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

Research

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.

Fußnoten:

  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, http://90.146.8.18/en/archiv_files/20021/E2002_018.pdf (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), http://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak590/21.htm (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.

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

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.

TOKI Law

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

picture6-7_tarlabasi-before-and-after

Tarlabasi before and after. ©http://www.tarlabasiyenileniyor.com/

  

urban renewal tarlabasi

Tarlabaşı  Renewal Area, Beyoğlu Municipality. ©http://www.tarlabasiyenileniyor.com

Megaprojects

“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.

Megaprojects

Ekümenopolis

 

Fußnoten:

  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, http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-world-banks-support-of-the-dictatorship-in-turkey-1980-1983/5407446 (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, http://www.pnn.de/dritte-seite/166138/ (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.

People are “sick” of the undemocratic government interventions in the urban space since 2002. Aside from the constantly growing role of TOKI, a look at the changing skyline of the city makes apparent that “Istanbul has undergone a neo-liberal restructuring process over (more than) the past two decades.” 1 Biray Kolluoğlu and Ayfer Bartu Candan found that the privatization of urban governance 2 leads to social and spatial segregation for both the wealthy and the poor. While the affluent suffer from “urban fear”, feeling the need to seclude themselves from the city in order to be safe (for example in gated communities), the impoverished are isolated and marginalized. 3 All inhabitants of Istanbul can observe new forms of urbanity emerge from neo-liberalization processes in their everyday life. “Megaprojects,” regeneration areas and gated communities are connected to normative ideas about how and by whom urban space should be used. The authoritarian urban renewal evoked protest in 2013, when excavators started to demolish trees at the Gezi Parkı, a park near Istanbul’s most central square, Taksim. The plans to demolish and redesign the public Gezi Parkı and the adjacent Taksim Square became obvious and were being conducted without official permit. The plans revolved around rebuilding historic military barracks from Ottoman times that were supposed to contain an upper class shopping mall. 4

Mind Map: Taksim Square. Berlin. 23.3.2015 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne

Mind Map: Taksim Square. Berlin. 23.3.2015 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne

During the Gezi Park movement from the May 27 until June 15, 2013, a massive amount of people gathered in the Park and on Taksim Square to occupy and save the area from being demolished. These events led to mass protests all over the country, for example opposing police brutality and Erdoğans rule. According to estimates, a total of three to five million people from all over Turkey protested for almost two months. 5 Before Gezi, the leftist movement had been weak, which is why every activist we spoke to expressed surprise at the massive participation. Resistance in Istanbul was weakened due to three military coups in 1968, 1971 and 1980. Interviewing various activists of Gezi led us to realize that this protest was more than just a response to the recent restrictions by the AKP, e.g. alcohol prohibition in public. For many participants, it was a way to criticize the destruction, privatization and commodification of the public space by the projects named above. In addition to that, protesters demanded democratic rights in opposition to current tendencies to re-Islamize everyday life and strove to defend collective rights against increasing and persistent state repression.

The peaceful occupation of Gezi-Park  © https://ukvisualanth.files.wordpress.com

The peaceful occupation of Gezi-Park ©https://ukvisualanth.files.wordpress.com

Understanding Gezi with Reference to David Harvey

David Harvey, basing his theories on Henri Lefebvres (Hyperlink) ideas concerning the “Production of Space,” 6 states that in neo-liberal, capitalist societies, citizens often do not have the opportunity to participate in shaping their city. As a global city, Istanbul is characterized by the constant need to find profitable terrains for the production and absorption of excess capital. Thus, urbanization is organized alongside notions of profit orientation and maximization. 7 As Harvey puts it, the effects of the latest forms of urbanization change who can afford to live in a city and how this life is shaped. Living in the city becomes a consumer good for wealthy people, which in turn leads to processes of expropriation and displacement for the less privileged. Thus, inhabitants are being deprived of their right to the city not only concerning spatial matters but also in regard to social aspects. 8 To resist these processes and to put an end to those dynamics, people need to become aware of all of the existing contradictions in order to reclaim their right to the city. The main political goal Harvey suggests is simple but radical: democratic control of the production and usage of surplus value. 9

As Harvey puts it, neo-liberal policies commodify and enclose “commons”, e.g. common property, common knowledge and common resources. The re-democratization of these commodities can be achieved through anticapitalistic critique and political actions, e.g. urban space appropriation of streets, a square or even a building during a protest. This new form of urban space usage can be called creating a “common”. 10 The necessity of deploying “commons” was often emphasized by most of our participants when asked what the occupation of property meant to them. As it intervenes with the social production of space, it is possible to “read” the occupation of urban space as a resistance practice. To take back their “right to the city,” people occupied urban space.

