tünel on lower Istiklal. No sooner had I asked Cem what the building was used for, than I found myself being led inside. As we entered, an extraordinarily jolly looking man, with a dusty blue coat and undeniably Poirot-esque moustache enthusiastically beckoned us to follow him. He looked familiar to me somehow, like a loveable character from some old black and white movie; his salt and pepper whiskers gave him an air of Ottoman gentry and the deep laughter-lines around his eyes rendered his broad smile infectious. His appearance was almost comical in contrast with the cosmopolitan buzz of Istiklal high street. We followed him through a narrow doorway and down some stone steps into a cluttered office brimming with old factory papers and other gubbins. The man’s small, beady eyes sparkled with pride as he presented his office to us, gesturing for us to take a seat. The stuffy room resembled a snapshot of a 1970s detective drama, every surface covered in dust and each random and archaic object drenched in the nostalgic glow of the lazy afternoon sun.

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Gokhan’s office on lower Istiklal

Once seated, the old man introduced himself. His name was Gokhan and he worked in the small maintenance office for the Tünel service. He spoke rapidly in Turkish and looked to Cem for the English translation. His voice was deep and husky and resonated through the small room, muffled by his thick moustache, like an engine warming up. His eyes glistened with the manic excitement of a child on Christmas morning as he told us the entire history of the Tünel. He relayed how the original Tünel was inaugurated in 1875 and that it is the second oldest underground system in the world. He spoke of how, in the days of Ottoman Empire, people used to work in the low Galata, which was the centre for Istanbul’s trade, stock exchange and customs industry, and how they lived in hotels and lodgings in the uphill area of Pera. As there was only one steep and narrow route up the hill, workers had to transport their goods up the 60-meter climb every day. Gokhan explained how, under the instruction of Abdülaziz – the 32nd sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the French engineer Eugène-Henri Gavand designed an alternative way of connecting the two districts of, then, Constantinople. The underground funicular spanned across 573 metres, with two stations on either end, uniting the quarters of Karaköy and Beyoğlu.

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Talking about the history of his beloved Tünel evidently invigorated Gokhan and he continued at length, pausing only to let Cem explain the latest stream of information to us. Gokhan described how when the Tünel was first built, people didn’t trust that it was safe and so for several months it was only used to transport animals and other cargo. He recalled that there had once been an accident on the Tünel; due to a tear in one of the cords the free falling train had gathered momentum as it sped down the hill and had crashed into the shop in the streets below, crushing a man to death. But this didn’t prevent the Tünel from becoming the popular form of transport between Karaköy and Beyoğluin, not to mention one of Istanbul’s many historical landmarks.

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As I listened to Gokhan speak so passionately on the topic, my eyes scanned the cluttered room. I wondered whether it was in fact some kind of Tünel museum, conveniently situated opposite the entrance to the functioning Funicular. However, this was not the case. Gokhan told the story of the Tünel on his own time, doubtless to any passer by willing to listen. Maintaining the Tünel was clearly not only Gokhan’s livelihood; it was also a personal connection to his Ottoman heritage. He went on with fanatical enthusiasm about how the Tünel had always been special for Istanbul, particularly Beyoglu, because at the time of its construction the radically ambitious underground system had symbolised the progressiveness and of modernity of Istanbul as a world power. It was obvious that, for Gokhan, the Tünel still represented the sense of pride he felt to belong to a country with such a rich and well-documented history. He seemed to have an unquenchable, almost desperate desire to share the tale of the Tünel with others, particularly foreigners, and to educate them on Turkey’s achievements. Like the archaic Tünel’s structure, Gohkan himself seemed to belong to another time entirely; his possessions, clothing, mannerism, facial features, and even his haircut appeared to belong to a bygone era. Perhaps this is due to the fact that while Istanbul’s construction industry is booming around him – the most contemporary structures including luxury hotels, plush office complexes and mammoth sky-scrapes complete with roof-top swimming pools and golf-courses – Gokhan spends his life underground, dedicated to preserving constructions of the past. Turkish people are, and have always been, extremely proud of their unique and pioneering underground transportation systems; the most recent focus of Turkey’s engineering feats is the celebrated Marmaray train, which runs under the Bosphorus itself.

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Gokhan at his desk

Despite the slightly strange experience of receiving a spontaneous industrial lecture from a perfect stranger, meeting and talking with Gokhan was a sheer Turkish delight! We stayed in his poky office for the best part of an hour and I got the feeling he wouldn’t have minded if we had stayed forever. His excitement in sharing his passion with “yabancilar” (foreigners) was genuinely heart-warming. Having lived in Istanbul for a month now, I have become accustomed to Turkish peoples overtly lavish hospitality. Yet, the enthusiasm with which Gokhan took us under his wing that afternoon, whilst being rather intense, was certainly very generous. And I can safely say, that I have never met a man more proud of a train system. As a newcomer to the city, it is always a great feeling to have the opportunity to experience things spontaneously and for the first time. In that respect, it’s possible that being a new arrival in a place is not dissimilar to being a newborn and seeing everything in total absence of context. Of course, I new a little of Turkey’s Ottoman history before I moved here, but it was great to learn about the specific history of the Tünel from someone who holds it in such high regard.

From now on, whenever I take the underground Funicular, I’ll think of Gokhan, contentedly pottering about, day after day, in his poky time-capsule of an office; quietly continuing to preserve the legend of the Tünel, like a man left behind on the platform, as time goes rushing by.

*A Turkish Delight