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Istanbul's Tarlabasi Under Constant Transformation

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Istanbul's Tarlabasi Under Constant Transformation


Istanbul's Tarlabasi Under Constant Transformation

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We're taking you next to one of the world's great tourist destinations, but we're going to a part of that city the tourists rarely see. The city is Istanbul, Turkey, the one-time capital of empires. And as with so many cities around the world, its population is exploding.

NPR's Ivan Watson visited one of the slums where many of the newcomers end up. And Ivan, why go there?

IVAN WATSON: Steve, this is an example of a trend we're seeing all over the world in developing countries, where there's huge migration from the rural countryside to the cities. And Istanbul is a great example. The population has tripled since 1980 to more than 12 million people. That's bigger than neighboring Greece or the entire population of neighboring Bulgaria. And it's overwhelmed this city. So we took a look at one of the biggest slums in the heart of the city here.

INSKEEP: So what's it like?

WATSON: It's called Tarlabasi, and it is right next to the commercial and cultural heart of Istanbul. And you leave the Starbucks and the five-star hotels and the foreign consulates, you cross this very busy street you can hear in the background, and suddenly you're in another world, where the police headquarters here has a checkpoint with armored personnel carriers parked out front, where prostitutes work in the archways of once magnificent Ottoman-era buildings. And it is here where I was walking on a crumbling, graffiti-lined street that I met Souad Calbay. He's running the Benahol Laundry Shop out of the ground floor of a once-grand 19th-century building.

(Soundbite of machinery)

WATSON: In Kurdish, Benahol means everything is all right. But that's not how Calbay feels these days as he presses one shirt after another with a rusting iron.

Mr. SOUAD CALBAY: (Through translator) Everything happens here. There's thieves outside here every day. There's fights out that happen on the street. And everyday they're selling drugs here on the streets.

WATSON: Calbay is an ethnic Kurd. Like hundreds of thousands of other Kurds, he fled to Istanbul in the 1990s to escape the grinding poverty and bloody conflict in southeastern Turkey, where Turkish security forces have battled Kurdish separatists off and on since the 1980s.

Calbay's customers are almost all young, male Kurds from the Southeast. They cram into cheap single-room apartments in Tarlabasi. Because many don't have bathrooms, they pay to use the showers in the basement of Calbay's shop.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Many of these young migrants don't find work here and end up like this 19-year-old who calls himself Fuad: dealing and doing drugs in the neighborhood's back streets.

FUAD: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Fuad and several of his teenage friends take turns smoking hashish in the filthy one-room apartment where up to 12 young men sleep every night.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Life wasn't always like this in Tarlabasi. Until the 1950s, this was a prosperous neighborhood inhabited by Greeks and Armenians. But a series of pogroms and discriminatory government policies led to the forced departure of most of Istanbul's Christian residents.

Anna Maria Gelmayden Pertan is one of the few thousand ethnic Greeks still living in Istanbul.

Ms. ANNA MARIA GELMAYDEN PERTAN: This house is a typical Greek townhouse of the 19th century. It was built by my great-grandfather, Dmitri Kurteli.

WATSON: Pertan gives a tour of her carefully maintained family home, a magnificent five-storey building filled with antique icons standing just across the street from similar houses that now serve as brothels on Tarlabasi Boulevard. Most of the old houses in Tarlabasi were abandoned during the Greek exodus. In time, Pertan says, the neighborhood became a squatter's paradise.

Ms. PERTAN: When you walk down in Tarlabasi, when you go to the market on a Sunday, you don't hear Turkish spoken at all. It's either Kurdish or Arabic. You think really that you're in an Anatolian village.

WATSON: In the weekly outdoor bazaar in Tarlabasi, rural life raucously collides with the modern urban world.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

WATSON: Here, less than a mile from Istanbul's five-star hotels, child shepherds herd flocks of sheep through the streets as Kurdish women in bright floral headscarves shop for fruit and cheap Chinese-made cosmetics alongside trembling teenage glue-sniffers and illegal immigrants from Africa.

Tarlabasi's cheap housing has attracted poor migrants from across the developing world, and that includes refugees from the conflict raging in neighboring Iraq.

Nissam Koryal Danyal is an Iraqi Christian who fled with his family to Turkey last year after he narrowly survived a daylight carjacking in Baghdad.

Mr. NISSAM KORYAL DANYAL: They steal my car and they steal my shop, so I leaved to save my wife and children and to save myself.

WATSON: Today, Danyal serves food seven days a week in a working-class cafeteria next to the Tarlabasi street bazaar, making just enough money to pay the rent as he waits for the United Nations to process his application for asylum in the West.

Of the many communities that have sought shelter in Tarlabasi, perhaps the most incongruous are the transvestites.

Mr. MICHELLE KURTS: And this is Michele, and I'm from Istanbul city. I'm a waitress. You know, waitress?

WATSON: Michelle Kurts is a tall, bleached-blond transvestite who works at a nightclub on Tarlabasi Boulevard.

Mr. KURTS: All the people come to - for sex to Tarlabasi. You know, Tarlabasi is the sex center of Istanbul city.

WATSON: Michelle takes a visitor to a trash-strewn alley to meet transvestites who live and work here as prostitutes because, Michele says, they're unwelcome and persecuted in other parts of the city.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Tarlabasi's days as a lawless haven for society's outcasts may be coming to an end. After decades of neglect, the city government has announced plans to force out squatters and renovate hundreds of old houses.

As one police officer here put it: After years of swatting at mosquitoes, we'll now drain the swamp.

Asu Aksoy, an economist at Istanbul Bilgi University, says this gentrification plan is motivated by the real-estate boom that's rapidly transforming the rest of central Istanbul, not out of concern for Tarlabasi's impoverished residents.

Professor ASU AKSOY (Economist, Istanbul Bilgi University): They will have to go to some suburbs and the problem will be carried somewhere else.

WATSON: Rents in Tarlabasi have already started going up and some residents worry that they will soon be forced out. That includes the Roma, or gypsies, whose chaotic, four-day wedding celebrations echo through the neighborhood on hot, summer nights.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: For generations, the Roma have lived in Istanbul, many of them performing in the restaurant district in the center of the city. During the day, these Roma musicians gather in a coffee shop in Tarlabasi to play cards, watch horse races on TV and wait for their next gig.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

WATSON: It would be good for the government to clean up this neighborhood, says a young Roma violinist here named Yalcin Bayramic. But, he adds, that means we'll all probably have to leave.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can see a slideshow of some of the residents of this ever-changing Istanbul neighborhood by going to It's NPR News.

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