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 Kolluoğlu, 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, p. 5.
  2. 2 Privatization of urban governance means the increasing participation of the economical private sector in urban politics of Istanbul.
  3. 3 Kolluoğlu, 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, p. 5.
  4. 4 Guttstadt, Tayfun: Çapulcu. Die Gezi-Park-Bewegung und die neuen Proteste in der Türkei, Münster: Unrast Verlag 2014, p. 15.
  5. 5 Guttstadt, Tayfun: Çapulcu. Die Gezi-Park-Bewegung und die neuen Proteste in der Türkei, Münster: Unrast Verlag 2014, p. 15.
  6. 6 Henri Lefebvre coined the historical term “abstract space” describing a concept of space dominant over others. He states that urban spaces of world economy, global communication technologies and knowledge production show a tendency for homogenization. Because space production is also the social product of a social process, it offers possibilities of resistance in people’s everyday social practices as well as of a utopian differential room. For further reading, see: Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford/Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1991.
  7. 7 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, pp. 27-26.
  8. 8 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, p. 51.
  9. 9 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, p. 58-59.
  10. 10 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, pp. 58-598

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”.

SamsaEingang

Samsa Squat, Kadıköy, Istanbul © http://sosyalsavas.org/

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:      

http://en.contrainfo.espiv.net/2014/12/15/istanbul-caferaga-mahalle-evi-squatted-community-centre-in-kadikoy-evicted/

 

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.

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 Meister, Franziska: “Interview mit Saskia Sassen: ‘Die Global City ist ein brutaler Ort‘”, in: Die Wochenzeitung 25 (2012), https://www.woz.ch/-2ea1 (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.

 

As I walked through the streets of downtown Istanbul, I saw a young man with a child sitting on the curb, begging for money. In the proximity of the big shopping street İstiklal Caddesi as well as in other parts of Beyoğlu, I noticed more people doing the same. As I could read on self-made signs positioned on front of them, many of them were refugees.

Often, children and other family members were begging for money 1. As refugees told me, some of them slept in the street, in parks or in abandoned buildings. After the outburst of the Syrian civil war, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reached to 1.7 Million in April 2015 2 –one year before, the NGO Mazlum Der had already registered around 300.000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul 3.

For a long time, there has been no guaranteed refugee-status in Turkey for people coming from non-European countries due to the so-called “geographical limitation“ 4. In April 2013, a new “law on foreigners and international protection” 5 was passed by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly with the geographical limitation remaining in effect. Nevertheless, there are many people in Turkey who, having fled (civil) war or searching for a better life, are awaiting resettlement. Others transit the country in search for a way into the European Union.

Migrants in Turkey who want to apply for asylum have to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Ankara or – since 2013 – at the Association of Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) 6. The registration constitutes the precondition to being resettled into another country. After registration, most migrants are not allowed to work. The state decides where they are permitted to live; often, it is in small satellite cities. As few migrants want to stay there, there is a constant flow towards the bigger cities. Syrians were seen as ‘guests’ until 2014 7, not as ‘refugees’ according to Turkish law. They cannot register at the UNHCR for resettlement. Until today, their status is unclear and seen as temporary 8.

From time to time, protests against refugees in Istanbul arose. A bigger protest took place in August 2014, when around 300 Turkish citizens clashed with the police and windows were broken in the suburb of İkitelli, Küçükçekmece 9. This was not the first agitation against Syrian refugees in Turkey. In July 2014, similar incidents took place in the cities of Kahramanmaraş, Adana and Gaziantep. In Antalya, the Governor’s office asked more than 1.500 Syrian refugees to leave the city. The office justified the issued notifications with accusations of “social and economic tension” as well as damaging the tourism industry 10. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, mayor of Istanbul, came up with the idea of deporting the begging refugees back to camps in south of the country 11. There, the situation is problematic for many refugees. As I was told by people that had visited or lived in these camps themselves, one can find the inhabitants of whole villages that fled from war together in a camp.

We met François, 12 a long-term refugee activist from Ruanda, who has been living in Istanbul for many years. As he tried to explain the protests against Syrian refugees, he stated:

“Of course Syrian people are getting such kind of small jobs, then they get small money, and then maybe Turkish people, they will not, you know. Turkish people when they get salary, they need big salary. But Syrians, because they want to survive, they will take all kind of small jobs and then young Turkish people think that Syrians are stealing jobs from them, such kind of things.”

