The Politics of Colliding Worlds in Zeytinburnu

Written by Helen Mackreath

Zeytinburnu district in Istanbul hosts many different life circumstances, constraints and possibilities which collide in uneven, fragmented often contradictory ways. It has been home to a substantial Afghan population since 1983, when the Turkish government invited in a few hundred people during the conflict with the Soviet Union, mainly the Turkmen and Uzbek Afghans who Turkey considers ‘ethnic brothers’. Today the population is a mix of migrants (recent, first and second generation) including Afghans, Turkmen, Uighurs, Kazaks, Tajiks, Iranians, Pakistanis and Syrians, economic migrants from other parts of Turkey (Adana, Urfa, Trabzon, Konya), and Turkish citizens who have been living in the neighbourhood for many decades. The bowels of the street to the sky are marked by capital transactions, which create counterposing lifestyles existing side-by-side. The steady erection of luxury sea-view million lira apartment blocks are intended to attract Arab investors to the area (a $250k property purchase buys you a Turkish passport, and while Iraqis are currently the country’s biggest investors, these buildings in Zeytinburnu, one emlakçı (estate agent) told us, are being aimed at Gulf investors). They are being constructed alongside unstable infrastructure constructed illegally in the 1970s where multiple families now live together, and others of migrant dormitories where beds are rented per hour. According to another Afghan emlakçı working there, “Normally if an apartment rent is 1200 (TL), it costs 1500-1700 (TL) for them [foreigners] because two families, between 10 and 12 people, will stay in one apartment [2 + 1 apartment for five people].” Below the street, visible in vents and airways along the gutters, the clicks of textile machines signal the exploited, mainly migrant, workforce.

Before the introduction of city-wide municipality regulations in June 2019 which stated that 75 percent of street signs had to be in Turkish there were many Farsi and Arabic letters lining the streets, which have now been removed; images of Afghan style haircuts, food (huge Afghan melons are imported by air, sold for 60 Turkish lira), Afghan and Turkmen flags still remain visible. According to the Mukhtar of Nuri Paşa neighbourhood, one within the district, there are “Afghan, Uighur lokantas, Syrian bakkals and market. The butcher in front of us is Afghan. If you go down the street there are Afghan Uighur restaurants. If you exit Çarşamba Pazar there are Syrian real estate agents, bakkals and grocery stores. There are all kinds of trade, they usually shop from each other.” The Mukhtar invokes the idea of a cosmopolitan and harmonious community. But global structural tendencies are also intruding into the space, through capitalism, the businesses which have been created by repercussions of global migration management regimes (from smuggling to humanitarian), the internalisation of different visions of hospitality, belonging, nationalism, and the increasing insecurity and anxiety prompted by the heightened deportations which had started to intensify in the weeks around the time of the interviews in mid September 2019.

This report will briefly discuss some interviews conducted with Turkish, Turkmen and Afghan members of the community regarding perceptions of these different groups of people living together. Perceptions of ‘others’ and the drawing of boundaries within a space is extremely complicated. The following observations will only show an incomplete perspective, not necessarily representative, which were also influenced by the kind of relational interactions which myself and two translators encountered.* These observations indicate the complicated manifestations of racism and othering, which are influenced by ideological perceptions and bias as well as misinformation. These are not only related to cultural, ethnic or gendered differences but are deeply implicated with the forms of political and economic domination which structure the whole social formation and which take on particular characteristics at particular moments of time. They demonstrate various interpretations of ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’ and expose the contradictions and hypocrisies which underlie the categorisations of different groups within the neighbourhood, illustrating the political deployment of such categories.

A total of seventeen Turkish citizens (including second generation Turkmen migrants), and seven Afghans were spoken to predominantly in the Nuri Paşa neighbourhood of Zeytinburnu in September 2019. They were approached randomly on the street or in local shops by myself, a female British researcher, and either Lara, a female Turkish partner, or Hassan, a male Afghan partner. Most people were happy to talk with us, but our national/gender identities may have influenced the kinds of conversations we had, most obviously in the patriarchal forms of nationalism expressed and the frequent interrogations of British/European/Western asylum and military policies. They may also have had other, more invisible, bearings on trust and levels of self-censorship or self-aggrandising. We asked people a few standard questions about their interaction with other members of the community [which most people automatically took to mean Syrians], and how they felt about living alongside these other members. Unfortunately we weren’t able to speak to any Syrians owing to their absence from public spaces during the hours of conducting the interviews. As the subject of so many intense constructions the absence of their perspective is a major gap, yet serves to further illustrate their invisibility from any kind of conversation about their present and future presence in the country.  

