For decades, İstanbul’s central Taksim square has been a magnet for Western holidaymakers and Turkish citizens alike, flocking to enjoy the area’s rich nightlife and cultural events.
But in recent years locals complain that the square and the adjacent İstiklal Street have been transformed by the effects of increased tourism from the Middle East and the influx of Syrian refugees.
The most obvious feature is the proliferation of Arabic-language signage, with many Turkish residents complaining that they feel as if they are in a foreign country rather than central Istanbul.
The objections have even prompted the newly elected İstanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu to promise that the municipality would intervene.
“Every country and every city has a certain character, and signs in a completely different language would disturb that character,” İmmaoğlu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told the BBC in a recent interview. “This should be put under control and only a certain number of signs should be in Arabic.”
Emirhan, a 23-year old who works in the travel industry, is a regular customer at a shisha café near Taksim square and believes the changes have been the result of a deliberate policy.
“Taksim’s political identity has been erased,” he complained.
“Taksim was a place where mass anti-government demonstrations happened [in 2013], and it was a symbol of a political struggle. But the government wanted to change its character altogether, so they first banned mass gatherings in Taksim, and then filled the side streets with venues run by Arab refugees and aimed to attract Arab tourists.”
Emirhan said that his work showed him the changing profile of tourism, with most visitors coming from Arabic-speaking countries.
“European tourists have started to avoid Taksim,” he said. “When they ask me to suggest places to visit while they are in Istanbul, I advise them to go to [the secular districts of] Besiktas, Ortakoy and Bebek.”.
Amid rising unemployment and a failing economy, resentment of the influx of Syrian refugees has been rising. Some observers suggest this was one reason why the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost elections in İstanbul and other major cities across Turkey.
Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, most located in major cities such as Istanbul where it is easier to find work. Many lack work permits.
An expert on migration, Prof. Dr. Murat Erdogan from the Turkish-German University in Istanbul, found in a recent study that while the number of Syrians then provided with work permits stood at around 10,000, the data suggested “that between 800,000 and one million Syrians [residing in Turkey] actually work”.
There are some 300,000 unregistered Syrians living in Istanbul, and city governor Ali Yerlikaya – an appointee of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – has ordered that all refugees without a residence permit must relocate before October 30.
The situation remains unclear, however. According to the Daily Sabah newspaper, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has signalled that Syrians working or studying in Istanbul may be exempt.
The hostility is hard for some Syrian newcomers to understand. Rami, 35, came to Turkey from Syria seven years ago. He now manages the Taksim branch of the Istanbul restaurant and bakery chain Tarbus, owned by Syrian chef Muhammed Nizar Bitar. About 300 Syrian workers are employed across the Tarbus stores.
Rami said that the Arabic signs above Tarbus shops were an important reminder of home for many Syrians.
“People living in Istanbul as immigrants like seeing Arabic signboards,” he continued. “They remind them of their own culture and the streets in which they lived before they came to Turkey. They need this. Also, these signs attract tourists from Arab countries, and I really don’t understand all these negative reactions from Turkish citizens.”
He noted that Turkish migrants in Germany also put up signs in their native languages above their shops, with no noticeable public outcry.
“There are four to five million Turks in Germany and most shopkeepers from that community use Turkish signboards,” he said. “Many of them don’t even bother to learn German, but Syrian refugees in Turkey are under a huge pressure to learn Turkish.”
Some small business owners say that they have put up signs in Arabic and employed Syrian immigrants to adapt to the changing demographics.
Omer, a 27-year-old who runs a shisha café in Taksim, said that it had become hard to attract Arab customers after a number of Syrian-owned shops opened. In response, he posted a sign in both Turkish and in Arabic above his shop.
“I have worked as a manager at different venues in Taksim since 2008,” he said. “This part of Istanbul used to be full of European tourists in the past, but now it’s mainly tourists from Arab countries.
“The economy in Turkey is really bad at the moment, so we need Arab customers. We added Arabic language to our signboards and we even employ Syrian workers because we don’t speak Arabic. If we didn’t do that, we would lose the customers,” Omer explained.
Omer said that the reason Turks were so annoyed with shop signs in Arabic was due to deeper frustration with refugees and the perception that Turkey is gradually losing its cultural identity.
“People are so irritated with this situation that even a small thing like a signboard in a different language and alphabet can provoke negative reactions. We feel as if we are losing our own culture,” he explained.
Nonetheless, Omer claimed that Syrian refugees could do more to integrate into Turkish society.
“I understand that these people ran away from war and came here looking for a safe place to live in, but why can’t they adopt our culture instead of changing it? Why should a centre of Istanbul look like a city in Syria?” he asked.
But Ulaş Sunata, associate professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University, said that Turkish citizens should show more compassion towards the Syrian newcomers.
“They are trying really hard to learn Turkish. Children, adults and the elderly are all trying to become familiar with a new alphabet and a new language. But integration takes years and both sides – Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees – need some time to adapt to this situation,” she said.
As for the transformation of Taksim, she said that the Syrian refugees had been blamed unfairly.
“In a cosmopolitan city such as İstanbul… it is not easy to accept the fact that some people find signs written in a different alphabet disturbing,” she said, noting that if German or English signs for European tourists were acceptable, then signs in Arabic for Arab tourists should not be a problem either.
“İstanbul has long been a city that receives migrants and various people from different cultures and this is what has actually strengthened the city,” she continued. “Therefore it’s necessary that we make peace with the Arabic language and the new profile of the people who live here, as well as the new profile of tourists who visit Istanbul. Accepting that change is what a cosmopolitan and global city requires.”