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 For more information see Sauter, Dieter: Syrische Flüchtlinge in der Türkei – Betteln, Teller waschen, Müll sammeln, in: WOZ 49 (2014). https://www.woz.ch/-5770 (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 European Commission. Humanitarian Aid for Civil and Protection: Eco Fact Sheet: Syria Crisis, April 2015, http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf (last accessed July 2015)
  3. 3 Kirişci, Kemal: Syrian refugees and Turkey’s challenges: Going beyond hospitality, Washington/D.C.: Brookings Institution 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2014/05/12-turkey-syrian-refugees-kirisci/syrian-refugees-and-turkeys-challenges-may-14-2014.pdf (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Kaya, Ibrahim: Reform in the Turkish Asylum Law: Adopting the EU acquis? CARIM Research Reports (2009) 16, European University Institute, Robert Schuhmann Centre for Advances Studies, pp. 2-4, http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/11849/CARIM_RR_2009_16.pdf?sequence=2 (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 The whole law is accessible via the Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Interior, Directorate General of Migration Management: Law No. 6458 on 2013 on Foreigners and International Protection, April, 4 2013, available at: http://www.goc.gov.tr/files/files/eng_minikanun_5_son.pdf (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 Ibid., p. 9.
  7. 7 Schläfli, Samuel (2016): Interview with Şenay Özden: http://www.tageswoche.ch/de/2016_16/international/716427/ (last accessed May 2016).
  8. 8 Ibid., p. 14.
  9. 9 For more information, see “Turkey protest in Istanbul over Syrian refugees”, BBC News August 25, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28926956 (last accessed July 2015); N.N.: Tension rises as Turks allegedly beaten up by Syrians, Today’s Zaman, August 25, 2014, http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_Pension-rises-as-turks-allegedly-beaten-up-by-syrians-in-istanbul_356714.html (last accessed July 2015).
  10. 10 Baş, Kenan: Antalya Governor’s Office orders Syrian refugees to leave province, Today’s Zaman, December 24, 2014, http://www.todayszaman.com/national_antalya-governors-office-orders-syrian-refugees-to-leave-province_367929.html (last accessed July 2015).
  11. 11 Istanbul may place Syrian refugees in camps, Al Jazeera July 16, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/07/istanbul-may-force-syrian-refugees-into-camps-20147161740029946.html (last accessed July 2015).
  12. 12 I have changed the name of every interview partner in this article.

François told us about sub-Saharan asylum seekers in Istanbul as well asylum seekers in general. When I asked if skin color played a role, he referred to the following episode as a typical experience of black people in Istanbul:

“If you go to Osmanbey, or somewhere else, you will find so many Iranians, Syrians, who are working really without working permit, because they are white, Muslims sometimes, no problem. But because black people…oh police when they make, you know, control they will see black people working. What happens? They will arrest them and then they will even fine the employers. And then the employers, to pay the fine, how do you think? They will use the way that they supposed to pay you, they will give to police. And then they will tell you: You see, we give your money to the police because they don’t want you to work. So we can work two month, three month, three month and then still ain’t getting a new salary. Or they give you half-half. Half-half, the other half is kept in case if the police come to fine them. And then your wage is used to pay the police.” 1

This is not the only mention of ‘white Iranians and Syrians’ not having so many problems with the police that came to my attention. According to Koray Özdil, sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul face racial profiling, physical violence, stigmatization and having to live in fear. 2

When asked about the employment opportunities for recent migrants in Istanbul, François told us that men work mostly at construction sites or in the textile sector while women work as cleaners, babysitters and in textile production as well. He added that as a black man, you can work for merchants and lead customers from African countries to them. Black people in Istanbul try to organize themselves in specific locations, for example churches. With François, we visited a prayer service at one of those churches, “The Winners Divine Chapel“. These evangelical churches can be seen as “subaltern (sacred) counterspaces” serving as places of prayer, as transnational meeting points, and business hubs 3

 

Camera: Svetlana Stojanovic; Editing: Mathias Fiedler

 

François described “The Winners Divine Community” as follows:

“So, like this church we are going to visit is just a community, Ghanaian community church, but created by Ghanaian and some Nigerian people. Maybe some Philippine are inside.”

„God is at work here“ or „2014 our year of breakthroughs and victory“ were two of the slogans written on the walls in the church. During the service, the pastor talked about „examinations“ members of the parish had to pass. He compared the members to products or goods that have to be tested. According to him, every commodity has to pass examinations before it is admitted to the market. I had the impression that everybody in the church was listening very carefully. However, later, when music was played, the situation got more relaxed and almost everybody in the church started to dance.

