In the only metropole in the world that spans two continents, there is a small town located on the green northern shores of the Bosphorus called Anadolu Kavağı. Throughout history, the position of the old fishing village made it a valuable piece of land for the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans, sitting nearly at the entrance of the strait as the Black Sea funnels into it. These days, the village plays host to local Turkish tourists that need a break from the hectic life of the city center during weekends.
Traditional fish restaurants, meyhanes, are packed in tight on the pier, and the proprietors rush you with “hellos!” and “welcahms!” as they banter with their neighboring competitors, all of whom seem to be on friendly and familiar terms with one another. The lightheartedness betrays the neighborhood’s good nature. This isn’t downtown Taksim Square, where vendors and wait staff rush you through stores like bloated whales taking in krill indiscriminately. There’s the touch of small things at play here, and it’s hard to shake the cliché impression that this is how things ‘used to be’ in many other places in the city as well.
Semih Dülger, a 32-year-old communications officer in the Turkish Navy, helps me onto his boat from the dock in the middle of the restaurants and we set off into the Bosphorus. As we slide out of the bay, the sea wind rolls over and through the small vessel, which can’t be any bigger than a large pickup truck. There’s a certain intimacy one feels with this waterway that comes from being on such a tiny boat; a small drag of the hand and you’re tickling the throat of the city. As I struggle to adjust to the rockiness of the water, Semih couldn’t look more at ease. He throttles up as we make our way North towards the end of the city. My captain for the journey, who grew up on these waters, wears sneakers, blue jeans, and a thick, dark rain jacket. He has a friendly face and strikes one as shy at first, but opens up whenever he talks about the fisherman’s way of life and of his family, which has a long history on these waters.
“My great-grandfather was a fisherman, back in Ottoman times. He built his boat with his bare hands from trees that he cut down himself,” he regales proudly. “One day, his boat was taken out to sea by the waves after some very large ships moved through the area, and he went out to rescue it. Everyone in the village warned him that it was too dangerous, but he said, ‘If I lose that boat, I lose my life,’ and he went out anyway. You know, on the Black Sea, storms can come out of nowhere, and this is what happened. He never came back.”
His family has always found ways to stay out on the water, and not just through the fishing industry. His father went to work as machinist on larger boats at a young age, and still works on the ships today. Semih, who joined the Navy seven years ago, spends every free day that he can on the water, pulling in fish he either keeps for himself and his family, or, if the catch is really good, sells to the restaurants in the villages on the seaside.
“I love this work. For me it is a joy. I can’t stop, you know? I can’t stop.”
He is, however, less certain about the survival of the sea-faring traditions in the family.
“My wife and daughter come out with me sometimes. We have to keep an eye on her. ‘Don’t chase the fish! Don’t eat them!’” he says of his three-year-old with a laugh. When asked if his daughter would follow in his footsteps and take over the boats when she grows up, he replies somewhat cooly.
“This kind of work isn’t very appropriate for women because they are more delicate than men. So, I don’t think my daughter will do such a thing.”
As we pass under the city’s latest infrastructure project, known locally as the “Third Bridge,” we take a minute to admire the scale of the thing. Its concrete footholds plunge 100 meters down into the bedrock on both sides of the strait which it spans, and with its platforms at a width of 58.4 meters (192 feet), the structure is touted as the world’s widest suspension bridge.
The bridge was officially christened the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, which is in and of itself a controversial title, as the Ottoman Sultan for which it is named ruled with an oppressive and deadly zeal against Turkey’s Alevi population, who follow a branch of Islam markedly different from that of the nation’s majority Sunni demographic. The ninth Sultan infamously ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of the minority sect, who were (and to some degree still are) seen as blasphemers, heretics, and traitors to the empire. These facts are not lost on the current ruling party, who has, for the past decade, reveled not only in the politics of division, but in the glorification and nostalgia of the golden days of empire and conquest to which many Turks dearly wish to return. That the name stirs up such feelings is fitting; almost every aspect of the bridge, from its practicality to its environmental toll, has evoked strong reactions from the public to academics and opposition-party politicians as well.
As we move out from its shadow, however, none of that strikes me as the least bit important. The columns are grand, the platforms wide, the suspension cables pristine. It is an imposing figure, and one that acts as an aesthetic and literal gateway to the city from the Black Sea, into which, as the intensity of the waves now indicates, we are about to sail. Semih changes course and we put into the small bay of Poyrazköy, literally, The Village of the North Wind, where dozens of other ships are docked. From here you can see a number of rusted out vessels, some waiting to be scrapped, others waiting to be turned into restaurants – a fitting and perhaps slightly ignoble end. The bay, like so much of the city, has a tired air about it, the distinct sense that the boats around us, as well as the village in the hills above, are long past their prime. Semih confides that the feeling is much the same for the fishing lifestyle which he so adores.
“The value of these houses will become much greater because of the Third Bridge,” he begins, less convincingly optimistic than he realizes, “but, if you ask me, things will be different.”
“People will stop fishing and the village will change. The fishing lifestyle will be lost. When that happens, it’s a terrible thing.”
Overpopulation and mass pollution have taken their toll on Istanbul’s fish populations, and many species have been in sharp decline in the recent past. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, numbers for long-favored species such as Palamut (Atlantic bonito), Minekop (Croaker), and Lüfer (Bluefish) are all down significantly from previous years. In 2015, the Palamut catch alone came in at a mere 4,573 tonnes, compared to nearly 30,000 in 2006.
“The pollution has increased so much that the fish populations get smaller and smaller every day,” Semih laments. “In the old days you’d even see swordfish come through the Strait. Not anymore.”
We drift over to the European side of the city just north of Sariyer, where he thinks we’ll find fish today. He slows the boat, never dropping anchor, and puts the line, which is covered in bright orange and brown lures, overboard. As one hand works in pulls and staccato vibrations to attract the fish, the thick fingers on his left dangle like he’s playing a theremin as they guide it back down to the depths every now and again. After a few tries and still with no catch, he pulls it in and guides the boat a little closer to shore.
“We talked about women fishing earlier,” Semih suddenly says, pointing out a small skiff in the middle of a larger group of boats. There’s an old man and woman working diligently in it. Notably, the woman seems to be doing a great deal more than her fishing partner.
“I see this couple out here all the time, I think that’s his wife,” he says of the old, headscarved matriarch in black boots and rubber apron who is pulling the line in over the edge of the boat. “So maybe women can work just fine on the sea,” he concludes thoughtfully.
After a few more attempts, Semih manages to pull up four or five decently-sized lüfers. He examines the gills and the teeth before tossing them in the on-board aquarium. We spend the rest of the day darting back and forth between continents, waving at other boats, catching next to nothing. Toward sunset we put in again at the pier where we had first boarded. The same restaurant staff greet us with offers of a fine dinner, and this time we accept. The fish soup does a particularly good job of easing the windy chills of the Bosphorus at sundown.
After spending the day on the sea with the self-effacing and devoted captain and hearing how things have changed and continue to change on the water, I asked Semih what, after so many years, the sea has taught him, if anything.
“If you take care of the sea, the sea will take care of you. People should look after it as if it were their own home, because it is.”
[Photo Credit: Aline Joubert]