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Istanbul’s Wandering Songbirds

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Street vendors are outlaws by definition.

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Illustration by Ozge Samanci, whose graphic memoir Dare to Disappoint was recently published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Many Turks associate the Occupy-like protests at Istanbul’s Gezi Park in the summer of 2013 with the burning taste of pepper gas. The riot police gassed activists day and night in an effort to push them as far away from the Park as possible. I, however, associate those mad days with the taste of watermelons. As I walked around the park, located very close to my apartment in the Beyoğlu district and peopled at the time by thousands of protesters, I would see a karpuzcu (watermelon seller) doling out carefully sliced offerings to young activists from his makeshift cart. For five liras you could get a big, cold slice of watermelon, served to you on a plastic plate with a plastic fork. Seeing the business opportunity, karpuzcu and his friend maskeci, who sold Scream masks to those in need of covering their faces from CCTV cameras, would wander among protesters for days on end, refusing to cede their ground even as heavily armed riot cops fired tear gas canisters into the throng. In the first days of the protests, Gezi Park was populated mostly by Deleuze readers, musician types who wouldn’t look out of place in a John Zorn concert, and young girls doing yoga on the grass. Then came the vendors. They seemed to be making a statement, championing the optimism inherent in a job where every morning brings renewed hope of making a profit. They were often found on the margins of the Park, in the sliver of space between the protesters and cops. Many of the protesters, as they drifted into sleep inside that small green space, dreamed of expanded societal freedoms. Perhaps the dreams of vendors (not unlike my own freelance writer’s dreams) focused more on higher customer demand and increased earnings—their desired brand of freedom.

For protesters, who couldn’t stand the sight of police in the Park, street vendors were initially a more tolerable presence, but that sentiment soon changed. In the days that followed, when people began to complain about the commercialization of Gezi, the Park came to serve as space for an unusual economic experiment, where a newly created “shared economy” made the use of money unnecessary. Everything was shared, nothing was paid for. Gradually, street vendors came to be seen as somewhat suspect figures. The congregation within the Park had started to resemble a youth festival, one that the vendors were accused of exploiting. It was as if, in their steadfast allegiance to an abandoned system, these formerly benign outsiders had suddenly become a part of the status quo. For young revolutionaries who longed for the immediate dissolution of Turkey’s capitalist economy, police force, and army, petty economic concerns and the daily struggle to make ends meet seemed like relatively unimportant subjects. As delivery men strode through the park with boxes of pizza, purchased online by supporters of the protests from their living rooms, street vendors seemed more and more like opportunists. Unable to give away their offerings for free, they found themselves out of place in a world whose rules they struggled to comprehend.

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To observe the growing decline in their relevance, in their very ability to survive, is to be given a glimpse at where Turkish society is headed.

Understanding the lives of Istanbul street vendors—their struggle against both the muzzle of officialdom and their perennially unstable position within the wider Turkish society—is crucial to our understanding of modern Turkey. To observe the growing decline in their relevance, in their very ability to survive, is to glimpse where Turkish society is headed.

The number of registered street vendors in Istanbul exceeds 12,000. There are reportedly another 50,000 pirate street vendors who pay no rent to the municipality. Between 1989 and 2006 the percentage of informal workers (those without social security) increased from 26 percent to 32 percent in Turkey. In 2004, the president of Ankara’s chamber of commerce claimed that street vendors as a group evade about three million dollars in taxes every year. According to Ali Çarkoğlu and Mine Eder’s 2006 study “Urban Informality and Economic Vulnerability in Turkey,” 83.2 percent of street vendors have no insurance. The households of fifty-seven percent of them earn less than fifty euros a month. This is the way street vendors live, statistically.

Shopkeepers (known in Turkish as esnaf) do not look kindly on their more nomadic compatriots. Competing with a seller who pays no taxes or rent is unfair, they complain. One sees warning signs at the entrances of thousands of Istanbul stores: “Street vendors not permitted on elevators!” Vendors are never allowed to forget that they are unwanted in this city.