 

Camera: Svetlana Stojanovic; Editing: Mathias Fiedler

 

François tried to explain the importance of the churches for the community:

“People will not feel comfortable, because some people, they don’t know what to do. They ah, when they go to church, they meet their own people. People from the community, or they meet, have a bit spare time, they socialize. Ah, they get more information about how to be here. And there they, you know, they feel relaxed.”

 

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 Talk with François on the May 25, 2014.
  2. 2 For further information about sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul see the study of Özdil, Koray: To get a paper, to get a job’–The Quite Struggles of African Foreigners in Istanbul, Turkey (2008), Master’s Th., Central European University Budapest, Dept. of Sociology and Cultural Anthropology, Online: http://www.etd.ceu.hu/2008/ozdil_koray.pdf (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Heck, Gerda: Worshipping at the Golden Age Hotel: Transnational Networks, Economy, Religion, and Migration of the Congolese in Istanbul, in: Becker, Jochen/Klingan, Katrin/Lanz, Stephan /Wildner, Kathrin (eds.): Global prayers: contemporary manifestations of the religious in the city, Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers 2014, pp. 274-289.

Kumkapı is a place that already has a migrant history 1Many people that have migrated live and work there. Suitcase or bag sellers as well as many textile shops are very visible in the streetscape. The whole area was full of shopping tourists looking for cheap offers. As one becomes aware of in Kumkapı, not every refugee or migrant has the chance to go to the European Union or be resettled. No small number of them decides to stay in Istanbul instead of going back to their country of origin.

The reasons for people not being able cross the borders to the European Union are manifold. In 2013, fences of 10 and 30 kilometers length were erected along the borders to Greece and Bulgaria. In 2014, Push-Back case numbers inclined 2. Turkey and Bulgaria signed a readmission-agreement on sending migrants back to Turkey 3, an agreement with the European Union had already been signed in 2012 4. Additionally, it is much harder to make a living as a refugee or a migrant in many European countries due to the economic crisis. 5 In the context of the European border and migration regime, Turkey and the UNHCR  take on major roles as instruments of migration control, externalizing and managing the migration flow to the European Union 6.

Many migrants in Turkey know about the difficult situation in some European countries. In our talk, François summarized:

“And then there is this factor also with Greece, ah being or having some economical problems also many people they don’t want to go. […] Because they say: Oh, we go to Greece anyway, we fall into the same problem, we don’t get work, we don’t get money, so its better we stay here in Turkey.”

Currently, there are 16 “Removal Centers“ in Turkey 7. We wanted to visit the Kumkapı Detention Center and find out to what extent the so called “refugee crisis” is affecting this institution. After a while, we found the building which was until recently officially called “Foreigners Guesthouse” (Yabancılar Misafirhanesi).

People could be seen standing at the windows. Walking to the front of the jail, we asked police officers whether we could talk to somebody inside the police station. After our letter of accreditation had been examined, we were led to the head of the Detention Center who referred us to one female and one male police officer. With them, we talked a lot about the daily routines in the building. According these two young officers, the building was constantly crowded. 400 people were inside the group cells with about 30 people coming and going every day. This fact illustrates Istanbul’s position at the intersection of and its function as a hub of different migration routes. A psychologist we spoke to at the center told us that due to the pressure from the European Union, he himself as well as female colleagues were installed in the Detention Center. When discussing “Turkey’s gatekeeper function“ for Europe, we were told that Turkey probably has no interest in being the ‘good gatekeeper’ anymore. Many of the refugees and migrant workers in the jail facing deportation were coming from eastern or former Soviet countries.

