Thursday, August 25, 2011

The tale of the disappearing tables

Tucked as it is down a sparsely populated, dimly lit alley on the second floor of a unremarkable-looking building, it's often hard to tell if there's anyone home at Mohti. Pushing open the door tonight and peeking my head inside, I saw only the usually gregarious owner of the cozy Black Sea meyhane, hunched over a laptop in the far corner of the room.

"Are you open?" I asked.

"We're open, but we don't have any customers," he said, rising to shake our hands. "It's because of Asmalımescit... I'm sure you know about it."

We did. For the past month, tables and chairs have been forcibly removed from sidewalks and patio areas at bars, cafes, restaurants -- even closet-sized kitchens serving up scrambled eggs for breakfast -- throughout what had been central Istanbul's liveliest district. Rumors still swirl about what sparked the "masa operasyonu" (table operation), as the Turkish press breathlessly dubbed the ongoing events in Beyoğlu. Had the business owners failed to pay the required bribes? Had the country's teetotaling prime minister, enraged at the sight of people drinking on the street, himself ordered the crackdown? Would it all blow over after Ramadan?

Whatever the impetus, streets that used to be pulsing with people into the wee hours of the night are now empty of everything but stray cats and some old plastic bags blowing through like synthetic tumbleweeds.

"It's very bad, all black and white. No middle way," I said, shaking my head sympathetically. Yesterday, the progressive news site Bianet reported that 2,000 people have lost their jobs due to the sweep, which hit businesses during the busy summer months, when Istanbullus live as much of their life as they can out of doors. Mohti never had any outdoor tables, but has been abandoned along with the rest of the area.

"We don't really have a menu right now. I'll just bring some things and if you don't want them, I'll take them back," the owner said, even more solicitously than usual.

Out came a small plate of tangy cheeses. A large bowl of salad tossed with mint and hot peppers. Fresh-baked Georgian börek with potatoes. A savory pancake made from brined hamsi and shredded vegetables. Baked palamut, de-boned at the table. And, finally, a plate of watermelon slices.

We didn't send anything back. After politely declining a cup of Turkish coffee to top the evening off, we left the restaurant, as empty as it was when we came in.


MaryAnne said...

Oh that is heartbreaking!

Unknown said...

i tried to listen to the mayor last night while he was trying to defend the operation. couldnt stand for ten seconds because it was just b.s. the wholw thing slaughtered the spirit of Beyoğlu, no matter what the reason is beyond all this.

Aynur Khan said...

welcome to the most expensive city in the world :) and unemployment on top of that is not good at all, thank you for the article great read.

Molly M said...

Wow, just now read this and am saddened by this story, but loved your writing. Hanging out in Beyoglu and playing backgammon and eating sidewalk cafe food was a highlight of our '07 visit to Istanbul. Bring back the tables and chairs, people (not to mention the jobs)!