From the moment we set foot in Istanbul it felt like we had fallen into a love affair of sorts. It didn’t matter that we had unknowingly stationed ourselves for the next month in Balat, or Little Tehran as it’s known, Istanbul’s most traditional Muslim neighborhood. It took us a while to come to this realization but Balat was quite literally like no other neighborhood in the city. Our apartment was directly on its fringes; one block downhill put us in a rather typical Istanbul setting while one block uphill was a scene plucked right out of the Middle East. Women flowed down the cobblestoned streets in shapeless black burkas, their eyes and noses peeking out of small triangular openings in the fabric while their fathers, brothers and partners wore sported thick beards and dressed in long gray trench coats and finely embroidered flat-topped hats.
Altug drove a two-toned Volkswagen Syncro, a retired Austrian ambulance in another life, and withheld nothing in expressing his utter confusion in our location choice. “Why?” he asked, dumbfounded. “Why here?” I recall him laughing next. “Do you know you chose THE most conservative neighborhood in all of Istanbul? Why didn’t you ask me where to stay? You’d never know it from living here but Istanbul is a very modern place. Not only that,” he said, “but this is a very poor area. And it’s dangerous.”
I looked out the window at the wall of decrepit buildings and it made sense that one would think that, yet I observed life on our street every day and it just didn’t feel the least bit dangerous. There were the neighborhood kids who played soccer well past midnight every night, a colony of homeless but happy street cats, and a slew of charming families who spent countless hours breaking apart old bed frames, fruit bins, shipping crates, and furniture to use as firewood for their cooking and heating needs. I hadn’t known what they were doing for the longest time, but soon understood that they did it not by choice but out of necessity. Altug confirmed my thoughts and said that many of these century-plus old homes were never built with central heating units and given that the people here were without the financial resources to buy wood to burn, they found it instead.
Much of the personality of the neighborhood also came from the mobile businesses that made their way down our street every day. Each vendor had their own call, and being that we didn’t speak Turkish it took a while for us to distinguish who was passing by without first peeking out the window. There was the old man who sold the ever so popular simit, a sesame covered bagel; another man who sold potatoes and onions; and someone else who just pushed around a flatbed cart with old electronics on top, each day an assortment of new things. I’d report the man’s daily inventory to Brad as he passed by.
“It’s the junk man! Today he has an old computer screen on his cart.”
The next day: “It’s the junk man! He’s got wires today and an old dial up phone.”
Was he the garbage man? Were his items for sale? I really wasn’t sure. Altug informed us that he was a recycler. He picked up old electronic junk from people, fixed them up, and then sold them for profit.
While the recycler was the most interesting mobile business, my favorite vendor was a once-a-week vendor who came every Saturday around 4:30. He had a big farm truck and sold all of the typical in-season Mediterranean fruits and vegetables with a selection that changed a little bit every week. He was my only consistent weekly appointment and I was always ready when he appeared.
We told Altug how we had recently walked right through a film set in which a crew setting up a scene where two young boys were playing soccer on the cobblestone street. “Yeah, this area is pretty famous,” he replied. “My friend who works in the movie industry knew the exact street you live on. He said he’s filmed in this neighborhood many times.” It felt like we were living on a movie set and we both quite enjoyed it.
Aside from the ultra-conservative Muslim attire, the Quran bookshops and the ladies’ black garment boutiques, our neighborhood contained all of the ingredients of secular Turkey; there were the butcher shops, bakeries loaded with warm bread and honey soaked baklava, tea shops, kebab shops, and natural beauty shops which sold, among other things, chunky blocks of handmade olive oil soap.
Conveniently my two most frequented shops, the pastry shop and Kharem’s grocery store, shared an old brick wall. The pastry shop had the best chocolate-covered-pistachio speckled meringues on earth, while the grocery store was filled with all sorts of gastronomic delights and happened to be run by the loveliest man in all of Balat. Kharem had barrels of aged olives, sausage, braided stringy white cheese, crumbled goat cheese (made in his home village in Kurdistan), baskets of brown eggs, fresh grape leaves for making dolma, logs of thick clotted cream—eaten slathered with honey, bulk bins of fig and strawberry jam, chocolate spread, hazelnut cream—both chunky and smooth varieties, and honey—bought in either pre-filled jars or expertly ladled by Kharem himself into a container from a massive tub beneath a slab of honeycomb. I had never seen anything like it. I came to find out that every small grocer in Istanbul had its own honeycomb; this was just how they did it in Turkey.
