Enjoy Istanbul with Marc Guillet

Turkish tea man: ‘ I’m proud of the rich families in Turkey’

14 Dec
Written by Marc Guillet
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Idris Ayyildiz (53) sells apples, strawberries and oranges on his cart in the streets of Kumkapi, a former Armenian neighborhood on the periphery of Istanbul. Now poor Kurdish families live here with a lot of children. But also refugees from Somalia and other African countries who hope to go to Europe, Canada or the US. And women from Georgia, Ukraine, Romania and Armenia who are working without legal documents as nannies and in shops in Istanbul to send money home to their families.

Idris is a Kurd form Mardin in the southeastern part of Turkey. He lives here with his four children, between 26 and 30 years old. ‘I’m speaking Arabic, Turkish and Kurmanji (a Kurdish dialect)’, he says. ‘We came to Istanbul several years ago to find some work and a better life’. He is here every day. Trying to make some money to pay the bills. His profit on a kilo of strawberries is the highest of the fruit he is selling today. He sells them for 2.50 Turkish Lira (1.10 euro) per kilo. ‘That’s a profit of 1.20 Turkish Lira’, he says with a big smile. His teeth haven’t seen a dentist in a long a long time. He touches his unshaven cheeks with the back of his hand and smiles again.

He earns about 20 to 30 Turkish Lira a day, some 600 to 900 Lira a month. ‘I have to pay 500 Lira a month for rent and 120 Lira for electricity and water. We don’t have gas. We live together with two families in the same building. Two of my brothers are ‘berber’ (hairdressers). The other one is selling fruit like me. We share whatever money we make.’

When an old lady approaches him and begs for money Idris raises his eyebrows and clicks with his tongue, very clear traditional Turkish signs of saying no. When she’s gone, he turns to me and explains ‘We are poor too. I cannot give money’.

One of the people from the neighborhood passes his cart and says: ‘Amca, nasilsin? (Uncle, how are you?)’. ‘Amca’ or ‘abi’ (older brother) are typical expressions of respect in Turkey when men talk with each other. One of the men close to the fruit cart is looking at the gossip pages of a paper. There is a photo of Güler Sabanci, the CEO of the Sabanci Holding, one of the two largest holdings in Turkey. Güler Sabanci is one of the richest women in Turkey. When I ask Idris if he’s not jealous of her wealth he says: ‘I’m proud of the rich families in Turkey. If people are poor they are dangerous. Some of the poor threaten you with a knife and want to rob you because they are hungry. I wish the Sabanci family had even more factories then they have. That would be good to create more jobs’.

On the corner of Sevgi Sokak  (Love Street) there are several men sitting on little stools on the sidewalk. They are sipping hot, strong black tea from their tulip shaped glasses. One of them is putting a sugar cube under his tongue and slowly mixes the tea with the sugar. The cayci (tea man) says ‘hosgeldiniz’ (welcome) and invites me to have a tea too. I’m getting used to the small stools that you will find all over Turkey; not only in the villages but in tea houses in cities as well. The tea is 50 kurus (20 eurocent) per glass, but I am not allowed to pay, because I’m immediately treated as a guest.

Not surprisingly the tea man is from the Kurdish south east as well. ‘I’m from Bitlis’ says Abdurrahman Cetinbaş (32). He married when he was 16 years old and has three children: Ayşe (12), Ömer (11) and Bünyamin (6). ‘I married too early and I only got primary education. But my father had to go to the army when I was eleven and as the oldest son I had to take care of my five siblings and my mother. Numerous times I had to walk for several miles to get fuel for the stove in our very small house which had a leaking roof. We lived in Gölbaşi, a tiny village with less than 400 people. There were no paved roads, no electricity. At night I had to do my homework next to a gas lamp. We were afraid of the feudal landlords and the PKK. We escaped from the war between the Turkish army and the Kurdish guerrilla’s and we settled first in a small town. We had to start from scratch again. Eleven years ago I decided to go to Istanbul with my family.’

As is usual in Turkish families, they all help each other financially. The tea man now lives with his seven brothers and sisters in the same apartment, on four floors. They rent the whole building. He worked in a jewelry shop of an Armenian businessman for eight years. Then he bought a small grocery shop where his sister helps him. And a couple of months ago he started next to his shop a tea business.

‘I work seven days a week; every day from 9 a.m. till 9 p.m. I never had a holiday. Some days I earn 3 Turkish Lira (TL). Other days 50 TL. On average I make 30 TL (12 euro). That’s good money. We are happy with it. I cannot live to be jealous of people who have more than us. I thank god that I have this live, this job. I do my best so that my children can have what I could not have: a good education.’

But if his “American Dream” of upward social mobility will come true for his children still faces a lot of obstacles. Not the least of them is the huge gap between the rich and the poor. According to statistical data provided by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) from 2008 on the growth of economic equality over the past 20 years Turkey has the largest gap between its wealthiest and poorest households after Mexico. The US is on the third place of the 30 member states of the OECD, most of which are also members of the European Union.

The growth in the divide has major implications for social mobility, according to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria. ‘Social mobility is low in countries with high inequality like Italy, the UK, and the United States. And it is much higher in the Nordic countries, where income is distributed more evenly’.

According to him this means that ‘in most high-inequality countries, dishwashers’ sons are more likely to be dishwashers and millionaires’ kids can assume that they too will be rich’. He suggested that governments should do more to promote mobility, through progressive tax policies, greater social spending, job creation, and increasing investment in education. Turkey also has the highest poverty rate of the 30 OECD nations after Mexico, according to the report.

