Sometimes it is possible to see dolphins in the oily waters of the Bosphorus. Vigilant and quick, they swim close to the mossy stones at the shore and flit shadowlike between the ships that stir the waters. The vast river that divides Istanbul is perhaps the world’s most beautiful motorway, a shimmering strip down which Russian freight ships and macabre steel tankers make their progress.
It was June, and I was boarding the ferry at Karaköy to cross to the Asian side of the city. Thick crowds were massed along the shore, holding up Turkish flags in the searing heat. Bright lemons and slices of watermelon changed hands over the gathered heads. When returning ferries eased into the dock calm waves of applause broke out, and when the passengers came into view they joined in, united with their shore bound neighbours by a grave kinship. At the station exit the simit sellers were ready with their tongs and golden bread. Streams of people slowed down to eat together.
Three days ago, and for the first time that summer, Istanbul’s streets began to fill with tear gas. It became clear that peaceful attempts to save Gezi Park from a planning development were unlikely to be taken seriously by Prime Minister Erdoğan, and protest and vigil rapidly became a way of life. The Turks are an incredibly enterprising people, resourceful and vigorous. There are men who stand on the city’s roaring suspension bridges in the midday sun, holding three or four bottles of water. If they are lucky and the drivers are thirsty, they will make no more than three lira - it is a lot to risk for a little gain. But three lira is an opportunity, and in Istanbul people take opportunities.
And so, within a week of the demonstrations beginning, tradesmen had begun to tailor their businesses to the spirit of Gezi. Cushions, scarves, T-shirts and notebooks bearing protest slogans lined the streets; two men brought a grand piano to Taksim Square; in 2014 you can buy wall clocks and protest costumes for puppies. But nobody adapted to the movements of the protestors more readily than the street food vendors.
Istanbul’s street food is the jewel in the city’s culinary crown, remarkable for its variety and ubiquity. Each vendor sells one or two products made perfectly, working with a loving pedantry that means different shapes of cake have their own cart. At the waterfront there are high trays of mussels stuffed with herbed rice and pine nuts, eaten on the spot with a squeeze of lemon. There are sweating men selling kofte, smoking as they slice tomatoes and wiry green peppers; glass cages filled with sticky rice soaked in chicken fat; nuts and sour green plums, roasted chestnuts whose sweet wintry scent fills the street. My favourite are the barbecued mackerel you find by the water, stuffed into sandwiches trailing parsley and pomegranate molasses. There are halka tatlisisi, crisp syrupy curls similar to Indian jalebi, and glossy wedges of cake topped with crushed pistachio. The omnipresent simit are baked twice daily, peppered with sesame and carried on poles onto boats and highways.
Food production is the steadiest rhythm in this muddled city. Food is everywhere, and whether because of habit or belief, people seem alarmed at the prospect of ever being without it. At bus stops men sell cakes and cartons of sour cherry juice, and on the twenty minute ferry crossing there are ice creams and trays of cheese toast. A trip to the cinema is marred by the endless cracking of sunflower kernels. Thus, the protesters’ need for food was born of something deeper than hunger - they needed it to feel like a truly Turkish community, and to bring a semblance of normality to their newly nomadic lives.
So the men at the docks brought their hissing plates of fish up the hill, up the punishing steps and traffic-jammed streets at Galata and relocated to Taksim. Huge amounts of simit were baked. Makeshift drinks stalls were set up with bottles and cans sunk in huge plastic tubs of ice. The square filled with corn sellers whose carts you tussled to get to. Within the park volunteers set up tables of tea and donated biscuits, and carefully painted eggs with the names of cities who had acted in solidarity. It was remarkable, friends told me, how much people shared with each other. For that brief window in time, society was flat, open, a land of brothers and sisters.
The vendors themselves were not concerned about repercussions from their association with the protestors; watermelons bore the ‘Tayyip Istifa!’ slogan that haunted the air. The animosity between food carts and the government is long standing. Most of the traders are Kurdish residents of poor neighbourhoods like Tarlabaşı and Kasımpaşa, who have come to Istanbul from Kurdish cities to try to make a living. These vendors complain of being stalked by municipal patrol officers who require them to have an işgaliye, a special license, which they say is unreasonably expensive to obtain. Furthermore, vendors claim that even if they are willing to pay, the government will only issue the işgaliye for certain types of food - not including the dessert or mussel stands. This leaves the vendors, many of whom have been in the trade since childhood, with a strange, restive existence where they could be forced to move on at any moment. It occurs to me how disastrous the planned shopping centre would be for many of these central tradesmen, how quickly its gleaming halls would destroy decades of work.
Istanbul is a city dominated by people, their appetites and tears and beating hearts. When you look out at its haunted skyline you see that it is not a place for chain restaurants and housing developments; it is too nuanced, too melancholy. Young Turks express their frustration that Erdoğan has not grown out of a childish desire to make everything he has the biggest, that he sweeps over Turkey’s dazzlingly eclectic history in his efforts to create a uniform and morally clean metropolis. Real Turkish enterprise expresses itself through family businesses and individuals, not through hyper-capitalist chains. The tension between these two strands who feed the population reached its zenith last summer.
