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What happens after displacement? Syrians re-settling Istanbul through food

Successful food restaurants in certain neighbourhood of Istanbul, such as Fatih Malta Street, now create a hub for Syrians residing all around Istanbul to meet in the religious Fatih neighbourhood.

lead Ezgi Tuncer. All rights reserved.This week’s series, 'Turkey: crisis and loss', curated by Mehmet Kurt, will unpack the connections between crisis in contemporary Turkey and a politics of loss. It is inspired by a recent collaborative Queen’s University Belfast and Bilgi University Istanbul Global Challenges Workshop which took place in Istanbul in June 2017.

The workshop chose the concept of ‘loss’ to better understand social transformation in the context of internal/international migration and displacement in Turkey. We discussed ‘loss’ both in its psychosocial reading as a form of mourning, melancholia, nostalgia, sadness, trauma, and depression and within a social-scientific frame as contested sets of relations and structures of feeling in historical, economic and socio-political processes.

Global cities easily absorb ethnic cultures and hybrid socio-spatial constitutions by dint of producing multitude, mobility and heterogeneity. So, it is quite common to observe Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and numerous other ethnic neighborhoods and migrant kitchens in global cities such as London, New York, Dubai, Seoul, Sydney and Sao Paulo. However, Istanbul has only experienced this phenomenon relatively recently, thanks to Syrian refugees as well as Uighur and Uzbek migrants, even though it is a vast node in the global cities network.

After the war in Syria erupted in 2011, Turkey became both a safe refuge and passage for displaced Syrians. Formal reports from institutions, NGOs and local news as well as early studies on the refugee crisis in Turkey focused mostly on problems such as poverty, the challenging conditions at camps, exclusion, and the lack of human rights and laws.

However, a considerable number of refugees and migrants settled in Istanbul and have survived. A group of middle-income refugees who had been displaced in the early years of the war resettled in the city by starting food businesses in Fatih, Aksaray and Beyoğlu, which at the same time can be seen as an attempt at re-dwelling, appropriating and place making. This has happened to such an extent that a Syrian neighborhood has appeared around Fatih Mosque. For instance, connected to the northwest door of Fatih Mosque and smelling of coffee, spices, pitta bread and kebab, Malta Street[1] has become a Syrian street market where mostly Arabic labeled food stuffs are sold by both Turkish and Syrian vendors. 

On the weekends, this place is full of Syrians coming from everywhere like Başakşehir, Esenyurt, Zeytinburnu it became a common meeting point for them. (Personal communication, September 27, 2016)

Following Malta street, on the south of Fatih, there is a variety of Syrian fast food shops side by side along two avenues, Akşemsettin and Akdeniz, but one of them, Saruja Damascus Restaurant, differs from the others, in that it mostly produces homemade dishes. The owner of this diner explained why in our meeting:

I was working in the computer sector in Damascus. When the war started, I moved to Dubai and tried to start a business but failed. After I moved to Istanbul, I planned to realize my dream to open a diner based on homemade meals. Everybody around me asked me if I was crazy. They suggested I cook Turkish food. But that night I decided to run a Syrian restaurant and took that risk. All of my Syrian customers are grateful to me, even Turks started to come. Thank God, we have been successful. [2] 

When Turkish migrants brought döner kebap to Berlin, it became a catalyst for cultural coalescence between Germans and Turks. While döner kebap was originally served as an a la carte plate in Turkey in the 1970s, it became the most popular fast food in Germany in the 1980s, producing and introducing Turkish cuisine.[3],[4] Diaspora communities are mostly precursors for constituting a national identity through food and cuisine.[5] For this reason, food, as material culture, can be seen as an efficient tool for fictionalizing imagined communities[6] and building strong relations between members. With this in mind, what is the role of Syrian food for cultural integration and the national constitution in Istanbul and how have Syrians integrated into daily life by appropriating space through food?

Re-dwelling stories

All Syrian interviewees, coming mostly from Damascus and Aleppo, were confronted with war in 2012. By then, those who had had to migrate to other countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or Libya in the first phase, then reached Turkey for economic reasons. Compared to other Muslim countries, interviewees described Turkey as the most indulgent country in terms of work and living conditions, i.e., that despite the lack of legal permission or status, local authorities in Turkey let them stay and work without the proper certificates.