When Turkey was also hard hit by the economic crisis last year a lot of people had a very hard time to adjust. Not only the poor as I witnessed in Kadiköy, our neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. One day, in front of the Armenian church of Surp Takavor layed, I saw Turkish journalists and photographers talking in an excited way. ‘What happened?’, I asked. ‘An Armenian businessman, who was hit by the crisis and could not pay his debts, came here a quarter ago,’ says one reporter. ‘He burned a candle, knelt and said a prayer and shot a bullet through his head.’
This desperate act was a shocking example of how the collapse of casino capitalism also made victims in Turkey. Unemployment rose to a record level of 15% and wage reductions were seen almost everywhere.

Tea houses had less patronage. In front of the social security offices there were long queues for a paltry allowance of up to 530 lira (EUR 250). Jewelry stores were busy too. Many Turkish women sold their gold bracelets and other jewelry for a temporary addition to the household purse. And traditional, metal lunch boxes stacked with warm Turkish dishes made a comeback, because many businesses closed canteens.
The Turkish Statistical Office said that 15.5% of the workforce is out of work. That is over 3 million people. The actual number of unemployed is much higher. Least another 2 million Turks have no jobs. They worked the gray sector – where no taxes are paid – and therefore they are not eligible for benefits. In total, 27% unemployment certainly says Türk-Is, the largest trade union federation in Turkey.

The crisis is on its return in Turkey but not over yet as I see at the Sirkeci station, specially built for the Orient Express, 120 years ago. A lot of truckers gather there every day. Tired men like Rüstem Arslan. ‘Ten days ago I came here from eastern Turkey with carpets. I am still waiting for a load to drive back.’
Arslan is 35 and father of four young children aged from two to eight. He looks older, because of his financial worries and the hard life as an independent truck driver.
Every day hundreds of truckers gather here hoping to get cargo to a destination somewhere in Turkey. This morning there are at least 500. ‘Adiyaman’, ‘Diyarbakir’ and ‘Van!’ are some of the destinations that are shouted by agents of transport firms. Whoever first puts their hand up and the fare should accept the freight.
The recession has badly hit the truck drivers. ‘The diesel is expensive and there is no work,’ says Kemal Calikkilic (37). He comes from Agri, a shabby, dusty town in the far east of Turkey that is dominated by the biblical Mount Ararat. Kemal has a wife and three young children. “I hang around here all day. My income has halved since early 2009 when I had 800 lira (380 euro) per month. Now I earn maximum 400 lira (190 euro) a month.
Outside the ancient city walls of Istanbul their trucks are waiting on a guarded parking lot. There are no toilets and showers over there. But the truckers have to pay a 5 euro per day parking fee anyway. “We sleep in our cabins,” says Turgay, who like all truckers has his own truck. None of them earn enough to pay premiums for health insurance.
Street vendors who sell Turkish sesame bread, salted almonds, sunflower seeds and sandwiches with tomatoes and cheese are doing good business here in front of the Sirkeci station. The unemployed truckers don’t have much money, but they have to eat.

The economic crisis didn’t affect all sectors in the same way. Especially export-oriented industries such as automotive, shipbuilding, textiles, machinery and suppliers for these industries – steel and plastic manufacturers – were severely affected by the crisis. The production in those sectors declined from 20% to 50%, according tot the German research institute Germany Trade and Invest.
In the construction industry many projects were continuing. Investments in infrastructure and energy sectors remained fairly stable. The service industry was not or hardly affected by the crisis. In tourism, the number of bookings was a little slow but overall there wasn’t a big decline. The Turkish Riviera remains popular as an affordable holiday destination and Istanbul is becoming increasingly popular as a city trip destination.

ICT continues doing well. The sales of both hardware and software will grow again this year. Prices of PCs will continue to fall and stimulate the sale of computers, also because more and more Turks are starting to use the Internet. The health care system continues to grow. There are more private hospitals and the government pays more to fund treatment and nursing of patients in private hospitals.
Banks and insurers did well last year despite the crisis. Their total reported net profits were between 15% and 45%.

Nevertheless Turkey’s economy was one of the world’s hardest-hit early last year. Therefore it was a big surprise to most analysts when the Statistical Institute of Turkey reported that GDP rose 6% in the last three months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. ‘Easily beating the 4.5% consensus forecast’, as The Wall Street Journal reported. Quite a remarkable achievement when we consider the 14.5% drop in GDP in the first quarter of 2009. An important component for the growth in the last quarter of last year was domestic demand, that went up 4.7%.

The earliest figures for the first quarter of 2010 point to even brighter growth, which will be around two digits. But unemployment will remain high. The unemployed truckers in front of the Sirkeci station also hope that 2010 will be better than 2009. “Some say the economy this year will grow again,” says trucker Rustem. “I hope it’s true.”

Foreign investments will rebounce as well, analysts say. Between 2005 and 2008 Turkey received $ 66.2 billion in foreign investment. Nearly 20% of them came from companies registered in the Netherlands. Thus the Netherlands was the largest investor in Turkey. Analysts expect this year at most $ 5 billion in FDI.
Many foreign investors in the Netherlands and other countries are positive about the potential and future of Turkey. Why? ‘Turkey is still strongly positioned,’ says a foreign banker. ‘There is a young, educated population. Turkey has a strategic location, low cost of production, a large market, and a sound banking sector. Moreover the flexibility of businessmen in Turkey is greater than in many other countries. Everyone is very ambitious.’

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