I had just met Rahime, a tiny but strong woman in her 60s, when the coronavirus pandemic started to spread in Turkey. My new neighbor, she moved to Kadıköy from her beloved Beylikdüzü, on the other side of Istanbul, and was excited to discover the area. In fact, she had already made new friends in the neighborhood and had plans to partake in the activities organized by the Kadıköy municipality.
Maybe it was the dire situation in my home country, Italy, but I felt extra protective towards everyone around me, especially if they were in what doctors deemed the “high risk” category. Since the authorities weren’t giving detailed information or instructions yet, my boyfriend and I felt obliged to warn Rahime about the risks and to encourage her not to go out.
We didn’t really know how to approach the topic without sounding overly paranoid, so we settled on sending a group text to Rahime and the other people in our building to let them know about Kadıköy Dayanışma Ağı. A local association of volunteers committed to helping the community by producing protective visors, distributing food to the poor, and cooking warm meals for those who can’t afford basic groceries, this network had already mobilized in the beginning of March to offer support to over-65s in the neighborhood by doing their grocery shopping as well as talking to them on the phone if they needed some company.
When the government imposed a curfew on the elderly in the main Turkish cities, we went a step further, asking Rahime to give us a shopping list so that we could buy what she needed whenever we went to the supermarket for ourselves. She initially declined: “I am okay, thank you. I will let you know if I need anything.” But she apparently just needed some time to get comfortable with the idea – not long after, she sent a sweet text full of heart emojis saying she would very much appreciate us doing her weekly shop.
“You are my spiritual children!” Rahime exclaimed as she opened her door to find us holding bags with the food she had written on her list. The next afternoon she showed up on our doorstep with a tray full of fragrant patlıcan kebabı, an Anatolian specialty that we love.
“I am originally from Urfa, so I wanted you to try our food and to thank you for being so thoughtful,” she explained. “I know it’s not the same as the one made on the mangal, but I hope you enjoy it.”
As the weeks went on, Rahime’s shopping list expanded – besides basic items like eggs and milk, she slowly started to add her favorite sucuk or buffalo milk yogurt. The more specific she became, the more we felt like we were getting to know her better through her taste in food.
Along with her shopping lists, our pleasant conversations about politics and society and her homemade Anatolian delicacies displayed on her flower-patterned dishware became a fixture of our days. From plates of simple zeytinyağlılar to more complex dishes like mantı cooked in chicken broth (complete with shredded chicken), her food gave us comfort at a time of uncertainty, as we struggled with working from home, where there never seemed to be enough room, and keenly felt the distance from our family and friends.
When I told her she reminded me of my grandma, a hard-working, independent woman who used to make furniture for the house as well as sew dresses and paint, Rahime smiled and ducked inside her apartment. “Look,” she said coming back to the door with a canvas in her hands. “This is the new painting I’m about to finish. I’m not sure if it came out well, but painting helps me kill boredom,” she added with a modest nod. Blooming branches and birds on a bright blue spring sky – it’s a perfect picture of what a locked-down person desires.
Even now that the weather is getting warmer, Rahime still knocks on our door every other day to offer bright, fresh salads dressed with a lemony, sweet and sour blend that our Mardin-born colleague identifies as sumac suyu, as well as hearty soups with small köfte and a side of bulgur pilavı. We feel the love of a mother – a person that we miss so much during this time! – when she hands us a plate full of mercimek köfte. “I haven’t put too much acı [hot pepper] in case you’re not used to it. I know Italians don’t use it as much,” she said.
But as the weeks go one, we see the many sides of our new friend. “Please don’t laugh at me when you see this week’s list, I am so bored, I needed to indulge,” she explained as we scan the products listed on the small piece of paper and notice “beer” and “popcorn” are among them. In that very moment we felt our relationship shift from being that of neighbors to real friends, which likely wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic.
As we become closer, Rahime tells us more about her life. “When my kids were still at home, I divorced my husband and soon after had to move to Istanbul, where other relatives hosted me for a couple years,” she recalled during one of our lengthy chats at her door. “I only had a bag with a few clothes, and my kids were disoriented and scared, but I managed to get a job here so they could complete their studies.” Now one of them is in the U.S., while the other still lives in Beylikdüzü, Rahime’s old neighborhood that she misses quite a lot. But she has high hopes for her new community: “I hope to find in Kadıköy the same positive energy I had gotten used to feeling in my old place. I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over so I can participate in the social and political activities here!” she passionately exclaimed during a more recent conversation.
At a moment when many people are distrustful and feeling hopeless about the future, Rahime’s willingness and desire to get involved in her community comes as somewhat of a surprise to us. It’s also energizing – as much as we’ve nourished her over these few months, she’s offered us the same, if not more, in return.