As a research group, we were concerned with Istanbul’s economical, cultural and social transformation into a global city over the past 50 years as well as the various effects of this transformation. During our travel to Istanbul Nora Kühnert and Anne Patscheider conducted field research on squatting in Istanbul. The political controversies regarding common usage of urban space in everyday life as well as the political struggles stemming from immense changes of social life culminating in the Gezi Park protest in 2013 were the most obvious links between the projects that they visited.

By the changing shape of the Istanbul skyline, the rapid growth of production within the city since the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) rose to power in 2002 is easily visible to the city’s inhabitants. Over the past two decades, Istanbul has undergone a neoliberal restructuring process. 1 Progressing globalization and digitalization have not only turned the city into a site absorbing surplus value – an epicenter of the accumulation of capital – they have also formed a new urban space in which traditional national spatial arrangements engage with those of the global digital age. 2

As a research group, we were concerned with Istanbul’s economic, cultural and social transformation into a global city over the past 50 years as well as the various effects of this transformation. During our travel to Istanbul from May 23, until May 31, 2014, we conducted field research on squatting in Istanbul. The political controversies regarding common usage of urban space in everyday life as well as the political struggles stemming from immense changes of social life culminating in the Gezi Park protest in 2013 were the most obvious links between the projects we visited.

In reference to David Harveys’ “Rebel Cities”, we call people’s occupation of Taksim Square “their right to the city” 3. In our field research, we intended to explore the political intentions of The Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi, a squat in Istanbul German leftist magazines focused on, calling it a “follow-up movement to Gezi.” 4 We asked ourselves in which way squatting in Istanbul is connected to the 2013 Gezi Park protest movement and how it relates to neoliberal politics and urban transformation. Our first associations were with squatting forms to be found in European countries such as Spain or Greece familiar to us. There, activists occupy houses in order to live in them. Reading David Harvey helped us understand the Gezi Park movement. Therefore, we presumed that his theory might also be of help in grasping squatting in Istanbul. Hence, we strove to comprehend the possibilities and difficulties connected to squatting as a resistance practice: 5 for example, we were concerned with the composition of squatting groups as well as their political aims and demands.

Mind Map: Our Field. Göttingen, 23.6.2014 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne

Mind Map: Our Field. Göttingen, 23.6.2014 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne


We conducted our main research at Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi. This social center was set up by a network of squatting groups in Istanbul as well as related political agents encouraged by economical processes beyond the squatting scene. We hoped that brief stays at Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi, the Caferağa Dayanışması, the Komşu Kafe and Samsa Bay, participant observation and guided interviews would provide insight into the inner configuration of Istanbul’s squatting scene. We interviewed people involved at the time of our research, asked them to draw mind maps of the squatting scene and questioned them about its constellation as well as their opinions on perspectives of resistance in Istanbul. In order to get an overview of the connections and networks of the squatting scene, we extended our fieldwork to interviewing a political activist who was a member of the 1970’s leftist movement. We also added attending lectures by Tuna Kuyucu 6 and Biray Kolluoğlu 7 at Boğaziçi University on neo-liberal politics in Istanbul and its effects on urban transformation and the social life in the city.


  1. 1 Kullouğlu, Biray/Candan, Ayfer Bartu: Emerging Spaces of Neoliberalism: “A gated Town and a Public Housing Project in Istanbul”, in: New Perspectives on Turkey 39 (2008) fall, pp. 5-47, here p. 5.
  2. 2 Sassen, Saskia: The Global City – The De-Nationalization of Time and Space, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: verso books 2012.
  4. 4 Umul, Fatma: “Istanbul-Yeldegirmeni. Wir sind alle Don Quijote”, in: AK- Analyse und Kritik. Zeitung für linke Debatte und Praxis 590 (2014), (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 In the field of European Ethnology, the term “practice” is used to describe a certain way of investigating cultural phenomena. Classifying squatting as a resistant practice, we took a look at the past of resistance in Istanbul and how it is presently done in daily situations in the squats. Our definition of resistant practice refers to Henri Lefebvres and denotes an active or resistant intervention in the social production of space challenging the dominant production of space and temporarily creating a space of its own in opposition to it.
  6. 6 Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Tuna Kuyucu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Commodification and Country Ownership in Istanbul, May 26, 2014.
  7. 7 Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Biray Kolluoğlu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Global City Istanbul: Urban Transformation and ‘Gated Communities’, May 26, 2014.