Saray Muhallebicisi, a popular dessert chain owned by the current mayor Kadir Topbaş, would not accept injured protesters inside its doors. People started to talk about its links with Erdoğan; chains began to look suspicious, sinister in a more profound way than hysterical anti-capitalists in European countries can imagine. Another fast-food chain, Kizilkayalar, refused to serve food to the protesters and its workers allegedly attempted to attack them with kebab knives. When its manager referred to demonstrators as 'vagabonds', it succeeded in alienating the students and young professionals who represented the core of its custom. Mado and Kizilkayalar continue to be boycotted, along with other chains such as Starbucks, Burger King, Kofteci Ramiz, and Güllüoğlu Baklava. Their presence represents too great a cost: Erdoğan’s quick crushing of Istanbul’s patchwork communities which have sprung up messily, richly, over generations.
On one of my daily Bosphorus crossings last summer, I witnessed an unforgettable scene. It was early evening and the black figures of mosques and Ottoman palaces stood clean against the violet sky; in front of them monstrous tower cranes were planted in the water. We were nearing the shore. Suddenly, inside the boat a rendition of an old Italian resistance song started up, led by a girl with a clarinet and a long pale plait. A boy in glasses stood to join her. By the chorus everyone on the deck had joined in: tired business men, groups of drinking buddies, students and old women. In the cool night air, their voices blended like drums.
The show of unity that I witnessed on the boat was deeply impressive, and it was not an isolated incident. The boundaries Erdoğan had hoped to create disintegrated, and people shared their food, their homes, their medicine. A friend fell to the ground blinded by teargas and was helped up by a group of women in hijabs pipetting milk into his eyes. Kurds and Turks marched beside each other. Pharmacists dispensed free gas masks. Protesters were calm and informed, utterly focused on their demands, gathering without bitterness or resentment. They acted with a shared and measured anger for the oppression inflicted on their neighbours and this, more than anything, was what I saw last summer, a community discovering each other as neighbours. It was joyful, a celebration of the white-hot peaks reached by new voices scaling to freedom.
During Turkey’s Ramazan month an ‘alternative’ iftar was staged, a long picnic that snaked down the main shopping street at sundown. Protesters broke bread together and the street filled with the heavy scent of homemade dishes, the buzz of conversation. These were Muslims and non- Muslims, expats and students. The sharing of food represented an ideal of tolerance fundamental to Istanbul society that was being deeply contravened by Erdoğan’s Islamist agenda. One of my students, quite a religious man, would fast all day before our lessons and, scrupulous and starving, watch the clock for sundown to arrive. But when he ate, he would also give to me, and insist that I eat cheese and dark chocolate, pastrami, coffee. He even wanted to join me in a cup of tea made the English way with milk; nothing better illustrates the expansive, cooperative Turkish psyche than the way that people eat and drink.
I wondered if there was a relic of the Ottoman past in the iftar picnics, the slow-blossoming seed of a secularism that predates even Ataturk. The Millet system gave non-Muslim communities the right to autonomous rule within the empire. Non-Muslim subjects paid jizya, a tax which enabled them to freely practise their own religion. Was the ghost of this system present at these street banquets, there in the idea that anyone who brings food to the table should be accepted as a member of the community? Certainly, for the most part last summer Istanbul’s citizens asked nothing of each other but kindness, respect and shared bread.
This was a special interpretation of Islam, an emphasis on the solidarity and empathy fasting is supposed to engender. It was a promotion of the need to tolerate the neighbour even in his unbelief, to partake of his food and share yours with his children, so that they might grow strong and help make a better society. It is ironic then, that it is the religious aspects of the government’s policy that Istanbul’s citizens objected to so strongly; Erdoğan’s ideals disregard the call to share. Calling protestors ‘vagabonds’ and refusing to serve them food is not only un-neighbourly; it is deeply, deeply un-Turkish.
In January, Human Rights Watch expressed concerns at the Turkish government’s growing intolerance of political opposition, public protest and critical media. The Turkish Medical Association reported that eleven people had lost eyes after being shot with tear gas at close range. The government have changed the positions of thousands of police members and public prosecutors, making it extremely difficult to bring about any legal action for the violence of the summer. There are still protests, mainly by people demanding justice for the nine who died, but these are not shown by the Turkish media. Recent curbs on internet usage have outraged the international community.
But, Gezi Park is now open, and it has more trees and greenery than before. ‘Now it looks like everything is okay’, a friend tells me. I think back to last summer, to my boat journey. When the girl with the plait put down her clari-net the applause broke out again, this time taken up by the passengers wait-ing at the approaching dock. As the ferry cut slickly to the shore I wondered where the dolphins were now, crushed on the slippery bellies of steamers or heading for the open sea.
Ruby Stockham is a freelance writer from Bristol, with an MA in Modern Literature. Her work has previously appeared in The Spectator.
Cover photo licensed under Creative Commons.