Balat I: life in the thrilling streets

  • January 19th, 2012

    DERELICT BUILDINGS ABOUND.

    I’d been meaning to do a proper walk around Balat for a while, but it wasn’t until I recently visited Sema Topaloglu‘s Cibali Studio along the Golden Horn, that I remembered just how fascinating this neighborhood in the Fatih municipality of Istanbul is

    There’s a different atmosphere in this part of the city. The air in the narrow streets is redolent with coal smoke and memories of better times. It’s in a somewhat dilapidated state, but more importantly, like someone recently said, it has a certain “mystic” quality to it.

    This area has particular significance for the Sephardic Jewish community. After the Sephardim in medieval Spain were forced into exile and worse by the Edict of Alhambra, many relocated here at the invitation of Sultan Bayazid II who—unlike the villainous duo and friends of the Inquisition, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain—appreciated the great cultural and intellectual contribution that could be made by such a community.

    It’s a sad sign of the times that today there are far fewer Sephardim than there used to be, and a reminder that the multicultural glory days, and especially the protection of non-Islamic culture, belong to Turkey’s past.

    LIGHT & SHADOW JAGS THROUGH BALAT’S STREETS.

    There’s an understandable watchfulness, perhaps even suspicion, by many of the residents towards outsiders. Perhaps they are wondering what’s going to happen next in this neighborhood. There are the architecture students with their sketchpads and gear. There are the faithful visiting mosque, church, and synagogue, perhaps looking for a miracle.

    And then there are the young … irrepressible and alive.

    TOUR GUIDES? PICKPOCKETS? DEPENDS ON HOW YOU ANSWER THEM.

    Up above the old Greek school, Megali Sholi (Big School), which dominates Balat’s heights, I was quickly confronted by an all too helpful group of boys. Some wanted to be my tour guide. Some wanted me to take their pictures. Some wanted to drop snowballs on my head. All wanted money and to show me around. When I told them I had no money, one started to try and work his hand into my jacket pocket.

    To be honest, I was more amused than offended. Caught, the young offender simply shrugged, amicable, as if to say, “Well, I had to try.”

    SPORT IN THE SCANT SNOW.

    Despite the fact that it’s far from being a thriving, prosperous part of the city, Balat isn’t depressing either. There are surprising flashes of color, like the truck full of oranges so bright it seemed like a blast of juice in my eye. And then there’s the way the sun’s warm golden beams slant long and low through the curving, narrow streets.

    COLOR HITS YOU SUDDEN AS A TRUCK FULL OF ORANGES.

    TWO STUDENTS INSISTING THAT THEIR PICTURE BE TAKEN.

    But most of all there’s a distinct sense of play. On this particular day there were children making makeshift sleds from scraps of wood to enjoy the thrill of their icy streets. Or older students demanding that they be models.

    AN OLD SAILOR. HE’S KNOWN MANY PORTS, BUT ONLY THIS ONE WILL SUFFICE.

    Just as I my fingers were starting to go numb from cold, I saw this distinguished looking character watching. He was very still. Though his hat was pulled low over his forehead I could see his eyes glinting, and tell I was being observed. A former sailor, he’d traveled the world, especially South America. He’d even lived in Brazil for a while, but he told me that the country was ‘Fakir’ (poor/run down). I think he said it with no sense of irony, and wasn’t necessarily referring to material wealth.

    My Turkish isn’t good enough to discern everyone’s nuances. As far as he was concerned, though, there’s no port of call but Istanbul.

    NOT SURE WHAT THIS DOG IS GUARDING, BUT THERE’S DEFINITELY SOMETHING.

    He might well be right. There’s a lot of work to be done in this neighborhood, and it’s fallen into a deep state of disrepair. Still, something resonates underneath the surface. Something is waiting. Perhaps it’s the strong sense of promise.

    I know I’ll be back.

    BALAT, LIKE THIS CART, WAITS.

    Posted in Photography, Places | | No Comments

Comment

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required