As a result of successful education and health politics in Turkey during the 1930s, the infant mortality rate declined and population increased. After the Second World War, the distribution of work opportunities led to a massive migration of Anatolian peasants to Istanbul. Due to a lack of housing, copious so-called gecekondus were “built over night,” resulting in sprawling urban growth. 1 Based on a specific customary law remnant of Ottoman times, those who were able to build a shack overnight could stay and live on that exact spot of land. In Ottoman times, all land belonged to the Sultan; individuals could only attain usage rights if they used it in ways benefiting the Sultan and paid taxes. 2

From the beginning of this migration wave until the 1970s, gecekondus were not only built to satisfy existential needs such as the necessity of a place to live, but also constituted political tools displaying inequalities between migrants and long-established residents. Gecekondu neighborhoods operated via informal markets and through networks of kinship as well as local relationships devoid of governmental regulations. They gained the solidarity of the middle class, the leftist movement and syndicates 3. From the 1980s onward, the value of gecekondus increased due to the increasing scarcity of space caused by growing urbanization. As investors and state administration became aware of this process, they offered the land occupiers the opportunity to expand their houses, to rent or to sell them. From that moment on, the gecekondu neighborhoods were no longer merely a means to satisfy the migrants’ existential needs, but became an opportunity to join the formal market and accumulate capital 4. A political protest in form of land appropriation by gecekondu owners thus became obsolete for those able to ascend into the middle class. 5 The new elites of Istanbul often call this form of material production a unique urban disaster. Orhan Esen claims it to be a resource of collective experience for Istanbul’s citizens, calling it self-service urbanization. 6

Since the 1990s, various districts are more and more affected by gentrification: Because of immense increases in rent, the “established” inhabitants are often forced to move out of their districts. 7 When visiting Istanbul, we took a guided tour through the city lead by Ayşe Çavdar. She showed us to the borders of the district Tarlabaşı and explained the district’s transformation during the past two decades. Among Istanbul’s districts, Tarlabaşı in particular is inhabited by transnational migrants from Africa and Asia as well as marginalized groups like Kurds, Roma or transsexuals. While it was spared from drastic changes during the 1990s, it has become a so called “regeneration area” since 2006. The Çalık-Holding was assigned to conduct a large-scale construction project designed to replace the old, often decayed buildings with modern ones. As the present inhabitants are unlikely to be able to afford the massively increased rents, they will presumably have to move away. The buildings not being demolished may also become items of private speculation resulting in drastically rising rents and the eviction and displacement of minorities as well. 8 


  1. 1 Cf. Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 35.
  2. 2 Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 37.
  3. 3 Cf. Erder, Sema: “Where do you hail from? Localism and networks in Istanbul”, in: Keyder, Caglar (ed.): Istanbul. Between the Global and the Local, Boston, MA: Rowmann& Littlefield 1999, pp. 161-173, here p. 163.
  4. 4 Cf. Erder, Sema: “Where do you hail from? Localism and networks in Istanbul”, in: Keyder, Caglar (ed.): Istanbul. Between the Global and the Local, Boston, MA: Rowmann& Littlefield 1999, pp. 161-173, here p. 164.
  5. 5 Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 41.
  6. 6 Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 33.
  7. 7 Gottschlich, Jürgen: “Gentrifizierung in Istanbul. Raus mit allen Underdogs“, in: taz, June 11, 2012!95032/ (last accessed July 2015).
  8. 8 Gottschlich, Jürgen: “Gentrifizierung in Istanbul. Raus mit allen Underdogs“, in: taz, June 11, 2012!95032/ (last accessed July 2015).

When confronted with the huge urban transformation of Istanbul since the 1960s, we asked ourselves which laws and projects adopted by Erdoğan in the more recent past had led to the present forms of urbanization and its results, e.g. the regeneration areas. AKP politics were based on earlier neo-liberalization processes led by Turgut Özal, founder of the AKP’s predecessor party ANAP and Turkey’s prime minister after the end of the military dictatorship. During the Özal era, neo-liberal “foundation stones” were established, among them the privatization of publicly owned enterprises, the decrease of the so-called welfare state, the deregulation of markets, the opening of the country for transnational flows of goods and capital as well as, of course, an ongoing cooperation with institutions like the World Bank 1. This neo-liberal turnabout implemented by Özal’s government had already been planned during the military dictatorship. 2

With Erdoğan being a former mayor of Istanbul, a prime minister taking enormous interest in Turkey’s biggest city and only metropolis was elected. Erdoğan established a new form of housing and construction policies mainly by deploying public-private partnerships, but also by maintaining and furthering privatization. His state policy was and still is ensuring economic growth through modernization and liberalization, though this end is not necessarily achieved through the creation of free and accessible markets. Turkey’s government implemented a specific form of “state capitalism” consisting in the establishment of national companies which are non-public yet controlled by the state. Through their openness for investments by global firms and investors, these companies are intertwined with transnational cash flows. A key player in this game surely is TOKI. 3


TOKI is a housing development association formed by the government in the 1980s in order to provide low-income housing for municipalities. In 2002, TOKI was formally privatized and assigned an independent budget. Although officially independent, TOKI still operates directly under the prime minister’s control. To facilitate the government’s attempt to renew, redesign, and redevelop cities in a profitable manner, several laws were passed that drastically changed the way urbanization and the city development proceeds.


