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TASTE OF THE PAST > Venturing to visit Istanbul’s famous walls

NIKI GAMM

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Six men are sitting around a pot in which we can see they had placed fish, tomatoes, lemons and onions they had cooked together. Each one simply reaches in with his fork and takes whatever he wants

Six men are sitting around a pot in which we can see they had placed fish, tomatoes, lemons and onions they had cooked together. Each one simply reaches in with his fork and takes whatever he wants

When does a date become old history? These days, in the world of literature any novel set 20 years ago or more becomes part of the historical fiction genre. Does a true adventure that occurred nearly 25 years ago count as the past? Given all the recent articles on Istanbul’s city walls following the murder of an American tourist, perhaps you would be interested in excerpts from a firsthand account of people who lived inside the walls, which was published in this newspaper Sept. 15, 1989. It was a warm day when my colleague and friend Gül Demir and I walked the walls.

The police insisted that there were no people living in the city’s land walls. No gypsies, nobody. Everyone had been cleared out when the restoration project initiated by former Mayor Bedrettin Dalan began. We wouldn’t find anyone, they said.

We could have shown them photographs of the gypsies the barefoot children, the gardeners. But we only listened and continued our walk along the walls.

Not satisfied with the policemen’s answers, we went up to a gateman further down the line, and so fell into an adventure we wouldn’t recommend to everybody. He suggested that we climb the staircase in one of the nearby turrets because we would find people living there. He refused to go with us but, thinking it was a family, we didn’t realize until later why he’d refused.

Just before we entered the tower, our eyes were caught by a flock of sheep being kept between the walls so we decided to check them out before climbing up into the walls. There were some men sitting around eating from a large pot on the wall just overlooking the sheep. We called out to them and asked if we could take their photographs while eating and they invited us up. There were no women. This was no family. But from their accents we inferred that a couple of the men were from the east and therefore trustable so we felt the situation was safe enough even though there weren’t any women.

The turret staircase was littered with paper as we went up so it was surprising that they had kept the passageway in which they were sleeping as clean as they did. Their bedding was placed to one side; someone’s playing cards were scattered on top of one set of blankets.

Six men were sitting around the pot in which we could see they had placed fish, tomatoes, lemons and onions they had cooked together. Each one was simply reaching in with his fork and taking whatever he wanted. Two glasses stood alongside – one for water and one for the raki they were drinking. An empty raki bottle stood to one side and they were just beginning to open the second when we arrived.

According to them, they weren’t in the walls. They were in the Çakıl Night Club, but without the service. Their musical soloist was a small transistor radio. Each took a turn at drinking his raki from the communal glass. No fear of AIDS here. They had nicknamed their little home in the walls, where they can be found winter and summer, Tower Palace or Falcon Crest. They also had nicknames for each other – Bastard, Bear, Cow, Wolf.

Why did they prefer this kind of life? “When we go to a nightclub, we can’t scream, we can’t say what we want to, we can’t swear. Here we are free.” Regardless of what situation in life or from what family they had come from, they all share the same identity card, the same outlook.

One of them had killed another person when he was 18. The place he came from had such lovely, warm people and his bed was warm with dreams. Suddenly his relatives swept him up and told him to go and kill, to take revenge. So he did and he hasn’t returned to his village since that day. Years were spent in prison… and now in the walls. He isn’t like the others in that he came from a good family, but they liked him so much he was accepted by those already living in the walls. He makes money by collecting garbage and selling anything of value. He had been sitting with his head down. He refilled his raki glass and took a few swallows. Suddenly he raised his head and exclaimed, “Having done something like that, it is hard to ever be clean again.” One of the other men commented, “To live is beautiful!” Then a third pointed out that they had said enough and should shut up.

One of them came from Western Thrace and originally had land at Uzunköprü. He said, “I lost everything. I keep those sheep you see below and sell them to people wanting to sacrifice them during Kurban Bayram. From time to time I play tag with the municipality’s inspectors. They want bribes.”

Some of them have homes. One even has two apartments but prefers the freer life of the walls. The TIR truck driver who is pouring out more raki can stay at a hotel whenever he is in Istanbul. The walls are better, he said.
He came from Elazığ for the first time in 1967. He blames the government for destroying the people, pointing out that 2,000 to 3,000 die every day from hunger. He says the sheep below are in better condition than they are.

Alcohol has been the cause of their downfall. It has affected their brains and their blood. They feel that without it they had no strength. What else can they do? No one respects them. They are avoided as if they are street cats, sacrifices of an uncaring society.

They may not be respected by society in general, but when it comes to the police they say they are scared. When they are sent messages to report to the police station, the police send a watchman. When the men send back an invitation for the police to come to them, the police don’t.

One of the other men is playing with a knife and staring at us intently. They are well into their third bottle of rakı.

They have been telling us stories about what they’ve seen during their lives in the wall. Stolen cars are brought there, broken into pieces and the parts sold for scrap. They’ve seen people break into graves in the cemetery located across the street. The robbers take the gold teeth from the dead. Horses are ‘sacrificed’ from time to time to provide sausage which can be sold cheaply. Ah, what about the other stories they had to tell. We’ll save them for another day.

February/16/2013

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