Handheld flashlights and belts for just one lira” have real lives that can be quite heartbreaking.
“This is absolutely the best razor out there! All of the most famous people in the world owe their fame and fortune to this razor! The British king, President Kennedy, football king Pele, goalkeeper Meier, Nadia Comaneci, Cemil from Fenerbahçe… All the famous people use this razor! Yes, try it for free!” This is just some of the banter that you’ll hear from street vendors all around us in İstanbul. The truth is, whether you realize it or not, we need these vendors. They sell things that are useful to everyone in one way or another; a lighter to fire up your stove, clothespins, a nail clipper, bandages, pocket mirrors…Their stalls are filled with items that you use in your everyday life. These vendors are the ones yelling for customers when Friday prayers end, the ones selling the colorful umbrellas when it’s raining, the ones making their way through crowded traffic with baskets in their hands. They are professionals in the art of being present in all the city sights we know best, and in drawing attention to themselves and their wares. Where can you see them? On the ferries that cross the waters of the Bosporus, on the trains heading into city suburbs, in local city squares and on street overpasses, among numerous other places.
Come sister, come!
A sudden silence descends on the ferry. What is that guy doing, the one squeezing between the seats on the ferry? Conversation grinds to a halt as all ears are now focused on this man’s words and his wares -- a lemon juice squeezer, a pocket mirror, repair tools of all sorts… He has everything “Ayşe Teyze” and “Fatma Abla” might ever need, and he uses the most interesting sales techniques to sell his wares.
There are all sorts of realities that we never really see in the lives of these omnipresent street vendors. Salim Amca, for example, is a sock seller. He has a pile of socks and stockings spread out over a plastic sheet on the city square. He yells “Choose, mix it up, use your creativity, come sister, come! Those who come get some! Those who come get some!” We approach his stand when he seems to be taking a breather. He learns that we are from a newspaper and seems shy at first, but then he says: “Five years ago, I had a clothing atelier. We had 15 employees, and were so busy.” Then he spoke about a terrible traffic accident that changed everything. When things started to go downhill at work, he took out a loan from a bank and is still trying to pay it back. He admits: “I am hopeless. I still owe money to those who used to work for me. Should I try stealing instead?” He says the money he makes from selling socks is just enough to feed his two children and wife, and his parents. He points to the socks on his stand: “Thanks to Allah, these are enough for us right now. The only thing I really want is for the people who work for the municipality to treat us right. After all, we’ve got kids at home that need bread.”
Yasir Bayram is a 64 year old retired laborer. While he should be enjoying his retired years and playing with his grandchildren, he is instead busy selling goods. He has wrinkled skin and a whitened beard, but says he feels young enough to carry his sports equipment over to the metrobus overpass every day. It doesn’t even seem particularly difficult for him to lift the 10 kilogram weights up and down every day. Every day, he waits for the day to end. He notes that his TL 600 pension is simply not enough to pay his bills, which is why he has to resort to selling on the streets.
Greatest fear: ‘zabıta’
The word “Zabıta” was the first Turkish word that Senagalese vendor Muhammed learnt. He quickly realized that it was used to describe the police who came around and confiscated the bag of watches he was selling. These days, he can pick out the zabıta easily from a crowd. Of course, there are many who are familiar with the intimidating zabıta. Like pastry seller Hasip Özkumbaracı, who works all day at a bakery and sells toys and tools after work to earn a little more. As he speaks, he looks around warily. In fact, he barely looks us in the eyes as he speaks, so intent is he on scanning the immediate surroundings. He lives in fear of losing all of his goods and talks about the many times he has had to flee, spilling his stuff onto the street. What about the wares that has been impounded by the police? He says: “We pay a fine to get them back. The impounded goods are valuable. Otherwise, the goods just lie around in the municipal depot.” He is not angry with the zabıta, recognizing that they are just doing their jobs, but he does wish that they would treat the vendors with a little more sensitivity.
It is not just the municipal police that make life difficult for the vendors. Vendor Hakkı Amca recounted: “Until the year 2000, I made good sales. But that was the year the ‘one million’ stores opened up. That was when my own sales started to go down.” These ‘one million’ stores are seen as stealing customers away from street vendors since they sell the same items as the vendors -- sometimes at a cheaper price. Still, even with falling sales, Hakkı is thankful for what he is able to do.
Kamile Teyze is in the same boat; she sells t-shirts on a stand on the street. She is an expert on loading her goods into a truck or throwing enormous bags onto her back at a moment’s notice. Kamile Teyze used to clean homes and had a neighbor who was a vendor, who she helped out sometimes. She recalls: “One day, the neighbor turned over the wares to me. And ever since then, I have been trying to make a living selling t-shirts and vests.”
Vendors and their wares are a part of our daily lives. No matter how difficult their work and lives are, they seem to be people who are able to push their troubles aside for the moment and spread a little joy in our fast-paced city life.