What happens when fifteen million people all rush out at the same time to go shopping in the same impenetrable warren of urban alleys, bazaars, and arcades? That’s what it feels like in the Fatih District of Istanbul around five o’clock on a holiday eve. The city is enormous, and at a time like this, when everyone is done with work and rushing out for last-minute necessities, the buses and trams just keep on coming, emptying the citizenry onto the packed squares off the Golden Horn.
Like any world megacity, Istanbul has changed almost beyond recognition in the last fifty years. It isn’t just the obvious tourist magnets, like the Kepali Casir (Grand Bazaar) and Misir Carsisi (Spice Bazaar), where the sellers of tourist trinkets are slowly edging out the traditional businesses. Or the hordes of cars, taxis, and pedestrians, which this city seems to manage better than most. The biggest change we’ve noticed–the same change we’ve seen in Italy over the same time period–is that the worst signs of poverty seem to have eased. The swarms of beggars, pickpockets, and petty thieves we remember from the mid-twentieth century have vanished.
It might just be that the hustle has gone up-market–this entire frantic city is packed night and day with work and bustle–but the constant nag at your wallet and pocketbook feels much more polite than in the past. The question for the rich tourist–and if you’re visiting here, you really are rich by any normal standard–is whether to play your role and allow the merchants, restauranteurs, and street hawkers to gently fleece you–or to ruin your trip by worrying over every petty Lira in your pocket.
We’ve settled for a middle road, where the more fun and clever hucksters are simply charging you for the entertainment of unmasking your innocence. The ruder, more blatant types get rebuffed like anyone would anywhere.
Oddly enough, given all the religious and cultural hype you hear these days in the Western media, no neighborhood in this city feels particularly threatening–certainly no more so than a walk down Broadway in New York or Los Angeles, or a stroll through East London or the Saint-Denis District of Paris. You might be indelibly marked as an alien in these streets, but with a little care, you can walk more freely here than you can at home.