You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Turkey Before the Crackdown

Remembering beer, book parties, and better times in Istanbul

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Three years ago, I lived in Turkey, on one of the cobble-stone blocks not far from Istanbul's Taksim Square. Downstairs, at all hours, it seemed the taxis and compact cars honked, parting a crowd of sun-drenched tourists gawking at shops selling instruments and trinkets, or buying juice from the conservative guy downstairs, who I'd once seen winding up to yell at his head-scarved wife. During the day, from our balcony, I could reliably watch a dog or two scratching itself in the shade. At night, a Joni Mitchell impersonator warbled for coins, keeping me up, and I wished upon her—and all the drunken revelers, streaming from bars that would one day be closed, and all the illegal construction workers changing the city day and night—a series of incurable lung cancers or some kind of persistent laryngitis. In countries and cities all around us, there was a quiet war going on. 

It was summer and I'd moved to Istanbul a month earlier with my very young daughter, Loretta, leaving the Saudi capital of deeply Islamic Riyadh, where my wife and I had lived for almost two years. Despite or perhaps because of the absence of booze or freedom, we had accomplished much there—among other things, Kelly converted a string of freelance pieces into a full-time job and she also gave birth to the aforementioned daughter. For both of us, Saudi Arabia had been good. Still, we could reasonably conclude that the sights and sounds of diverse Turkey would be a welcome change. The catch was that Kelly would live in Baghdad, and I—except for occasional visits in both directions—would mostly be on my own, with Loretta. 

Several weeks into this arrangement—Kelly covering the war, my daughter and I in Istanbul, me with this sinking feeling that, as lovely as Istanbul was, there seemed to be some rot going on underneath—and it felt like we might never have time or inclination to enjoy the place, and then my in-laws arrived for a three-week stay.

It's hard for me to describe just how hot it can be in Istanbul in July. Perhaps the city is somehow closer to the sun, or lacks the benefit of proper ozone? In any case, one evening, all of us panting in the heat, it was decided that my mother-in-law Claudia would babysit while my father-in-law Steve and I hit the town. Claudia was a long-time eighth-grade history teacher in Lincoln, a town of about 10,000 in Illinois, where she had addressed pupils in the same classroom for four decades. While Loretta slept, she was happy enough to stay home and read. 

Steve, meanwhile, was a retired prison warden, with enough of his old perimeter-securing instincts to consider this an adventure. It was one of the world's great cities! So with some gusto, the man and I began to pound down the warren of streets, surrounded by 100-year-old buildings, some of them abandoned by the Greeks and Jews who'd been chased away. (Over two days in September 1955, riots in Turkey targeted Greek businesses and homes, the beginning of the end for a once-thriving minority population.) We walked steeply downhill, ignoring the ghosts, trying not to get lost or taken advantage of, some of the doorways still featuring Greek or Hebrew lettering from tenants long gone, our view enhanced by the occasional sight, across the river, of seven of the loveliest mosques in all of Islam.

Rounding a bend, we suddenly encountered, in the middle of the street, a teeming mix of hundreds of stylish, smoking, and unshaven Turks and Westerners. The occasion was as unlikely as it was impressive: a book party for my neighbor. During seven years here, he'd fathered two children and had also written a popular series of restaurant reviews. At this point, I could barely remember to shave or buy milk, and merely attending such a party felt like a major accomplishment. 

The scene was a shock, leaving me off-kilter, confused: In reputedly Islamic Turkey, the women—many in sheer, revealing dresses of various flimsy weights—were drinking wine in actual stems glasses. The men—rugged, bearded, wearing effortlessly cool shoes—mostly held cans of Efes Pilsen, the local beer. It felt cavalier to do so in public. Then I eyed my sandals and shorts, with Steve clomping along behind me in white Reebok sneakers, and with some embarrassment, I had to admit we were no less out of place. 

"I'll get beer," I said. 

The glass-fronted gallery had white-washed walls and floors. Giant metal bins were filled with beer and ice. Lusciously framed images—pages blown up from the book —showed bean stews, grilled meat, and tomatoes throbbing with red ripeness. Everything felt fragile and impermanent. Then I saw my neighbor holding court and decided I'd buy a book. The thing was small but sturdy and printed on heavy stock and designed with a tasteful balance of text and illustration. 

"Welcome to your new city," he inscribed. "Eat your way to happiness."

I popped a beer, thinking about happiness. Around me, the crowded seemed bigger than any Chelsea art opening I'd ever attended; it had a greater hum than an illegal Williamsburg loft party; but after all these years away, could I be trusted to know how cool—or doomed—this might be? And what kind of hunger?

