Is­tan­bul’s im­mi­grant food cafes feel the pinch

Re­gional con­flicts, tighter re­stric­tions on mi­grants and in­fla­tion are tak­ing a toll on the Turk­ish city’s eth­nic eater­ies that are striv­ing to serve a taste of home in a foreign coun­try, writes Stephen Starr

The National - News - The Review - - Roundup - Stephen Starr is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor who has lived in Syria and Turkey since 2007.

Early on New Year’s Day, a sleepy im­mi­grant restau­rant in Is­tan­bul’s Zeyt­in­burnu dis­trict wel­comed its most in­fa­mous guest. Hours be­fore, Ab­dulka­dir Masharipov had shot to death 39 rev­ellers at an up­mar­ket night­club on the shores of the Bospho­rus. The ISIL ter­ror­ist’s first move was to spend the re­main­der of the night in the Möl­cer Dag Cafe – a place he seems to have cho­sen at ran­dom, but that he thought would of­fer sanc­tu­ary.

To­day, the Uyghur cafe is shut­tered and its owner Sem­set­tin Dur­san is nowhere to be seen. Oz Ah­met, a man­ager at a Uyghur restau­rant fac­ing the Möl­cer Dag Cafe says he has no idea what hap­pened to Dur­san, but that po­lice came and locked down the cafe just days af­ter Masharipov made it a cen­tre of world at­ten­tion. For Dur­san, his name and liveli­hood be­came a ca­su­alty of ter­ror­ism for no greater a crime than run­ning a ser­vice for Uyghurs.

Restau­rants such as Dur­san’s serve as both a link to home for im­mi­grants who’ve fled per­se­cu­tion and war, and a place to keep alive age-old cook­ing tra­di­tions. Chefs, culi­nar­ists and restau­ra­teurs are among the thou­sands who have fled con­flict in Ye­men, Afghanistan and west Africa, to name just a few, for Is­tan­bul.

How­ever, though Is­tan­bul’s large pop­u­la­tions of Syr­i­ans and Iraqis sus­tain their own time-hon­oured cook­ing tra­di­tions, the food cul­tures of smaller im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties such as those named above may be at risk of los­ing their unique essence. At the non­de­script Ebuka Mama Nige­rian cafe in Is­tan­bul’s Kumkapi dis­trict, groups of men and women chat while down­ing jollof rice, cow hoof stew and goat leg pep­per soup. Up­beat African mu­sic blares. This is an es­tab­lish­ment with no need for menus: its west African cus­tomers know that the yam, plan­tain and Og­bono soup – ground tree nuts, sea­son­ings and meat – served here of­fer a gen­uine taste of home.

But a deal signed last year be­tween the Euro­pean Union and Turkey to block mi­grants reach­ing the shores of Greece has hurt the cafe’s busi­ness. “I knew about 50 peo­ple from Nige­ria who came to Is­tan­bul be­cause of the [Boko Haram] vi­o­lence in the north [of Nige­ria]. They were head­ing to Greece and then Europe,” says owner Chukwu Ekuba from Anam­bra state in south Nige­ria. “That was two years ago; now, [the num­ber of cus­tomers is] down by around 40 per cent be­cause peo­ple can’t get to Europe any­more.”

In Is­tan­bul’s Ak­saray dis­trict, a bustling hub for im­mi­grants from Morocco to the Philip­pines, the unimag­i­na­tively named Ye­meni Restau­rant is jammed with cus­tomers: men on hair trans­plant va­ca­tions, fam­i­lies and suited African busi­ness­men. Twenty-nine work­ers, 15 of whom are Ye­meni, keep the tra­di­tional saltah beef stew and mendy – a dish of moist rice topped with slow­cooked chicken, cloves, car­damom pods, raisins, cashews and saf­fron – on hun­gry pa­trons’ plates. In a down­stairs kitchen, chicken pieces are cooked in a me­tre-deep, wood-fu­elled taboon oven for about two-and-ahalf hours. The restau­rant is an im­por­tant gath­er­ing point for Ye­me­nis and east Africans in Is­tan­bul for the rea­son that it is dif­fi­cult to find any Ara­bic food in the city other than Syr­ian.

Man­ager Hani Ye­hya from Sanaa, how­ever, says not to be fooled by the crowds. “It is busy be­cause to­day is Fri­day, a hol­i­day for these cus­tomers,” he says. “At first there were a lot of Ye­me­nis com­ing, but they be­gan to find it ex­pen­sive.” Last month, Turkey’s in­fla­tion rate reached dou­ble fig­ures for the first time in five years, squeez­ing im­mi­grants who typ­i­cally work in poor-pay­ing jobs. “But there are more and more Ye­me­nis com­ing to Is­tan­bul ev­ery month be­cause of the con­flict in Ye­men.” Ye­hya moved to Is­tan­bul in Au­gust of last year af­ter the mil­i­tary air­field be­hind the ho­tel he worked in came un­der at­tack. He es­ti­mates that west­ern­ers make up just five per cent of his cus­tomers, a trend re­flected across the city as it suf­fered a 25 per cent fall in in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors last year. “Any­one who hears about the ter­ror at­tacks here won’t come,” he says. Dozens of tourists and po­lice of­fi­cers have died in a string of at­tacks by ISIL and Kur­dish sep­a­ratist groups in Is­tan­bul over the past year. With Turkey now home to more refugees than any other coun­try and western states clos­ing down immigration routes, mi­grants trapped be­tween con­flict at home and coun­tries that don’t want them in­creas­ingly see Is­tan­bul as a pos­si­ble per­ma­nent home.

“Def­i­nitely, there are tighter re­stric­tions for get­ting into Turkey than be­fore,” says Il­han Jami­lah, the pro­pri­etor of Afghan Don­durma, a store sell­ing creamy Afghan-style ice cream in Zeyt­in­burnu. “So it’s a lit­tle more dif­fi­cult to find a qual­i­fied Afghan ice cream usta,” he says, re­fer­ring to the pro­fes­sion­als trained in the art of mak­ing ice cream by hand.

“But Turkey has been good to Afghans; the sum­mer is com­ing and I hope that busi­ness will be bet­ter than be­fore.”

Getty Images

Syr­i­ans have been able to sus­tain their food cul­ture in Is­tan­bul, but smaller im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties are strug­gling.

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