Istiklal Street in Istanbul is almost empty these days due to Covid-19. (Credit: Gonca Tokyol)

On Friday evening, the normally packed streets of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district feel like a ghost town. Bars and restaurants in Turkey have been closed since March 16 as part of the measures taken to curb the coronavirus outbreak – and for Beyoglu, a cosmopolitan district famed for its nightlife, that means a lot of closed shutters.

Closed restaurants in the center of Istanbul. (Credit: Osman Orsal)

“Every day is like a Sunday morning now,” said Hakan Gür, owner of Kiki, one of the oldest and best-known nightclubs in Beyoglu. “The streets are empty and the only places where you see more than three people are the supermarket queues.”

For Gür, the stress of having to pay rent while his business is closed has been compounded by uncertainty about when the shutdown will end. On May 11, Turkey began to ease its restrictions by allowing shopping malls and hairdressers to reopen, but the fate of restaurants and bars is still unknown.

Deserted streets in the city center. (Credit: Osman Orsal)

“Nobody knows what is going to happen,” said Esra Aspar, a bartender at another popular Beyoglu venue, the LGBTQ-friendly bar Kırmızı. “There are rumours but officials haven’t informed us about the situation. We are stuck in limbo.”

Closed pubs in the city center. (Credit: Osman Orsal)

Some businesses have made applications to the government for short-term working payments to their employees, but Aspar said that most of her bartender and waiter friends had not been paid since mid-March. 

A decision on when to reopen will be taken by Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with the interior ministry, but local officials are hopeful that the country’s food and drink sector will see restrictions lifted from mid-June onwards.

“From July, everything will be better for Turkey and especially Beyoglu,” said Rüstem Dindarol, the Beyoglu district’s deputy mayor. Dindarol, who also owns a shop in Beyoglu, acknowledged that many people in the area were suffering financially but stressed that they would come through it together. 

Not everybody shares this optimism. 

“We are not the kind of people who set money aside,” said Tarkan Konar, former head of the Beyoglu Entertainment Venues Association and a nightclub owner. “You use your revenue to pay rent one weekend, then wages the next. Now there’s a pile of unpaid bills, taxes and rent waiting. Business wasn’t thriving even before the pandemic, and now most of us are gloomy about the future.”

Beyoglu, once known as Pera, is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul. Home to overseas embassies during the Ottoman era, it became a centre for non-Muslim communities and European inhabitants of Istanbul in the 19th century. Today it is a home for the city’s artists and intellectuals, as well as Kurdish immigrants, students, sex workers and the LGBTQ community.

Beyoglu’s night-time economy is heavily dependent on tourism, which has suffered several blows in recent years. The anti-government protests of 2013 began in the district’s Gezi Park, and resulted in a wave of civil unrest, followed by a heavy police presence in the city’s tourist-friendly neighbourhoods. In 2016, just a few months before the attempted coup, there was a suicide bombing in Beyoglu. These events all depressed tourist numbers, at the same time as visitor demographics started to shift: more tourists now come from conservative Gulf countries, and are less likely to visit Beyoglu’s bars. 

“Without tourists flocking to Istanbul again, it is not going to be easy for a lot of places to keep their heads above water,” said Konar, who thinks the government needs to introduce an economic stimulus package to help businesses recover. 

For now, many business owners and traders are trying to wait it out. At the fish market in the Beyoglu neighbourhood of Galatasaray, in a narrow alley that is usually full of people sipping drinks, Engin Binici’s delicatessen is the only shop lit up on a Friday evening.

Engin Binici’s delicatessen is the only shop lit up on a Friday evening. (Credit: Gonca Tokyol)

“I don’t think there is a way back this time,” said Binici, who inherited the shop from his father. “It will recover, but it’s never going to be the same as it used to be.” 

On Nevizade Street, one of Beyoglu’s liveliest thoroughfares, 22-year-old bartender Yiğit sits in an empty bar. 

“In this street, we have regulars who come every week, and they’ll be crucial for the businesses that survive,” he said. “We don’t expect to earn anything this year, but they’ll ensure our future.”

The sex workers of Beyolgu also wait expectantly for their regular customers. Cüneyt, who works at a car park on the street where many brothels are located, surveys the closed establishments as he walks his dog with friends. 

“Just watch what happens here during the bairam [Eid holiday] if the government has allowed reopening by then,” he said. “Men who come here for sex don’t care about the virus.”

Cüneyt, who works on the street where many brothels are located, believes the closed establishments will reopen soon. (Credit: Gonca Tokyol)

Another sex worker, looking for business on the street, agrees with him. 

“Of course, some people don’t want to visit us for fear of the virus. But prostitution is the oldest profession, and demand for it never ends. We still have customers.”

For many people, Beyoglu isn’t just a place for entertainment, but a source of community. 

“I’m friends with a lot of my customers,” said Aspar, the bartender at Kırmızı. “I miss them and they miss being with us.”

Cem Kahraman, a 28 year-old salesperson, spent most of his leisure time in Beyoglu before the pandemic hit Turkey and sees it as an oasis of freedom in a country where many people have more conservative religious values. 

“When I’m at work, I have to keep quiet about my sexual orientation – and it’s not just that, I can’t talk to my colleagues about the movies I watch or the bands I listen to. But at the weekend, I can go to Şişhane for a drink, I can catch a movie at one of the cinemas on Istiklal Avenue, or I can visit an art show in Cihangir,” Kahraman said, listing several well-known Beyoglu locations.

Bengu Gun is the director of Mixer, one of Beyoglu’s numerous art galleries. She remembers being overwhelmed and trembling when she first visited the district as a student.

“It was no bed of roses for the art and culture industry before the pandemic,” Gun said. “Recovering from it is going to take some doing.”

Despite the pressure they’re under, some business owners and workers are wary of opening up too soon. 

“Every day I get calls asking when we are going to reopen,” said Aspar, explaining that she and her colleagues don’t want to put their or their customers’ health at risk. 

Gür, the owner of Kiki, thinks that official permission to reopen won’t be enough. “Our customers will be worried about contagion. I don’t think they will be comfortable about going out,” he said.

Without a date set for reopening, the government has not yet published guidelines on how bars and restaurants can ensure social distancing. But Beyoglu’s deputy mayor said that in any case his authority would not let venues reopen without a “disinfection” process. 

“We will also check the health backgrounds of employees and we won’t allow anyone who is COVID-positive to return to work,” he said. Dindarol also expects minimum distance requirements between tables, an adjustment he acknowledged would be harder for smaller venues to make. 

Tuğrul Eryılmaz is a veteran journalist who has been living in Cihangir, a popular neighbourhood for artists, writers, actors, and expats, for more than 25 years. For him, these restrictions are likely to harm the meyhanes, traditional restaurants that serve alcoholic drinks with meze and which provide a crucial element of the district’s social life. 

“Those are places where the conversations happen cheek-to-cheek,” he said. “We won’t be able to have those conversations for a while.”At 74, Eryılmaz is planning to be careful when his neighbourhood eventually springs back into life. “I’ll look for places with gardens, and I’ll be checking what precautions they take,” he said. But he’s nonetheless optimistic. “It is not easy to put the final nail into Beyoglu’s coffin. It is older than all of us, and it will be here forever, with its people and its culture.”