There are a few rare days when Istanbul empties out in a glorious fashion. For the past several years, the Eid-al Adha holiday has occurred during the fall or summer, and a huge segment of Istanbul’s population rushes out of the city to spend time with their families in their hometowns in Anatolia.
During these days, the city is a wonderful place to explore, as the crowds have dissipated, the weather couldn’t be better and public transportation is free. Given my lack of relatives in Anatolia, I almost always stay in Istanbul during the holiday, and use the opportunity to wander the city.
Nowadays, Istanbul has cleared out in a similar fashion, but under much darker circumstances. The mass closure of bars, cafes, gyms, shops and other establishments in conjunction with the necessity to practice social distancing has resulted in an unrecognizable city, a megalopolis without the people.
Last Friday, I went out alone to explore the usually-lively districts of Şişli, Beşiktaş, Kadıköy and Beyoğlu. It was a surreal and startling journey. Leaving my apartment in Şişli’s Kurtuluş neighborhood, I headed downward through the upmarket quarter of Nişantaşı. There were hardly anyone out, many of whom were well-to-do folks from the neighborhood walking their purebred dogs.
Street dogs, on the other hand, seemed to equal the number of actual people out and about, and some were either starved for attention, eagerly following humans around for more than half a kilometer at a time, or ferociously barking at passersby, most likely alarmed and bewildered at the abnormal silence and emptiness of their bustling city.
I boarded the ferry in Beşiktaş bound for Kadıköy. The boat ambled lonely across the Bosphorus, staring out at the flickering lights of the buildings lining the shore. I stepped off and headed toward the center of Kadıköy, which is packed with new cafes and bars and has become Istanbul’s premiere nightlife destination. It was totally shut down.
Apart from a few döner restaurants and convenience stores, everything was closed. Nothing on the main bar street was open except Kimyon, the stalwart late-night restaurant that stays open nearly 24-7 even during pandemics. One young woman was filming the near complete absence of movement and sound on her phone. Time to head back.
I boarded the boat and to my delight it was my favorite kind of Istanbul ferry. It was one of the newer ones, not the terribly-designed monstrosities that appeared a few years ago but one of the vessels that usually travel between Beşiktaş and Kadıköy, with the middle deck that has broad seats with tables and a cafe in the middle. I was the only passenger on this level. I tweeted a video of the empty deck with the caption, “it’s as if I rented myself a ferry for 4 TL,” which quickly received hundreds of likes, but I deleted it after being rightfully reprimanded not to make it seem like I was encouraging people to go out.
From Beşiktaş I hopped on a near-empty bus to Taksim, truly the most bizarre and haunting destination of the night. If there were tumbleweeds in this city one would see them bouncing across Istiklal Avenue. No one was around except for a few clueless tourists, small groups of refugee children who were having a bit of fun after spending a long day trying to sell packets of tissues, taxi drivers desperate for customers, and prostitutes.
I cautiously hung a right turn and ventured toward Yeşilçam Street, once the heart of the Turkish film industry. (The word ‘Yeşilçam’ in Turkey is tantamount to Hollywood in the US). A decade ago, when Beyoğlu was still the hottest district for nightlife in Istanbul, a stretch of Yeşilçam Street was packed with bars that were always full on the weekends. The area was known as “Little Beyoğlu” and it was brimming with life and excitement.
Today, only Pendor Corner remains, a trusty corner dive bar that offers free live music and specializes in a cocktail that is pounded on the table before being chugged down in one gulp. All the other bars went belly up as Beyoğlu experienced a swift downturn several years ago. Pendor, like every other bar I passed in the city, was closed, and the only place open on the street was a barbershop that recently replaced one of the old bars. Even if a zombie apocalypse were to break out, one could still probably get a haircut at any hour of the night in this city.
Having had enough, I made my way home. I wanted to walk back rather than boarding the metro but my left ankle was searing. While the three hours or so I spent outside were spooky and unsettling, it was comforting to know that the city is taking coronavirus seriously. People are staying home and bars and cafes are closed like they are supposed to be. I don’t advise going on the excursion that I did, but I had to see what Istanbul was like on a Friday night during these extraordinary times. Now I have retreated back into social distancing, and wish everyone the best from home, and that we will be able to see this city bursting with life again sooner than later.