Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pide to the people

"Sıcak sıcak sıcaaaaak!!!!"

"Var mı, pide isteyen?!?!"

Since Turkey began weekend lockdowns in its large cities earlier this month – fully confining everyone except certain essential workers to their homes – normally raucous Istanbul has been eerily quiet on Saturdays and Sundays. No matter how late of a lie in I indulge myself with (because really, what's the point of getting out of bed when you can't leave the apartment?), the silence of the streets outside hangs heavily, as if the whole world had vanished while I slept.

Then it happens. The low thrum of a small van inching its way down the street, followed by the crackle of a portable speaker, or an unamplified, full-throated cry. "Geldi geldi geldi!!!!"

Sometimes it's just one voice, other times a competing cacophony. Either way, the sounds break the silence, and the spell that seems to have been cast on the neighborhood. When I pop my head out the window, faces up and down the street mirror my own. The old, infirm, or simply weary lift baskets over their windowsill or balcony railing, lower them on a rope, and wait. The rest stuff a few coins in pockets, slip on some shoes (what are those again?), and rush out the door, not wanting to miss the highlight (OK, the only event) of the day: bread delivery time.

For many Turks, a meal without bread is unthinkable. An estimated 20 million loaves are sold daily in Istanbul (population 16 million) alone. I've seen Turkish friends refuse to eat breakfast because there was no fresh bread, only the slices left over from the day before. A Turkish colleague told our WhatsApp group that even during the 1980 military coup, when tanks patrolled the city’s empty streets, bread was distributed in large trucks to each house or apartment.

So certainly a little thing like a global pandemic wasn't going to keep the halk from their ekmek. The Interior Ministry's curfew order included an exemption allowing people to leave their homes to walk to their nearest bakery. Politicians jostled to be the heroes providing bread to the cooped-up masses, posting videos on social media with soothing footage of loaves coming out of ovens and being brought to homes. And local bakeries took to the streets with their delivery vans.

I'll be honest – even as starved for activity and interaction as I am on weekends, the standard white loaves, more air than bread, weren't going to entice me to run after the bakery van. But this weekend, their siren call became very beguiling, with the addition to their offerings of the Ramazan pidesi. This pillowy flatbread is made during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, then sit down to a fast-breaking meal called iftar at sunset.

Even for the non-religious, the sight of people coming together each evening, whether at huge tables set up by the municipality or on small stools set up around a newspaper-covered folding table, creates a sense of shared urban conviviality. Of course in 2020, coming together is tehlikeli ve yasaktır, as is jostling in front of the fırın to buy a fresh-out-of-the-oven pide in the last possible minutes before iftar so it's still piping-hot at fast-breaking time.

On weekends, then, buying pide from the bread van is about as close as we can come to a communal experience. So I wasn't going to miss out on that. And if a bread that's usually torn into pieces and shared has to be eaten by one person while it's still warm and at its tastiest, well, it's the kind of year in which sacrifices must be made. But only one pide a day, no matter how many times the vans cruise down my street. Even in a pandemic, you have to draw the line somewhere.