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Story Publication logo January 20, 2014

Disquiet in a Turkish Fishing Village


Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...


Until a couple of years ago, Garipçe, a tiny village in metropolitan Istanbul, near the Black Sea, was known among Turks for being a retreat, a place that offered fresh fish beside a clean expanse of water but was still accessible by city bus. The village survives on fishing and light tourism; the latter slows in the winter, when cold wind blows off the water, through a narrow cove, and up the single paved street, sweeping Garipçe's six hundred or so residents indoors. Visitors see romance in the quaint and ramshackle aspects of Garipçe, where many of the buildings lining the road are sunken and abandoned, their frames rotting in plain sight. But, for many year-round residents, life is hard. Fishermen scramble to afford technology that keeps them competitive; children are forced to commute to a neighboring village because the local primary school was demolished; women, in the religiously conservative village, complain about the lack of a community center where they can socialize. Because it is next to a historic fortress, Garipçe is designated a protected area, making renovating or building in the village an expensive, time-consuming process.

But the villagers, the vast majority of whom support Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.), are attached to their home. So when Erdoğan declared that it would be the European landing point for a two-and-a-half-billion-dollar bridge over the Bosporus—the third in Istanbul to connect the Asian and European continents —the announcement was met with hope. Villagers anticipated that property values would rise, tourism would increase, and blight would be repaired, while, in the meantime, they would be doing their part to help their Prime Minister unclog Istanbul's overburdened roads and bridges. The bridge's eight car lanes and two rail tracks were like a sword knighting the bedraggled town.

But, in the year since the groundbreaking ceremony, in early 2013 (held on the anniversary of the Ottoman siege of Constantinople), the A.K.P. and its ties to the construction industry have come under intense scrutiny—beginning with massive demonstrations, in the summer of 2013, against Erdoğan in Istanbul's Gezi Park, by protesters who strongly opposed his massive development projects, including the third bridge. Activists argued that such projects went ahead without concern for the environment or residents, and challenged the claim that the bridge will ease Istanbul's gridlock, insisting that its sole purpose is to open up land for development. It didn't help that the bridge will be named after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, nicknamed "the Grim" for his persecution of Alevis, a minority that makes up about twenty per cent of Turkey's population.

More recently, investigations by Turkish authorities into corruption among government officials and businessmen link much of the wrongdoing to the city's mega-projects—namely the third bridge, the nearby third airport, and a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. Among those arrested were construction magnates tied to these projects. To some, this was evidence that Erdoğan's vision for Istanbul, besides being unsustainable and authoritarian, was making those close to him very rich. This was more than unfair, they said: it was potentially criminal. Erdoğan purged the police and judiciary of those involved in the investigation, and accused conspirators of attempting to dismantle the A.K.P. and derail his projects. The investigation "has surpassed all previous coup attempts and has been recorded as a betrayal to the state, democracy, and the nation," he said in an address to party members in early January.

Around the time of those comments, the mood in Garipçe was less than exuberant: residents, too, were starting to wonder whether the project was as positive a development as they had originally believed. Renovation on the fortress and other buildings had yet to start, and the only signs so far of the bridge were two columns coming up from the sea floor just off the coast and a huge bald patch in an otherwise green area of forest. Residents complained about the smell and noise from the construction. Local fishermen were anxious about the impact the construction would have on the fish population, which constitutes their livelihood. Everyone was thinking about what would happen to his or her property; even those most optimistic about a wealthy future also seemed resigned to the fact that the village would never be the same.

Other Istanbul neighborhoods have for years seen anecdotal evidence of corruption. Minority populations in Tarlabasi and Sulukule—poor areas which, as Istanbul expanded, became prime real estate—witnessed the swift eviction of whole neighborhoods to clear space for developers' projects. Those residents saw how laws meant to protect Turks and their cities—laws about earthquake preparedness and historical preservation—had been employed to strip them of property rights.

Recep Serter, the owner of a port-side fish restaurant, runs a steady business from his spot on the shore. When Cihan Baysal, a housing activist, and I met Serter, his restaurant was full of tourists, mostly older women in heavy makeup who arrived by the busload and crowded the enclosed patio, crunching long leaves of arugula and raw red onion between bites of grilled fish. While a server sliced piles of lemons on a wooden block, Serter talked about his mixed feelings about the third bridge.

