In 1922, reporting for the Toronto Daily Star from the borderlands of the Thrace region, Ernest Hemingway wrote of a “Silent, Ghastly Procession” of Christian refugees fleeing the advance of “the Turk.” The literature and art of the Christian Anatolians exiled in this period – from the films of Angelopoulos to the genre of Rembetiko music itself – is considerable and no doubt strengthens the identity of this diaspora today.
In Thessaloniki, there are not only restaurants of the Pontic Greek refugee community but a number of discos where you’ll see the jerky Black Sea horon dance and hear the squealing fiddle of Trabzon over Greek conversations sprinkled with Turkish words. On the table is their much loved “peinirli” pide.
In the 1920s, again in the ’50s, then the ’80s and again in the early ’90s, had Hemingway or his colleagues crossed the road to the eastbound traffic side, we might have heard more about the millions of Balkan Muslims on their way to becoming Turks. These Muslim refugees speaking Albanian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Pomak or dialects of Turkish, who were known as muhacir, bought into the program of nation-building in the young Republic of Turkey and mostly embraced a form of Turkishness, a compromise that left little room for hyphenated identities. Three generations later, though they might still name their daughters after Balkan landmarks, by and large, little but nostalgia is left of the old country.
We’ve always kept an eye open for the refugee communities that we know exist all over Istanbul, but we’ve tended to encounter little more than folkloric dance troops. So we thought our dream of a real Balkan lunch in Istanbul was never going to happen until we were tipped off to a place called Mirza Köftecisi in a part of the Bayrampaşa neighborhood known as Yıldırım Mahallesi. What we found in Yıldırım Mahallesi, aka “Little Bosnia,” was especially exciting.
Informally known as a göçmen mahallesi, or refugee neighborhood, this part of town has seen waves of Balkan migration from the 1950s onward. Though it’s difficult to find hard numbers, one social welfare foundation estimated that families of Balkan refugees make up more than three-quarters of this neighborhood’s 50,000 residents. Its biggest claim to fame may be that NBA star Hidayet Türkoğlu was born in Yıldırım Mahallesi to Bosnian immigrant parents.
Entering the neighborhood, we passed beneath a replica of the graceful Mostar Bridge, an icon of the Ottoman heritage in the Balkans and, more recently – after having been destroyed during ethnic fighting in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004 – a symbol of the war in Bosnia. We crossed “Kosovo Road” and “Danube Street” and went past a yard filled with slabs of marble, property of a business called “Bosnian Stonecutters.” However, despite a few superficial indicators, there’s little else that belies this neighborhood’s unique cultural makeup. Even in a göçmen mahallesi, a restaurant like Mirza, a meatball joint with a strong Balkan influence, is completely unique.
Like spotting a warning on the road of an upcoming border crossing, we noticed “MONTE NEGRO” scratched into the pavement before we even made it within earshot of the distinctly Balkan brand of pop music piped throughout the yard of the restaurant. As we stepped in, a lean waitress with short, spiky hair and a soccer jersey could barely contain her contempt for the day’s lunch rush. She shrugged us toward an empty table.
The inside of Mirza was lined with tile from floor to ceiling and unremarkable but we sat near the counter, determined not to miss the house specialties or a chance to meet with the tank-like man with the booming voice working the grill. Our dining companion, an Albanian Kosovar, had flashbacks of refugee buses when he spotted plates of paprika z kaymak, or pickled yellow bell peppers stuffed with thick butter-like wads of Montenegrin kaymak. The sour of the pickled pepper, in place of the sweetness of kaymak’s usual Turkish partner, honey, reset our awareness of this dairy dish for a moment, allowing us to experience all that milky richness as if it were the first time.
But the real reason for our visit to Mirza was the grilled Montenegrin hot links, or kobasica, which were presented by owner and grill master Shachir Bey himself. He popped one raw sausage into his mouth, pumped his fist and said, “When the Ottoman army ate raw meat, they were strong!” The cooked ones he served us were equally invigorating. Sausage in the modern Turkish Republic, we are sad to report, has all of the variation and appeal of an Oscar Meyer wiener. High-end steak houses are the only place to find a little spice and texture in a casing. Shachir’s are the rare exception to this rule. These homemade links had kick and a garlicky aroma, a fine meat grain and small plugs of fat. Split here and blistered there, these were not the sosis or sucuk we’d long grown tired of; rather, this was homemade kabosica. Elsewhere on our plate were tasty logs of köfte; a thin patty of ground meat, known as pleskavica, topped with pastırma and covered in cheese; and round airy loaves of Balkan-style flatbread. All were perfectly fine, but we wanted to know more about the sausage and the sausage maker, Shachir Bey.
“In a dream I saw this place, this mahalle, and this restaurant. God connects through dreams,” he said. A retired Titova (now Podgorica) police officer and a “good communist,” Shachir Bey decided to leave Montenegro in 1992 with his family to find work in Istanbul. Before leaving, a cousin introduced him to the Quran and it changed his life. “God is the reason I am alive. The reason I make köfte,” he said, jabbing a tattered copy of the Quran written in Bosnian. The sausages, he said, were a typical Montenegrin variety that evolved along the way with the help of a neighborhood woman from Bosnia. When he opened his first shop nine years ago, she taught him how to spice the meat the way he does it today.
As Shachir spoke at length about his religious enlightenment, köfte business and life in the neighborhood, we wondered why there were not more places around town like this, readymade cultural outlets. Then we recalled the words of one 82-year-old Balkan refugee we met earlier that day while exploring the neighborhood: “You must adapt quickly. And we did.”
But Shachir Bey, in all of his contradictions, is a man who just can’t let go of his homeland and we suspect that there are sons and daughters of muhacir in Istanbul who might feel the same way. If not just for the sausage, a lunch at Mirza might be a chance for some of them to get in touch with lost roots.
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