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 See as well the article of Kristen Biehl: Exploring migration, diversification and urban transformation in contemporary Istanbul – the case of Kumkapi. (2014), MMG Working Paper 14-11, http://www.mmg.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/wp/WP_14-11_Biehl_Exploring%20migration.pdf (last accessed July 2015). 
  2. 2 For information on Push-Backs from Bulgaria to Turkey see the following reports: reports: Amnesty International: The True Cost of Fortress Europe. Human Rights Violations Against Migrants and Refugees at Europe’s Borders (2014), http://www.amnesty.eu/content/assets/Reports/EUR_050012014__Fortress_Europe_complete_web_EN.pdf (last accessed July 2015); Human Rights Watch: Containment Plan. Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants (2014), http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/bulgaria0414_ForUpload_0.pdf (last accessed July 2015); Hristova, Tsvetelina/Apostolova, Raia/Deneva, Neda/Fiedler, Mathias: Trapped in Europe’s Quagmire: The Situation of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Bulgaria, Bordermonitoring.eu (2014), http://bulgaria.bordermonitoring.eu/files/2014/07/Hristova-et.al-Trapped-in-Europes-Quagmire.pdf (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. EU-Turkey readmission agreement benefits Bulgaria, BNR. Radio Bulgaria May 3, 2014, http://bnr.bg/en/post/100338784/eu-turkey-readmission-agreement-benefits-bulgaria (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network: An EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement – Undermining the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers?, p. 2, http://www.aedh.eu/plugins/fckeditor/userfiles/file/Actualités%20des%20institutions%20européennes/En_TurkeyReadmis_Pb_web.pdf (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 For further information, see Gerda Heck’s interesting article on the integration of sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul: “Ankommen, ohne bleiben zu wollen. Zu Lebensbedingungen und Alltagsstrategien kongolesischer Migrant_innen in der Türkei“, in: Heimeshoff, Lisa-Marie et.al. (eds.): Grenzregime II – Migration – Kontrolle – Wissen. Transnationale Perspektiven, Berlin: Assoziation A 2014; p. 98-111.
  6. 6 Ratfisch, Philipp/Scheel, Stephan: „Die Rolle des UNHCR bei der Externalisierung des EU-Migrationsregimes“, in: Hess, Sabine/ Kasparek, Bernd (eds.): Grenzregime – Diskurse, Praktiken, Institutionen in Europa, Berlin: Assoziation A 2010, p. 89-110, here p. 96.
  7. 7 Grange, Mariette/ Flynn, Michael: Immigration Detention in Turkey, Global Detention Project April 2014, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Turkey_report.pdf (last accessed July 2015).

A reception center for unaccompanied minors is located in Kadıköy. We went there with a young volunteer student also active in the Don Kişot squat. At the center, he held language classes. With one of the young refugees, an Afghani named Sirus, we held a longer conversation. Having already lived in the house in Kadıköy for several years, he recently received the admission for resettlement to the United States. He seemed to be a little bit nervous while probably also glad about the chance to begin a new life. He was told that he would get an UNHCR plastic bag in order for the responsible people to recognize him at the airport.

Sirus told us that he lived in the accommodation with about 120 children and teenagers and that not everybody would find a place for resettlement. As an unaccompanied minor, you are allowed to live in the facility, but as you turn 18, you immediately have to leave the building. He told us that when this occurs, the young adults very often become homeless because they cannot afford the rent for housing. He said that life is very difficult without a working permit or other kinds of help. Many people have to ask their relatives in other countries to provide money for them. If that does not work out, people are without a home, again 1.

Resettlement is not easy to achieve in Turkey. During my stay in Turkey, a hunger strike of dozens of Afghans took place in Ankara: They were protesting in front of the UNHCR in order to attain working permits (for Turkey), resettlement and non-discrimination of Afghan refugees. Some of them decided to sew up their mouths 2.

Like François mentioned to us:

“Because I can say that UNHCR system is overcrowded. Now I am talking about refugees and asylum seekers. The system in UNHCR is crazy. I think that they don’t process the files very quickly. So you see people staying and waiting. You go to UNHCR, you apply. You have your free interview. And to hear from them, you have to wait maybe from six month to one year and then when you are like you get accepted and then you have then to wait for an embassy or a country that will host you. That will take another six [months] or one year again. So, you will see that the length of awaiting here will take from one sometimes to four to five years.”

Later, it turned out that François himself had already been in Turkey waiting for his resettlement to another country for many years:

“Ya, so we have so many cases also who, ah you know, ten years, ya. Over ten years.”

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 For more information on the situation of young refugees in Turkey, see Trimikliniotis, Nicos/Parsanoglou, Dimitris/Tsianos, Vassilis: Mobile Commons, Migrant Digitalities and the Right to the City, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian 2014.
  2. 2 For further information on the strike in Ankara, see Speri, Alice: Afghan Asylum Seekers in Turkey Are Sewing Their Lips Together in Protest, Vice News May 9, 2014, https://news.vice.com/article/afghan-asylum-seekers-in-turkey-are-sewing-their-lips-together-in-protest (last accessed July 2015).

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.

