We wake up to a view of corn and sunflower fields fast giving way to rows upon rows of apartment blocks in Istanbul’s outlying suburbs. Unlike the crumbling towers of Eastern Europe, many of these are new and shiny, as Istanbul spreads into the agricultural land to the west.
Our Belgrade-Istanbul sleeper curves down to the Sea of Marmara, as we chug through the outlying suburbs. As we get closer in, I can spot tens of tankers queued up, waiting to pass through the narrow Bosphorus. Many of these will be heading for Supsa in Georgia or Novorossiysk in Russia, to fill up with Azeri Caspian crude pumped across the Caucasus, destined ultimately for European or American cars.
Once off the train, we cross the Bosphorus on one of the many city ferries bustling back & forth, in between tankers and cruise ships. Little round jellyfish float past our taxiing ferry, while over fifty fish churn up the water, competing to devour a piece of bread a passenger threw over the rail.
In Kadikoy on the Asian side, Memedali takes us to a restaurant serving home-cooked meals run by four women imprisoned for several years in the 1990s for leftist activism. Vines trail over the patio, providing shade from the intense sun. A poster of Marx in a hard-hat marks 160 years since the Communist Manifesto, while Lukacs and Zizek fill the shelves. Swifts diving over our heads, screeching as they zoom above the café tables. Large gulls flap slowly above the rooftops, two air-storeys above the swifts. Cats snooze, spread out on top of nearby bookstalls.
Take the last ferry back to Karakoy on the European side. As the boat pulls out, it passes 850 cormorants huddled together in single file on the Ottoman pier that juts out from Kadikoy harbour.
I meet an old friend on Istiklal Caddesi, the central pedestrianised shopping street. The last time I was here the air reeked of tear gas as heavily-armed riot cops and water cannons patrolled the streets, trying to stop us reaching the symbolic Taksim Square, site of a massacre of trade unionists in 1977. Now the street is packed with young trendy people, spilling out of bars and cafes everywhere.
My friend M had to leave Turkey to avoid compulsory military service – due at 34 if not fulfilled before. Joining the armed forces of a state conducting aggressive operations against Kurdish communities is not appealing to many young people living in Turkey, particularly activists. Avoiding it can be hard – and many ultimately have to leave the country. M can only return now that hes has found work in a university abroad – but only until he’s 38. Then he must either pay (about £4k) and serve a reduced term, or stay abroad.
He takes us to a back street in Tarlabasi, where some friends are shooting a feature length drama about trans sex-workers in Istanbul. The community is well-established in the area, with specific shops (eg selling wigs) catering to them. While being gay is not illegal, the queer community still faces repression. Tension is high on set, with everybody is worried about possible attacks.