Tarlabaşı: ghetto living

Reporters speak of Tarlabaşı like it’s the dark heart of some fairytale forest- you can stroll down “glitzy,” “vibrant” İstiklal, but don’t stray too far from the path. Mere minutes away, it’s all too easy to find yourself in a sunless slum where the trees whisper to each other and the birds are all reporting to their ogre overlord and you’re more likely than not to find yourself getting shoved in a witch’s oven or initiated into a gang.

“Istanbul’s Tarlabasi district, is famous for all the wrong reasons – drugs, prostitution, crime. Photos of mysterious figures in the shadows, pimps, transvestites smoking cigarettes, and men slinking up to hotel rooms…”
David Hagerman

“It’s located right next to the commercial and cultural heart of Istanbul and, yet, most Turks consider Tarlabasi a no-go zone.”
NPR’s Ivan Watson

“Tarlabasi is burdened with a reputation as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, and few would wander its lanes at night.”
Robin Eckhardt

Ahhh, home sweet home. Always nice to read a glowing review of the neighborhood you live in, don’t you think? Sure, the panorama outside the iron bars on my window might not be majestic, exactly (hissing cats picking through a sort of post-apocalyptic windswept dump), but nobody throws loud parties here and it’s been at least two weeks since anybody traded gunshots on Kurdela Sokak, two streets over.

Drug deals, I will admit, are not uncommon, unless I’m reading way too much into the huddles of shifty-looking youths which spring up after dusk. Nor are transvestites and prostitutes (my Halloween wig shopping is going to be cake this year). Seedy hotels? Check. Out of all the journalistic allegations above, the only one I can really take issue with, actually, is this:

most Turks consider Tarlabasi a no-go zone

Do they? I mean, I guess it wouldn’t spring to many minds as a top-notch destination for moonlit strolls carrying a month’s salary in cash. But on the other hand, even the Turks who consider going to bed with wet hair a highly risky activity and hurl themselves in my path when I attempt to jaywalk across empty streets- as if I were diving out into a spray of bullets- don’t seem particularly horrified when I walk home to my apartment alone.

I like Tarlabaşı for the same reason my parents took home the most hideous kitten they could find from the Humane Society. Because it’s ugly, and because that gives it a kind of eccentric charm. It’s got the faded glory effect, with little now left to remind us of its past as an affluent district populated by Greeks and Armenians. Forced to leave en masse in the first half of the 20th century, their abandoned houses were slowly filled with Kurds, Roma, and illegal immigrants (as well as a recent upswing in European Erasmus students enticed by the low prices)- the ragtag misfits of Turkish society, in other words, whose Little League team will surely someday win a heartwarming victory over a richer and better-equipped team from a wealthy suburb (now accepting suggestions for the title of the Disney movie… I’m thinking Starlabaşı).

I’m constantly trying to get people to come to the Sunday market (the pazar, a word which means both “Sunday” and “market” in Turkish). It’s one of the oldest in İstanbul and also one of the most frenzied (read: fun), a fact due in large part to the very economy and demographics which apparently make it such a terrifying place to visit on any other day of the week. You can get black market loot from Georgia, fresh vegetables for the equivalent of 26 cents a kilo, toy guns, any sort of underwear your heart desires, massive watermelons, spices… it’s like Christmas day (if instead of visiting your aunts and uncles, you visited a bunch of large men shouting in Kurdish).

By Karpuz11
Tarlabaşı, really, is not that frightening. The man at the corner store, intent on slicing up his cheese, will try to give you some. The toast lady will hand you a free bag of popcorn, just because. Women will lower buckets on ropes and holler at you to fetch them some bread. The tiny boy on his dad’s parked motorcycle will whisper “vroom” noises and make you laugh (until he starts shouting rude words down the street after you, anyway).

Unfortunately, maybe the toast lady forgot to smile at some government official one day, because Tarlabaşı’s future is looking grim. İstanbul’s Urban Transformation project, targeting around 31 neighborhoods citywide, looks certain to drive out most of the area’s current residents- pimps and barbers, drug dealers and pilav sellers alike. Tarlabaşı may be… well, scruffy. But I think this is sad.

Tarlabaşı Photo Report From MSNBC


Featured image by Where Is Your Toothbrush?

  1. Wow, that was some report — you ought to be a travel writer. You are a courageous woman — going there alone like that (now that the family has left). What a time for you, though. I’m envious.

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