Leaving behind their homeland and members of their families, the majority of our interviewees traveled with their legal passports and passed over nation-state borders and through security points at airports. Very few of them were forced to cross Turkey’s territorial borders illegally: some reached Mersin by sea. After entering Turkey, some of them found their relatives and friends in Ankara, Eskişehir, İzmir and Bursa. However Istanbul was the final destination for both economic and social reasons. Istanbul, as a capitalist city forming a significant focal point in the global network, has further business opportunities and, as a cosmopolitan metropolis, enables some Syrians to be invisible in daily life.

Furthermore, it seems like a European city for some Syrians from Damascus. However, as most European countries’ most common religion and/or cultural touchstone is Christianity, Europe was not the choice for ethnic Arab Muslim Syrians, who instead chose to stay in Istanbul. Islam is the most important and unifying commonality, beside the ambiguous legal conditions found in Turkey that put Syrians in both advantageous and disadvantageous circumstances. Islamic rituals and Muslim communities in Fatih, especially Fatih Mosque as a divine temple, attracted relatively wealthy Syrians to this neighborhood both to live and to set up their businesses.

Islam is here in Fatih, everywhere. We are not good in Besiktas or Kadikoy, but here AKP people like us, here Muslims are everywhere. (Personal communication, October 10, 2016)

Appropriating urban space

The majority of managers and owners of local Syrian restaurants and markets, who were formerly in the food service business in Syria, found Malta Street lucrative for its spatial connectivity to Fatih Mosque. For that reason, within two years, many Syrian investors offered doubled prices for local shops and restaurants and took over these properties.

This food economy and mobility can be interpreted as being supported by the publicity of Islam or as Islamic capitalism. This rapid handover of urban space increased real estate values of the properties in Fatih, which has drawn less-than-friendly reactions from Turkish locals. On the other hand, unlike Malta Street, which is closed to traffic, the wide Akdeniz and Aksemsettin Avenues can accommodate both Turkish and Syrian restaurants at approximately equal rates. As many Syrians have chosen to live in this area for cultural reasons, Syrians opening restaurants chose the front shops on these avenues. Consequently, the Syrian diners and restaurants that are mostly patronized by the Syrian community as spaces of solidarity are signifiers of appropriation and reproduction of urban space.

Toward a communal space between Turks and Syrians (?)

Alongside the newfound purpose for these urban spaces, the appropriation practices of Syrian restaurants and markets on these streets has been an impetus for a social interface between Turkish and Syrian neighbors who have many commonalities in terms of food culture. For the last year, the number of Turkish guests has reached nearly a quarter of the total, which makes managers expectant that more Turks will come.

Language seems to be a barrier, however many of them attempt to learn Turkish whereas a few Turkish tradesmen besides bilingual Turkish locals attempt to learn Arabic. However, some exclusivist discourses also appear in which nationalism manifests itself through food. Even though all raw materials and stocks are produced in Turkey and kebab, içli köfte, meze and other common dishes are not derived solely from Syrian food from Mesopotamia or southeastern Turkey, Turks found various ways to express their distaste for Arabic and Kurdish culture.

Syrian meals are indigestible, fatty, spicy and hot and they are not hygienic at all. I don’t eat there. (Personal communication, October 25, 2016)

An old coffee shop owner said that Syrian migrants are all "traitors" for the reason that "they all escaped from fighting and left their homeland to enemies." Having given this background, he continued: "Drinking 10 or 15 espresso-based coffees a day, Syrians cannot be selling real Brazilian coffee, it is not that cheap. They are liars, tricksters.’

This interface seems simultaneously to bring new communalities alongside segregations.

Re-constructing the Syrian Community

Food itself and restaurants are tools for re-building the Syrian community in Istanbul. The food business maintains communication within the community as well as solidarity. Social media is also a powerful mediator. Even though discrimination between Syrians based on origin appears from time to time, they are open about the hostility between themselves and fellow Syrians depending on whether you are from Aleppo or Damascus. Interviewees from Damascus said they find those from Aleppo provincial and vulgar. Turks interviewed claimed that Aleppans are aggressive and easy to pick fights. However, this discrimination based on ethnic and provincial differences do not seem to cause spatial segregation between them.

Class distinction is much more obvious. Restaurant owners and managers who live in Fatih are either property owners or can afford rents that run from 1,500 TL to 2,000 TL per month. Interestingly, despite their economic power and brotherhood in Islam, they explained that they have encountered much exclusionary discrimination in Fatih. As they are seen as strangers, real estate agents often refuse to show them houses or direct them to expensive ones.

We did the same thing to Iraqis. When they came to our country, we showed them expensive houses, excluded them. God punishes us. (Personal communication, September 23, 2016)

Coming from the fringes of the city or living with 15 others in Fatih, Syrian workers who can only afford to pay rent of 500 TL per month cannot spare the time for a social life or an education. However, they are under the protection of their wealthy employers.