At checkout Kharem provided me with instructions on handling my triple saran wrapped container of honey.
“Now DON’T put this in the fridge. Yes you understand? No fridge.”
He also provided advice on the cream we purchased.
“You have TWO days. Two days and then BAD. Yes you understand?”
Besides grocery shopping at Kharem’s and people watching from our apartment window we also got out quite a bit.
A thirty minute walk down the Golden Horn led us past the clusters of private boats that sat in the jellyfish infested waters and past old men who casually watched the fishing lines as they drank cup after cup of black tea. Every so often they’d rise from their fold-out chairs and pluck a sardine-sized fish from their line and deposit it into their five gallon recycled yogurt containers, because in Turkey yogurt was such a staple that they actually needed five gallon containers of it. And just a bit farther down the Golden Horn—an offshoot of the Bosphurus, the official dividing line between Europe and Asia—were massive boats at anchor serving balik ekmek: fish sandwiches.
We made the obligatory stops to the city’s most famed destinations: the 537 AD mosaic-filled, grand domed church known as Aya Sofya, as well as the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar, the world’s largest with over 4,000 shops and several miles of lanes. The nearby spice bazaar contained a plethora of spices, nuts, honeycombs, figs, dates, and turkish delight; sweets made from rolled dried fruit and honey. We also passed through the Basicila Cistern built in 532 AD, an underground water storage place that was forgotten for nearly a milennium, only to be rediscovered by a scholar in 1532 through a door in a neighborhood home.
On the same day that Altug came to see our neighborhood, we also left to go see his: devoid of foreign tourists but bustling with locals whiling away the afternoon in cozy cafes and on the benches that lined the waterfront. The walkway leading out to the water was lined with stuffed potato vendors so we each ordered one and chose from an array of odd toppings like pickled vegetables and couscous. With potatoes in hand we found shelter from the wind and ominous clouds aboard an empty banquet boat which led us on a cruise down the Bosphorus. From the boat we watched the sun set over the European side of the city while Altug shared with us his local insight on everything from the historic buildings we passed to Turkey’s troubled past and recent political unrest. At the moment, we learned, Turks in Istanbul (himself included) were taking part in protests to maintain the country’s longstanding separation of church and state. The protesters had taken to the streets after the current administration had overturned numerous laws ensuring secular government, and it seemed that the country was slipping into a pre-Ataturk state of non-secularism. He also regaled us with details of his own life which swarmed with all of the excitement expected from someone entering into fatherhood in less than three weeks time.
Before we departed ways for the evening Altug stopped at a shop whose inventory spilled out into the street. He rummaged through a few bins, found what he was looking for and held up two blue glass beads, each containing a black dot surrounded by a white ring.
“Which do you prefer?” he asked. “Round or square?” He asked if we had ever seen these before. We hadn’t. He explained that these were ubiquitous in Turkey, and were meant to fend off evil by placing them on a person’s things to reflect other peoples’ envy. They were placed in homes, in new cars, and especially on their newborn children. “This one is for you” he said.
Later on we took the ferry to the Asian side of the city and met up with Eileen, Brad’s boyhood fiancée from some twenty years prior who happened to be living in Istanbul. For lunch we ate lahmacun, a typical Turkish flatbread covered in minced meat and vegetables, rolled and filled with mixed greens, parsley and cheese. And then, to my utter joy I discovered that Eileen was on a year long search for the best baklava in town. We tagged along, sampling baklava while we explored Kadikoy’s outdoor market full of cheese and sausages, paper thin sheets of filo dough, goat heads, fresh fish, and dried goods like eggplants and peppers for stuffing.
By the time Nacho arrived at the port in Istanbul it had been three weeks and we were itching to hit the road and explore Turkey’s backroads. Brad spent nearly a week zipping around to the port and various shipping offices to try to set Nacho free. He rode around town for two days with a couple of Turkish port workers who didn’t speak English filling out paperwork and doling out money to various agencies. Meanwhile I tried my best to fit in with the burka-clad ladies around the neighborhood while frequently popping in to grab a few meringues from the pastry shop or a refill on hazelnut spread from Kharem’s grocery. Finally, after a week of headache and what was by far the most expensive shipping process of our whole trip, Brad emerged from the port driving our van. With mud clinging to its sides from being stuck in the river in Rajasthan, and dust from our backwoods explorations around Mumbai, Nacho wasn’t garnering much envy from the well-dressed Turks on the ferry from the Asian side. But when he pulled up in front of our apartment I hung Altug’s envy bead from the rearview mirror, just to be safe.