In their article “One-Person Holdings: Tactics of Istanbul’s Street Vendors,” Erbatur Çavuşoğlu and Julia Strutz draw a parallel between attempts to formalize Istanbul’s economy as a global city and the global economic trends toward liberalization and deregulation: “Led by the wish to create a clean, ‘modern’ city, the fight against the informal economy in the 1980s gained new vigor,” they argue. “All political elites have shared the common ambition to turn Istanbul into a global city, an international hub for finance, art, and technology, where the characteristics of the informal sector, like low-quality products and unskilled service workers, are frowned upon.” Unsurprisingly, Turkish law forbids unregistered trades like street vending: Istanbul’s Municipal Law and Law for Misdemeanor accused sellers of producing waste and noise pollution before banning them from streets. Istanbul’s street vendors are outlaws by definition.

But these outlaws still do business according to carefully devised rules. Çavuşoğlu and Strutz write about how “street vending is a very structured sector, which requires tactical planning…. Street vending is the flexible offering of products and services and requires daily (or even hourly) market surveys.” Most of the vendors they have interviewed for their study “specialize in a group of products and decide individually which one would sell better or worse on that specific day at that specific place.” They are constantly on the lookout for the next opportunity: With no steady wages coming in at the end of the month, vendors live perpetually in the present.

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Neoliberals can rail against their presence as much as they like, but street vendors have a long and storied history in this city. Reşat Ekrem Koçu (1905-1975), the eccentric Turkish author famous for his eleven volume long, unfinished Istanbul Encyclopedia, described them as “tradesmen on foot,” “the salt and pepper of great Istanbul,” and the city’s “trademark.” As early as the sixteenth century, vendors wandered the streets of Istanbul where they were viewed as suspect figures by the state. A crime story from the era shows the extent of this suspicion: In 1528 a person, or a group of persons, entered a house in Istanbul at midnight, murdered the house’s inhabitants in cold blood, stole their property and disappeared into the night. As it happened, the house in question was located in a neighborhood where a lot of manual laborers worked. Unable to find and punish the assailants, Ottoman authorities decided to go after candlemakers, criers, and other members of Istanbul’s street vendor community. Around 800 of them were seized from the streets and swiftly executed. The order to use the occasion to cleanse the streets came from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Ahmed Dede, the chief court astrologer (müneccimbaşı) is known to have informed the Sultan that what he had commanded was wrong according to the Sharia, but his warnings fell on deaf ears.

In a 2013 Oxford symposium, Banu Özden, the director of Istanbul’s Culinary Institute, spoke about the history of Istanbul’s street vendors. “In the nineteenth century,” Özden said, “the street food vendors were all over the city, and during meal times, citizens of Istanbul would get a chance to communicate, interact, and share with each other by creating small communities around these sellers. In those times restaurants were not a common concept.” When restaurants did become more common in the city, their owners served as the vendors’ main rivals in what became an increasingly unjust competition. In the immediate aftermath of military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, Istanbul’s thoroughfares were once again stripped of vendors, who were judged to be at least partly responsible for what officials had called the “anarchy” that reigned on Turkey’s streets. Modernizers of the era viewed them as impediments to a civilized and advanced society. There is a wonderful scene in Orhan Pamuk’s new novel A Strangeness in My Mind where the book’s protagonist Mevlut, a street vendor, refers to the Turkish republic’s secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in an effort to legitimize his existence while talking to customers who ask questions about whether his job is not a bit outdated in the twenty-first century. Mevlut describes how one day Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was:

standing at the window of his room [in Istanbul’s Park Hotel] when he noticed that the usual joy and bustle seemed to be missing from the city. He asked his assistant about it, who told him, Your Excellency, we’ve banned street vendors from entering the city, because they don’t have those in Europe and we thought you’d get angry. But it was precisely this which made Atatürk angry. Street vendors are the songbirds of the streets, they are the life and soul of Istanbul, he said. Under no circumstances must they ever be banned. From that day on, street vendors were free to roam the streets of Istanbul.

