Stranger among the Strange

I wrote this around 2003. Istiklal has changed a lot since then, with most of these people now absent. 

stefan molly brad

I walk to and from work every day.  That in itself is not so unusual, but I walk from Galata, a community that has existed for thousands of years, along one of the most famous streets in Turkey, Istiklal Caddesi.  At one time this street was the Rue de Pera, an elegant island of Europeanness in a sea of “foreign” Muslim Orientalism. This street is still filled with people at all hours of the night and day.  Many are regulars, as I am becoming a regular.  Here are some of the sights that I see on my walk.


the second oldest and the shortest subway in the world. unfortunately, they replaced the old cars with these new ones

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inside the tunel station. these wall decorations have since been changed, once again


old man on tunel square

up my hill to Tunel

going up to tunel from sishane. the chimney was once part of the works to make the tunel go

In the morning, the street is full of people walking to work.  In Tunel, at the top of the hill coming up from Galata, there is an underground cable car, built in the nineteenth century. It runs between the high hill of Tunel and the seaside area of Karakoy, a two-minute ride. People come up from the ferries and disembark to walk to work.  Some of them take the old trolley that plies up and down Istiklal Caddesi to Taksim Square, about a 10-minute ride. People are going to work in the offices or shops in the district.

istiklal shepherd2

this man is dressed as a shepherd in his felted wool cape

At the consulates and hotels, security guards wait inside the gates or outside the doors to address people’s questions or to bar them from entering, especially in the case of the consulates.  There is a police kiosk about halfway up Istiklal, and armed and vested policemen stroll up and down the street.  The other day I heard a woman call out, “Dushuyor! Dushuyor!  He’s falling, he’s falling!” about an old man who fell on the street.  For once, the police were near and helped the old man up and presumably took him somewhere for help.  The police also step in when the winos on the street get into fights, as I saw once when a well-known wino got into a hitting fight with a young man he accused of taking something from him.  There are also glue-sniffing young people, mostly boys, who beg on the streets and reek of glue. They beg for money until a shopkeeper or café owner shoos them away.


this beautiful art nouveau building has been empty and covered up for years

One man is set up in a little motorcycle, adapted to his purposes.  He cannot walk, as his legs are misshapen, and he has trouble using his arms.  In spite of this, he has set up a small business laminating ID cards and photos.  He has an umbrella over his vehicle and is set up in the same place every day.

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Another man, probably in his twenties, has muscular dystrophy, and walks pigeon-toed with difficulty.  However, he walks up and down Istiklal Caddesi selling packets of tissue. Every day he tells me hello, as one time I bought 4 packets from him and inadvertently gave him too much money, which he did not return, but he remembers me.  I don’t buy tissue from him all the time, but I do say hello.

Near a store, a legless man has set up business selling tissue packets, prayer beads, and lighter supplies.  I am curious to know how he lost his legs—either in a car accident or a soldiering event, I imagine.  I stopped by once to ask if he could fill my “muhtar cakamagi”, or “Turkish Zippo”, which a friend gave me as a “real” Turkish gift.  A few days later I remembered to get it out and found him around the corner from his spot drinking tea with another man who was squatted down beside him.  I gave my lighter to the man, told him to take his time, and said I would be back in a few minutes.  On the way back from my errand, I found him again and he filled my lighter and put in a new flint for the sum of 500,000 TL, which is about 30 cents.  I noticed that his hands were calloused on the tops of the knuckles from getting himself around.  I am also very curious to know how he gets to his place.  One day I saw him swing into the store he is outside to give them some kind of a message.  They let him set up out there and he provides them with his services.

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this man was so famous for being on the street that when he died, someone made a wax statue of him

Another man who is always on Istiklal Caddesi is one who has a huge bushy moustache.  He dresses in colourful clothes, a felt hat that looks somewhat Swiss, a huge set of wooden prayer beads, and various pins, like the ones that people collect at the Olympics.  More often than not he is holding a newspaper, which he reads when he is not waiting for tourists to take his picture (for a donation).

There is a newly painted mosque about three quartersof the way up Istiklal Caddesi.  In front of that mosque is a blind man who has a set of scales and waits for people to stop by to weigh themselves.  He holds a cane and calls out to people to come get weighed.


Another little man is in the same business.  He is about 4’6” tall and is a little simple.  He is usually set up in front of a store, but one day I saw him coming around Mis Sokak, which is a side street full of tea places.  He approached me and my friend, and at first we said no, which is accomplished in Turkish by raising the eyebrows and clicking the tongue.  He imitated us, clicking his tongue loudly.  My friend decided he would weigh himself after all and the little man announced the weight, wrongly, in English, very loudly.  I was very glad I had not stepped on the scales!

