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Meşrutiyet Memories in Istanbul

Last Updated on May 22, 2019

My heart sank as I watched the television news of the car-bomb at Istanbul‘s British Consulate-General on November 20, 2003.

I know that place, that street corner, that neighborhood. It is rich—or was rich—with the city’s history, and with my own.

Paper Bags

My first memory here is of passing the guard kiosks of the British Consulate late one chill, dismal night (it must have been in the late 1960s). The heavy black cast-iron gates between the two kiosks were closed and locked, but in one of the kiosks a Turkish guard in a veddy proper British uniform sat at a small table. In the light of a dim electric bulb (all electric bulbs in Istanbul were dim back then) he carefully folded sheets of old newspaper into paper bags. Fold, fold, fold again, dab a bit of glue on the bottom flap, fold the flap, and set it aside to dry.

I imagined him, the next morning, selling his night’s tidy moonlighting craftwork to one of the greengrocers or fishmongers in the neighboring Balık Pazarı (Fish Market) and happily pocketing a few coins or a kilo of oranges–packed to go in one of his own paper bags.

Then I think of the two Turkish police officers on duty when the car bomb went off. They had no chance, like the dozens of shopkeepers, customers, office-workers and passers-by on the street.

Sweet Little Barrels

I think of the nights I dined in the Fischer Restaurantdirectly across Mesrutiyet Caddesi from the consulate’s gates. Frau Fischer was an Istanbul institution in the 1960s and 1970s, personally supervising every table every evening to assure that the gulaschzuppe was properly spicy and the sugar-powdered palatschinken rich and sweet.

Years later, long after her restaurant was gone, its place was taken by a pastry shop serving horribly sweettulumba—little pastry ‘barrels’ soaked in sugar syrup. The thought of all that syrupy sweetness sets my teeth on edge.

There was a tray of them, the little monsters, brown and luscious, fluted along their length, rounded at the ends, sitting right on the counter as you walked by. You couldn’t help seeing them. You could barely help bumping against them.

You could barely resist—couldn’t resist!—ordering them from the pastrycook, under your breath, hoarsely, your voice distorted by guilt, along with a duble çay, a “double tea,” served in a water glass, to cut the tulumba’s wretched, abhorrent, altogether excessive, irresisible softly crunchy sweetness.

Unquiet Nights

A few doors south along Meşrutiyet Caddesi, up a flight of stairs, was the Alp Oteli, sandwiched in between two pavyons, or Turkish nightclubs of questionable repute, with another, even dicier pavyon directly across the street. Many Peace Corps Volunteers stayed at the Alp when they came to Istanbul in the 1960s because it was cheap and central, never mind that some of the rooms were rented by the hour and the doors banged open and shut all night. We PCVs were paid less than US$100 per month, Istanbul was expensive, and the Alp would have to do.

North of the consulate gates across Hamalbasi Caddesi was Duduodalar Sokak (“Street of the Rooms of the Old Armenian Women”) and the Balık Pazarı, the so-called Fish Market which actually had all sorts of shops along with the fishmongers.

You could get fresh vegetables and fruits, spices, and wonderful Turkish flower honey; salty, crumbly peasant cheese (tulum peynir) curdled, shipped and stored in a goatskin (hairy side in!), and sold right from the skin—delicious, but assuredly an acquired taste.

There was always fresh bread, the crisp white sourdough that was the staff of life for many Turks until recent urban wealth relegated it to the supporting role it has in Europe, America and other consumer countries.

Butchers on Duduodalar hung the pluck (internal organs) of slaughtered sheep in their shop windows, the smooth, beautiful livers and kidneys looking like fine dark marble sculpture. Plucked chickens hung high on hooks in rows, their gruesome blank-eyed heads modestly covered in little paper hoods to hide them from the frightened gaze of children accompanying mothers or maids on shopping trips.

The first time I bought a chicken here I asked for a tavuk (hen, fowl), forgetting entirely my Peace Corps training to request, rather, a piliç(young chicken). I baked that scrawny tavuk in a hot oven for over three hours and it came out grey and tough as a football. I gave up my dream of roast chicken, boiled it into soup, and never forgot to ask for piliç again.

Or what about the Avrupa Pasajı (Europe Passage), Istanbul’s answer to Burlington Arcade? It was dusty and forlorn in the 1960s and 1970s, but spiffed up and returned to its Ottoman-Victorian glory in the ’90s.

In the TV news video of the bomb scene, these shops are blown away, their owners and customers now in hospital or worse.

Just down Hamalbaşı Caddesi was the revived Panos Şaraphanesi, an old Ottoman-Greek wine bar. When I peered in through the swinging doors in the 1960s it was old and sad, its few customers mostly down-at-heels winos smelling like the filthy sawdust on the floor, come for their snort of tart, tanniny red from the huge barrels mounted high on the walls.

In the ’90s Panos was revived, restored and gentrified for the new class of Turkish Yuppies who gathered here for classy drinks, snacks and after-work banter about mutual funds and marketing campaigns.

The gentle memories of decades, violently blasted.

His Imperial Majesty

The sultan once paid an extraordinary visit to what is now the consulate, but was then the British Embassy to the Sublime Porte. Driving slowly between the guard kiosks and through the great gates, his gilded carriage drew up before the embassy’s main portal as guards in tight twill and gleaming gold and brass stood rigidly at attention.

Inside the embassy his ministers and advisers were already well into enjoying what they knew to be champagne but which they coyly referred to, in deference to the Muslim antipathy for alcoholic beverages, as gazeuse (fizzy soda pop).

His Imperial Majesty was of course received with the greatest pomp and deference, but everyone knew that his host, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, the Great Elchi(Ambassador), was, in his own way, as powerful–and as imperious–as the monarch himself. Perhaps more so.

Victorian Violence

The car bomb destroyed a great deal in lives, limbs, property and history, but it is far from being the first bomb on Mesrutiyet Caddesi. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Beyoğlu (this part of Istanbul) was a hotbed of intrigue, spies, assassins and revolutionaries. Just down the street at the Pera Palace Hotel, built for passengers arriving from London and Paris on the Orient Express, a bomb thrown by an assassin in the early 1900s wrecked the main entrance, which was only restored and reopened a half century later.

Meşrutiyet Caddesi will survive and recover.Reactionary Islam, like every other reactionary politico-religious movement in history, will ultimately realize there is no turning back the clock, no choice but compromise, no outcome but adaptation and accommodation, no way forward but moderation.

But Meşrutiyet Caddesi and timeless Istanbul will not soon forget November 20, 2003, a day of mad savagery, pitiless violence, shock, torment, and profound sadness.

—by Tom Brosnahan


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