Who run the world? Kurds.
Well, at least in this neighbourhood they do.
We are back near Taksim, and this time with a new couch surfing host, Chelsea. Chelsea is a 23 year old Canadian woman who has been living in Istanbul for over a year teaching English and doing freelance photography.
In the space of maybe two hours, Chelsea was able to fill us in on many points that had been plaguing our poor Western brains for the past week and a half.
She met us and our backpacks outside a local high school on Istiklal street on Tuesday night. She and some friends walked us back to her place and, surprise, surprise: it was only two streets away from our first air b ‘n’ b apartment. It probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in a place as huge as Istanbul, it was pretty funny.
Chelsea took no pains to hide the fact that she lives in a dodgy Kurdish neighbourhood. In fact, she celebrated it, whilst also giving helpful, practical pointers on what we can expect behaviour-wise from our neighbours. Basically, they are harmless to us. If you see a child waving a gun around, don’t be alarmed: it’s a very convincing-looking replica (we were fortunate enough to see one the following morning). There are drug dealers loitering on our door step, but they won’t bother us because we’re Western, and because I have a man with me. The few times I was alone, the most they did was venture a clumsy, “Hello.”
So basically, it’s a very colourful thirty-second walk through this neighbourhood from our doorstep to the main street.
Chelsea explained that the continued police presence in the area is due to it being a Kurdish neighbourhood, and the dots started to connect for Jesse and I in terms of the tear gas and riot police we saw around on our first few nights. Again, it’s very, very common in Turkey. Chelsea cheerfully suggested that lemon juice is helpful for taking away the sting of tear gas.
Even though our first place was only a few streets away, it seemed to be a much nicer neighbourhood; there were cafes, old Turkish men sitting for ours on tiny chairs on the footpath, and a lot of car traffic moving up and down the street.
This neighbourhood is like something from a Turkish-Dickens novel: old, dirty cobbled streets that twist unexpectedly and lead into dark alleyways; dirty children running around, and putting their hands out for money; old dogs and cats asleep next to the street; laundry hung like many hundreds of colourful banners overhead; dilapidated houses and the smell of trash and sewerage. And yes, Chelsea said the children carry knives. Cute.
Chelsea has been living there for a year and a half. She explained that her Kurdish neighbours don’t really bother her: their main beef is with the police. When the police decide to flex their muscles and direct their tear gas in the direction of the Kurdish neighbourhoods, the Kurds all hang out the windows and bang their pots and pans to antagonise the police. They also throw Molotov cocktails and whatever other concoctions they can muster. Again, the strange sounds of ten days ago begin to make sense.
Chelsea has a beautiful studio apartment that is completely incongruous with the sordid neighbourhood around it. She spent a lot of time cleaning and repainting it until it is as light, breezy and modern-looking as you could wish. With blonde-wooden flooring, white walls, a high ceiling, varnished bay windows and light, floaty curtains, it is a haven of both beauty and Western living in the midst of the sometimes oppressive Turkish culture.
She shares the space with crazy ex-street cat (the name of which I cannot pronounce; we nick-named it Beerburrum), and (for the moment) her Canadian friend Brody. Jesse and I take up the futon. We felt immediately welcome, and Chelsea has us laughing basically every time she opens her mouth. The trashiest, most frustrated and base comments I have about this country can be uttered aloud to Chelsea, with the assurance of emphatic nodding and the declaration of, “Yes. Oh my god, yes.” A person without pretension, Chelsea escorted us and our backpacks home, gave us a key, told us “My house is your house and basically don’t be d!cks,” and then left us to it. A backpacker’s dream. The breakfast she hooked us up with the next morning was just as special.
The street we live on is full of life. This afternoon, after maybe seven hours of solid walking (with one half hour break) I crashed for a nap around 6pm. And literally couldn’t sleep. There was so much activity on the street: children shouting, mothers shouting, fathers shouting, people talking, things (I don’t know what things) banging. Despite not being able to sleep, I found it quite calming, insomuch as it was very natural. It conjured to mind a picture of standard suburban Australia, and the silent, well-spaced apart blocks of land, with no children playing in the streets (lest they be injured or kidnapped) and no raised voices for any reason (lest the neighbours complain or think you’re an asshole) and no bustle or activity in the neighbourhood (because every family is self-sufficient).
Somehow, I prefer this for the moment, perhaps because it is a new experience, but also because of the realness of it all. One thing I have not seen in Turkey yet is people glued to their iphones, ipads, or television sets. It just doesn’t happen, mainly because many people are too poor to afford the technology, but also because it would detract from the ingrained culture of togetherness. There is a community feeling to the place; like on every street, no matter how lowly or dirty, people know each other, there is a tight community and people live – crossly, loudly, impatiently, angrily, happily, dishonestly, desperately – but they live their lives, with witness others doing the same.
It is a far cry from what I know in Australia. It is not orderly, regulated, well-maintained or polite. Brisbane City Council would shit itself looking at the sidewalk pavement on any one block in Istanbul, and I don’t get the feeling that anyone would be filing a lawsuit with the local council if they tripped on a loose brick. Some of the sights have been confronting. There are homeless mothers and babies outside shop windows ladened with gold jewellery; children walking up to you in restaurants and asking for your leftovers. There are homeless cats and dogs everywhere, and police with riot gear, guns and water cannons a few blocks from where we stay.
While Istanbul is possibly the home of the most well-dressed men in the world, there seems to be a nearly invisible female population, and the women that I have seen mostly dress conservatively and wear head scarfs. There are ads for Gucci, Armani, whichever brands you can imagine targeting women – and men who stare at me like I’m a prostitute for wearing sandals. It has taken time to understand the culture, and where the people are coming from. Like most things, it takes time, context and perspective. And the ability for me as a tourist to remember that in the heat of the moment.
Next: My epic meltdown in Istanbul.