With this law, TOKI was authorized to obtain any plot of government land from the treasury to then privatize it. They can either sell it on the market or form a public-private partnership in order to transform these areas, e.g. as renewal areas. In other words: TOKI has almost absolute zoning and planning authority over every area in Turkey. This includes expropriation of entire districts, no matter if those areas have been inhabited by certain communities for decades. 4

Disaster Law

The Disaster Law was passed in 2012. It allows entire districts to be declared insecure due to earthquake concerns, thus giving tremendous power to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Redevelopment as they can “claim” parts of cities and “redevelop” them. 5

Municipality Law

The Municipality Law is another law that allows ministries or local governments to claim entire areas as common property. This law establishes the interests of the municipality as sufficient justification to claim and clear out areas. In consequence, people living in cities, districts and areas concerned are in danger of being evicted. Shops, houses and infrastructure can be razed to the ground and rebuilt, e.g. by one of Turkey’s many real estate investment trusts.

Nepotism in Istanbul

In some of Istanbul’s areas such as Sulukule or Tarlabaşı , this aspect of political practices of urban renewal can be observed in drastic dimensions. 6 Tarlabaşı constitutes an exemplary case of nepotisms, in this case in the construction sector. The project of redesigning of Tarlabaşı  was assigned directly to the president’s son in law in his function of the CEO of the Çalık-Holding. As Ayşe Çavdar puts it, this is a regularly practiced kind of corrupt business venture. 7

Criminal Code

The so-called “criminal code” was passed in 2005. It made informal housing in Turkey illegal for the first time in history. Under this code, people living without a lease can be brought to trial. 8


Tarlabasi before and after. ©


urban renewal tarlabasi

Tarlabaşı  Renewal Area, Beyoğlu Municipality. ©


“Megaprojects” or “crazy projects”, as they are often called by Erdoğan’s critics and the opposition, are a huge part of the enormous changes the government and its planners are subjecting the city to. They include the construction of a canal in the west of the city, a gigantic third airport in the northwest of the city and a third bridge over the Bosporus. All these projects are being undertaken without involving the population into the decision making process although experts and local initiatives warn against colossal environmental damages. Erdoğans “gigantomania” is often criticized. The movie “Ekümenopolis” (2012) documents numerous of these projects and shows the rage these “crazy projects” evoke.





  1. 1 Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Tuna Kuyucu at Boğaziçi University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Commodification and Country Ownership in Istanbul, May 26, 2014.
  2. 2 Toussaint, Eric: “The World Bank’s Support of the Dictatorship in Turkey. Global Research”, in: Global Research, October 12, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Tuna Kuyucu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Commodification and Country Ownership in Istanbul, May 26, 2014.
  4. 4 Cf. Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Tuna Kuyucu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Commodification and Country Ownership in Istanbul, May 26, 2014.
  5. 5 Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Tuna Kuyucu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Commodification and Country Ownership in Istanbul, May 26, 2014.
  6. 6 Seibert, “Thomas: Vertreibung für das Paradies“, in: Potsdamer Neuste Nachrichten, March 27, 2009, (last accessed July 2015).
  7. 7 Guided Walk and Lecture by Ayşe Çavdar: Toki, a Building Society, May 24, 2015.
  8. 8 Cf. Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Tuna Kuyucu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Commodification and Country Ownership in Istanbul, May 26, 2014.

After the Gezi Park protests were put to an end in the summer of 2013, people started to get together in local neighborhood parks and founded so-called neighborhood “forums.” Some protesters wished to maintain the often-mentioned “Gezi spirit”: They wanted to keep discussing political demands or ways of organizing amongst themselves. At this point, the slogan “Everywhere Taksim – Everywhere Resistance” was established beyond the borders of Turkey. As the year passed and the weather grew too cold for these weekly assemblies, the activists of the “Yeldeğirmeni solidarity (Dayanışması)” forum in Kadıköy started discussing the option of occupying an empty building.


Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi

Stemming from these forums, “Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi” (Don Quijote Social Centre) came into existence. The property concerned had been abandoned for many years. It was considered suitable for an occupation as a result of its ownership rights being disputed. In the beginning, the newly formed community came together to renovate the shell of the building. Everybody involved worked voluntarily, often in addition to a day job or studying. In the meantime, two weekly assemblies were formed to discuss issues concerning the social center or political activities people were interested in. Apart from the assemblies, people got together to socialize, eat together and play games but also to do workshops or plan political activities. The property is spacious enough for art exhibitions and graffiti. On the upper floor, participants installed a give-away or sharing shop and experimented with indoor gardening. The main reason for occupying the building cited by the activists was to reinforce neighborhood solidarity. Another aim was to reorganize and reshape social space in a way “commons” are created.

Komşu Kafe

The Komşu Kafe Collective is an autonomous, self-organized café in Kadıköy  existing since summer 2013 and, like the Don Kişot social center, was opened in the “Gezi spirit.” Naming the café “Komşu” (English “neighbor”) emphasizes that everyone is invited to participate. In the manifesto, Komşu Kafe is described as a common space due to a perceived citywide lack of such space. In the café, everyone shall feel equal and autonomous at the same time. Every person is free to go behind the counter to prepare hot beverages for themselves or for others and people are free to pay whatever they can afford. The Komşu-Collectivistas see their concept as a contribution to an alternative economy undermining the capitalist system.

Samsa Squat

Several former Don Kişot activists no longer supporting all decisions regarding the social center in the Duatepe Street decided to squat in another building in Kadıköy near the Sali market. The start of their disagreement was a padlock installed at the social center’s door. In the eyes of some squat activists, this was a mechanism of exclusion creating hierarchies. Furthermore, the activists meant to create a place that was more than a social center: A squat as known in various European cities such as Barcelona, Milan, Athens, Amsterdam or Berlin, a squat to not only have political meetings in but also to live collectively. The squat was called Samsa, after Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafkas “The Metamorphosis.” The name was chosen as a reference to the Don Kişot Social Centre named after Miguel de Cervantes’ novel. One of the founding members of the Samsa Squat told us he wanted to live his life as far as possible outside of “the system.” To him, this meant resistance in everyday life: not being part of consumerism at all. He and many activists of the Kadıköy squatting scene want people and neighbors to organize every aspect of their life by themselves in form of a direct democracy. Therefore, concepts like “solidarity”, “neighborhood” and “autonomy” as well as “collectiveness” are important, constituent parts of their political approach, which can be described as “creating commons”.


Samsa Squat, Kadıköy, Istanbul ©

Caferağa Dayanışması Mahalle Evi

The Caferağa Dayanışması (Caferaga Solidarity) is another squatting community center in Kadiköy. When the after-Gezi activists of the Yeldeğirmeni Solidarity Forum decided to occupy the building, it was abandoned and in need of an enormous amount of renovation. From the squat’s facebook page and blog posts, we gathered that it had been evicted by the Turkish Riot Police on the 9th of December 2014. A report of the events can be found via the following link:


In Istanbul, we did not discover just one squat but a whole squatting scene. The squats in Kadıköy were rarely used as places to live in. Participants told us that they do try to learn from squats in Europe like in Spain or Greece, but that Istanbul’s squats mainly function as neighborhood forums. They are autonomous social centers of their respective neighborhoods. Through the squats, volunteers get in contact with their neighbors to brainstorm and discuss problems emerging for example from urbanization policies in Istanbul. In addition, the social centers are places to spend time together. They are meeting points for activists, (Erasmus) students, artists or employees exchanging political ideas and concepts of practices. Due to one of the participants, occupying houses in Istanbul is not about taking over new places to live but rather about creating a space for your own way of living and thinking. The activists want to establish squatting in Istanbul like in Spain and Greece and say that they want to learn from the experiences made in these countries.

(Im)Possibilities of neighborhood forums and resistance practices in Istanbul

All activists we interviewed mostly referred to Harvey, Hardt as well as Negri and described the squats as an attempt of “commons” materializing the goal of reclaiming urban spaces. Like occupying Taksim, squatting can be read as a call for the right to participate in Istanbul’s spatial and material development as well as an attempt to resist neo-liberal politics, gentrification and expropriation connected to Istanbul steadily developing into a global city, which is kind of a “brutal place” 1 to live in. In a recent publication called “Cool Istanbul – Urban Enclosures and Resistances” based on a conference in November 2013 related to a DFG-funded project, Aras Özgü provided an outlook on the future of upcoming resistance in Istanbul. He emphasized

“that Gezi Park protests brought an important novelty to Turkish radical politics […], the protesters reclaimed the urban commons that had been taken from them.” 2 Squats in Istanbul are an actual continuation of radical politics of similar importance and intentions. By creating a place that connects subversive artistic politics with radical practices, they are facing a great number of challenges: When asked about the squatting scene’s perspectives, participants active in Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi emphasized the fact that political commitment while studying or/and having a job required a lot of energy. Everybody is working at their neighborhood forums voluntarily; most of the participants are students, artists or middle class workers. Most of the time, there is not even enough energy available to discuss the different political aims while also maintaining an everyday life as a precarious worker. Establishing contact with recent migrants or minorities living in highly conflict laden neighborhoods and the articulation of their interests in the city could not be achieved in full. Thus, in order to generate solidarity, the activists focused on the direct needs of the neighborhood instead. Again, the goals of those marginalized by neo-liberal policies and the global city such as transnational migrants and minority groups could not be included in an established form of political commitment.