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 For video impressions, visit the Mutfak’s website http://dayanismamutfagi.blogspot.de (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Bourque, Yessica: Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification, The New York Times July 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/world/middleeast/05iht-m05-turkey-tarlabasi.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (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, http://www.unhcr.org/4c2c8eb09.html (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, http://www.frontexit.org/fr/docs/49-frontexbetween-greece-and-turkey-the-border-of-denial/file (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 FRONTEX: FRAN Quarterly. Quarter 3, July-September 2014, Warshaw 2015, p. 23, http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/FRAN_Q3_2014.pdf (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, http://www.balkaneu.com/bulgaria-detains-63-refugees-boat-black-sea/ (last accessed July 2015).
  8. 8 Cf. Migrant boat traversed entire Bosphorus without being detected before disaster, Hurriyet Daily News, November 4, 2014, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/migrant-boat-traversed-entire-bosphorus-without-being-detected-before-disaster.aspx?pageID=238&nID=73866&NewsCatID=341 (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.

Fußnoten:

  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, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2014/05/12-turkey-syrian-refugees-kirisci/syrian-refugees-and-turkeys-challenges-may-14-2014.pdf (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Amnesty International: Struggling to survive: Refugees from Syria in Turkey (2014), p. 25-27, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/EUR44/017/2014/en/ (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Özden Şenay: Syrian Refugees in Turkey, MPC Research Report May 2013, http://www.migrationpolicycentre.eu/docs/MPC-RR-2013-05.pdf (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

 

Some districts of Istanbul like Beyoğlu are considered to be safe for lesbians, gays, bi- and transsexuals and shaped by the queer scene. In recent years, Istanbul has experienced a boom of gay bars and pubs, clubs and hostels. It is conceived as a metropolis with a flourishing and vibrant urban gay scene – also by tourists.

As part of the tourism business of the city, a gay travel agency is specializing in queer visitors. The employees of the agency as well as their tour guides are either homosexual or “gay friendly”. The offered touristic services vary from night tours of the local nightlife’s hot spots to day tours of the city and wider urban sphere as well as trips to different cities lasting several days. During the tours, the customers are acquainted with facts regarding the city of Istanbul and its history as well as an LGBTIQ* perspective on aspects of everyday life.

A closer inspection of on the digital offers provides information about the demands, needs and expectations of tourists regarding Istanbul as a destination. Hamam, Oriental Night, Bazar and Hagia Sofia – these locations within the urban space are the advertised as highlights the agency offers. These are also the offers experiencing highest customer demand. This illustrates that an Oriental image of the city is part of the tourists’ imaginations – they expect it and strive to fulfill it through their urban route. Touristic offers consist even of Orientalized places like a traditional Hamam, the Grand Bazar or the Blue Mosque.

Tourism Studies within the Cultural Sciences point out that the search for authenticity of, in this case, a city is what drives tourists. 1 Since the beginnings of commercial tourism, one of the traditional motivations to travel is the search for authenticity. Thus, the tourist becomes a symbol for the modern individual searching for the original. 2 No only spatial demands by tourists, but also on their questions about homosexual life in Turkey, which the gay tours are all about, can be seen in this context. Using gay tourist services serves as a practice of distinction as it constitutes a special and “authentic” arrangement of entertainment and knowledge – even though the “genuine” and authentic itself, as Ning Wang states, is a construction. 3 This travel motivation turns the tourist to a traveler. Within these mechanisms of distinction, the gay tourists distinguish themselves from conventional tourists and their travel routes within Istanbul.

During our field research, we had the opportunity to visit the only gay travel agency in Turkey. There, we met the lesbian agency owner for an interview allowing us to gain insight into the economic aspects of this sector of customer service. During the conversation, the owner reported that she only works with Western customers. In the initial phase of the company’s operation, cooperation with Turkish enterprises like hotels had been very difficult. When asked for collaborations, the CEO reported, people expressed their unwillingness to serve “that way of customers“ and declined inquiries with phrases such as “No, you are pervert and you bring more perverts to Turkey.”

With increasing numbers of customers and the resultant increase in economic potency, cooperation became easier. Tour operators, restaurants and hotels expressed more liberal positions towards the clientele connected to a million dollar business: “At the moment it’s good because they are more polite. They are okay, who cares? Gays or straight? Tourist, tourist – customer, customer!” This is how D. analyzed the current situation.

But within the Turkish service industry, the company plays a dual role. For example, the agency’s website is inaccessible for Turkish people. In locking the site, government agencies and public actors prevent people from within Turkey from gathering information on queer services, locations and contacting the agency. In seemingly diametrical opposition to the attitude demonstrated through censorship, the Culture and Tourism Ministry aspired to use the agency to create the image of a cosmopolitan, liberal city for Istanbul. A few years ago, the owner told us, the Minister of Culture and Tourism at the time asked her to present her company at a trade show in Barcelona to promote a gay agency in Western Europe. In this conversation, he pointed out that this type of advertising is important for the Turkish government as the existence of such an agency contributes to a liberal and open minded image of the county.

