The damage wasn’t done by rioting demonstrators, or natural disaster or even angry football fans, but by the Beyoğlu Municipality. I am speaking, of course, of the forcible removal of the outdoor seating of hundreds of restaurants and bars below İstiklal Caddesi. I had just entered one of my favorite areas of İstanbul, the narrow alleys near Tünel, at my favorite time of the day, just around 6:30 p.m., when I knew the alleys would just be filling up before the later, bigger crowds. I looked forward to seeing and hearing the laughing, happy, polyglot crowds of diners along my route to a friend’s establishment, wondering if there would be any tables still out as late as December, when my son will come for his first trip to Turkey, inşallah. Beyoğlu and its lively culture hold wonderful memories for me, going back to my first trip to Turkey in September 2001.
Imagine my shock when the laughter didn’t start, and the happy crowds didn’t put in an appearance. I finally turned a corner to observe what is, in actuality, a rather ugly neighborhood with little character and no happy, well-fed people, lined with sad, quiet INDOOR restaurants and empty bars. It looked like an earth mover had scraped a fire road through the city, leaving a paved no-man’s land that is totally uninviting and drab. By the time I got to my friend’s place, I was nearly unable to speak intelligibly. I felt, honestly, like I had been violated. The fact that this had happened some weeks ago only made it worse -- like learning of a death in the family two months after the funeral.
I spoke to several people about it that day and the next, both expat and Turk, and everyone I spoke to was just sick. I couldn’t talk to the thousands of waiters who were out of work or the business owners who were on the brink of losing everything, but I spoke with residents of the area as well as some people in Sultanahmet, and they all shared my anger and grief, if not my shock, because everyone knew about it except me, apparently.
So I got the rumors: An Important Person was held up in traffic; the Important Person took it as an insult when a diner saluted him with his glass of wine; this was a punishment to “white” İstanbul for not supporting the ruling party; all the outdoor dining facilities were illegal anyway; the municipality wanted to close down the activity for Ramadan because it would be insulting for devout Muslims to see people drinking during the holy month, then liked the idea and kept the ban indefinitely. There were other rumors, but these were the main ones; many of them are repeated online on the various blogs I researched, including istanbuleats.com and Trip Advisor. In the other research I managed to do on this very local but significant affair, the only “official” reasons I found were a “crackdown” on illegal dining in Beyoğlu and/or the receipt by the municipality of complaints from residents (obviously not the ones I spoke to) about crowds of diners impeding their progress.
An unfair crackdown
I learned that many proprietors say they had applied for, paid fees and received permission to have the seating available to their clients, but perhaps at least some of the business owners were in violation of some city ordinance. In that case, why wait until the middle of the high outdoor-dining and tourist season to perpetrate the alleged crackdown? Why not go after only the violators and not entire streets? By several accounts, this took place while diners were actually eating. Why were the tables and chairs dramatically confiscated and thrown into trucks? Of course one supports civic responsibility, but perhaps it could have been handled just a little more diplomatically. I would love to hear the opinion of the couple from Sofia on their honeymoon, the college kids from Denver on their summer break or the businessmen from İzmir about their dishes being yanked out from under them. Not to mention the proprietors who were, I’m sure, unable to recoup their losses on the unpaid-for, uneaten meals, never mind the loss of business for at least half of the season. What a terrific impression of our wonderful city.
One’s same argument stands for the resident-complaint reason: Did they only start to complain this year? All three of them who don’t live in Beyoğlu either for the fun of it or actually make a living on those same crowds? Wasn’t there a different course, other than to annihilate a whole neighborhood?
These may indeed have been the actual reasons, but unfortunately the bad results of this little fracas led to darker rumors and conclusions. The dislike, nay the hatred, of some politicians for tobacco use and alcohol consumption is well known. In a democracy, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that goes both ways. The difference between the pro- and anti-consumption camps is that the antis are in control of the country. Were the outdoor diners (most of whom do not smoke and many of whom do not drink alcohol, incidentally) having too good a time spending their money and enjoying themselves outdoors? Was it too insulting to see people doing something too many politicians find distasteful? If that is the case, why not just outlaw all alcohol and tobacco use nationwide and get on with it? Of course, Turkey recently got a huge amount of money, nearly $2 billion, from the British American Tobacco group, so that might not work. And it isn’t only Christians, Jews and expats drinking all that rakı.
Perhaps it is only acceptable to drink and dine outdoors in posh foreign hotels, like all those new ones going up over the hill in Levent. Turkey would lose a lot of face in the eyes of European, East Asian and American investors if the use of all alcohol were completely banned, so one doubts that will ever happen.
I spoke to a Turkish man in Sultanahmet who neither works nor lives in Beyoğlu concerning this event, about which he had thought long and hard. He was mostly sad, but also a little scared. He worried about too much power polluting the judgment of otherwise good people. He said he hoped the businessmen stood up for themselves, but then sadly told me that, unfortunately, the Turks don’t have that in their culture, that they tend to just take what comes along and live with it. His words, not mine, but they echoed my thoughts on the people of my other country, who continue to put up with outrages that continue for years with almost no opposition.
The title of this piece, of course, refers to the various versions of what Julius Caesar offered in explanation of his divorce from his wife, Pompeia, who may or may not have been instrumental in a scandalous sacrilege: Caesar’s wife must not only be innocent of wrongdoing, she must be under no suspicion of wrongdoing. Unfortunately for the municipality of Beyoğlu and others, the forceful, ill-timed use of governmental authority and the lack of (at least easily available) information as to the basis for it have left a trail of gossip, innuendo, bad publicity, unemployment and, perhaps worst of all, disillusionment with the powers that be. A bright light has certainly gone out in Taksim; I only hope the darkness doesn’t spread.