from our special correspondent in Istanbul, Turkey – In the Kasimpasa neighbourhood of Istanbul where he grew up, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s former neighbours describe a generous young man who was already destined for a bright future. With the future of Turkey at stake in the upcoming presidential election, they are eager to explain why the incumbent deserves another five years on the job.
On a hill in Kasimpasa, a working-class Istanbul neighbourhood overlooking the Golden Horn estuary, sits a nondescript building, its fading façade sprouting a few satellite dishes. There’s not much to say about 34 Piyale Mumhanesi Street, except that Recep Tayyip Erdogan lived here, and this is the neighbourhood from which he launched his political career.
“He lived here before he became president,” says Semiha Karaoglupacal, owner of the grocery store across the street. “He used to come to the store to shop. Every morning, before he left for work, he would say hello.” At the time, the narrow store belonged to Karaoglupacal’s father. She worked here every day after school.
Like many residents, Karaoglupacal has never left Kasimpasa. This neighbourhood was once home to shipyard workers who lived along the coast. That’s what brought Ahmet Erdogan, a sea captain and father of Recep Tayyip, to Kasimpasa after the family left their native Rize on the eastern Black Sea coast.
Erdogan senior was a pious and severe figure, according to numerous biographers. Discipline and a rigorous adherence to the values and precepts of Islam were the central themes of the Turkish president’s childhood. After attending the local primary school, “Tayyip”, as he’s fondly known in his childhood circles, attended a religious vocational high school.
As a teenager, Erdogan earned pocket money selling simits, the round, sesame-encrusted bread that can be found on every street corner in Turkey.
“Recep Tayyip Erdogan was always charitable. He used to buy things to give to children, and on Fridays, he would distribute money to them,” recalled Karaoglupacal.
‘We are proud of him’
Once a gritty neighbourhood, Kasimpasa changed after Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, according to Karaoglupacal. “It was renovated. We are doing well now,” she explains with a smile.
Polls may show a close race in the lead-up to the May 14 Turkish presidential election, but in this neighbourhood, there’s an unquestionable favourite. “We are proud of him, proud of what he has become,” the owner of the grocery store says. “We love him because he is one of us.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by most Erdogan supporters who oppose the country’s secular elites, identify with his modest origins and admire his achievements. Erdogan, for them, is a man who speaks the language of the street, a true popular hero.
“He was born for this [position],” says Karaoglupacal, adjusting her veil. “He is not afraid of anyone, except God. He is a true Muslim,” she maintains. “If people are good Muslims, they should support him. With our prayers, he will be victorious. Nothing will stop him.”
Outside the little store, a street vendor buying and selling a variety of items bellows his sales pitch in the residential neighbourhood. The vendor pauses, waiting patiently. But in vain. There are no takers. On this hot afternoon, there aren’t many people on the streets.
The lack of customers sees Gonul glued to her cell phone. She runs the hair salon on the ground floor of the building where the president lived.
“I have seen Erdogan a few times when he was mayor of Istanbul, but also when he was a member of the government. He came to visit us in Kasimpasa. He would simply say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ He is close to the people,” she declares, waving her phone for emphasis.
A resident of the neighborhood for 27 years, Gonul even lived in the Erdogan family’s old apartment at one stage. “One day, he knocked on the door. I didn’t expect to see Erdogan when I opened the door. I wanted to kiss his hand because it is a sign of respect for elders, but he didn’t want it. He’s a good human being and I respect him as a president.”
‘Nothing but football’
Inside the building where Erdogan lived, it’s perfectly still. The stairwell is still in its original state. Huseyin Ustunbas, 72, lives on the fifth floor, just above the apartment where the Erdogan family once lived.
Today, he is the only resident who knows the president personally. The kindly septuagenarian is used to receiving visits from foreign journalists and he’s happy to open the door to his large apartment.
Sitting on his living room sofa, he spins out anecdotes about “Tayyip”, as he affectionately calls his former neighbour. “He only thought about football, nothing but football, ” recalls Ustunbas.
As a teenager, Erdogan attended an Imam Hatip school, one of many such religious schools founded in Turkey after traditional madrassas were abolished. The schools were primarily aimed at training government-employed imams as well as providing a means to further education for children of pious Muslim families.
The teenage Erdogan also managed to frequent Kasimpasa’s football clubs: Erokspor, Camialti and IETT. His classmates nicknamed him “Imam Beckenbauer” after his idol, German footballer Franz Beckenbauer. “His father didn’t like him playing, so he would sneak his cleats and go for his matches,” says Ustunbas, noting that Erdogan’s father prevented him from taking up professional football.
The apartment is dotted with family photos. But one, in particular, has a prominent spot, framed and hung on the wall above the sofa where Ustunbas is seated. It shows the Ustunbas family – his wife, who passed away in 2018, his daughter and grandson – standing next to Erdogan and his wife, Emine.
“Sometimes he (Erdogan) suddenly feels like coming back to the neighbourhood. He doesn’t plan it in advance,” says the retiree. “That day, I was shopping when I got a call that the president was here,” he says, indicating the photograph. “He asked the photographer to take this picture as a souvenir of his visit. I told him we would never get a chance to see it. The next day, it was dropped off at my house.”
Ustunbas describes the simplicity of the kid next door who rose to the pinnacle of power. “We are friends. Our children played and grew up together. Bilal (Erdogan’s son) is the same age as my son. Their house was like ours. Nowadays, because of the security, we can’t approach him as easily, but if he sees us, he stops to talk. He doesn’t like it when his bodyguards prevent people from approaching.”
‘He will win this election’
The old man regrets that he no longer has his photo albums to display since they are with his daughter now. He has only two souvenirs left, which he hastens to fetch from the sideboard: invitations to the weddings of Esra and Burak, two of Erdogan’s other children. Ustunbas recounts how he found himself not far from guests like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the king of Jordan. “When he came to greet us, many wondered who we were and why he was talking to us.”
Erdogan has displayed generosity with his neighbours over the years, including those who are critical of “Tayyip”, notes Ustunbas. “He was already called ‘reis’ (chief or president) when he was young. He was very active; he did so many things to help people in this neighbourhood,” he recalls. “My wife died of cancer. She needed chemotherapy but we couldn’t find the money for the treatment. We called Bilal because [Erdogan’s] adviser was not answering us. After that, we were able to go to the hospital for free. The adviser was dismissed.”
The devotion is total, and it comes with certainty. “He will win this election. In the previous election, the situation was the same. Foreign journalists asked us the same questions. There were economic problems. He won. We expect him to win 51 to 53% of the vote in the first round.”
As for Erdogan’s critics, he brushes them off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t listen to those who are against him. I know him. I know what he’s like. I could die for him. I would give my life for him.”
(This is a translation of the original in French.)
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