The Tourism-Minister called me and said ‘we have an exhibition in Barcelona and we want you to be there. This is very important for our government. As a Gay Travel-Agent, be there, please!’ They wanna show to Europe and the other world ‘we have a Gay Travel-Agent which is openly and freely, they can work in our country!’

At present, the agency’s homepage is still blocked.

Another example of economically driven open mindedness in the treatment and perception of homosexual clients is the sector of cruise tourism. Since the Arab Spring changed the political situation in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, several gay cruises redirected their routes and call at Istanbul as part of their tours. While many were initially hostile towards this development, the situation changed and passengers were increasingly seen as welcome guests after the huge profits to be made with the accommodation of cruise ships had become apparent. Presently, a hundred Gaycruise cruise ships berth in Istanbul every year. “And then they think ‘a million dollars, hm, who cares if they are gay? A million dollars are more important’”, D. summarized the changes in opinion.

The agency owner also placed the social acceptance of Turkish homosexuals in the context of economic and neoliberal factors: “I have no problem because of being gay. I’m in a very good situation. This is luxury.”

In conclusion, the people in tourist-oriented industries and locations tend to be more open towards LGBTIQ* due to their knowledge that a more open attitude is necessary to profit from this clientele: „Because people are working in the tourism business and they know that they have to be open minded.“ Here, the economic coaction of tourists and players of the service sector evokes a cultural dynamic. The adaption of an expected open minded attitude towards queer customers is connected to an assumed change of society. In this manner, the touristic encounter becomes a performance framework for new patterns of activity.

“They are liberal but only because of the tourism business. Not because the people are open minded. Because the people are working in the tourism business and they know that they have to be open minded.” (CEO D.)

Yet, financial capital is generally a significant factor regarding the opportunity of living a free life for Turkish LGBTIQ*. Status and social acceptance are connected to the economic position of homosexuals. “Money is the most important thing. With money you can have your freedom.”

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 MacCannell p. 214
  2. 2 MacCannell
  3. 3 Ning Wang

Lisa Szepan‘s text evolved as a result of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and is based on interviews with Syrian students, who had fled the war in their home country to survive and continue their education abroad. During the field trip in May 2014, the young men talked to the researcher personally and kept communicating through digital media afterwards.

In Aksaray, where many Syrians live, there are currently more than ten Syrian restaurants, Isan told me. Whenever he missed Syrian food, such as bean dishes and humus, he went there. The further broadening of Istanbul’s already global culinary infrastructure is one side effect of the Syrians’ active presence in the city. Outside Isan’s university and work life, he also occasionally had contact to Syrian people living at the outskirts of Istanbul, in areas like Sutanbeyli – there, he said, it is possible to rent a house at around 300 lira per month.

“It’s a, as if it is a village – not exactly a city, but it is still inside Istanbul. It is still considered inside of Istanbul, but it is a poor place, it is a very poor place.” (Isan, October 20,2014)

Far relatives of his stay in the area close to the city’s second airport, Sabiha Gökçen. According to Isan, they received support by the municipality, the Sultanbeyli belediyesi, for furnishings.

For describing the current relationship between Turkish and Syrian people, Isan found plain words when I asked him whether he had noticed the recent protests against Syrian migrants, for example in Ikitelli, Istanbul:

“Right now, you can obviously see that the Turkish people have lost their patience towards the Syrian issue.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

He explained that the protests have been reactions to criminal acts of poor Syrian refugees, mostly theft, and that he understood both the Turkish people’s anger and the desperation of many of his compatriots.

“[…] as you can expect, people coming from a country that is broken, some of them are going to be broken also.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

While showing his understanding for the Turkish people’s reaction towards social ‘misbehavior’ of refugees, he nevertheless referred to the protesters as lower educated and “not the most civilized Turkish people”, thereby implying that it is not the whole of Turkish society building up against Syrians. However, in official AKP government statements towards the Syrian issue until the end of 2012, the prevailing discourse was one of Turkey’s grandeur reflected in its selfless and conscientious support of the Syrian population in- and outside the war-shattered country. 1

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 Demirtas-Bagdonas, Özlem: “Reading Turkey’s Foreign Policy on Syria: The AKP’s Construction of a Great Power Identity and the Politics of Grandeur”, in: Turkish Studies 15 (2014) 1, pp. 139-155.

