Türkeli Caddesi, Sultanahmet, İstanbul
Walking swiftly through the streets of Aksaray, making sure not to look lost or vulnerable, I glared from behind the scarf covering my mouth. Amir, Adeena and I had agreed to meet at the market where we previously picked up some cooking oil. A few minutes passed and they appeared from around the corner. We greeted one another and they invited me to come to their new room.
We walked down the road a bit and turned up a hill. Most of the streets were completely empty, a stark contrast to the street where we just met. With all your senses you can notice this area is a thrown together mass. Everything here comes out of necessity, much like the people. Broken buildings are fixed with pieces of rubble. Stenches of old meat and composting garbage linger, unlike the rubbish floating down the gutters in the street.
After a few minutes we arrived, walked through the outside door and up a few stairs. Sadly no fewer. The second door - a basic sheet of metal painted white with a small ring as a handle - lead us under the stairs. We went in and entered their room at the end of the slender hall.
The room was bare. An empty bookshelf, a wooden box with an old mattress completed their bedroom set. This, however, was theirs. The first time since they left their home that they had their own space where they ‘would not be disturbed’. I had not seen them smile like this since we met. They quickly explained how they rose early to meet with their new land lorde and how much effort had been put into cleaning this room that was a literal dump.
Unfortunately, the happiness was short lived as we had to return to the very real issue at hand; putting an end to their debt. They were relieved to know that I had brought enough money to cover it, but they told me not to pay everything as it was unreasonable and encourages this man to continue his practice. After a few minutes a friend of theirs came who had also lived with them in the basement room. We rose and left.
On the walk they offered to sit and enjoy a glass of cay, but I desired first to end their predicament, then sit and talk about future steps. They agreed. Their friend, however, declined to walk any further. When we spoke of the old room, his eyes met no one's. Not in a darting nervousness, but in a concentrated effort to emotionally disconnect from a lived experience. This unnerved me.
Already in a very uncomfortable state, a feeling I reserve for Tarlıbaşı - the historic ghetto of Istanbul, I felt the world slow as my senses grabbed anything they could. My mind ran. I had hidden the 1000TL(270USD) in multiple pockets, not only for future bartering, but so that thieves would only lift a couple hundred at a time. If I blended well enough, they would only get the 20TL I kept in my wallet as a distraction. Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.
The friend left and we continued onwards. We entered through the outside door and down the stairs to the basement. A shabby rusted slab served as another door, from the inside, the number of locks are ominous. As the door opened the vigilant looked me over - it is quiet strange to see a westerner in these parts. I greeted him, ‘Selam bey’, he tilted his head and brought me in. In the room there were three men gathered around the land lorde, standing in the centre.
This is precisely the moment that they say you should ’remember your training’. Rather, keep a level head - now is not the time for anxiety, fear or emotion - unless it is controlled. I went round the room, looking each man in the eye; greeting them with ‘Selam’ and an honest smile. If things are to go sour, it is important that they see me as a person and not an enemy.
Finally I reached the land lorde. He had already started questioning Amir about my presence. He invited me to sit next to him. The rest of the room faced us as we discussed the account. As is customary, we were all offered a drink, my friend and his wife declined - a sign that they do not wish to stay or commune with the others. I agreed to some fruit juice, which elicited a laugh, followed by a grin.
The specific words of the conversation are lost to time, but the focus was on the numbers. Any sort of emotion is dangerous. Confidence and sternness are vital. Waver in the beginning and you have set the tone for your compromise. Aggression builds aggression, which is an unwieldy strategy when he holds all the cards.
He showed me his ledger*, a full and dated calculation of when they borrowed how much. It was hard to argue and I was honestly blindsided as my friend had claimed it was all rent - an extortionate price if true, but was proven to be for utilities, food and other essentials as well.
I offered to cover rent and utilities and asked that the food be given as a gift to them as they are struggling.
came the response**. Difficult to contend, but again I pushed for a reduced price. He, like my friends, talked of his struggles and the support he is giving to the other men that share this 12m2(approximately 10ftx15ft) room. After a little more discussion, I saw that he was not going to reduce the debt. So I first put on this condition, ‘I will pay the full amount, if your only contact with these people is to say Selam ‘Alaikum.’ He went further and spoke it while bringing his hand down from his forehead.
This was the matter closed. Though the wife still lives in fear that the slum lorde will come back to attack them, stealing their precious few goods, that is not what I would conclude.
While on the street, prior to meeting this man, images flashed through my mind of powerful mafiosos that forced people into poverty cycles of debt and loans, wealthy men that owned blocks of impoverished people in the valleys of great cities. This was not that man. In a lot of ways he was afraid. For reasons beyond my knowing, he seemed to take my being there as some sort of incompatible force. When we spoke about the actual debt and how it had been accumulated, his stress was not on profit, but on his loss. He was not charging interest nor making money, he was recovering what he had spent. When looking around the room I didn’t see my two friends and their harsh fate, but six people in mutually misery. They are all captive to the same poverty.
*the one pictured above
** please take a moment to think about this. It is probably the most shocking thought in the whole experience.