Of Taksim and Tantuni

The Greatest Cook in All of Istanbul was about to be beaten by a crowd of young anti-government demonstrators. In all fairness, he might have started the fight: he was in front of his establishment, located near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, waving a broomstick to keep demonstrators away. He runs a joint that I call the Tantuni Place (actual name: Emine Ana Mersin Tantuni), and to me he is the Greatest Cook in All of Istanbul because he knows how to handle beef, grease, and tomatoes in the right proportions. But he did not express himself properly with the protestors, and if his own friends hadn’t dragged him back into the restaurant, it might have gotten violent.

Tensions are, of course, high. Istanbul’s central Taksim Square was taken over by approximately 100,000 anti-government protesters over last weekend, with the crowds so thick it was difficult to move. The (largely peaceful) demonstrations were sparked after police brutally suppressed a smaller environmental protest that aimed to save adjacent Gezi Park from being replaced by a souped-up Ottoman-era military barracks and shopping mall.

But it seems to me that the protesters should love this tantuni, which is a sort of Turkish wrap with spiced greasy meat inside thin bread. It is eaten with cumin powder, tomatoes, lemon, maybe onion and some fresh greens. Maybe stick a pepper in there. It is simple, traditional, and like a lot of great street food, it’s incredibly unhealthful: the meat is fried in oil, where it can sit for hours, enough time that a lot of other detritus can settle in between the pieces of meat.

The Greatest Cook in All of Istanbul makes these tantuni on a backstreet, about a two-minute walk from the heart of the protests in Taksim Square. It is uncluttered, if a bit grungy. A protester could go there, sit at a low stool, and sip freshly made ayran yogurt drink and eat two or three tantuni and emerge happy. Tantuni is fast, simple food in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. And that’s what these protests are about—resisting the forced makeover of Istanbul that is just one of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan increasingly autocratic plans.

Are they not brothers, then, these protesters and the tantuni man?

This version of tantuni is, furthermore, from the southern port city of Mersin, where there have been sympathy protests that have received the same kind of tear-gas riot control response as in Taksim.

Are they not brothers, then, these protesters and the tantuni man?

The Greatest Cook in Istanbul was nowhere to be found when I last returned to the Tantuni Place, so I can’t say that I learned anything about his politics. I suspect that he is a kind of traditional nationalist. And since he ran a fast-food joint, he was not anywhere as middle-class as the people demonstrating. They had come near his property, and that alone had caused him to lash out, broomstick in hand, against people he might have made common cause with.

The largely well-behaved middle class protesters never harmed the tantuni place. But they also never ate there during the protests, from what I saw. There were kebab stands closer to Taksim to feed them. Passersby donated packets of cookies to allow the protesters to continue their occupation of Taksim. After Saturday, when the police stayed away a few days, nerves relaxed and vendors with watermelon and grilled kofte came in.

Erdogan has been busy remaking Beyoglu in his image: prim, rich, abstemious.

The Beyoglu neighborhood where Takism is located has forever been the throbbing heart of Istanbul: messy, boozy, fashionable, and cliché all at once. But over the past few years, Erdogan has been busy remaking it in his image: prim, rich, abstemious. The dive bars have changed into paneled cafes. Uneven roads were paved and the broken glass is now swept away nightly. On the times that I walked home in the early hours of a weekend morning, the main pedestrian street Istiklal was less rowdy. The rowdy ones could no longer afford to be rowdy there.

The changes have prompted tear gas before. During the summer of 2011, restrictions on outdoor seating (along with elevated liquor and cigarette taxes) prompted accusations that Erdogan and his government were ratcheting up a secret plan to Islamize the country. Even where you could sit outside, tear gas drifted through the side streets from various kinds of anti-government demonstrations. But those never reached anything near the size of the recent flare-ups.

The government’s hamfisted response to the protests have, in fact, done more to bolster the fractured opposition in Turkey than the opposition could have ever done. As the protests widen, from Beyoglu to Mersin to Antalya and beyond, there’s reason to hope, if not for regime change, than at least for a chastened Erdogan, who might realize that he can’t call protesters “terrorists” or arrest all of Twitter. But in order for there to be lasting change, the protesters will have to be joined by working class people like the Greatest Cook in All of Istanbul. The tantuni man will have to stop waving his broomstick at the protesters. The protesters will have to look at him and see not just a purveyor of fried meat and fresh tomato, but also a brother in arms.

Justin Vela is an American journalist based in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter: @justinvela.
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