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Loud, anarchic, quirky: My love affair with Istanbul

By Ivan Watson, CNN
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 0907 GMT (1707 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Ivan Watson has lived in Istanbul for 12 years, using the city as a base for covering news in the Middle East and Asia
  • Watson says he's witnessed the gentrification of the city's lively Beyoglu neighborhood
  • The "eclectic mix of carpenters, dive bars, used-book stores" has been a focus of protests triggered by development

Editor's note: CNN's Ivan Watson is relocating from Istanbul to Hong Kong. This is his tribute to the city he has lived and worked from for more than a decade.

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- My love affair with Istanbul began at first sight.

The urban romance blossomed moments after I arrived here for the first time 12 years ago, during the taxi ride from the airport into the city.

As the yellow cab sped down the coast road, I turned my gaze from the sparkling blue waters of the Marmara Sea on the right, to the crumbling, thousand-year-old fortifications of ancient Constantinople on the left.

I was smitten.

Never before had I seen such an enchanting combination of geography and history. Somehow, I instantly realized this would be my home for years to come.

Of course, this was far more than a magical city of domes and minarets, Ottoman palaces and Byzantine chapels built along the banks of the Bosphorus Strait.

Istanbul was also a simmering cauldron of urban energy: loud, anarchic and quirky as hell.

Beyoglu, the district on the European side of my adopted home, had once been a neighborhood of embassies and grand houses constructed by Istanbul's once largely non-Muslim bourgeoisie.

Discriminatory postwar policies drove out most of the indigenous Greeks, leading to massive demographic change over the last half century.

Eclectic mix

By the time I showed up in 2002, the ground floors of many of these old Beyoglu mansions were occupied by an eclectic mix of carpenters, dive bars, used-book stores and secondhand furniture shops.

Along Bank Street (Bankalar Caddesi), some of the stately buildings that once housed Ottoman financial institutions now served as depots selling light bulbs and electrical adaptors.

In the mornings, children in rumpled school uniforms raced down cobblestone streets past vendors who patrolled the alleyways, loudly hawking simit (Turkey's staple sesame breakfast food).

Elderly women smoked out of their windows, while lowering baskets by rope to wait for deliveries of newspapers, bread and milk from the street below.

Herds of well-fed street cats lounged and prowled ... many of them fed by the ladies of the neighborhood.

Because Beyoglu has long been Istanbul's main nightlife district, an evening out could easily turn into a voyage of discovery.

The neighborhood was a warren of hundreds of tightly packed bars and nightclubs, each one home to its own eclectic subculture.

For me, a night out could easily migrate from a traditional meyhane restaurant where diners down grilled octopus and eggplant with milky glasses of iced raki, to a grungy metal club where teenage guitar players scream accented Metallica lyrics.

An Irish saloon full of immigrants from West Africa sat a few minutes' walk from a bar where Turks danced in 9/8 time to the squealing clarinet of the now-deceased Roma clarinetist Selim Sesler. (Rest in peace, maestro.)

Down one alley, stocky transgender prostitutes could be seen haggling over prices with shy young men.

A different turn would find Turkish football fans bellowing at a flatscreen TV over enormous tankards of Efes beer.

MORE: Insider guide: Best of Istanbul

Rapidly evolving metropolis

Year after year, this rapidly evolving metropolis welcomed me back from harrowing assignments covering the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, natural disasters in Haiti and the Philippines, elections in Lebanon and Iran, revolutions in Kyrgyzstan and Egypt.

My frequent absences provided an unusual perspective on the incredible gentrification that transformed Beyoglu during the subsequent decade. Sometimes it felt like stop-motion photography.

During the U.S. occupation in 2004 and 2005, I watched Baghdad quickly fall to pieces.

Imagine the contrast when I would return to Istanbul, to see crumbling townhouses in Beyoglu being renovated one by one, in some cases carefully restored by artists and expats who fell in love with their high ceilings and graceful bay windows.

Gradually, bakeries and neighborhood tea shops where mustachioed Turks chain-smoked and played backgammon disappeared, were replaced by upscale cafes and art galleries.

International chains like Starbucks suddenly proliferated along Istiklal Caddesi, the city's main pedestrian promenade.

A remarkable, almost reckless entrepreneurial spirit reigned.

Month after month I watched as businesses in a small corner shop near my apartment opened and failed in rapid succession.

The store went from selling bottled water to being a real estate agency, from making cig kofte (Turkish steak tartar) to offering haircuts and shaves.

Amid this economic boom, Istanbul continued to serve its ancient role as a port and gateway to the West.

Nearly a century ago, my grandfather passed through Istanbul en route to Europe along with hordes of other White Russians fleeing the Russian civil war.

Istanbul: An enchanting combination of geography and color.
Istanbul: An enchanting combination of geography and color.

Waves of refugees

Over the last decade, fresh waves of refugees continue to wash up on Istanbul's shores, few of them intending to stay.

In 2007, I interviewed an Iraqi Chaldean Christian who fled Baghdad to eke out a living laboring as a waiter seven days a week in a working class Istanbul cafeteria.

Two years later, I met Iranians fleeing their government's brutal crackdown on post-election protests.

Some were former officials from opposition presidential campaigns whose candidates had been placed under house arrest.

More recently, young Syrian activists and deserters from the Syrian army started appearing in Istanbul.

They shared frightening cell phone videos and told harrowing stories of brutal repression by Bashar al Assad's security forces.