The comments presented here are only my initial interpretations, which could clearly be further extended and placed within a more theoretically informed frame. Specifically, my intention here is to try and disentangle mechanisms and forms of discrimination by situating them within political and economic structures. In general the articulations of attitudes of Afghans towards Syrians and of Turkish individuals towards Syrians/Afghans employ various strands of logic which often contradict and counterpose each other.

Nationalism: Different threads of representation called strategically into being

Different forms of nationalism, and related boundaries of ‘belonging’ are called into being in strategic, fractured, relational and contradictory ways in response to the perceived characteristics of Syrians and Afghans. These are embedded, consciously or not, within economic, material and political realities.

“As MHP [Nationalist Movement Party] we are the reason why these lands are like this. Now people are coming here, sleeping in the parks, in need of bread, on the beach, on the street, as a whole family…. That man has left his wife and his child there, not taking care of them. …. You see people are hungry, or groups are wrestling for money, they are after different things. We can see everything with our own eyes, we see with our framework,” (Male MHP Youth member).

You have trouble when you take your wife out to the street… This is a problem of Syrians. Other [migrants] mind their own business, we don’t have a problem with them. They are from our nation, they are Turkish. I don’t mean to exclude the Syrians, but there are many Syrians here right now,” (Turkish Male shop-owner).

Someone wears a skirt, so on so forth, they stare at them [women] automatically. What are they looking at? We need to kick their ass. The most important thing for us is honor. You know, the horse, the wife, the gun,” (Turkish Male Café worker).

These three men demonstrate the ease with which fragile masculinity and sense of patriarchal honour is triggered by the need to respond to the ‘threat’ posed by specifically Syrian men to women (of any nationality) and by the ‘stares’ and ‘dominance’ of Syrian men on the street. The first, self-identified young nationalist, locates his grievance within a complex mesh of disgust at poverty, inequality, violent competition, lapse of so-called male responsibilities towards women, and patterns of social behavior, which he regards as disturbing an implied pre-existing peace. Collapsing all other structural and political factors at work, he locates Syrians as the root of these problems; his words “we see with our framework” indicates explicitly that his narration of the world is informed by ideology (far-right nationalism in this case).

A Turkish woman spoken to while she was sitting on the street, directly linked her fear of ‘enemies’ within the foreign population to her nostalgia about a lost sense of neighbourhood, which she invokes as a space of sharing among known individuals.

“We don’t have much of our old comfort because there are lot of foreigners. Now it’s so complicated. I mean, there’s no ‘komşuluk’ [neighbourness, the social ethics of being a neighbour] dialogue. There is no sharing, so there is no such thing as a friendship or a family as it used to be. … [My acquaintances] mostly leave Istanbul because there is not much work for them, migrants are more suitable…. There were Afghans. Now people from Iran, even from Somalia come, I see them. Syrians are already everywhere. So we feel like we are in a foreign country…. From time to time, one can feel uneasy, we may think that there are enemies within us.”

This explicitly anxiety-induced racism constructs a direct link between increasing numbers of foreigners and the breaking up of family, friendship and shared space. Rather than recognising the simultaneous fragmentation of communities, squeezed living space and individualisation of lives as being a result of the imposition of vicious, unregulated forms of neoliberal capitalism, she directly blames the ‘other’ for her own changed life circumstances. This kind of racism, in which the imagined ‘other’ is both constructed within particular conditions and simultaneously blamed for those conditions, is easy to exploit by the current Far Right who blame migrants while preserving the logics of neoliberalisms.

Contradictory logics and constructions of ‘tolerance’

Some people invoke a more universalising approach towards ‘foreigners’, judging not along identity lines, but based either on a universal idea of ‘morality’ (the binary division of ‘good’ and ‘bad’) or along temporal categories of ‘newcomer’ versus ‘established’ settler (shorthand for ‘integrated’). This bestows legitimacy over the right to live in a space along an unspoken code of worth. “Newcomers are coming because of the war, and we have good and bad between them,” (Afghan Male Bakkal owner). “The government treat Syrians and Afghans the same. Of course we have good and bad people everywhere… Even if the government views everyone the same, among the people it may depend.” (Afghan Male call centre owner who was born in Zeytinburnu).

There are the good ones, my clients. But the bad guys, I’m sorry to say, bad people. Every human being has their bad sides, but the Syrians are a bit tougher… For example, new arrivals have more bad people, so that’s why many people were caught and deported back to Syria. But there are also good ones, those men work in the workshops, goes to work and in the evening goes back home,” (Second generation Male Turkman).