The various legal changes to the status quo alter the way the global city Istanbul develops in such a drastic and rapid way that even the squatting of buildings cannot impede. If the Yeldeğirmeni or Kadıköy districts become more profitable for private or public-private investors in the future, the political desire to clear the area of subversive, anti-capitalist projects like cafés or neighborhood forums will develop. It is questionable whether the new forms of solidarity present in the Kadıköy neighborhoods will spread to other districts and generate a wider movement of people searching for and building different forms of non-profitable relationships within capitalist society due to the rather small numbers of people committed to squatting.


  1. 1 Meister, Franziska: “Interview mit Saskia Sassen: ‘Die Global City ist ein brutaler Ort‘”, in: Die Wochenzeitung 25 (2012), (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Özgün, Aras: “The Value of Art and the Political Economy of Cool”, in: Özkan, Derya: Cool Istanbul. Urban Enclosures and Resistances, Bielefeld: Transcript 2015, pp. 35-61, here p. 56.

In his research Mathias Fiedler illuminates the situation of refugees and migrants in the, so called, transit country Turkey. He did several in-depth interviews in Istanbul – some as a follow-up to his research he did for the project “Bordermonitoring Bulgaria“. Latest informations were collected afterwards via telephone and social media.


In the district of Tarlabaşı, one may find the Mutfak 1 (kitchen), a meeting space were one can partake in cooking for the poor of the neighborhood or organize counsel, language courses or other support for migrants and asylum seekers. The project was founded by people close to the Migrant Solidarity Group (Göçmen Dayanışma Ağı) Istanbul. Due to the gentrification process in that area which has been taking place for the last few years 2, more people able to pay higher rents are entering the housing market. The area has two faces with run-down houses, drug sellers and prostitution on the one hand and, on the other hand, renovated or newly built houses, nice and clean people to be seen in the street as well as on the signs adorning the construction sites. For people with no or low income who used to live there before, the situation is getting more and more difficult. It seems that a social space – like the Mutfak – is really needed in this area to support marginalized people and people in precarious situations. The solidarity kitchen tries to bring together different people from various backgrounds. It is well known in the quarter of Tarlabaşı and visited not exclusively by refugees and asylum seekers.

Outside, I met with Hassan, a Syrian refugee I later brought in touch with people from the Mutfak. I knew him from a hotel in Edirne where he had told me that he and his friends had almost drowned while trying to cross the Evros on a boat. The group of 5 young men lost the boat in the water. Afterwards, they tried to survive in the middle of the Evros on a little island consisting of trash and wood onto which they could luckily save themselves until they were rescued by a fisherman. Many people have drowned trying to cross the Evros River. In 2010, for example, the UNHCR reported three people drowning in May and 16 people drowning in June 3.

Hassan concluded his and his comrades’ situation as follows:

“We thought that we will arrive fast, but things were turning against us.” 4

Finally, they were rescued by a man with a little boat that brought them to the Turkish Border Police. With a friend, he was taken to Edirne Detention Center. Afterwards, the police decided to take them to Istanbul in a bus convoy along with many other refugees, but Hassan and his friend Ahmed managed to escape from the bus.

“They brought us with these buses. They said, yeah that actually you will have to be back to Istanbul. And actually when we arrived here, the signal. You know my friend, he is my friend, he just pushed the the the, you know, there’s a button there in this bus. He pushed the button and the doors opened and we start to run out.”

Later, Hassan told me the reason why he and his friend wanted to escape:

“Actually we don’t want to go back to Istanbul, because you know, we don’t have anything to do even in Istanbul.”

Although their escape was successful, a few days later, Hassan and Ahmed decided to go back to Istanbul because they were not able to make it to Europe.

