We generally prefer to keep our nose in a bowl of soup and out of the political arena, but over the weekend, Istanbul’s politics seeped through the cracks in our windows, in the form of teargas and general mayhem. As longtime foreign residents of Istanbul, we’ve found it relatively easy to steer clear of political activity, but every so often it barges into our homes and turns our stomachs.
For almost a week now, demonstrations have been building up a momentum that still has yet to be exhausted. What started as a demonstration against the destruction of a small park near Taksim Square in order to make way for yet another shopping mall quickly turned into the Alamo of the disenfranchised.
On Sunday, we witnessed a large and varied group gathering in the square after days of protests that were met with violence and an almost constant flushing of teargas. Now that the police had pulled back from Taksim, people milled around for the most part peacefully. Political parties flew their banners and some young vandals took the opportunity to break stuff and pose for a picture, but mostly it felt like unaffiliated individuals coming out to vent their frustrations. There might have been 100,000 personal agendas in the group, but we got the feeling of general concern for the soul of the city. Like an engine overheating, these demonstrations signaled that Istanbul is being pushed too hard. Many citizens have come to feel like victims rather than stakeholders in their city’s destiny.
We, too, fear for this, the future of Istanbul. With our weekly restaurant reviews, one of our main interests is documenting and celebrating the unique individuals who feed this city. As the city changes so rapidly, we want to do all we can to protect the local eateries where people gather around a table as a community. In recent years, we’ve watched with growing concern as one old favorite after another fell victim to the wrecking ball or got squeezed out of their longtime home in order to make way for the latest outpost of some uninspiring local or international chain.
We’re all for the improvement of Istanbul’s infrastructure, but we protest the mushrooming of shopping malls and the runaway and thoughtless development taking place, which threaten the livelihood of the people who operate small independent businesses in this city and give life here so much color. These people decorate their shops in strange ways, work their own hours and can regale you with stories in a way that no employee of Pizza Hut ever could. The characters who own and work at corset shops, watch repair shops, hardware stores, butcher shops, small appliance stores, shoeshine shops, menswear shops, secondhand bookshops, knife sharpeners, teahouses, barber shops and greengrocers represent a great diversity and cultural richness that give not only the Taksim area but all of Istanbul’s neighborhoods their certain feel. Set foot in a good esnaf lokantası (workmen’s canteen) for lunch on a weekday and you will enter a community, one that will gladly take you in and make you one of their own.
This week’s demonstrations were surely not about saving the honest old restaurants of Istanbul. Most places close enough to the protests felt a significant loss, from what we heard. But we do hope that this pushback, led by some very brave individuals with many disparate goals, will put a little slack in the line and allow this city to go about its own business as it always has. We also hope it reminds those in charge that, as the saying (sorta) goes: those who destroy the past are doomed to no longer eat it.