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Take a walk in Istanbul this winter and you will likely come across a kestaneci (chestnut seller), a pilavcı (chickpea rice man), or a macuncu (candyman) on one of its labyrinthine streets. Kestaneci sells chestnuts from his fancy little cart where he has a small oven, scales and a collection of paper bags to prepare your order. Kestaneci carts, most of them crimson-colored, are located on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue. There is one near Taksim Square and if you come to the city by boat you will certainly find one by the pier. Kestaneci provides the finest cure for a depressing day: you hand him five liras (around two dollars) and he hands you 50 grams of chestnuts, carefully measured in those miniature scales, before wishing you a very good afternoon.

Whilst living in Amsterdam I used to love visiting the free market on the city’s streets during Queen’s Day (now known as King’s Day) where locals sold their crafts and bric-a-brac for bargain prices. Dutch authorities allowed the free market to take place one day every year. Here, street selling is a year long occupation; every day is for the Istanbul Street Vendor.

In this city, vendors illuminate your way during nocturnal walks. Not long ago, after a heavy night of drinking, I came across a pilavcı in Karaköy. He seemed to have been placed there for the sole purpose of helping me to sober up a bit. Vendors often make you feel this way: their sudden appearances on street corners are quite miraculous, almost angel-ish. Pilavcı’s cart had large wheels and an umbrella affixed to its top. The main part of the cart consisted of a huge metal plate covered on four sides with thick glass. The inside was illuminated so I got a nice view of the warm rice that awaited me, which, on that and other winter nights, was a particularly mouthwatering sight. This pilavcı had placed a selection of drinks on top of this. With his long white mustache and benevolent face, he calmly filled a plastic case with spoonfuls of newly cooked rice, rich with chickpea and pepper. It was delicious. Exhausted after a long day I gratefully sat down on one of his wooden stools and, while filling my plastic spoon, chatted with the elderly man. Where did he get his rice, I asked him. How long had he been doing this job? Did he earn well? He was used to questions like mine, which he answered quickly before complaining about the lack of interest to his food, the rise of unemployment in the country, and his problems with paying his electricity bills. The pilavcı wore a white apron that night, which gave him the air of a surgeon; hipsters in Karaköy mostly ignore his offerings, preferring to eat overpriced pizza and sushi in places that make them feel like they are having lunch in Paris or Tokyo. They should know better.

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According to a 2015 report from Turkey’s Statistical Institute, the number of people living below the poverty line grew from 11.137 million to 11.332 million in one year. As soon as a vendor realizes that his earnings have fallen short of the poverty threshold for a family of four ($1,442) he knows what is coming: the very real prospect of joining Turkey’s 3 million-strong army of the unemployed. The average vendor now works harder than ever, in a near-constant state anxiety, not to achieve fortune or revolution, but simply to make ends meet.

“No one who makes any pretense of conforming to custom dines in Constantinople before nine o’clock at night,”

Istanbul’s vendors have been working in the city for quite some time. They have served many brilliant minds. When Hemingway was here in 1922, he wrote an article for Toronto Star on Istanbul’s night life entitled “Old Constan.” “No one who makes any pretense of conforming to custom dines in Constantinople before nine o’clock at night,” Hemingway writes. His observation still holds today. “The night clubs open at two, the more respectable night clubs, that is. The disreputable night clubs open at four in the morning. All night hot sausage, fried potato, and roast chestnut stands run their charcoal braziers on the sidewalk to cater to the long lines of cab men who stay up all night to solicit fares from the revelers.” Hemingway had considered those “black, slippery, smelly offal-strewn streets” of Istanbul to be part of the “magic of the east.”