As the situation continued to deteriorate in Syria, more and more Syrians appeared on Istanbul's streets ... some of them Arabic-speaking children who quickly learned to ask for money in Turkish from passersby.

One of my favorite Istanbul stories involves an annual soccer tournament organized by the city's African community.

Every year, amateur teams representing countries such as Ghana and Cameroon compete for the city's unofficial Africa Cup.

Their fans wave flags from the stands, play traditional African drums and perform hip-shaking dances from their native continent, much to the amazement of Turks in the neighborhood.

Over the last year, the neighborhood I long called home suddenly became the stage for a violent Turkish political drama.

It started as a protest against urban development that rapidly accelerated in recent years.

For years, residents watched as entire neighborhoods of Istanbul were uprooted and bulldozed to make way for government-backed construction projects.

Concern grew, as shopping malls and hotels replaced a historic cinema, an iconic family-owned sweet shop and elegant Ottoman-era shopping arcades known as "pasaj."

MORE: How to drink Turkish raki

Urban battleground

In May of 2013, a violent police crackdown targeted a peaceful sit-in protesting against the proposed demolition of a park to make way for a shopping mall.

The scenes of police brutality unexpectedly unleashed the biggest anti-government street demonstrations Istanbul had seen in more than a decade.

I watched in horror, day after day, as riot police enveloped my neighborhood in enormous clouds of noxious teargas.

Part of the urban populace revolted.

Some built barricades, hurled stones at police and vandalized cars. Many more simply protested and chanted, banging pots and pans in defiance of the government.

Month after month, week after week, Beyoglu's labyrinthine alleyways became an urban battleground.

Some nights, long after I returned home from the office, I watched from my kitchen window as armored police officers pursued young protesters who ran chanting "government resign."

Protests in Istanbul in May 2013.
Protests in Istanbul in May 2013.

More than once, I saw elderly women dumping buckets of water from their balconies on riot police in the streets below.

At night, anonymous writers marked up the neighborhood walls with graffiti criticizing the Turkish government.

By day, municipal workers covered up the political graffiti with gray paint, while leaving non-political messages untouched.

Soon the absurd gray paint, gri in Turkish, became a target of ridicule.

"Gri is my baby," someone once wrote on the gray paint, "Gri is my girl."

I think this gets to the crux of why I love Istanbul so much.

Every day that I walked the city's streets, I would inevitably see something that would make me want to laugh, cry, stare in wonder or shake my head in disbelief.

It is an extraordinary place.

At the rate it's growing and changing, I'd be foolish to think the city will look the same when next I go back.

It is an ancient city, still constantly in motion.

I will always consider myself lucky to have called Istanbul home.

Ivan Watson's favorite Istanbul haunts

Asma Alti Bar

A no-frills pub at the bottom of Istanbul's lively Fish Bazaar, a series of alleys packed with restaurants and fish mongers.

This is a nice place to sit, drink a beer and watch the eclectic pedestrian traffic that trickles up and down from a rapidly gentrifying slum called Tarlabasi to nearby Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's central pedestrian thoroughfare.

Asma Alti, Kalyoncu Kulluk Caddesi, 13/a, Beyoglu, Istanbul; +90 212 2522760

Sheep heads

One of the bonuses of grabbing a drink from Asma Alti is the close proximity of Muamar usta, a man who runs a little roadside sheep's head stand.

Called "kelle" in Turkish, the sheep's head is served cold, sliced up into little unidentifiable cold cuts, with herbs, pepper, onions, parsley and a big loaf of bread.

Muamar has a cordial relationship with Asma Alti, and will serve customers in the bar.

Kalyoncu Kulluk Caddesi, 13/a, Beyoglu, Istanbul

Dorock

Istanbul's most famous heavy metal bar.

On weekends, men with long beards, leather vests and eyeliner park their motorcycles out front.

Bands play live almost every night of the week, performing a wide variety of music ranging from classic Metallica to thrash metal, death metal, black metal and hardcore.

The crowd may look intimidating, but the bartenders and waiters are polite and helpful. (Once they helped me find a missing laptop!)

Dorock, 8/a Imam Adnan Sokak, Taksim, Istanbul; +90 212 2937565

Manuel Deli & Coffee

Tastes for coffee have changed dramatically in Istanbul in recent years, evolving from thick thimbles full of Turkish coffee, to an explosion of Starbucks outposts across the city, and now to a growing number of specialized coffee shops that roast their own beans.

Manuel is a quiet, tastefully decorated blue and yellow affair on a residential street.

There's little seating, but this is a good place to get a small slice of deli pizza, sit on the bench outside and sip espresso while watching the neighborhood street cats do their thing.

Manuel Deli & Coffee, Cihangir Caddesi, 23a, Beyoglu, Istanbul; +90 532 547 84 14

Cihangir Mosque

This elegant white mosque was my neighbor for years, complementing my apartment's view of the Bosphorus, and loudly reminding me of the time for prayers with loudspeakers aimed directly at my windows.

More importantly, the mosque also has a small, tree-shaded park with benches and its own spectacular view of the Bosphorus, the Marmara Sea and the Old City.

Legend has it Suleiman the Magnificent built the mosque in honor of his deceased son Cihangir, who liked to hunt in this area. The Sultan left modern-day visitors with a lovely and quiet place to appreciate Istanbul.

Cihangir Mosque, entrances on Ozogul Sokak or Gunesli Sokak, Cihangir, Istanbul

MORE: 8 great Istanbul hotels

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