At first, he sounded supportive: "If you ask people in Sariyer"—the municipality that includes Garipçe—"eighty per cent are for the bridge," he said. "But, if you go to the center of Garipçe, ninety-nine per cent are for it." The third bridge would alleviate traffic, Serter said, citing the A.K.P.'s primary justification for the project. Serter felt confident that he would benefit from the project; unlike many villagers, he had the deed to his property and, owing to his success, a prominent, enviable status in town. He had already been approached by developers, who promised that his land would become more profitable. Two such businessmen had eaten fish in his restaurant, he announced proudly. (One was arrested as part of the corruption investigation.)

But his loyalty showed cracks. He was unhappy about the trees being cut down, and the construction was disruptive. A tunnel would be better than the bridge, he said. "When the wind blows from the south, there will be noise, exhaust fumes," from the bridge. "In the summertime, the sun rises over the neighborhood. It's beautiful. We'll be losing that."

Baysal, the housing activist, asked why villagers in Garipçe, if they shared these concerns, hadn't mounted any resistance to the bridge. "When the coal mines opened, we started a fishermen's organization to oppose the plan," Serter replied. "But we couldn't do anything." Serter pressed his fingertips together and narrowed his eyes. He was aware of the risks he faced as a small business owner in the path of some of Turkey's most influential developers. "I would give up my head before my property," he said.

But, after 30 minutes of conversation, Serter backpedalled about his concerns. "No, no—at the beginning I said that I am 30 percent against it and 70 percent for it." As an A.K.P. supporter, he seemed uncertain of how to challenge one of the party's hallmark projects.

Garipçe residents support the A.K.P. largely because of shared religious values and Turkey's economic progress, and their loyalty is evidence that the party has done a good job of appealing to many Turks on the margins. Baysal and I knocked on the door of the fishermen's shack, and one of them said bluntly, "I am pro-A.K.P., as a fisherman, because the A.K.P. has supplied very cheap fuel. For years, no one in the government offered us anything. The A.K.P. was the first."

Most people I spoke to were optimistic that the bridge would help them, but their certainty wavered as news of corruption within the construction industry continued to spill out. Another fisherman, a thin, old man weaving a burgundy net, introduced himself to us, saying, "I am a çapulcu!"—a word meaning "vagrant" in Turkish, which the Gezi protesters have worn like a badge of pride ever since Erdoğan used it to insult them. "I am not," his companion said.

"As we experienced with the second bridge, all areas will be plundered," the "çapulcu" went on, loudly.

The pro-A.K.P. fisherman shook his head. "He doesn't know. He doesn't have a car. He doesn't know about the traffic conditions and how important the third bridge is." But, like Serter, he turned out to harbor at least a few reservations. "I am against them cutting down the trees. And it would have been better if they had built a tunnel underneath instead."

The two fishermen agreed, in any case, that the environmental impact of the bridge would hurt their livelihoods. "When the construction started, they started digging underneath the sea," the pro-A.K.P. fisherman said. "All the fish went out to deeper water. They have destroyed the fish population." He continued, "I support the bridge. But, at the same time, I am very angry about it."

Outside the fishing shack, Elvan Aslan, a mother and a former cafe employee, saw hope in the fishermen's anger. She had recently decided that she would run for the position of Garipçe muhtar, the head of the village. (Turkey's local elections are in March.) The current muhtar, she said, had been in his position for twenty years. But "young people in the village asked me to run," she said, even though they are A.K.P. supporters. Aslan supports the main opposition party to the A.K.P., the Republican People's Party (C.H.P.), and acknowledges that, in Garipçe, she has a lot of work ahead of her if she wants to win.

"I am completely against the third bridge," Aslan told us. "I don't think it will solve the traffic in Istanbul. There is only profit in the project." She worried that the villagers would be victims of the development, a fear that included her family; she pointed to her house, just down the road. "It's the one with the garden," she said, smiling. She had yet to start formally campaigning, but she was ready. She planned to talk about women's issues, and focus on rebuilding the primary school. She would work closely with the fishermen and the neighborhood association. "When there is a woman in the government, everything gets more beautiful," she said.

We walked to the cafe where she used to work, a squat, ornate building, which, because of Garipçe's protected status, is in dire need of renovations. A wood stove heated a small room where breakfast—small dishes of honey and olives, served with piles of bread—was declared proudly to be the Black Sea's best. Like Serter and the fishermen, the cafe owner was ambivalent in his support of the bridge, but he was just as eager to show that, even in a small village, he understood the issues.

"I own the restaurant," he said, "but I am still worried that the government will take it away from me." I asked Aslan whether she would campaign against the third bridge, to convince villagers that the A.K.P.—embroiled in scandal, transforming Istanbul at breakneck speed—was not looking out for their best interests. "No," she said, with a strained expression. "They already know."


teal halftone illustration of a construction worker holding a helmet under their arm


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