Today those sausage, potato, and chestnut stands continue to glow like fireflies on Istanbul sidewalks, though some are nearing extinction. Bileyci is among those. I see the same bileyci every evening: the elderly man attends to his utensils during my walks, his fragile body stooped, his hands sharpening knives with his biley taşı stone which spins fast and throws red sparks onto the street. This bileyci seems like the most sheepish chap in the city, even while sharpening massive blades in front of his customers. During Eid al-Adha celebrations, those same knives may be used to sacrifice sheep and goats; on other occasions, his customer might use one of them to cut an apple.

An equally fascinating figure is the boza seller. A fermented beverage made from wheat and alcohol, boza’s color is dark yellowish. It tastes better when served with some roasted chickpeas on top. “Boza is quick to spoil and turn sour in the heat, so in the old days, when the Ottomans ruled, it was sold mainly in shops and during the winter,” writes Pamuk in A Strangeness in My Mind, the protagonist of which is a boza seller. During snowy days the shout of “Boozaaaaa, boooozaaa” in an Istanbul street is good news for all.

Boza street vendors are a product of Turkish modernity: in the 1920’s, following the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Istanbul’s boza shops were closed and replaced by breweries. This is how Pamuk describes his boza seller:

He wore the brown sweater his wife had knit, his woolen skullcap, and the blue apron that made such an impression on customers, picked up the jug containing the boza sweetened and flavored with special spices by his wife or his daughters, made an experienced guess as to how much it weighed…. The first thing he would do when he stepped outside into the cold was to shoulder the thick oak-wood yoke he’d been using for twenty five years to carry his load, a plastic jug full of boza tied at each end; like a soldier about to step onto the battlefield he would check his ammunition one last time, his belt pouches and the inner pockets of his jacket full of little bags of roasted chickpeas and cinnamon…

Such figures are not easily found on the streets of London or New York. Here they are everywhere, dressed in unmistakable attire, like figures sprung from history books. Some wear Ottoman fezzes on their heads; you can make them out from a distance by the burning colors of their nineteenth century uniforms. Most wear the garments of the urban poor, the social class in which they often spend their entire lives.

Though the behavior of the fez-wearing macuncus (Ottoman-style lollipop makers) and temiz sülükçüler (clean leech sellers who promise that their products are “good for migraines and bodily pains”) may strike some as opportunistic, there are many vendors who are beneficial not only commercially, but as reminders of near-forgotten aspects of twentieth-century Turkish history. Many whose very existence sheds light on certain lesser-known, and in some cases almost entirely forgotten, aspects of Turkey’s twentieth century history. Istanbul’s midye dolmacılar (stuffed mussel sellers), for example, are almost all migrants from the Southeastern city of Mardin. Syrian Kurds from this region are known to work as goldsmiths in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar; the Arab population, on the other hand, operate in the city as dolmuş (minibus) drivers. What sets Kurdish midye dolmacılar apart from other vendors is their historical, street-vending-related connection to Turkey’s Armenians.

Before German-influenced nationalists amped up public hatred against them, the Armenians of Istanbul held a prominent position in Ottoman society, to whose culinary culture they contributed immensely. The Armenian tradition of preparing stuffed mussels was forgotten for decades before Kurds from Mardin, forced to flee their poor and terror-stricken villages and come to Istanbul from the 1960s onward, rediscovered it. Some midye dolmacılar say they never eat mussels, doubtful about whether it is permissible under the tenants of Islam. Others can be seen enjoying them guilt-free while selling their offerings on Istiklal Avenue.

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Istanbul’s city administrators, however, are far more interested in redefining the role of street vendors than they are in the passing on of culinary traditions. On May 7, 2006, near the centuries-old historic monument Galata Tower, the mayor of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood stood next to one of Turkey’s leading haute couture designers, Cemil İpekçi. They were surrounded by a group of simitçi (sellers of the bagel-like Turkish pastry simit). A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Art, İpekçi opened his second boutique in Nice and is today known for his Ottoman-inspired costumes, much-loved among Istanbul’s super-rich.

