In Istanbul Under Lockdown, Baklava Makers Are Essential Workers

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ISTANBUL — Every weekend, for over a month now, Istanbul has been under a strict curfew because of the coronavirus. No one is allowed out, not for exercise or groceries, and the police impose fines. Sometimes, like last weekend and next, the street-emptying lockdown stretches for four days to take in public holidays.

That has dampened one of the great joys of living in Istanbul: watching the perpetual commotion of this water-bound city, where the Bosporus and the Golden Horn open onto the Sea of Marmara.

From many vantage points, you can see the tiny fishing boats bobbing and glinting, the passenger ferries crisscrossing incessantly, and the giant container ships and long oil tankers that glide right through everything.

But the curfew has also offered new moments of breathtaking beauty.

A reverent hush falls over the city. The timeless skyline of mosques and minarets seems to grow in stature in the silence. The sapphire waters are as still as a pond.

Nature lovers have been thrilled. Dolphins have ventured closer, even dipping and diving by the Galata bridge that crosses the Golden Horn. Migratory birds are bolder, storks have returned to an old haunt, and the pollution has lifted, giving the city its first glimpse in 20 years of the snow-covered mass of Mount Uludag, 100 miles to the south.

The clanging of the construction sites and the thick hubbub of traffic has eased. The only movement is of the sea gulls wheeling over the roof tops. I can even hear a cock crowing in someone’s garden.

Of course, Istanbul’s curfew could never be a total shutdown. Its residents have lived through multiple military coups, sieges, earthquakes, pestilence and other calamities, and know well that life must go on.

So bakers are exempt from the curfew because fresh bread is so important for the Turkish table. They shout their wares on the empty street and sell bread from the back of their vans.

When Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, began last month, pastry shops also got an exemption. Turks it seems cannot do without their baklava, that heavenly, multilayered, flaky pastry, bound up with nuts and syrup, that is the nation’s favorite sweet.

Journalists were allowed out too, so I went to visit Karakoy Gulluoglu, the most famous house of baklava, down near a ferry dock.

Murat Gullu, the general manager, whose great-grandfather founded the company in the 19th century, said he asked the government to allow baklava makers to stay open.

“We eat baklava on all occasions,” he said, “especially in Ramadan, at celebrations, and at funerals.”

We slide past that sad thought. Over 4,000 people have died in Turkey from the coronavirus and 150,000 have been infected. His master pastry chefs are working throughout the lockdown, hand-rolling sheets of pastry until, as tradition demands, each one is so fine you can read the newspaper through it.

The chefs bake thousands of trays, drench them in syrup and box them up for hand delivery to customers’ homes.

Ramadan drummers are also allowed out during curfew and prowl the streets at night, banging a warning to people to get up and eat before the dawn call to prayer begins the day’s fast. The drummers are an old tradition that refuses to die even if the more secular neighborhoods have asked them not to disturb their sleep.

With some pleasure and pride, Turks are rediscovering their old traditions — like the one where a householder will lower a basket from a window and shout to a shopkeeper to place an order in the basket to save the trek down flights of stairs.

In my neighborhood of Beyoglu, with its narrow townhouses and overhanging windows, you see that more often these days. There are baskets outside grocery stores too, or just on the street, where people place an extra item for anyone in need to take.

Betul Ozkan in Fatih, one of the oldest neighborhoods, posted a photo of her family’s basket, with a line from the poet Rumi: “There is much hope after despair and many suns after darkness.”

Another custom is for people to pay for two loaves of bread at the bakery, leaving one for the baker to give to someone more needy. Opposition mayors, thwarted by the central government from direct fund-raising, have run hugely successful campaigns in the last couple of weeks asking people to pick up the tab for those struggling to pay their utility bills.

For all its glories of culture and architecture, Istanbul — the longest lived-in political entity in Europe — has long been known for its festering diseases. The Sultan’s Topkapi palace and much of the city has notoriously been rife in the past with cholera and tuberculosis.

The immense hulk of the Byzantine cathedral, Hagia Sophia, was just built in time to witness the great plague of 542 A.D., which devastated the city.

Twenty percent of the population died during repeated outbreaks, including the chief aide to the ruling emperor Justinian. Mass graves were dug in the Galata neighborhood across the Golden Horn, and corpses were piled on ships and pushed out to sea.

Maybe such experiences with disease have led to an abiding obsession with cleanliness in Turkey. Workers and guests take their shoes off before entering your home. Restaurants have always offered cologne for your hands even before the days of Covid-19.

On many a street corner there are carved marble Ottoman-era fountains, although sadly few have running water anymore. These days, hygiene officials in colored T-shirts stand on the main shopping street with plastic bottles of antiseptic gel on a table.

When the weekend curfew ends, people burst out their doors with relief, some even ducking out to the corner shop on the stroke of midnight.

The lifeblood of the city, the small stores and businesses, remain mostly closed. Restaurants offer takeout only, with the cafes, bars and tea shops still barred from opening.

But as the weather turns warm, the city is yearning to sit outside again.

Shopkeepers have started spring cleaning, in anticipation of a return of commercial life. The antique shops have begun placing furniture back out on the sidewalk. A furniture shop has placed brochures on the windowsill. Maybe business will move outside.

No sign of any customers yet though.

Small businesses have been struggling already for some years, rocked by a series of economic hits — the violent breakup of the Taksim square protests in 2013, the terrorist attacks in 2016, which scared away the foreign tourists, then a failed coup and a currency crash.

The artisans — potters, woodcarvers and goldsmiths — who work out of tiny studio workshops in the steep side streets of my neighborhood seemed already to be a dying breed.

But the pandemic is hurting everyone. The barrow men, who move furniture or heavy purchases for customers on pushcarts and survive on daily wages, ask for charity now from passers-by.

Still, when turning a corner one day, my heart lifted at the sight of the first cafe table set out on a tiny terrace. The owner was enjoying his Turkish coffee and view of the Bosporus, but we smiled and nodded. Life, it seems, is on the way back.

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