Good Neighbors

Is Turkish hospitality dead?

By / June 2015

Several months ago my Istanbul flat was burgled in the middle of the day. Security footage from a nearby building showed one lookout guy and two grainy figures dressed in black. They were carrying a heavy suitcase (full of my electronics), a laptop, and a 46-inch TV wrapped in a white sheet. Someone must have witnessed the break in. Our busy street is lined with tall concrete apartment buildings. But no one said a thing.

The incident showcased a worrying trend on Istanbul’s Asian side: residents here show less and less concern for neighbors. Pressed for time in the mornings, we run out the door to catch the bus or sit in traffic for hours on the way to work and then get home late the same way. There is little energy left to catch up on the neighborhood gossip over a glass of hot tea, little energy to get to know the people who live nearby, to look out for them, let alone bring them food on religious holidays, activities that used to be hallmarks of life here.

The Istanbulites that I know bemoan the passing of what once was a proud mark of their ancient Asian culture’s hospitality. No one seems to know how to reverse the tide. Thirty years ago, Istanbul’s apartment buildings were, as often as not, family compounds where grandparents and parents and their children lived divided under the same roof. People inhabited the same place for years, maybe even for all of their years. Buildings bore the family name.

A half mile from our place sits the Ozturk apartment building, a space still occupied by a single family. Mom and Dad are on the first floor. Three brothers and their wives and children inhabit second, third, and fourth floors. It’s a little like a village, though with dads coming home late from corporate jobs. It would be hard to hide from the in-laws there, but I doubt a brazen daytime burglary has ever occurred on that block.

After the break-in, I talked to two of my neighbors about working together to improve the security in our building. After several informal forums in the stairwell, we had our first official meeting over Nescafe and hand-rolled cigarettes in the fourth-floor flat of Dinç Altuğ, a 33-year-old video production company owner. Also in attendance was Özgür Ateş, a 45-year-old civil engineer who had lost a Sony 3D TV and $6,000 in gold coins, a traditional Turkish wedding gift, to the same burglars.

“It goes without saying,” Özgür said, “that we need a security system, and cameras.” Dinç, who knows about these things, said, “I think we can do that.” In the days that followed, Özgür managed to talk our notoriously stingy building manager into letting us buy and install the gear.

Two steel doors, two alarm systems, three cameras, and 130 meters of cable later we were back on Dinç’s couch scanning the large flat-screen for would-be intruders. We felt good about the security system and assured each other that we had done the right thing for our families and community. We had worked together to solve a problem. If the burglars targeted us again, we would be ready.

Even so, I can’t help but feel that our work was a surrender to transience and anonymity. With the cameras now in place, there is even less impetus for residents to be watchful, less reason for us to do the work of cultivating neighborly trust. For proof, you need look no further than Dinç, Özgür, and me. We haven’t shared coffee and smokes in some months.


Ryan Wolf, an EthnoTraveler contributor, writes about ex-pat life in Istanbul.