“This is a new era,” İpekçi told journalists, “a new era in which much greater attention is paid to workers.” Photographers took pictures of the designer as he continued with his vaguely Marxist-sounding proclamation, before the mayor raised his voice to announce that İpekçi’s simitçi outfits would, from that day onwards, be the official uniform of simitçi.

The announcement of official uniforms for simitçi was the culmination of Turkish officials’ labored attempts at integrating vendors into the system. Instead of carrying them on special metal-plates placed on their heads as they had for years, vendors would now be legally bound to sell simit in small carts specially designed by the municipality, in the style of the nostalgic tramcar on Istiklal Avenue.

In 2012 city officials announced plans to ban shouting on streets while selling food. They also demanded that vendors get special certificates documenting the hygiene levels of their outfits and their offerings. Some vendors objected to this, saying that they had to cry out, otherwise their ability to sell would be hampered. There is still hope for those vendors since it is no easy job to regulate people’s voices on streets. Istanbul’s growing collection of CCTV cameras do not record sound.

But it goes on this way: officials impose modernizing rules on a traditional trade, and the vendors try to circumvent these rules as best they can.

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In 2007, as part of a cunning new strategy, the Turkish police force announced plans to start a tebdil-i kıyafet (disguise) initiative. Specially trained and disguised members of the force’s Güven Timleri (Safety Teams) would wander Istanbul’s streets, dressed as shoeshines, simitçi, and numerous other street vendors. In 2009 Akşam newspaper ran a report entitled “The Trick Has Worked”:

Safety teams who work in tebdil-i kıyafet have caught 41,000 criminals in one year… 10,000 thieves, 1800 pickpockets, 1312 molesters, 436 purse-snatchers were caught this way…. The roles played by police officers included simitçiler, beggars and sellers of lottery tickets.

The initiative took its name from Ottoman Sultan Murad IV who, in the seventeenth century (at a time when consuming alcohol in Istanbul was banned) would wander the city dressed as an ordinary street seller, entering coffeehouses to inspect whether anything illegal was going on inside. To the Sultan, so enmeshed in the fabric of the city was the street vendor, that his was the only persona capable of drifting unnoticed through even the most clandestine of Istanbul’s myriad zones. Four hundred years on from the Sultan’s incognito excursions, and despite the increasingly marginalized and even reviled position that vendors now occupy in the long-term plans of the Istanbul government, it seems that some things haven’t changed.

Artists and vendors share a similar role in Turkish society: both reside on the margins, where they lead exciting, albeit unsafe and unstable, lives.

To my eyes, they play a much more liberating role. I recently read an article by Evrim Kavar on “artistic interventions in Istanbul” where the writer draws a parallel between vendors and Istanbul’s contemporary artists. Both reside on the margins, where they lead exciting, albeit unsafe and unstable, lives. “Living in informal networks suggests informal ways of making art,” Kavar writes. “Like street vendors that turn each situation into a chance to sell, the contemporary artist turns each urban situation into a chance to make art.”

Nowadays, after spending long nights writing in coffeehouses, I find myself dreaming about the night lives of Istanbul’s street vendors. Then I make my way back home in the wee hours of the morning, walking past them near Gezi Park, and I realize how in the past year more and more Syrians have joined Istanbul’s street vendor community. As I reach home and wait to fall asleep in my warm bed, I imagine all those vendors who continue to sell their stuffed mussels, simit, and boza in between my apartment and the Park, surrounded by the never ceasing sounds of Beyoğlu.

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Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, Prospect, Time, and The White Review, among others. L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. Kaya has a PhD in English literature. He is the Istanbul correspondent for The Believer and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Kaya curated a book on Istanbul for American University in Cairo Press. He is writing a history of Turkish literature for Harvard University Press and a book on “Angry Young Turkey” for I.B.Tauris. In 2015, his writing was picked by The Atlantic for the magazine’s “Best Works of Journalism in 2014” list. Kaya’s first English novel is entitled The House on Arundel Street.

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