Istanbul’s migrant culture: Turkey’s megacity is no melting pot

Tahki Arabic? a young, perhaps teenage waiter asked me with a shy smile at the door of a bustling restaurant on one of Istanbul’s busy streets. In response to my Turkish inquiry as to what food they were serving, I realized he was asking me if I spoke Arabic. Our exchange continued in universal sign language. He asked me to wait, went inside and came back with someone slightly older than him to answer my question. It was a Syrian restaurant.

The answer was in broken Turkish and was hesitant. I told them I was a journalist working on a story about refugee-run restaurants in Istanbul, which made them even more hesitant. Their restaurant opened several years ago and they told me that most of their customers are fellow Syrians. They didn’t want to talk about the owner of the place, which is listed on Facebook as an “American dinner restaurant.”

Their refusal is not surprising given the widely held, yet false, belief that refugees in Turkey pay no business tax. NGOs working with refugees and university migration experts were unable to convince the Turkish public. They point out that the situation is quite the opposite; The paperwork required for refugees to open a small business is substantial, which is why many of them have Turkish partners.

According to Turkey’s Ministry of Commerce, in 2019 there were 416 Syrian-owned restaurants and 119 patisseries across the country. Many of them are located near Yenikapı Square, one of Istanbul’s main transportation hubs, and the historic Fatih district, named after the Sultan. Captured Istanbul from the Byzantines in 1453.

Conquering the food sector

A quick look around the neighborhood suggests that non-Turkish restaurants are conquering the food scene here. Kebab houses of all kinds, originating mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine, line the confectionary shops. Window displays, signs and menus are also in Arabic, despite legal restrictions on the use of foreign languages ​​on signs and boards in stores.

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According to the Turkish Standards Institute, letters of any foreign language used in a shop or restaurant setting should be 25 percent shorter than those used for Turkish letters. According to the Aid and Solidarity Association for Refugees and Refugees, local authorities take different approaches when it comes to enforcing this rule, with some tolerating foreign languages ​​and others not.

However, the Istanbul Governor’s Office follows its own, unique interpretation. It removes all Arabic signs and letters that fail to meet existing standards, while ignoring signs and menus that differ equally between Russian and English.

Officially there are 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, with around 600,000 or more in Istanbul. Yet Istanbul is home to many other foreigners. After Syrians, the largest population group is Iraqis, followed by Afghans, Iranians and Ukrainians who have arrived in the city since the Russians invaded Ukraine.

According to Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, refugees make up 15 percent of the megacity’s total population. Officially, there are 1.6 million refugees, but Imamoglu estimates the actual number to be around 2 million, with the majority concentrated in some districts.

Take Fatih for example. About 400,000 people live in the district. From January 2021, and in an effort to reduce the number of foreigners in the district by 50,000, the municipality has banned renting to foreigners even if they have a residence permit. This has not stopped foreigners from visiting the district, with 3 million people entering and leaving every day, according to Fatih Local Authority.

Turks are not regulars

This explains Fatih’s number of international restaurants. One of the many eateries is Indonesian. The owner of the restaurant, Sally Soni, has lived in Turkey for 12 years and is fluent in Turkish. She said their little space has been open since April this year.

“Our customers are mainly Indonesians living or visiting Istanbul, Indonesian students and tourists from other countries. Although our food is not too far from their tastes, Turks are not regulars,” she told

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Semin Guner Gumesel is one of the few Turks who regularly visits refugee restaurants in Istanbul. She says she likes to explore these restaurants with her friends. Her experiences so far have been positive.

“We are always welcomed with open arms. Only a few of them have Turkish menus, but that’s okay because there are photos of the food and it’s possible to see the recipes,” she said. Most of her friends think that eating at a restaurant run by refugees is too far.

“It’s not because they like other tastes. Many like to try different cuisines when they travel abroad. Some are interested in visiting fancy restaurants that serve food from Europe or the Far East. But they don’t consider a restaurant run by refugees. The Middle East or North Africa. It’s that part of the world where Turkish culture is prevalent. Partly associated with negativity towards refugees,” she told

A recent survey by Metropole Research Company supports her idea. 81.7 percent of Turks want Syrians to return to their country. In contrast, a 2020 Syrian Barometer survey conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicated that 78 percent of Syrian refugees do not want to leave Turkey.

However, as Gumesel points out, even offering fancy food is not enough to convince many Turks to walk into a restaurant run by immigrants. It’s a sight to behold on Istiklal Street, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare in Istanbul. Always bustling with tourists, this avenue is a hub of cultural events, shops and some Michelin-starred restaurants. Refugee-run restaurants in Istiklal welcome people from all over the world, but few are Turks.

“We have live Farsi music and serve Iranian food. We are full especially at dinner. Our guests come from all over the world. We also get a lot of Iranians who visit or live here, but not so many Turks,” says Hakan, a waiter at an Iranian restaurant. , he proudly says that some of the ingredients he uses in his dishes come from Iran.

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Some refugee-run restaurants are doing their best to counter Istanbulites’ reluctance, posting photos of delicious food, invitations and promotions on social media, perhaps hoping that they too will be accepted as part of Istanbul’s culture. Restaurants established decades ago by previous refugees.

A famous example is the Russian Restaurant of 1917, founded by refugees escaping the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Retaining its 1920s decor, this Istanbul establishment is one of the best eateries in the city. Prospective diners are recommended to make reservations several weeks in advance.

Turks may not be the most frequent newcomers to Istanbul’s gastronomy sector, but they are also rarely attacked.

A Somali restaurant in the heart of Ankara’s Kizileh district – however, was targeted this summer, after a mainstream newspaper covered it as “the center of Ankara has become Somalia”.

Since then, police have made several unannounced visits to the restaurant, harassing customers by checking papers and identification, while fining the restaurant for its signs. They eventually issued an eviction order to the restaurant’s co-owner Muhammad Issay AbdullahiHe had to spend 36 days in a readmission center in October before his next release.

Emre Erdogan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, said that because Turks don’t go to these restaurants, they don’t know much about them.

“We do not understand how these businesses are set up in an environment where it is almost impossible to establish a Syrian business. Nor do we have any knowledge of the working conditions of their employees,” he said. “What’s more, we don’t know what people who are introduced to Syrian cuisine are thinking, how their perceptions are changing and improving,” he added.

“This uncertainty combined with the urgency of the situation is the biggest obstacle to genuine exchange and encounter.”

Ise Karabat

© 2022


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