Food, as a material culture, provides a vehicle for socio-spatial reproduction in Fatih. Syrian food culture reconstitutes national unity, belonging and solidarity among the diaspora community while also mediating possible cultural coalescing. Furthermore, it seems that food, in addition to providing a livelihood through business, as a mobile cultural memory that reminds the consumer of Syria, helps Syrians appropriate urban space and re-settle. However, even though the Syrian interviewees said that they are now familiar and comfortable with Istanbul and have left the abrasive memories of war behind, they all seem determined to return as soon as the war ends. This could be related to belonging, topophilia or patriotism, but their indistinct prospects in Turkey also effect their decisions.

In the zone of indistinct law

Since Turkey signed the UN Geneva Refugee Convention in 1951 and the Protocol in 1967, relating to refugees, maintaining provision, and Turkey’s protection commitment is limited to citizens of European countries who seek asylum in Turkey. Most refugees or asylum seekers from non-European countries can only stay temporarily in Turkey under the  temporary protection provided by the government until they are granted refugee status and resettlement in a third country. The Temporary Protection Regulation from October 2014, afforded Syrians the right to obtain an identity card and number to access health and educational services. However, due to complicated bureaucratic procedures, it takes months for Syrians to obtain the ID cards that their work permits rely on.

With an ambiguous status of being under temporary protection and stigmatized as strangers, Syrians have been left in a state of exception[7] in which temporariness, nomadism and suspension have become the rule of their lives.[8] These migrants, or unofficial refugees, have become "bodies without words"[9] who are denied citizenship and civil rights. In January 2016, the obligation to obtain a visa was implemented for Syrian citizens. Meanwhile, the open-door policy enabled displaced Syrians to enter Turkey illegally. However, for security reasons, surveillance and control of the southeastern border was strengthened with concrete walls.

This condition can be called a "zone of indistinction" in which displaced Syrians are forced to exist. It is not the city, but the forest; they are not citizens, but strangers. This liminal gray area is in between inside and outside. It is ‘the camp’ in Agamben’s sense.

Exiting from the camp – the power of survivors

In Giorgio Agamben’s camp theory, those left in a state of exception are passive, bio-political objects deprived of civil rights. However, the camp can turn into a "zone of resistance" in some cases. Thus, objectified bodies return to powerful subjects/citizens through resistance. In this case, even if the focus group consists of relatively wealthier Syrians who had the chance to escape the war in its early years, they still struggle to escape bio-political power by appropriating space through their national food culture. Restaurants have afforded them the opportunity to gain both economic and cultural capital. And as such, this group of Syrians repels the deactivating role of the dominant power, through their own constitutive powers.

All photographs Ezgi Tuncer. All rights reserved.

[1] Conducted by Burcu Tüm and me between August and October 2016, this pilot case study covers observations, mappings and interviews with 32 restaurants and markets in the Fatih district of Istanbul. The preliminary version of this study was presented in the Berlin-Istanbul Lecture Series Urban Space and Refugees, on 27 -28 October 2016.

[2] Kök Projekt, in collaboration with Salt GALATA, organized a series of meetings called Urban Food. Their first hosts were Dalia Mortada, the coordinator of the Savoring Syria Project, and Bilal Haji Khalaf, the owner of Saruja.

[3] Caglar, A. "Mc Kebap : Döner Kebap and the social positioning struggle of German Turks," Changing food habits : case studies from Africa, South America and Europe, C. Lentz (ed.), Vol. 2. Food history and culture 2. New York: Routledge, 1999. pp. 263-284.

[4] Karaosmanoglu, D. (2010) ‘Küreselleşen Tatlar Döner Kebabın Avrupa Notları’, Gastro, N. 54, pp. 108-113.

[5] Onaran, B. (2016) MutfakTarih Yemeğin Politik Serüvenleri, İletişim Yayınları, İstanbul.

[6] Anderson, B. (1993) Hayali Cemaatler Milliyetçiliğin Kökenleri ve Yayılması, Metis Yayınları, İstanbul.

[7] Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[8] Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, California.

[9] Diken, B., & Laustsen, C. B. (2006). The camp. Geografiska Annaler B, 88, 443-452.

About the author

Ezgi Tuncer graduated from the Department of Architecture at Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul in 2003. Now she is researching in the field of architectural and urban theory and design, urban studies, border studies and philosophy of politics and teaches architectural and urban design at Kadir Has University, Department of Architecture, Istanbul, Turkey.


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