Sokakta hayat var: streetlife in İstanbul

THE GRAFFITI on the wall in Kadıköy said, ‘Sokakta hayat var’: life is on the street.

In Gedik Paşa, down the hill from the Grand Bazaar, the cobblestones run rough. A Georgian woman serves me breakfast. Churches domes – Armenian, Greek – emerge above the roof lines, looming over shops, workshops, teahouses and streetfronts. Set back. Hunkered down.

In the shop, buying fruit. The shopkeeper is unusually frank, not mincing words about Turkish history, the untoward things that have gone on; of course, he’s Kurdish. Locals come and go; he speaks openly, not holding back. Then I realise, it’s a Kurdish neighbourhood.

Near Süleymaniye Mosque. Cats under the trees in the graveyard, and rooks hovering. Gypsy children. Girls in headscarves and mantö, presumably devout, arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

pomegranate-stallBetween the bazaar and Eminönü, the man selling pomegranate juice. From Mardin. Untalkative. The Türkmen women, with their elaborate head dresses, as if they are concealing beehive hairdos under floral patterns. Serene countenances with an Asiatic cast. They hover over the flagstones, gliding like swans.

Lights blazing at night; traffic continues, shadows, fumes, beams of light. People in the street, children, old men; cries and exclamations. The world afoot, each individual on their own vitally important errands; independent yet synchronised. Islam is the religion of trade – every one buying, selling, lugging shopping, offloading something, haggling, bargaining, reaching a deal. Pushing carts laden with fruit, socks, stationery, nail clippers, sunflower seeds in brown-paper bags. The bearded hoca sitting opposite the church, with his wares laid out beside him on the footpath. The small boy manning the till at his father’s corner shop.

The next morning, the call to prayer. Seagulls hover and squawk. A view of the Blue Mosque from an attic window.

On the hill between Kadıköy and Üsküdar, the cemetery with its cypress trees and family plots. The scent of lopped fig trees. On Nuh Kuyusu, the stonemasons tapping away at marble headstones. The barber in his basement-level shop, looking wistfully at the street.

mihrimar-sultan-2In Üsküdar, by night. Mopeds going the wrong way, on the footpath, through red lights. The blind men, one in dark glasses, sitting outside the mosque, smiling benevolently, their canes folded neatly on the bench beside them. The wind through the plane trees.

Turkish women, with their dark eyes, their chatter and inflected vowels, aswirl around me, like shades. The Mihriman Sultan Mosque, a drab tortoise in the daylight, now illuminated in pastel shades, peach, saffron.

So many shops, so many specialising in one thing: çiğ köfte, chicken kebabs, börek, baklava. The street pedlars with mussels or simit. The büfes, with their wet hamburgers and cheesy toasts and sosislis. But nowhere to get a drink.

The Syrian refugee family, sitting, cross-legged, on cardboard boxes on the grass, presumably where they will sleep for the night. The little girl, perhaps eight years old, sitting so upright, so proudly. So heartbreakingly proudly. As the commuting masses rush past her unheeding. Night descending. The ferries moving across the dark waters. The lights on the Bosphorus Bridge flickering.

Next day. Karaköy. Scents of the sea, of the fish in the bazaar, of diesel fumes. The cries of the fishmongers. And the growl of the ferries.

Meeting my new Kurdish friend. Sitting on the little stools. Talking so intently that we keep ordering more tea, glass by glass.

st-anthony-churchIn St Anthony’s. Muslim pilgrims in a Catholic church. The headscarved girls taking selfies with the altar as a backdrop. Lighting candles that flicker in the water trays. The attendant telling people not to take photos and pointing at the pictures of forbidden activities, proceeding to answer his phone when it rings.

On İstiklal, the folksingers. He with red hair, playing a güsle; his rich baritone perfectly in harmony with her soprano. Gypsy junkies nodding amid the assembled crowd, jerking awake to clap politely after each song. The 3/4 (or perhaps 7/8) rhythms and tapping feet. Of course, the singers are Laz – his red hair.

The blind man busking with his recorder, his wife, with eyes unseeing, clutching his arm and talking on her phone. Heading down toward the Galata Tower. Nargile smoke. Wisps of coconut and cherry bomb.

singers-istiklalLeaving Karaköy again on the ferry. The silhouettes, the cardboard cut-out canopies, the domes, the minarets, like silverware: candlesticks, salt and pepper pots. The sun emerging from behind the clouds to set the Bosphorus ablaze, a flickering sheet of beaten gold.

On the Asian side again. The fire truck, siren blaring, stuck in gridlock.

After dark, the flagstones slick with rain. No moon in the sky.

Life is on the street.

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