Refugees using the boat and trying to cross the sea or a huge and dangerous river must be seen as a consequence of operations undertaken in cooperation with the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (FRONTEX). These “joint operations” of border guards from different European countries take place at the border between Greece and Turkey 5 as well as the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. In both cases, the governments decided to install fences. In Bulgaria, a big part of the Integrated Border Surveillance System (IBSS), financed by the EU, is almost complete. Therefore it is, for the most part, not possible to cross the border on land. People escaping war try to cross over the European borders nevertheless. Several weeks after my visit in Istanbul, FRONTEX reported that the poll of detected Syrian refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria or Greece had increased again 6. In August 2014, the Bulgarian police detained 63 refugees in a boat in the Black Sea and in the beginning of November 2014, a boat with refugees sank in the Black Sea near the Bosporus 7. At least 24 people died 8.

When I met Hassan in Istanbul at the end of May 2014, he had already been working illegally in a bar to earn some money. But again, things changed to the worse for him. He told me that he had been working the whole month of May without getting paid. Hassan recounted that, when asking the owner of the bar about his pay, the owner asked him whether he was “for or against Assad”. Hassan immediately answered the question with: “Of course I am against Assad“, whereupon the owner replied: “Then I cannot pay you.“

I went to a bar with a friend of Hassan’s who used to be a Stuart for Saudi Airlines. The friend told me he lost his work permit for Saudi Arabia with the start of the Syrian crisis. Hassan described his own life as a life of crazy ups and downs. He and his friend still thought about going to Europe. After some weeks, Hassan decided to move to Bursa and, after that, to a little town in the mountains in order to work there.


  1. 1 For video impressions, visit the Mutfak’s website (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Bourque, Yessica: Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification, The New York Times July 4, 2012, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. the press release: Sixteen people drowned attempting to cross the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece, UNHCR, July 1, 2010, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Interview with Hassan on May 2, 2014.
  5. 5 For more information, see Booth, Katherine et al.: FRONTEX. Between Greece and Turkey: At the border of denial, FIDH/Migreurop/EMHRN May 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 FRONTEX: FRAN Quarterly. Quarter 3, July-September 2014, Warshaw 2015, p. 23, (last accessed July 2015).
  7. 7 Leviev-Sawyer, Clive: (2014): Bulgaria Detains 63 Refugees on Boat in Black Sea, Independent Balkan News Agency, August 18, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  8. 8 Cf. Migrant boat traversed entire Bosphorus without being detected before disaster, Hurriyet Daily News, November 4, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

All in all, it seems like Syrian refugees in Turkey, alike other migrants and refugees, have to be highly flexible 1. As stated in an Amnesty International report published in 2014, refugees in Istanbul and other parts of the country have to work for low wages 2. In Istanbul, not one of the Syrian refugees I met had stayed in the same place for more than 3 months. They were constantly moving in search for a way to earn a living. At times, it was very difficult to use the contacts I had received from people helping me with my research because the person had already moved outside of Turkey, or at least outside of Istanbul. Others returned to Istanbul to find work or a possibility to somehow get into Europe.

As construction sites in Istanbul are booming, a lot of cheap labor is needed. Many areas are gentrified and changed, often due to the fact that people are working for such low wages. In the construction projects of big companies or the textile sector, the exploitation of the ‘human capital’ is not likely to end anytime soon. Syrian Refugees are working in clothing factories, the farming sector or restaurants, often illegally 3. A lot of poor Turkish people already work for cheap wages and, of course, the refugees and migrants – having nothing left to give except the ‘commodity’ of their manpower.

The Global City Istanbul is pulsing and it seems that it will tremendously extend its capitalistic economical reach. One can say that even with the statutory minimum wage guaranteed by the state, there is a highly unregulated labor market supported by an enormous ‘reserve army of labor’ 4 fueled by poor people trying to maintain their existence. Those who are neither needed nor wanted are pushed back by society’s racism and classism or – eventually – leave the city or the country voluntarily.


  1. 1 For working opportunities of Syrian refugees, see the study of Kirişci, Kemal: Syrian refugees and Turkey’s challenges: Going beyond hospitality, Washington/D.C.: Brookings Institution 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Amnesty International: Struggling to survive: Refugees from Syria in Turkey (2014), p. 25-27, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Özden Şenay: Syrian Refugees in Turkey, MPC Research Report May 2013, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 This Marxian concept was first articulated in Marx, Karl: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, German: Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Berlin: Franz Duncker 1859.

Queerstanbul – Aspects of love, gender and sexuality inside daily life of LGBTIQ*

The research project is part of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and formed up to an exhibition project. Funded by the program “Kreativität im Studium”, the Integrationsrat Göttingen and the University of Göttingen the group visited Istanbul once again during the Pride Week 20014. The results of the research were shown in Göttingen during an exhibition in December 2014. 