I heard things about Syrians but I haven’t had any directly bad experience. I haven’t come across the so called ‘bad ones’. I heard some are thieves, that they can go to hospitals more easily,” (Female Turkish shop owner).

The required terms of belonging to this community, as an outsider, is presented by both Turkish and Afghan interviewees to be integration, and on the individual responsibility of the foreigner to adapt themselves.

 “In Turkey, generally, in Zeytinburnu, there were a lot of Afghans. Kazakhs as well. We were comfortable with them. Those who came lately, they’re a little bit more greedy. Because Since they came in 1960-70, they have been here for four generations, now these people have kids or grandchildren and inevitably they adapt to the dress codes and customs we have. Muslim people [from outside] experience Islam a bit more intensely. The problems we have are with the newcomers… they have heavier religious duties…. They can’t live here, with white dresses, saying “yallah habibi yallah” They can’t walk around like that. [Local] people would be bothered.” (Turkish Male Café Worker).

Of course there’s a difference between newcomers and those who’ve lived here for several years. Those who came here before, they gradually managed to adapt themselves to Turkish culture. But of course the newcomers might not be able to adjust to the new system, new culture and traditions… If they want to survive they need to adjust themselves. …For example Afghans who came here before, they dress like Turks. The way they talk, the way they carry themselves and dress is like Turks. Syrians did not adapt themselves to Turkish society. They engage in criminal acts, there is bullying on the street. This is why Turkish people don’t like them. Syrians here have no impact on me and they would never impact me because I’m complying with Islamic Shar’ia laws, Islamic culture.” (Afghan Male working in call centre/visa shop)

This comment, spoken by an Afghan man who has lived in Istanbul for eleven years, indicates both the quick criminalisation of Syrians which constructs them as a ‘dangerous’ group, and the different overlapping communities of belonging within which he locates himself (in this case ‘Turkish society’ and ‘Islamic culture’).

The following exchange, which took place in a small café located on the corner of two intersecting streets, clearly highlights the boundaries and limits of this ‘cosmopolitan’ community as being acceptable only so long as hierarchies are maintained and ‘submissive’ groups know, accept and perform their given roles. This decimates any pretense (a pretense which is in any case often only strategically deployed) of equality and reveals the partial core of liberties.

“There are lots of migrants around me. My apartment is full of them. In this apartment, on the entrance floor Afghan Turkmen are mixed, Georgian, Turkmen are mixed on the second floor, there is Kazakh above Syrian on the right.”

When I asked him what his relationship was with them, he replied “We’re all good, or else…” while jokingly brandishing the knife he was using to cut bread. His older companion interjected, saying “There can be no tension. Because they’re the minority, they abstain from us. If they were the majority, they would try to crash us… They keep quiet because they know this.”

The original man continued: “We are a very merciful society… I mean, we don’t really treat anyone badly if he/she is in a bad condition already.  But I swear to you, they wouldn’t do the same in their own country to you.”

While the exchange demonstrates the potential violence embedded within nationalist hierarchies, the last comment draws on more liberal accounts of nationalism, of the merciful community which extends care to those in need while maintaining its moral superiority over them. This constructed position allows further space for the strategic exclusion of certain groups or individuals within it, sometimes violently so.

Hierarchies created by Capitalism

While many Turkish people interviewed located the root of their discontent with Syrians as being their claimed aversion to work (in contrast to the other migrant groups) or taking money from the government, the contradiction and fallacy of this position is highlighted by both the Mukhtar and Afghans spoken to who indicated the extent to which Syrian labour is being exploited. The Mukhtar indicated that businessmen and factory owners in Zeytinburnu were concerned that the deportations of Syrians from the city would leave them without an easy source of cheap labour:

I will tell you the most striking event, Turkish citizens who owns the business, complaints began. ‘What are we going to do when they leave, who will work for us?’ Syrian workers are going and what are we going to do?  Managers say.” (Mukhtar)

Two other Afghans blamed the [inaccurately believed] preferential legal situation and theoretical right to work of Syrians compared to Afghans as allowing Syrians the opportunity to undercut Afghans in the labour market.

“Syrians have negatively impacted on Afghans in terms of jobs. When Syrians started coming to Turkey, I used to work as a tailor and I got paid 700TL per week. This was kind of minimum wage, employers were not allowed to pay less than that. But Syrians were voluntarily approaching employers, saying ‘give me 400-450TL per week and I’ll work for you’. This was five years ago. Of course employers were exploiting this situation, kicking out the Turkish guys and telling the Syrians ‘if you have family members able to work for the same price, bring them to me’,” (Afghan call shop owner).