The aim of the research project Street Art in Istanbul was to look at the diversity of art in the public space. The widespread use of art – from political purposes to aesthetic reasons – demonstrates the diverse ideas of artists and city dwellers to live with and within their city. Lea Stöver‘s research project is part of the seminar “Global City Istanbul”.

Mixer is an art gallery in Tophane which opened in 2012 and pursues the aim of broadening and supporting the contemporary art scene in Istanbul. They provide an exhibition space for young Turkish artists and offer the art works to the public for an affordable price. From May 9 to June 15, 2014, the exhibition “Erör” showed the works of Cins, a street artist from Istanbul:

“As a continuation of the artist’s recent graffiti works, Cins depicts organic forms that recall flesh and meat on found objects, canvas, and paper in his new works. A site-specific graffiti on the exterior wall of Mixer will flow into the exhibition area, creating a unity with the artist’s drawings, collages, and paintings.1

Talking to a staff member of the gallery, I learned that Cins had already exhibited his works at their art space before and that he came up with the idea of doing of a whole exhibition about it. The team of Mixer discussed whether the art of a street artist could be exhibited in a gallery, but eventually decided that everyone would profit from this exhibition: Visitors who were not interested in street art before could explore Cins’ art in a gallery; and the artist, whose art becomes visible to a greater number of people can eventually sell his art. The staff member admitted that of course, Cins’ art is a different one in the gallery than it is on the street, since one of the main characteristics of street art – being painted in a public space – gets lost. Nevertheless, his personal style remains the same, just put on a canvas. Cins aimed at protecting his anonymity. He attended the exhibition opening without being introduced to the visitors, thus staying unrecognized. Therefore, he struggled partially against his entrance to what Nicholas A. Riggle calls “the art world”. 2

Maybe there is a space for this kind of street art different from the art world defined as “classical” where an artist’s identity is strongly connected to their works. In that space, street art indeed loses its ephemeral and public character by being exhibited. However, this does not prevent the artist from continuing their work in the street. Eventually, the movement from the street to the gallery draws the attention to the contradictions of street art inside: The transcience of art and the purpose of shaping the public space on the one hand, its commodification and the purpose of being paid for the art work on the other hand.

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 Flyer by Mixer Gallery, announcing the exhibition “Erör”.
  2. 2 For Riggle, “Street art is deeply antithetical to the art world” Riggle, Nicholas A.: “Street Art: The Transfiguration of the Commonplaces”, in: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 68 (2010) 3, pp. 243-257, here p. 248. For him, the art world takes place at the museum, where a strong differentiation between the everyday and art is maintained. Without defining his understanding of the term, Riggle implicitly imagines it as a network of institutions, particular actors and knowledge. This network is able to draw the line between art and non-art.

“No street art is for people on the street, you cannot use it for a medium of free advertisement, you have to pay your tax to if you want to make a puma ad, or if you want to make a puma ad with the culture of street art you have to pay some street artists to paint something for you. It’s not just like giving the stencil free and then giving paint and also stencils and go out and ps ps ps run away, it’s just too rude, it’s too rude to the culture. It’s not street art.”  1

On the İstiklal Caddesi and the surrounding streets, I found stencils advertising Puma and Red Bull. Some of them were painted just on the white and grey spots covering up other stencils or graffiti painted during the protests. But this chain of covering is repeated: The stencils of Puma and Red Bull are crossed out expressing discomfort with this appropriation of street art techniques by multinational companies for advertising purposes.

M. expressed his rejection of this practice during our interview; emphasizing that street art should not be used this way. Nevertheless, one can find another kind of street art advertisement in Istanbul: There is a huge panda painted by Leo Lunatic next to the Galata Tower. This mural is an advertisement for Converse. Even if the purpose of advertising challenges the category of street art, the “material use of the street is internal to its meaning”  2. But another important characteristic of street art introduced earlier collapses: The artist is not anonymous; the artist promotes himself on social media and even in a video showing him paint a similar mural, an advertisement for Eastpak.

Certainly, Leo Lunatic and his Converse Panda as well as the stencils advertising Puma and Red Bull challenge the category of street art. Yet, in both cases different characteristics of street art are used: The effortlessness of painting a lot in a short time in the first instance, popularity and “street credibility” in the second instance. Therefore, the category of street art should be differentiated within itself: Street art in Istanbul is commercial as well.

Fußnoten:

  1. 1 Interview with M. on May 25, 2014. 
  2. 2 Riggle, Nicholas A.: “Street Art: The Transfiguration of the Commonplaces”, in: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 68 (2010) 3, pp. 243-257, here p. 246.