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In many parts of Istanbul, it’s not unusual to reside amidst industry in progress. It could be a workshop in your building’s basement where fire extinguishers are refilled, a copper pot re-tinning enterprise just outside your front door or a knockoff Fendi purse assembly line you catch a surprising glimpse of as you look across the breezeway into an adjacent building. Despite zoning laws, the age-old tradition of living alongside the clang of the forge and the whir of heavy instruments is still a reality in Istanbul. And as hard as it may be to weed out all of these workshops, efforts over the past 40 years to do so are not without results.

One of the holdouts is the neighborhood of Topçular, a designated industrial zone in the Eyüp district, just outside of the old city walls. Its main street is filled with restaurants, offices and apartment buildings, like much of the city. In the backstreets, though, are large blocks resembling factories, or rather hives of tiny factories, bundled together in the same building – modern-day versions of the Ottoman-era han found throughout Istanbul’s old city. Located at the intersection of the E5 highway, which you can take directly over the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul or out toward Bulgaria in the other direction, Topçular may not be pretty, but it sits in a very desirable location.

On a recent visit to the area, we found ourselves at Avas Sanayi Sitesi, one of Topçular’s countless (and charmless) industrial buildings. “In the 1970s, these places outside the city walls were the available space,” İsmail Bey, who produces ashtrays, tea saucers and just about anything imaginable that involves injecting plastic into a mold, told us. The Avas Sanayi Sitesi opened in 1977 with 150 small rooms ready for production. İsmail, now also the building’s custodian, was one of the early tenants. Today, the unlit halls echo with the crank and bump of more than 100 different jobs in progress. Though most operations appear similar here, they are all independent manufacturers, each with their own little sign hanging outside the door of their little room. Large injection molding machines occupy most rooms, but there are also giant drills bigger than a man and devices with rollers feeding long bands of material from one end of the room to the other. Within the Avas is a small mescit, or prayer hall, a teahouse, a corner store, a barbershop and a simple kebab restaurant – pretty much all you need to get through a day of work.

“I can say that Avas is the worst of the industrial sites,” said Emin Bey, the barber of the place. “This is where apprentices or people get their first shop. Anyone successful moves on, away.” But even in all of its bleakness are the pleasant touches of human leisure: a teahouse filled with caged birds where the chirp of canaries nearly drowns out the machinery in the next room; a rosebush planted against a wall, just so, that it might be viewed from a whole bank of Avas workshop windows. And when the acrid metallic smell of the businesses is blowing away, the air is permeated by the hypnotic scent of grill smoke and charred meat coming from Ceyhan Ocakbaşı.

This small grill shop has occupied a corner space in the Avas, right beside Emin’s barbershop, for the past 10 years. The hood over the fire is of the hand-tooled copper variety – the vanity of the kebab master – but this one is labeled “Bir Tat,” the name of another restaurant it was salvaged from, like a thrift-store work shirt. The hood is connected to a large metal chimney that juts out of the front window and runs straight up the façade to the roofline. Despite the robust ventilation system, smoke fills the dining room, which reaches maximum capacity early in the lunch rush with all eight seats occupied. It is a three-man show here: Gül “Ağa” (a Turkish honorific that would usually be bestowed on someone who’s master of a much larger domain) works the grill while Cuma Bey works the floor and the phone. A young man runs delivery orders down the street and throughout the halls of Avas. When he stands still, he catches a lot of guff from Gül Ağa and Cuma Bey. Most of the men eating lunch seem to know each other. Hands full of bread and meat or whole grilled onions, they thump their chests to each other in recognition. Everyone is eating plump, bright-red chicken wings.

“Hello, young and handsome!” two young men covered in grime are greeted upon entering. One goes over to the sink next to the grill and scrubs his grease-stained hands, with no results. The other doesn’t bother. They wait silently while Gül Ağa throws a few more racks of wings over the fire.

There is no privacy in the dining room of Ceyhan Ocakbaşı, and attention soon turned to the newcomers sitting quietly, taking notes. Naturally, we ordered the wings and one Adana kebab and watched eagerly as Gül Ağa put meat to fire. This bespectacled grillmaster was not so much at one with his fire but at war with it. It flamed in unruly fashion and belched ash; he cursed and shifted skewers noisily, once burning his hand. He finished the wings by propping two heavily laden skewers on their tips into a long roof shape, further blazing their knobby elbows. It seemed like a death-defying act had taken place right there in front of us just so that those wings could make it to the plate. They arrived quickly, still sizzling, and we felt lucky.

Gül Ağa had spiced the wings with a heavy hand, but it works in this case. Thanks to the volcanic grilling style, the wings were sheathed in an ultra-crispy and dry red-pepper veneer, but the meat at the bone was just barely done and dripping. So tender were the wings that the man next to us stripped the meat off of the bone in one effortless pinch executed with a glove of lavaş, making for himself an improvised wing wrap.

We chased scalding mouthfuls of chicken with chugs of cold şalgam, a pungent turnip drink similar to pickle juice. We delighted in a juicy tomato and onion salad with fresh mint leaves sprinkled on top. We laughed on cue and congratulated Gül Ağa on his excellent work at the grill. If this is the “worst” of the Sanayi Sitesi, we’d love to see what they eat at the “best” one.

Ceyhan Ocakbaşı was clearly the main social outlet for the Avas, but also in the teahouse we caught a glimpse of the neighborly life Emin thought impossible in Istanbul. There among the canaries, an imam in hat and robe lectured a group of men on the dangers of drug use as the men tried to read the paper. Avas, as undesirable as it might appear, didn’t feel like a transient place. We felt a strong personality there that must have been cultivated over decades of the same men hanging around and working here. It was like a coal-mining village that had been overtaken by a city.

Pointing to a major construction site just behind Avas, Emin the barber told us: “In 10 years this will all be gone.” Suat Bey, the teashop owner, was less optimistic: “In three or four years they’ll remove industry from here entirely. Hilton, Sheraton, all hotels will be here!” he said. It’s hard to imagine a Hilton fitting in here, but Suat told as that we can’t imagine the place before industry came. He was born and raised in Topçular. He pointed over to a narrow alley beside the Avas. “It was all small houses, one story, walled gardens. People lived here.”

“We’ll go again. They are building a residence. ‘There’s a project, a plan,’ people say,” İsmail, the plastic ashtray producer, told us. “As long as they give me the money for my shop, or give me another shop someplace else, I’ll go. To Silivri” – a satellite town about an hour from Istanbul – “if they say so. There’s nothing to be done about that. Fuck it.”

Sent here and away from there. Fate. They’ve seen it all before. Most of the men we met hail from Malatya in distant eastern Turkey and arrived in Istanbul just to find work. Topçular, Silivri – who really cares where the four walls are that surround your machine?

Maybe to some it doesn’t matter. But when the Avas Sanayi Sitesi is demolished and its tenants dispersed to other industrial zones, we bet most of them will be missing Gül Ağa’s chicken wings and the hot bond of a community he stoked every day for these working men.

Ceyhan Ocakbaşı, then, is exactly the sort of anonymous, grungy, hole-in-the-wall kebab shop you’ve seen on the side of the road all over Turkey and never thought twice about actually stopping in and sitting down, except for the fact that it’s the hearth of a community formed around the Avas Sanayi Sitesi. And in a place moving as fast as Istanbul, it’s often the smallest places that matter the most.

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PJ Rountree

Published on November 02, 2015

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