Travel Writing Award Entry

By Jennifer Griggs

The lifeblood of Istanbul is not found in its palaces, mosques, museums or bazaars, but in its main street Istiklal Caddesi. Musicians, simit bread sellers, gypsy children begging, political demonstrators against Israel, tarty trannies, veiled women eating Turkish ice cream, bored soldiers loitering, dusty pavement workmen, smart office workers – all these pace the Istiklal.

5000 people pass each day along this street and according to my landlord, there are hidden amongst them 2000 thieves. How reassuring, I thought, as I contemplated my neighbourhood for my next few months as a teacher here. The crowds were all the denser because the tram, whose lines divide the wide pedestrian street, wasn’t operating. Also long sections of the street were being repaved… and repaved. Each week another bit of the pavement was receiving attention, for a while this was right outside the side streets where I lived and my only option was to walk right through the chaotic mess of drills and holes. If the workmen didn’t have any safety equipment, then they were hardly going to worry about the passers-by.

This was even more precarious for the stiletto-healed trannies who had to step through the rubble on their way to ply their trade. What I didn’t realise when I moved into my flat, was that just around the corner was tranny alley, running from Istiklal Caddesi and leading to a multitude of appropriate bars behind. Stopping in the corner shop on my way home in the evening, I would turn away hurriedly to bump into the apologies of a short skirted, well-made up, gruff voiced, man. The shop owner confirmed that I hadn’t chosen the safest place to live, suggesting that most make their living from prostitution.

In Turkish Caddesi means street, and along the same street as the prancing trannies, pass the women concealed up to their eyes in black, dubbed ‘ninjas’ by my new friends, following a step behind their husbands. Many of these seemed to emanate from the Marmaris Hotel on Taksim Square, leading us to conclude they were all oil-enriched Saudi Arabians. I often wondered what attracted them to the area of Beyoglu, the most liberal place to live in Istanbul, the ‘bohemian’ quarter where anything goes.

Every night is a late one and at the weekend you can hardly breathe for the concentration of people. The streets are as full at three in the afternoon as they are at two in the morning, not emptying until way into the early hours. Fast food restaurants litter Istiklal Caddesi, from takeaway kebap to the lokantasi, where traditional Turkish food is displayed on hotplates so people might come, point and then sit down to eat. Above street level and down every side street are more bars, cafes and clubs. Indeed the side streets of Istiklal were not the place to live if you wanted a peaceful night’s sleep.

But on a Sunday morning, when I went to church, all was quiet on Istiklal. There were only the men sloped by the sides of the pavement fast asleep and those selling simit on the streets, patiently standing in their red uniforms beside their mobile stalls. Fresh from the bakeries each morning, simit is the signature Turkish bread; baked golden hard on the outside and encrusted with sesame seeds, with a soft and doughy white inside. 

On such mornings, I was able to appreciate the faded glory of Istiklal. On the section furthest from Taksim Square lie hidden behind the railings, the consulates with their palatial gardens and grand buildings. These were once embassies before the seat of government moved to Ankara, but their grandeur remains. The consulates were also the focus for demonstrations and during the week I often stopped to make way for groups as they marched down this street. Barely a day went by when I wasn’t handed a flyer or stopped to make way for a group of demonstrators as they marched and chanted their slogans down Istiklal. The presence of heavily armed police ready for rioters with empty buses and barricades outside consulates indicated the continual nervousness of the police.

Istiklal is a place to take one’s time; people stroll up and down spread out across the wide street unrushed. They buy Turkish ice cream from the men dressed in their embroidered waistcoats and flat hats, who pump up and down with their metal sticks and then twirl the sticky blocks of ice cream above their heads. Street side cafes are full of young men smoking nargile waterpipes, drinking tea and playing backgammon. Street performers, musicians and dancers all attract large appreciative crowds to watch them perform. The walk from one end of Istiklal to the other takes about twenty minutes depending on the crowds, and in that street appears the whole of Istanbul.