Yet another young man is in a wheelchair selling lottery tickets and other small things.  He is quite dapper in his way, as he wears 50s style black-rimmed glasses, red pants, and a shirt and tie.  His arms are like skeleton arms, but they are strong, as he can wheel himself on the rough brick pavement of the street.

On Mis Sokak there are a couple of familiar figures.  One is an old deaf woman who sells tissue. She can’t talk but she tries, babbling and gesticulating.  She is quite assertive in selling her wares and will also bum cigarettes if she can.  Mis Sokak is near a poor neighbourhood, so some kids come along selling socks or packets of tissue.  One is a little girl of about 8 or 9 who lives in the neighbourhood of my friend’s workshop.  She is usually chewing gum and sometimes carries an imitation Barbie to keep her company.  She is quite comfortable in pushing her way into the tea places to sell her wares.  In the evenings she sells individual roses.

These days the streets are also full of tourists.  Many Italians come to this area because it was a Levantine area at one time.  The Galata Tower in fact was built by the Genoese in the 1200s and is a sort of Mecca for Italian tourists.  I also hear Spanish, German, Russian, French, and even English.

Many mornings I stop by the simit seller near the school.  He is set up by the trolley tracks and near a road where car traffic crosses.  Simit are sort of like sesame seed covered bagels. He also sells achma, which are like less crusty simit.  Achma means “don’t be hungry”. In addition, he sells chatal, which are more pastry-like, in the shape of an oval.  Chatal means fork, though they are more like a closed fork.

blind lotto seller

There are, of course, lots of shoeshine boys, offering to shine my sandals and trying to speak a little English.  They are sent out by their parents or do not live with their families.  Of course there are also beggars on the streets, though not so many, as the police clear them out occasionally, since this is a tourist area.  These are usually women with babies or children in tow, begging for their sick children or themselves.  There are also old men with scales or lottery tickets sitting on the curbs at the side of the buildings.  I have also seen a blind man who taps his way up and down the street with lottery tickets in hand to sell.

Of course I can’t forget the “travesties”.  This is what transvestites are called in Turkish.  They are travesties in that they dress as women and often offer themselves for sale.  One often sets up near my simit seller in the evenings.  She has long blonde hair and dresses provocatively.  However, I noticed the other evening that she badly needed a shave!  One day I saw a very attractive one swinging down the street and as she crossed the road near the simit seller, a car with three men in it called out to her. She replied that there were too many of them, tossed her blonde ponytail, and continued up the road. Many of these people are entertainers, so they do not come out until the evening.  I am not sure how it works for their more intimate business side, but almost all the ones I have seen seem to be hookers.


there is always music on istiklal caddesi

I leave the school at 10 o’clock at night, when the street people have changed.  At this time more musicians are set up.  Many of them are young people who sing old Turkish songs accompanied by various instruments, including dulcimer, ud, or saz.  One man sets up close to the lower end of Istiklal, near Tunel.  He plays a kemanji, which is a kind of violin played upright.  He sits in a doorway with a box for donations and plays a sort of aimless mournful music that seems to have no beginning or end.  I don’t know what his story is, but people rarely stop, and he seems mournful like his music.  He is not as dark as most Turks, so I wonder if he has come from another country, such as Bulgaria or Chechnya.  I am sort of afraid to talk to him, as my imagination is probably more interesting than  real life.

Just at Tunel, I head down Galip Dede Sokak, which is lined with music shops selling instruments and music equipment.  A little past them, every evening a blind woman sits by the street in a chair with a box in her lap for people to give her money.  One night as I walked past, she had lost some of the coins and called for her family member or friend to come and pick them up.  Recently I actually saw her at a shop up the street, so I guess she gets around carefully and of course the local people keep an eye on her.

cardboard collector

The garbage scavengers are an important part of the population of this street and the whole city.  These are generally Kurds who push or pull big metal carts with a huge reinforced plastic sack on it.  These people are specialists.  Some pick up cardboard, some pick up aluminum cans, and some pick up beer bottles.  Others sift through the garbage for somewhat usable items that they sell to junk shops or to people on the street.  I read in the paper that the scavenging generates a business of millions of dollars a year.  Some of the more clever garbage collectors set up networks where they actually become the collection points for their men who do the literally dirty work.  Occasionally I see women doing this work too, so it is becoming an equal opportunity business, in case you are interested.  This actually provides a public service, as Istanbul must generate mountains of garbage, judging by the piles that are left on the street’s collection points every night.

And now there is yet another “yabanci”, foreigner, among all these people.  I am always interested in this street, as I can see anything any time.  I often run into people I know, old Koc students, old English Time students, and other yabanci friends.   I know that some men think I am a hooker because I am a foreign woman.  Because of that, as I walk home at night, I don’t look at them directly and I mind my Ps and Qs.  However, I am a becoming a familiar stranger to the people on the street, yet another stranger among the strange.


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