By Benjamin Bilgen and Caleb Bilgen
This is the first in our forthcoming photojournalism series; Humans of Turkey. Part one explores Ankara behind the headlines; providing a broader perspective on the people that make this city. This week we visited Ulus, one of the most historic and diverse parts of Ankara; a cultural melting pot which is changing quickly due to urban re-development projects and internal migration. We spoke with Ulus residents to hear their stories.
The Ankara bombings of the past several months and the recent attacks in other major cities have left many spectators wondering if Turkey is slowly sinking into a quagmire of unrest and violence as Turkey’s involvement grows in the Syrian conflict in its confrontations with the YPG in Northern Syria as well as its military operations and curfews in the east targeting the PKK. There is a growing sense among Turkish citizens and international observers alike that Turkey is becoming increasingly unsafe, unpredictable, and unstable.
However, oftentimes media reports of bombing attacks and increasing violence and unrest can yield to the temptation of reducing a society with a diverse collection of experiences to just one story, one reality. Ankara, and Turkey as a whole, is more than a series of headlines and reports of violence, terrorism, and unrest; a fact we are all aware of but one we need to be reminded of from time to time. The city of Ankara is home to over 5 million people, each with a unique story and a diverse set of experiences that goes far beyond what any one headline can contain.
Here are some of the Humans of Ankara, on Saturday February 22, three days after Wednesday’s bombing attack:
“Yeah we all live in the area, it’s our neighbourhood. This is our group, there’s 8 of us. If you give us 5 lira we’ll let you take our picture. We’ll even play a song for you. Don’t worry, we’re gonna use the money for school supplies.”
This group of boys live in the Ankara Castle area of the Ulus neighbourhood, one of the oldest parts of the city. This picture was taken along one of the outer walls of the castle entrance. The original construction date of the Ankara castle is unknown, with the earliest confirmable date being around 200 AD under the control of the Roman Empire. The castle was used and renovated by a number of civilizations including the Byzantines, the Selçuks and the Ottoman Empire. About 10 years ago, the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality started a revitalization and preservation project to fortify the castle structure and protect the surrounding region as a cultural and historical site.
“We used to live in the village, trying to make a living with farming and selling our products at the Bazaar. It’s hard though, as you get older, so eventually we moved here. This has been our house for 30 years. Ankara really has changed a lot over the years. It’s gotten worse, it’s gotten bad. Now it’s full of thieves and beggars.”
This couple’s 30 year old home is located inside the castle walls in the interior of the castle area. Their home is what is called a “gecekondu” which means “put there over night,” indicating that it’s made from cheap materials and probably not very architecturally sound. As a part of the Ulus revitalization project, the Ankara Municipality has targeted hundreds of these kinds of homes in and around the Castle region for demolition. While the Ulus revitalization project has certainly boosted the tourism sector in the area, some spectators are concerned that gentrification dynamics may force gecekondu inhabitants out of the neighbourhood, either willingly or unwillingly. Unwillingly has largely been the case with similar initiatives in Tarlabaşı, and Ulus’s neighbourhood of Çinçin is seemingly next. One thing’s for certain; in what may have been a quiet, undisturbed neighbourhood at one point, this couple is sure to have a host of bustling, eager, and camera bearing tourists pass by their home each day, including the photographer and I.
“This one’s my nephew, this one, and she’s my niece. These two are friends from next door, we all live in this neighborhood we are just walking around today, hanging out.”
A group of local Ulus residents enjoying the view from the top of the Ankara Castle, overlooking Çinçin. We asked to take their picture because it looked like they were having a lot of fun. A video may have done greater justice to the scene, but the group was doing a dance that is associated especially with Ankara, probably most widely popularised by this song, and now practiced across Turkey.
“We’ve been in Ankara for fifty years, I’ve owned this store for seven. I don’t actually like Ankara, and I try to like the people of Ankara but lately it’s been hard to find something to like about them. But don’t talk about politics. Talk about a rose, the sea, the mountains, about love. Let’s talk about nice things. You guys should come back some time later one night, we can drink some raki, some wine together, I’ll give you a concert, I’m even better than Bülent Ersoy.”
This couple’s instrument shop is located halfway between Ulus and the more modern Kızılay neighbourhood of Ankara. As much as he tried to veer away from the topic, politics did end up surfacing in our conversation. Located nearby the site of Wednesday’s blast the man attested to hearing the explosion in the evening. Despite his friendly and somewhat humorous demeanour, he was also notably tense. Of course, the recent unpredictability of living in Ankara understandably takes its toll on some of its residents, and there was a slight sense of uneasiness and distrust in most of our interactions and interviews. After all, Ankara and Turkey at large can often feel like a divided society, whether it’s a division based on political views such as pro-government or anti-government, or the more recent tensions between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish nationalists.
While we were chatting outside the instrument shop, a woman in headscarf passed by on the street, at which point the shop owner in the photo began chanting mocking Arabic and Islamic sayings at the woman, and as she walked into the distance he yelled “You’re stealing from us!” The man’s calculations were apparent – a woman wearing a headscarf equals AKP supporter, and whoever votes for AKP is directly responsible for the AKPs corruption and theft from the Turkish people.
This kind of stereotype coding might just be a reality of living in a city as big and diverse as Ankara – after all, in a city of 5 million, it can be a challenge to treat each person as a separate individual deserving of their own story.