It being our second visit of reasonably good length to the city of Istanbul, and as long-term travelers perhaps not as energetic in re-visiting all of the typical sights, we thought that we would make our way to an Istanbul neighborhood described in the Lonely Planet as being the staging post for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from points east looking to go to points west, a key stop on a modern day underground railroad for those trying to escape persecution or simply looking for opportunity not offered in their homeland. Such migrant ghettos have intrigued me for a while, and I had no doubt that Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood would be an uncommonly interesting place, with its diversity of ethnic makeup and the transitory nature of its population. But I did not expect from our visit the richness of the experience that we ended up having.
I timed our visit with market day, and produce and other goods filled the streets. While most of the vendors and customers were Turkish, we saw in the mix children from Uzbekistan and young men from various African countries. Stores advertised passenger and freight services to Russia and the Ukraine. We had a light snack at a local lokanta and walked through the market, taking pictures as we have in so many others this year.
Phone centers hint at the national origins of Kumkapi’s diverse residents.
But our Kumkapi experience was to be much more personal. It was about lunchtime when, while snapping some pictures of a vegetable vendor, we exchanged a few words with a gentle Asiatic-looking man in his late 20s or early 30s who spoke a fair amount of English. This smaller man was with a much heartier western-looking man of similar age and an older western-looking man. The three spoke to each other in a common tongue, Farsi, giving away their national and ethnic origins, as the three confirmed to us in our brief conversation. The smaller man was Hazara Afghan, but from Iran, while the other two were Iranians (though of Turkic descent, it turned out). They were an unlikely threesome, and after we heard a little about what each was up to in Istanbul, we could hardly resist when they invited us for lunch.
We followed them to their cheap pension a few blocks away, six beds to a room but comfortable enough. For lunch the five of us shared a pot of ghormeh sabzi packed in from Iran by the elder and a couple chickens bought from across the street, together with rice and a thin Afghan-style bread. They gave us the choicest meat and kept our glasses full of soda, treating us as guests in their room despite the fact that we were all travelers away from home. As we ate, they told us their stories.
We learned that the younger Iranian had been living in Istanbul for two months, seemingly a libertine escape from his unemployed and dull existence back home. He is in his mid-twenties, but looks a bit older, as Iranians often do. His father had come to Istanbul to retrieve him, not only dismayed by his son’s phone calls for more money but to ease the concerns of the mother, who was crying for her son to return home. The father was concerned, too, at his son’s apparent lack of maturity–“No wife, no job!” he said, shrugging–but did not seem disapproving of his son’s lifestyle in Istanbul, which evidently revolved around women and alcohol. The father was no fan of the Islamic Revolution, frequently interrupting himself mid-sentence with a heartfelt “goddamn Iran,” and saw no harm in his enjoying a beer or two (or, for that matter, his son’s seeing a prostitute or two) while in Turkey. “No beer, no whorehouse, Iran is very bad. Goddamn Iran! Goddam Iran!” he told us, shaking his head.
But more interesting than the story of the prodigal son and the liberal father was the story of the Afghan. But perhaps even to refer to him as an Afghan is misleading. Like so many people of Afghan descent living in Iran, Iran is the only home he has ever known–his family left war-torn Afghanistan when he was still a baby. Like other Afghan refugees in Iran, his family has lived very much among the Iranians, after all speaking a similar native tongue, but never became fully integrated, instead suffering much discrimination at both personal and official levels. Finally having had enough, and after some legal troubles arising from an interview he gave to a reporter, the Afghan decided to leave, parting with his elderly father and the only home he knows in order to find a better life in Europe. His model, a nephew who made it to Sweden and was living happily there.
Of course, and it was with some shame and a sense of helplessness that he acknowledged it to us, his journey is not “legal.” From Iran he paid $1300 to be smuggled across the border, in a truck full of other Afghan refugees, and the use of a fake passport (or rather a real passport but with his picture tampered into it), complete with Turkish entry stamp, to use in Turkey (the passport eventually had to be returned, presumably to be used over and over). He left Iran a month ago–the first time in his life. From Turkey he would go by fishing boat to Greece, then from Greece to Italy, then from Italy to France, and eventually hopefully to freedom and documents in Sweden. He didn’t want to break the law but felt he had no choice, no chance for a life in Iran, especially after his run-in with the Iranian authorities (an event that might help him qualify for asylum somewhere, I imagine). He was clearly bright, educated and proficient in English–no doubt a productive citizen for any country that would accept him. But first he had to get there.
After lunch we left the pension and walked south to the coast, stopping by at a store to pick up a few tall cans of Efes Xtra beer (none for the Afghan, who doesn’t drink), which we sipped while watching the sun go down on the Sea of Marmara. Derek took some pictures of some hefty giggling Sudanese ladies exercising on the playground equipment nearby. The night was getting chilly, and the Iranian son insisted I wear his sports coat.
We talked about our experiences traveling in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world. When we mentioned the Iranian pilgrims in Damascus, the father explained that there were two kinds of Iranians, those who traveled to Syria for pilgrimage and those who traveled to Turkey for alcohol and sex. The father thought (as we heard so often in Iran) that the whole of Iran was clinically depressed, and he looked forward to eventually retiring, selling his house and emigrating. The father explained how, when the Revolution came, everyone thought they would be free of the tyranny of the Shah, only to realize six months later that things were getting incomparably worse instead. The father explained that he was afraid even to be seen talking to us, Americans, that the “Iranian FBI” kept a watchful eye on the movements of Iranian nationals outside the country. He held out his hand to show that it was actually shaking.
After finishing our beers, we walked with the two younger men back toward town. We walked with them first to an employment agency, where they were due for a meeting that ended up not happening. The Iranian was helping the Afghan find work, so that he could save some money for the next legs of the journey. This involved temporarily surrendering his passport, what for us would have been a nerve wracking amount of trust in people that, judged by their profession–finding under-the-table jobs–may not be too trustworthy. (The Afghan would go on to find a job as a shoemaker, his trade, for $400 a month plus room and board, the first $150 of which would have to go to the employment agency as a finder’s fee.)
The young Iranian asked us if we’d been to Taksim, Istanbul’s nightlife district, perhaps assuming, as non-westerners from conservative countries seem apt to sometimes, that coming from the rich and licentious West our lives must be all about booze and discos. He seemed disappointed when we said that we did not go out much, and he took us on a little detour to the nearby street where Iranian and Russian men go for alcohol and prostitutes, a dreary assortment of bars and restaurants with multilingual touts and bored-looking women of all ages. The Afghan explained how he’d never even spoken to a woman before, and was intrigued enough to visit one of these restaurants. After trying without success to explain that he wanted only to talk to one of the women, he admitted that he had no money and was thrown out. The evening getting late, the two walked us to the tramway and we headed back to our Galata hotel.
We’re about to leave Istanbul and Turkey, headed for a long journey of our own, but one on a straightforward series of trains and with our U.S. passports in hand, a journey with no doubt as to our eventual arrival at the destination. When the Afghan feels he has saved enough, he too will move on, but who knows what luck he will or will not have. When we first told him that we were American–he never having been outside of Iran we were probably the first Americans that he had ever met–he explained to us how his English textbook said that Americans were warmer and more open than Brits. “And it said that America is the Land of Opportunity–I never forgot this.” He can’t go to America–it’s too far and, despite the millions who manage to make it in every year, our doors are still not open enough to accept all of even the most deserving immigrants. And so for him, his journey is from Iran to Sweden.
(We will try to stay in touch with him, by email, to see how things turn out–look back here for updates.)