Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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Returning to İzmir after several years’ absence I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would Anafartalar Caddesi, that olde-worlde thoroughfare that runs east from Basmane Station, still look as ramshackle as ever, or would the modernisers have had their way with it, cleaning it up, evicting the squatters and installing a Starbucks on every corner?

The good news is that I found things much as I remembered them. The same small shops selling a mixture of traditional groceries and strange hardware items. The same little lokantas so tiny you wonder how anyone could ever scratch a living from them. The same crumbling buildings, their banal, workaday uses belying the past grandeur betrayed by their decorative facades.

Anafartalar reminds me of one of those rather sad women you sometimes see. The sort of woman who was probably very beautiful in her youth but hasn’t been able to face up to the reality of ageing. Her hair is the colour of a canary’s wing, her lipstick is a little smudged, her clothes hang from her frame as if designed for someone far more voluptuous. Anafartalar is not a place for the faint of heart, having a louche side to it that sits oddly with a residential population that often looks as dejected and down at heel as the mangy dogs and one-eyed cats that haunt the doorways. It’s a place where a lone middle-aged woman even without the smudged lipstick may be caught offguard by the odd hopeful sidling up suggestively. Come boldly in daylight or don’t come here at all.

Anafartalar may be one long road but it breaks handily down into two much more manageable parts rather like İstanbul’s İstiklal Caddesi. There’s the part that runs from the station down to the Agora, a part that attracts relatively few foreigners despite the quantity of hotels, and then there’s the part that continues across Gazi Caddesi, trailing round the bazaar until it finally emerges on Konak Square. This is the part of the street best known to outsiders, especially now that cruise shops dock here on a daily basis, spewing out hundreds of passengers at a time to pass a few hours amid the shops.

Not surprisingly then, it’s the first, less visited part of Anafartalar that I love, the part guarded by a grandiosely orientalist police station that I would never dare to photograph for fear of the gun-toting officers keeping close watch on the comings and goings. It must be hard to keep track of what happens here, given all the hotels, so many that one street is actually called Oteller Sokağı. These are not, for the most part, hotels that attract tourists. Instead they seem to be occupied by an odd mixture of travelling salesmen and those down on their luck. You get the sense here of tragedy only a week’s rent away, of an İzmir that, having survived the catastrophe of 1922, now offers a refuge of sorts to those fleeing catastrophe in the east.

And yet this is an achingly historic part of the city. The Agora is the most obvious reminder of the days when this was the heart of Roman Smyrna but behind the historic bakery and tea-house where the road veers suddenly to the right archaeologists are still digging up the remains of a pair of Roman villas that lay beneath an old Muslim cemetery and were probably destroyed during the course of the Arab invasions of the seventh century. The remains of one of the old city gates also turned up here beneath what is now the Yeni Sadık Bey Oteli.

Right up to 1922 Anafartalar flourished. Stroll into the Tarihi Emniyet Kiraathanesi (tea house) and you’ll find it squatting in an absurdly magnificent building that should, in a reasonable world, be a boutique hotel. The magnificent Dönertaş Sebil is one of the finest public water dispensaries outside İstanbul, densely carved with fruit, flowers, calligraphy and images of mosques, one with lights strung out between its minarets as for Ramazan. Such is the nature of Anafartalar, though, that you’ll have to peer over the shoulders of street vendors to get a look at it since a cart selling manadarin oranges and a mobile corn-on-the-cob stove regularly occupy the pitch in front of it.

Wander into the back streets and you’ll find yourself lost amid the accents and costumes of the east. Children play in the street and struggle to understand foreign-accented Turkish. A street bitch named Beyaz took such a shine to me that I ended up hauling her round like a wheelbarrow as she clung like a limpet to my arm, attracting enormous, excited attention.

In one street I came across the church of Aya Vukolos (named after an early bishop of Smyrna) and suffered an existential crises. The gate was firmly locked - as well it might have been in such a rundown street - but there was a small window in the steel gate through which it was possible to peer in. As I did so, a Turkish family drew alongside me to do the same. At the same moment the security guard walked towards us and my heart sank: had I been alone there was a slight chance he would have let me in; with Turks in tow that hope was blown out of the water.

But just as I was about to turn away the family thought better of lingering and left. The guard unlocked the gate. “It’s closed for restoration,” he said.

“Could I just look at the outside?” I begged.

“Where are you from?” he asked, and I knew from his expression that this wasn’t so much the usual kneejerk reaction to a foreigner as a gentle “Are you a Christian?” question that would tell him whether or not I had a “right” to see the church. Never mind that a church of the Orthodox rite would be almost as remote from my Anglican upbringing as a mosque. That was a theological nicety that he could hardly be expected to understand.

Supressing aetheistic niggles, I nodded my head, and, hey presto, the gate opened wider. Inside we fell to talking. The guard turned out to be from Gülşehir. We were hemşeriler (not easily translated into English but meaning, basically, from the same area), which meant that he would now have to unlock the church for me, no matter what.

Aya Vukolos has been restored to serve as a concert hall, and very wonderful it would be to listen to music in there. On the wall 19th-century frescoes of the saints have been carefully restored although as usual it was too late to save their faces. Then I remembered the sad people I’d seen shuffling along Anafartalar. Not many potential concert-goers among them, I suspect.

But it seems my concerns for the  future of Anafartalar were well-founded. “In a couple of months they will start to take down all these houses,” the guard said, waving a hand back in the direction I’d come. “They’ll just keep the old houses.” Gentrification afoot then, and it could well be of the Sulukule/Tarlabaşı kind.

“What about the people?” I asked.

“They’ll be rehoused,” he said airily.

“Out on the Aydın road,” the hotel receptionist said. “Nice new houses,” said a taxi driver. “Why wouldn’t people be happy about that?”

Why not indeed? But I assume most of Anafartalar’s residents have no legal rights to the houses they occupy. And if the İstanbul experience is anything to go by there are big questions about moving the poor from town-centre locations where they are near their work to remote new homes where rent and fares will quickly swallow their paltry earnings.

One thing is clear though. By the time I come back again Anafartalar is unlikely to resemble its old seedy but achingly authentic self.

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