Istanbul: Returning to The City

Did you know that ‘Istanbul’ comes from the Greek phrase ‘Eis tan polin’, which means “to the city”…? I always imagine that is what people would tell each other in Byzantine times: I am going to the city. No doubt about it, this was The City, there was no other. Kind of like my home town of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, which is referred to by locals as ‘Stad’ (city). There is never any confusion about this name, as it is simply the only bigger city around.

Since almost two weeks I am living in Istanbul again, and I will stay here for three months, so I thought it would be nice to write something about this place. This is my third longer period living in Istanbul. I came here for the first time three years ago, in the fall of 2015, as an exchange student (which they always called ‘Erasmus’ here), then the second time was the fall of 2016, as I had just graduated my bachelors and came here for two months to do volunteer work at a small NGO working with Syrian refugees. And now it’s the fall of 2018 and I am back for three months of fieldwork for my master thesis.

When I first came here as an exchange student, I had never been to Turkey before and I was not sure what to expect. I came here together with my mum, to explore all the touristic sights of the city, but also to help me find a room. I clearly remember on one of the first days here, there was this room we went to visit, which was in a really shabby neighbourhood, where all the buildings were falling apart, people on the street were staring at us and there was trash everywhere, with numerous stray cats and dogs roaming the streets. But then we went inside the building and the apartment looked like “a hotel from a James Bond movie”, as I described it. The house owner was very eager to rent to room to me and tried to convince me in every way possible. He really sounded like a salesman and I didn’t feel very much at home in this very bright shiny apartment without character. Later I learned from other exchange students that this neighbourhood is called Tarlabaşı, which was featured many times in sentences like “Careful, that place is located in Tarlabaşı, don’t go there alone!”. Apparently it’s an area known for all kinds of criminal activities and violence… Oh well, that James Bond room would have been nice though! I just have to add here that by now I do have some friends living in this area and they really enjoy it. And later I also lived in the supposedly-bad neighbourhood Kasımpaşa, as many Turkish people would warn me about it, but I had a lovely room and a roof terrace with a great view! Nevertheless, I have to admit that I was always very watchful on 5 minute-walk from the metro to my house. But that’s unfortunately a usual experience for women alone in the city. It would be the same in Amsterdam, to be honest…

But yes, many people have asked me if Istanbul is dangerous, especially for a foreign-looking young lady walking the streets alone… I generally answer it’s quite similar to other big cities: it depends on where you go and what time of the day it is. When I was an exchange student, I would never go anywhere alone, because I did not feel safe or confident enough. I generally stayed around the university campus of Boğaziçi University , which is more in the north of the city, as I also had a room close to there. Now I am quite comfortable to venture out on my own, but I am still very aware of my surroundings and to way people on the street react to me. It’s sometimes really the difference between a busy main street and a more deserted side street where I become more careful. It has happened that strange men want to talk to me, but recently I have become more strict in just saying ‘no’ or ignoring them, as I feel they probably would not have approached me if I was a guy… But needless to say, there are also many many friendly lovely people in Istanbul and it’s very easy to make new friends here if you know where to go!

At the moment I live on Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), which is the big street that runs down from the famous Taksim Square. This is the area where we would always come to go out, as there are many cafés, bars and clubs around here. It feels quite strange that I am living here now, but I am starting to like it. This month I am a Research Fellow at the Dutch Institute of Turkey (NIT), that’s why I can make use of one of the guest rooms, as well as the library, which is where I am writing this blog right now…

My research is about humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in Istanbul. I will do most of my fieldwork at the small NGO where I also did volunteer work two years ago. My main interest is in the humanitarian workers and volunteers: Why did they chose to do this work? What are their ideas on humanitarian aid? How do they experience the daily practice of the NGO? I am just getting started and I have been to the community center a couple of times already, as I am also offering my help as a volunteer again: today I am going to assist with an English class for Syrian children. Soon I hope to be starting with my first interviews. It’s very exciting and I find the topic very interesting, but it’s also a bit scary, as any new big project… But I need to have confidence in myself!

Now I would love to tell you more about this place with many stories and my experiences here, but I have to get ready to go to the NGO. It takes a bit less than one hour to get there, which is really normal for this megapolis (‘big city’ in Greek). I will walk out of this building, cross Istiklal street, take a side street and reach a big road, where I will take a bus that will cross ‘Atatürk bridge’ over the waters of the Golden Horn, which is an estuary of the Bosphorus. There are many legends about this short length of water, which was the entrance to the harbours of the old city. According to the first legend, the Byzantines threw so many valuables into it during the Ottoman Conquest that the waters glistened with gold. The second story says that name is given because of the gold light that reflects on the water when the sun goes down…



See you soon!

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