Our hotel was in a run-down neighbourhood in Beyoglu, not far from the touristy Istiklal Caddesi. The four storey building had been renovated, inside and outside, and it stood like a white swan (the hotel’s name) amid colourless starving ducks. Fifty meters away began an area with gutted buildings and crumbling facades. Opposite this partially demolished stretch was a thriving community: kids playing soccer on the streets, clotheslines across balconies facing each other (an image from Venice, with clotheslines across canals), groceries and vegetable shops with half the wares displayed outside, cars and vans winding through narrow lanes. This could have been a scene in old Delhi.
I later learned that this area, Tarlabaşı, was designated for “urban renewal”: eviction of the residents, demolition of old buildings, construction of new area that would, in the words of Beyoglu’s mayor, “rival the Champs-Élysées in Paris.” At stake here was the preservation of a vibrant culture of migrant workers from eastern Turkey (who moved into the area after the original settlers, Greek, Jewish and Armenian craftsmen, were driven out by riots against non-muslims in 1955), and “210 historic Ottoman era buildings.” A familiar conflict between the commercial interests of the elites and the survival of the marginalised, with a mix of history and politics thrown in.
The hotel had about ten rooms, but no restaurant. It was owned and managed by Sultana, a middle-aged Turkish woman married to a German. (Her husband lived in Germany; she had returned to Istanbul after fourteen years.) She spoke to us in German, slipping occasionally to English while repeating directions she had probably narrated to dozens of other tourists. She ran the hotel herself, assisted sometimes by a woman for administrative tasks. A domestic help came each day to clean the rooms.
Sultana was a natural saleswoman. On the day we arrived, she spoke without pause as she showed us our suite, colouring our impressions while we absorbed what we were seeing. The place had to be good. She told us it was. Our suite, on the fourth floor, had wall-to-wall glass panels on two sides that opened to a stunning view of the neighbourhood, rising above us like an amphitheater.
Each morning the sounds from the street drifted in. Drilling and hammering; boys fighting; crows and seagulls cawing; the muezzin’s call; car horns; voices on loudspeaker (from a vegetable truck passing by); the sudden flutter of pigeons rising from a rooftop; the hiss of cars on a wet street; flapping wet clothes. Over the week, these sounds shaped our sense of the neighbourhood as much as the physical surroundings did.
I often saw Sultana sitting at the hotel entrance, legs crossed, a cigarette in hand. She chatted with passersby or simply sat watching them. Once she stopped me mid-sentence to yell at a municipal sweeper who failed to collect an empty beer bottle cleanly. As the green bottle rolled down the street, she walked over, stopped it with her foot and picked it up. Still shouting, she threw the bottle into a bin nearby. Returning to me she said, “This would never happen in Germany, right?”
She had spent 1.2 million Euros to buy and renovate the property. She looked forward to the urban renewal in progress. A Hilton hotel was coming up nearby, she said. A couple of years later she expected Tarlabaşı to look very different. Describing the hotel interiors, she said everything had been imported from Germany. Pointing to some defects, she blamed local labour.
Late one night we called her with a complaint: the stopper to release water in the wash basin would not open. She walked up four floors (the lift was out of service), released a hidden lever that let the water flow again, and told me that a German man would have figured out the solution himself. “They are very good at these things, you know,” she said, in a matter of fact manner, emphasising their competence more than my incompetence. “So that’s why you married a German, isn’t it?” I said.
Her attitude towards Germany was pragmatic: she liked the German ways, their disciplined and hard-working nature, but did not care much about the country. “Do you like it in Germany?” she asked us once, and then was surprised that we did. That country was too bland for her; not enough of life there, she said. After four days in Istanbul, it was easy to see why.