Text by Susanne Klenke and Laura Stonies

Shortfilm by Margaux Jeanne Erdmann


Other actors within the gay scene in Istanbul also expressed the opinion that it was easier for people with higher social status and economic capital to live openly gay. But the queer scene’s service sector also provides employment opportunities for low-income workers. Visiting bars and clubs of the scene, we gathered that most of the young boys working in such places had come to Istanbul from villages and smaller towns all over Turkey. One reason for this interior migration lies in the general configuration of the labor market: The variety of clubs, bars, cafés, hotels etc. provides even unskilled workers with a chance to find a job. Beside this, Istanbul holds the opportunity to live a more open and free life for queers. The gay subculture can enable individuals to experience new forms of identities “as they constitute desirable destinations of safety and comfort against a variety of threatening forces.” 1

“We have to be in the closet, but it’s a whole big scene.” (Fashion designer)


  1. 1 Fortier, Anne-Marie: “‘Coming home’ Queer migrations and multiple evocations of home“, European Journal of Cultural Studies 11 (2001) 4, pp. 405-424, here p. 406.

The idea of a research on the Erasmus programme and its manifestations in Istanbul was to ask why students from all over Europe chose Istanbul as their destination and how they are living in the global city. The project of Anna Schäfer and Laura Lamping highlights different perspectives of doing Erasmus in Istanbul: from the bureaucratic burdens of universities, to student’s romanticism of living in “the exotic East” and their ways of living between Erasmus Parties and protest movements.

The Taksim district is located in the center of Istanbul – on the European side. There is almost no place in Istanbul anymore where you have this much space to move. The Taksim Square is a well-known public area playing a significant role in our interviews. Taksim transformed – over the last centuries – to a very complex district. It is a place to live, a place to party and to protest.

Drawing on Erving Goffmann, Taksim Square can be called the place for political action: Here, the players become aware of each other and interact. The players structure the public space and make their behavior apparent to the media. 1 If you have the intention of transporting a message to the public, such a well-known place is an obvious choice. For international students, Taksim Square is fraught with these political overtones. Therefore, they planned for their political protests (in this case, a human chain) to take place in Taksim as long as it was not too dangerous. If they were worried about the police, they would pick another place for their project. 2

There is also another side of this district: the party scene. Many bars and restaurants are located around the Taksim Square. They are known for their international guests. Therefore, Erasmus coordinators, mentors and party organizer advise international students to go there to get in touch with other students. To U. from the student organization The Best Party Life (BPL) and M. from the Erasmus office of one of Istanbul’s universities, Taksim was the indisputable nexus of the party and Erasmus scene. U. was able to name typical Erasmus bars and clubs. The Erasmus students N. and M. confirmed that as an Erasmus student, you are told by these external actors where Erasmus life is going on: “The Turkish people also go there with the Erasmus students because they know it is where the Erasmus students go” 3. “It is the tradition that they [the Erasmus students] always have to go to Taksim to enjoy and have fun [in their orientation week]” 4. Therefore, Taksim is one of the first places they become acquainted with. There are clubs offering special Erasmus parties; a club culture has developed around the Erasmus Programme.

As shown by the aforementioned, different actors reproduce the image of Taksim as a party place and therefore reproduce the Erasmus Programme as a semester of drinking and having fun in clubs. The whole network around the Erasmus Programme is attuned to this kind of entertainment. But surely, not every incoming student uses this network for their own entertainment.

Against this background, it is not surprising that a lot of incoming people wish to live close to Taksim – for whatever reason. Some like to live in a way they know from home:

“Around Taksim square and Istiklal Street, it is a very nice living. Advantages are the possibility of reaching the most of the interesting night life by foot, as well as the nice atmosphere of the districts Cihangir and Galata, especially for our Western taste.” 5.

Thus, it became clear in the interviews we led that certain districts are associated with a specific lifestyle and social values. Most of our interview partners differentiated between living in Kadiköy, on the Asian side, and living in districts like Taksim or Beşiktaş on the European side. The established image of the districts on the European side as being Western with an international flair, hip, modern and lively is imparted by these actors. They partake in the perpetual, long-standing reproduction of a certain symbolic social character of a quarter.

Living and Staying in Istanbul – Erasmus Students as “Gentrifiers”? 