I found Steve and we began to peruse the food carts, which were set up in front of the gallery. There were long lines at the "Cucumber man," a local purveyor who deftly cut the vegetable and dusted the elegant fan with rock salt. There was also a baker who from his glass cart would bring out pastries stuffed with meat, cheese, or chocolate. The biggest crowd had gathered for a his-and-hers duo who dished out stews and fried vegetables. Blowing on a wedge of fried zucchini, I heard a young woman say, in lightly accented English: "We did not go to Penn together. I met him later, in Boston."

The call to prayer rang out, a strange contrast to the massive block party, and then I looked up, noticing how tightly packed we were, hemmed in by old buildings, some of which had been resettled by Turks who had moved into abandoned flats. In such close quarters, there was nowhere for all the noise to go but up, where all the people were hanging out the windows, staring at us: the shirtless man with a vast moustache, like some kind of retired Ottoman general, smoking a cigarette with thumb and forefinger; two grim women drinking tea and scowling on a balcony festooned with sunflowers; a gaggle of thin and dirty children opening and closing a second-floor window, cackling, throwing seeds. 

Feeling uneasy, aware suddenly of how the world was both big and very small, I squirmed as a new crowd of men closed in. With none of the rolled-out-bed flair of the hipsters surrounding us, these new guys looked hungry, maybe angry. They were not here for the book party. I imagined their father and grandfathers beating Greek people to death. Yet, when one saw me staring, he began to make up a wrap from his heavily piled plate, stuffing a lettuce leaf with red paste, and he did it with such bonhomie that I felt like I couldn't refuse. Eating, I found the concoction too fiery so I drank instead, learning later—suffering—that I'd eaten raw meat. 

Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. 

"It's hot," Steve said. "I'm leaving."

I watched my father-in-law amble away, summiting the hill just before a stout police wagon arrived, containing two swarthy officers in crisp shirts and peaked caps. There was an air of panic and I saw one of the organizers steal over to the officers bearing platefuls of food. The men were shock troops for the new ruling party and its neo-Islamic revival—but they ate—and then they were gone.

Maybe it would all work out? I pushed back into the gallery and came across my neighbor, who ran his hand through a mane of sweaty hair. "We've sold a bunch of books... Lots of people came." He told me the gallery was well-liked—or at least tolerated. There must have been too many complaints about the noise, we supposed. "We'll be OK." It seemed like a question as much as an answer.

Then I spotted a war photographer I knew from Iraq. As more police appeared, ready it seemed, to crack skulls, to shut this thing down, I began to suspect the problem was all the brazen public drinking. It had been too good to be true, and now we needed a new plan. The crew around the handsome photographer began to grow, accruing slouching and smoking journalists, interns, admirers, filmmakers, graphic designers, writers—people from all over, the nomads who called Istanbul home, a brew of international whatever, people for whom everything was always OK, because they could always move on—and then the TV reporter, blonde hair flying, ran into a tiny store and emerged with a dozen bottles, and I joined the drinking, surprised by how effortlessly I could smile and nod, and we all began to walk away, giving the cops the finger, and then a cat howled and as we trudged up another steep hill, visitors here, the lights bounced off walls, sirens fading. Someone threw a bottle, which exploded.

Without really knowing why, I found myself telling everything to a Turkish women who'd lived in New York: About Saudi Arabia, my in-laws, my wife in Iraq, my daughter, how Istanbul felt haunted, and how since moving here I couldn't stop worrying, that this was really the first night I'd gone out, and how I didn't really understand where any of us were going.

"Don't worry, just...enjoy," she said. "Oooo, look at him." She pointed out a tall, well-built man in our group. "I love this city," she purred.

Taxis crunched over winding lanes, headlights scissoring through smoke. Bars were beginning to open and the night air was finally losing some of its heat. I felt like we had all the time in the world. (Neither the Turkish lady nor I knew at this point how much Istanbul was changing—that many of the bars would soon close, forced out of business when new decrees banned outdoor seating, part of a broad portfolio of heavy-handed and conservative legislation—that, indeed, the whole region was in flux.)

I told my new friend I wanted to get us more beer, then I ducked into a store, excited to make a good impression. After two years in Saudi Arabia, the ability to buy liquor any time I wanted, and in any quantity and variety, was still a rush.

Inside, a cat sat on the register and an old man stared at me blankly. It took me a while to decide what to buy—I would later learn, by trial and error, that all beer in Turkey tasted the same, that the prices would continue to rise, that something fundamental was shifting—and by the time I pondered over how many bottles to get, then finally counted out the proper change, I emerged with a heavy bag, finding to my surprise that everyone was already gone.