Tarlabaşı; An Ode.


Saying goodbye to Tarlabasi

Tarlabasi is a hive of informal commerce, the streets alive, trade and toil and the struggle to survive in a city overwhelmed, carts with squeaky wheels pushed up and down the hills, hawkers crying and calling, the rag and bone man and the Sahlep seller, in the afternoons the itinerant musicians take a final slurp of tea and trudge to the bars of Taksim to work for tips. Mothers, wives and daughters deal with the never-ending washing, scrubbing carpets with a stream of soap suds heading to the gutter, wood constantly being chopped to feed the stove, an aged grandmother wields an axe, a teenager uses a stone to smash old furniture, scavenged fuel to heat decrepit tenement rooms.

The Salep Seller

In dingy basements illuminated by a single globe or a florescent tube, impoverished women from the parched plains of Hasakeh in Syria or the suburbs of Diyabakir, troubled places far from the sea. They scratch and clean mussels harvested from the Bosporus, squatting around colored plastic bowls they stuff them with rice and pass them on to be sold around the city, their fingers raw but their chatter bright.

Freshly stuffed Midye

Little is legal, many undocumented, most on the margins. Cleaning the streets and oiling the wheels of the Turkish sweatshop economy, universally despised and denigrated but always defiant, challenges met with humor and humility and spirit.


The streets are theater, social clubs and football pitches, living rooms and kitchens, wild weddings where Gypsies dance to music the bounces of the buildings and the bare-knuckle brawlers stagger shirtless and bloodied.


On street corners dealers hang and fires burn, the air musty with menace, in the early hours the hollow sound of gunshots, running footsteps and the scurry of cats and rats. Tarlabasi never sleeps, it just revolves around erratic shifts of sleeping, eating and schooling. Before the dawn light reflects off the corrugated fences the working girls will totter home in cheap stilettos.


At the end of the street the sound of jackhammers splitting concrete, the giant arms of cranes swing ominously to the sound of stressed metal, underpaid workmen clamber over the rubble. The army of progress is marching and the impoverished are paying.


The curtain is about to fall and a community will disperse, the shouts of “Hakan” from the housewives to the store owner will fall silent, no longer will the tormented grocer rush to fill the baskets lowered from windows only to be called back again and again for a forgotten bottle of milk or an onion.

Neighborhoods evolve, they are organic, they are not created by city planners, only dismantled, there is no conversation when only money talks.untitled-0870

Having lived in Tarlabasi over several years and in various streets my time now has come to and end.

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The Photographers back story blog is the irreverent ramblings of Middle East based photographer John Wreford Portfolio

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48 thoughts on “Tarlabaşı; An Ode.

  1. Amazing story-telling. Thank you for including important hints to the human costs of development. This is something I witnessed extensively during my work in South East Asia. It scars one’s heart, and there’s no easy way of talking about it. But you made it gracefully 🙏

    1. What a powerful piece! I love the way the way you presented the women there. Sadly, all over the world, individuals who pay with their youth and innocence to work hard, chop wood, clean carpets, cook at home, raise kids behind walls (and sometimes bars), work in factories (and dodgy places) are often undervalued. While they are The real women.

      1. Always enjoy your interesting posts and powerful photographs! If you ever visit Sofia again, btw, we can grab a coffee or something. Wishing you a lovely Sunday!!!

      1. I go to Uganda quite often and that’s exactly what I love most about the streets there. The life on the pavements and roadsides. Coming back to the UK afterwards, where everybody lives behind a privy hedge is quite weird.

  2. Tarlabaşı, currently a drug-dealer’s paradise, is a no go zone, even for the police. In the old days, back in the 50’s and 60’s, it used to be red-light district, surrounded by brothels. In those days, the population of Istanbul was around 1 million, now almost 20. Where did this population come from? First from the South East of Turkey, then from the Middle East, thanks to the US politics and wars in the area. Now, the cultural mix is totally alien to the bones of Istanbul. Istanbulites, born and bred in the city, for many generations are in the minority while the newcomers roam the streets where once elegance reigned. What can I tell you? We run away from this, find homes elsewhere to find peace. There is nothing romantic about this story you convey in your article. It is vulgar. I blame the Western politics and greed. This is not Istanbul, they are not Istabulites, Istanbul is under seige.

  3. Your words are as beautiful and engaging as your photography which is exquisite. I applaud your captures. People are so spoiled in America myself included but I try not to take a hot shower or other blessings in life for granted. A warm bed, movies, food, love and family. I really try to remember the faces of the hunger and the homeless. Thank you for what you do. Love 💕 Joni

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