Another aspect to deal with in the context of Erasmus life in Istanbul is the accommodation of Erasmus students in the city. It is to be considered whether they might be contributing to the gentrification processes in a distinct way. As Günther Glebe and Helmut Schneider, Philip Clay and Jens Dangschat indicate, the population of a certain urban district contributes to its attractiveness as well as its symbolic value and a change in population might lead to the reevaluation of a quarter by the city government 6. An increasing number of small groups of people willing to take risks – like „Studierende, Kulturproduzierende und Alternative“ 7 – settling in rather unattractive places might add a new symbolic quality to a district, which in turn could entail an economic reevaluation and growing interest of investment firms. The so-called “pioneers” of gentrification (or in short “gentrifiers”) first change the character of the neighborhood, push out long-established inhabitants and, in later stages, will be replaced by further “gentrifiers” themselves. 8

As M. told us, most of the people involved with Erasmus in Istanbul live in quarters are also known as ‘student districts’: Taksim, Beşiktaş, Mecidiyeköy, Kadiköy, Üsküdar and Osmanbey 9. The reasons for this settlement pattern lie in infrastructure: the proximity both to the universities and – for some of them – to Taksim district. Of course this kind of “inner city orientation” or “conglomeration of Erasmus students in certain districts” 10 holds true for students in general. Ultimately, the choice of residents depends on their own specific interests. Some of the people involved with Erasmus preferred living on the Asian side – which was described to us as a rather calm part of town with stronger neighborhood relationships – others preferred a central address near the (evening) leisure programme where they would not be dependent on bus or ferry to go home in the evening. A student apprentice at Aydin University accepted a longer way to her working place in order to live in Taksim. Others chose to live in districts like Tarlabaşi or Fatih.

Additionally, the network of actors involved in the Erasmus Programme working together has a great influence on the living situation of the Erasmus students as they participate in arranging flat leases. The Best Party Life is only one of several organizations in Istanbul supporting Erasmus students in regard to university affairs, offering parties, organizing trips and taking care of their habitation. 11 managers and 60 to 70 promoters work for BPL. They are in close contact with the universities and their Erasmus offices and coordinators. facebook is at their side, facilitating transnational communication and functioning as a residential agency – even before the international students arrive in Istanbul. 11 German Erasmus offices refer their students to flat sharing homepages as well as the homepage of the partner university 12, whose coordinators and supporting crew are in close contact with the aforementioned student organizations and flat sharing communities. In this way, some Turkish students profit from the Erasmus Programme through renting out flats. It is possible to speak of an informal Erasmus housing-market. As U. from BPL told us, this is not only a source of income, but in also valuable in terms of social capital (Bourdieu) regarding the international circle of friends resulting from this cooperation in accommodation 13.

In consequence, the place of residence is seldom chosen completely freely by the Erasmus students but it rather, to a considerable extent, managed by Turkish students, student organizations and the Erasmus offices as well as their tutors. Consequently, this network of Erasmus actors plays a central role in designing international student districts.

BestPartylife                  Eskibeyrut


  1. 1 Cf. Goffman, Erving: Interaktion im öffentlichen Raum. Frankfurt/New York, NY: Campus 2009, pp. 12-13.
  2. 2 Talk with a former Erasmus student who took part in political activism with other international students.
  3. 3 Interview with M., a student from Berlin, on May 15, 2014. M. spent one year (2010-2011) as an Erasmus student in Istanbul. In 2012, she went back for several months to do an internship there. The quote was translated from German into English.
  4. 4 Interview with M., an Erasmus coordinator at an university in Istanbul on May 30, 2014.
  5. 5 Excerpt from an Erasmus field report: Erasmus-Erfahrungsbericht. Istanbul Sommersemester 2014, (last accessed July 2015)
  6. 6 Cf. Holm, Andrej: “Gentrification”, in: Eckardt, Frank (ed.): Handbuch Stadtsoziologie, Wiesbaden: Springer 2012, pp. 661-679. See also the definition of gentrification in the same publication.
  7. 7 Cf. Holm, Andrej: “Gentrification”, in: Eckardt, Frank (ed.): Handbuch Stadtsoziologie, Wiesbaden: Springer 2012, pp. 661-679, here p. 671.
  8. 8 Cf. Holm, Andrej: “Gentrification”, in: Eckardt, Frank (ed.): Handbuch Stadtsoziologie, Wiesbaden: Springer 2012, pp. 661-679, here pp. 672-673.
  9. 9 Interview with M., a student from Berlin, on May 15, 2014. M. spent one year (2010-2011) as an Erasmus student in Istanbul. In 2012, she went back for several months to do an internship there.
  10. 10 Cf. Holm, Andrej: “Gentrification”, in: Eckardt, Frank (ed.): Handbuch Stadtsoziologie, Wiesbaden: Springer 2012, pp. 661-679, here p. 667.
  11. 11 Cf. Interview with U. working for The Best Party Life organization on May 27, 2014.
  12. 12 Cf. Interview with S., who works in the Erasmus office of a German university institute on March 16, 2014.
  13. 13 Cf. Interview with U. working for The Best Party Life organization on May 27, 2014.