“You are Syrian, I am Afghan. Even if you come to Turkey illegally, the Turkish government registers you here, you have the right to work. You work for 50 TL, I work for 100 TL, of course the boss will choose to work with you. Afghans are very hard working people. Syrians are lazy and don’t work.” (Afghan man who’s lived in Zeytinburnu his whole life).

Their words highlight the logic of racism among minority groups. Rather than blaming employers for exploiting Syrians and therefore undermining the informal minimum wage, they blame Syrians without recognising their shared precarisation. The exploitative behavior of bosses is normalised, while the behaviour of Syrians is morally criticised. For the Turkish people spoken to, the right to membership of the community for Afghans is solely based on their provision of cheap labour which contributes to the Turkish economy. One Afghan man, who owns his own bakkal shop, explicitly states that Afghans are being exploited by Turkish capitalists because they are more exploitable in comparison to Syrians. He also suggests that Afghans are expected to inhabit a certain economic status, by describing the ‘jealousy’ directed towards him by people surprised by his economic/social mobility –

“When I tell Turks that I’m from Afghanistan they become jealous and discriminate more in their behavior. They question how I was able to become an entrepreneur. Turks are surprised and shocked. The Turkish mentality is normally that Afghans work for others,” (Afghan Bakkal owner).

Uneasy contradictions of Afghan opinions towards Syrians

The articulations of attitudes of Afghans towards Syrians employ various strands of logic, some of which counter-pose Syrians against Afghans in a relational manner, using the same stereotypes which are aligned with a Turkish perspective largely taken from mainstream media; others which invoke a shared space; others which list both grievances and acceptances in an incompatible and discordant way. The articulations of shared space range from a notion of co-habitation, to solidarity over shared circumstances, to a sense of superiority or alliance with Turkish people. For these Afghans, the justifications of accepting Syrians are fragile and rest on shifting parameters which are largely relational to the security of their own position.

“The Turkish government has provided a lot of benefits to Syrians, in contrast to Afghans. They [Syrians] create some problems. They can be bullies in the neighbourhood, or can sexually harass people in the neighbourhood. Afghans, when they come here, they come for work. They try their best to avoid creating any kind of problems for others. And we pay for everything, even healthcare and hospitals… Syrians don’t affect us at all. We don’t harm them, they don’t harm us either. They’ve not created any problem for us, and the same of us to them. I don’t say that Syrians should be kicked out and we should stay. No. We are quite harmless and Syrians are harmless here,” (Afghan man employed by call shop with a sick son).

Initially their [Syrian] impact was not tangible, but now Afghans have started feeling it. Because they’re saying they’re going to kick out many Syrians from Istanbul, so Afghans have started to fear this… There has always been resentment between Afghans and Syrians, even from Adam and Eve… But they did not have serious conflict here. They can feel each other, they have the same conditions,” (Afghan Bakkal owner).

The presence of Syrians has not changed the relationship between Turkish people and Afghans. … Syrians had a zero affect on Afghan market jobs. Even when I go to apply for a job in a Turkish company and they ask me if I’m Syrian or from Afghanistan … When I tell them I’m from Afghanistan they like me more,” (Afghan man working in a call/visa shop).

Some Afghans directly link Turkish resentment towards Syrians with a change in attitude towards their community. They have the perception, mainly as a result of the increasing numbers of newcomers of all nationalities, that the Turkish residents of Zeytinburnu are increasingly conflating the identities of Afghans and Syrians into one negatively defined ‘foreigner’ status.

From the very beginning, Turks were quite ok with Afghans here and they never had problems. But with Syrians they have problems because they blame them for ruining the country. Syrians have definitely impacted on Afghans. The number of foreigners, asylum seekers has increased in Turkey and it affected Afghans because Turks don’t have a positive impression of foreigners in general. Initially they loved Afghans, when the number was low. But then they started hated everyone including Afghans,” (Afghan shop worker).

Turkish people’s attitude [to Afghans] was so good until the war in Syria started. And then lots of Syrians started entering Turkey. Since then Turkish people’s attitudes towards refugees and foreigners in general changed. Everyday we hear from the news that Syrians are committing crimes, they rape women, they harass people on the street, they’re fighting on the street. Because of Syrians, my situation is also affected. Now the police stop me on the street and ask for my kimlik [identity card]…” (Afghan call shop owner who has lived in Istanbul for fifteen years).

Here they describe a shift in the boundaries of a community in which they had previously understood themselves to be a member, but which has now been redrawn to exclude them. Systems of legitimating and distributing roles, which is done literally through institutional policing, as mentioned above, but also through the invisible policing mechanisms of individuals, determine who is permitted to cross the boundary and who not. This is an inherently political question. The repercussions of the examples above are that the interests of Afghans are set squarely against those of Syrians.

Brief Comments

There are multiple, sometimes overlapping, sometimes antagonistic, narratives at play of Zeytinburnu as an imagined community. On the one hand it is presented not only as a cosmopolitan community, but a place which has always been like that. As such foreigners are welcomed, even required, within the limits of what this represents. On the other hand there are clear rules and hierarchies within this space. The parameters of those boundaries produce an uneasy tension between the ‘cosmopolitan’ ideal promoted by the Mukhtar and its lived reality, a trap of both desire and rejection, which creates confused perspectives about how many, which, or how foreigners should be permitted to live. This kind of pragmatic racism is elastic to fit economic necessity, as and when required. Slippery and ambiguous boundaries of acceptance and belonging are often contradictory since they’re rooted in constructions which are easily manipulated. Narratives about Syrians are politically deployed and discursively narrated. The moral decay, dirtiness, criminality, inability to control sexual impulses which are attributed to Syrians are common attributes projected onto any marginalised community as a means to justify their further dispossession. Ironically, some of the Afghans spoken to also use the same categorisations about Syrians, of sexual harassment, crime, bullying, which are pulled directly from the mouths of those who they are also being exploited by.

Some interviewees called into being the idea of a ‘universal humanity’ by using a binary distinction of “good” versus “bad” as a means of eliding any differences of identity (nationality, culture, religion, class). These subjective distinctions call into being old fears of criminality and chaos which are empty, arbitrary and easily manipulated – are the metrics of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ metrics of ‘innocent’ vs ‘guilty’, ‘just’ vs ‘unjust’, ‘illegal’ vs ‘legal’? They merely serve to draw even more insidious lines and boundaries guarded by invisible individual adjudicators and highlight the shortcomings of arguably liberal discourses in terms of equality, as well as a shift towards individualised social space. They also draw attention to the question of what kind of political agency is afforded to Syrians who, despite being refugees, do not hold internationally recognised legal refugee status and who occupy urban spaces as perceived competitors for jobs, space and women.

The logic of the market, alongside war and persecution, which brought many Afghans to Turkey and many Syrians to Istanbul in the first place, also works to isolate, fragment and make it impossible to share day-to-day interactions within the space. For the Afghans spoken to, the discipline of the self, in this case to avoid social isolation, is internalised as basic acceptance of the need to integrate in order to ‘belong’, and to work cheaply (i.e. be exploited) for Turkish employers. Many of their ambivalent (sometimes judgmental) attitudes towards Syrians reflect both the flexibility required of them to occupy a precarious informal space and also the limited nature of their encounters with Syrians within a shared space, owing largely to their imperative to work long hours. Some Afghans may also project racism onto Syrians as protection against being targets of the same racism. Those Afghans spoken to have two general positions regarding Syrians in the workforce – either that Syrians are undercutting job opportunities or that they are not working in the same industries as Afghans and there is no overlap or competition between the two communities. No recognition of a position in which they are embracing worker solidarity as members of an equally precarious labour force, albeit in often distinct working sectors, was given by those interviewed. Only one Afghan spoken to makes an explicit connection with Syrians along lines of solidarity and equality, (“they can feel each other, they have the same conditions”), but he also takes pride in identifying himself as an entrepreneur, in detachment from the financial precarity of many Afghans in Zeytinburnu.

In the context of a political space where the official narrative around Syrians produced by the ruling party keeps shifting; in tandem with the precarity, uncertainty and individualising effects of neoliberalism, which go hand-in-hand with urban transformation and the trend of many inhabitants being pushed out of the city owing to the rising costs of rent; and considering the confused boundaries of an imagined cosmopolitan space where who is allowed to enter and on what terms is under constant, uneasy, negotiation, the conversations with Turkish citizens reveal the brittle, fragile relationship with national identity and the anxiety induced by the rapidly changing nature of the city. The morbid politics of race, gender, class and nation continue to be shaped in discriminatory ways, with the construction of tolerance allowing space for racism and exploitation. This racism in turn is working to sour economic relations, and distort the politics of ‘belonging’.

** With thanks to Lara Özlen and A. Hassan Hassanzadeh for their contribution to the research