In Erdogan’s Kasimpaşa, Every Man’s a Strongman

BY SASHA WARD (story and photos)  and TAYLOR GILMAN (video)

Tucked behind a shady, interfaith cemetery and a bleak military training facility, a blue tarp banner sways back and forth above the brick-lain streets of Kasımpaşa. Written in stark white, the lettering reads:

Osta be!
Millet için ayaktasin, Millet Senin için ayakta
Dik dur Eğilme, Allah, Seninle
Kotrali Romanler

You stand up for your people, and your people stand up for you
Be stronger, God is with you
The Romani People of Kasımpaşa


Here in the blue-collar neighborhood of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, one can immediately understand how he inherited his austere and focused disposition: the neighborhood is lined with small, street-side businesses that have remained untouched by recent gentrification or tourism projects – robust autoshop workers lounge idly curbside, chatting and observing the passerby, while butchers tend to their regular customers. People pass underneath the banner, nonchalantly and unnoticing, as if these binding words of servitude to the Prime Minister engulf the neighborhood in his comforting, invisible presence – more that of a neighbor than of a political figure. While international eyes anxiously monitor Erdoğan and the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian measures in response to weeks of social unrest, the denizens of Kasımpaşa take great pride and satisfaction in the accomplishments of one of their own.

Amidst the current conflicts in Turkey, there is still one neighborhood that remains loyal to its controversial hometown hero, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Watch, “Kasımpaşa: The Legacy of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” by Taylor Gilman:


Coined by those native to Istanbul, the term kasımpaşalı describes the unique demeanor of men who are born and raised in this working-class community.

Coined by those native to Istanbul, the term kasımpaşalı describes the unique demeanor of men who are born and raised in this working-class community. Once used to describe the thuggish, gangster outcasts of Turkish society some fifteen years ago, the term now instills great pride in those men to whom the epithet is bestowed. As Turkish masculinity is by and large shaped by one’s perceived strength, work ethic, and honor, Kasımpaşa offers a perspective on the ongoing AKP resistance against activists in Taksim Square who occupied Gezi Park to halt the Prime Minister’s demolition plans. This conservative subset of Istanbullus believe that Erdoğan’s unyielding control demonstrates the essence of his kasımpaşalı attitude: the actions that he deems necessary for the livelihood of the state are manifestations of his strength and his core values.


Three men watch idly on the streets of Kasımpaşa. 

The teahouses of Kasımpaşa serve as a local hangout for older kasımpaşalı men and embody the pride and admiration that the community has for Erdoğan, from the interior decoration of the teahouse – covered in photos of sporting events that he’s organized to photos of his predecessors – to how he is described in conversation by his kasımpaşalı brothers.

At around two p.m. every day, Necati Savaş comes to the Meydan Kiraathanesi teahouse to pass the afternoon watching futbol matches on the corner television, chatting, and playing pişti with his friends. Literally meaning “overdone,” pişti is a traditional Turkish card game, in which each player is dealt four cards. Going around in a circle, Necati and his friends place cards into the middle of the table until someone draws a jack, which ends the round and allows that player to earn points based on the cards he’s collected. If the first two cards placed upon the table are the same – for example, two sevens – the player slams his fist onto the table and cries “Pişti!”, which earns him ten points. While the name of the game might mean, “overdone,” there is never too much of a good thing here. It is in the teahouse, Necati says, that he can escape the discomfort of his accounting office in Taksim Square – which has been significantly impacted by the social unrest – and relax with his friends; they play cards sometimes three to four times a day.

SashaWard_Pişti_3 Four men at the Meydan Kiraanthanesi teahouse playing pişti.

He neither agrees with the plans to construct the new Ottoman barracks in Gezi Park nor some protestors’ wishes for Erdoğan to step down, yet he believes in Erdoğan’s plans to simultaneously modernize the city and restore Ottoman relics to their past glory. Necati and his friends, he says, embrace the kasımpaşalı mentality and for this reason they identify and align themselves so strongly with Erdoğan.

According to Necati, the term kasımpaşalı held negative connotations some time ago, a word synonymous with a gangster, psychopath, or a lunatic. However, with time, the word has indeed developed into a term of respect and pride for those who live in Kasımpaşa – a way to describe one’s preparedness for a fight, serious demeanor and work ethic. Although he is ambivalent to say that Erdoğan is a true kasımpaşalı on account of his newfound open-mindedness, Necati nonetheless identifies him as such: “People respect him as a Prime Minister and as one of us,” he muses.

Another man approaches Necati from behind, leaning his elbow upon his shoulder; he asks how things are going. Ertuğrul Şahin, a native to Kasımpaşa for the past forty-four years – ever since his family emigrated from the Black Sea village of Giresun – grew up in the apartment next to Erdoğan. Their families close, Ertuğrul’s older brother played at the same futbol club as the Prime Minister; he refers to Tayyip as his other brother. When Erdoğan comes into town, Ertuğrul asserts that he always makes time to see him, calls him by name, and together they reminisce about the good old days.

When asked about how the recent protests have affected Erdoğan’s overall popularity, Ertuğrul responded that the majority of Turkey doesn’t support them: “Were there an election today, Erdoğan would win maybe 50-60% of the vote.”

When asked about how the recent protests have affected Erdoğan’s overall popularity, Ertuğrul responded that the majority of Turkey doesn’t support them: “Were there an election today, Erdoğan would win maybe 50-60% of the vote.” Ertuğrul goes on to say that those who do indeed protest the AKP simply misunderstand Erdoğan’s goals and the way in which he goes about accomplishing them. “Protestors generally think that these projects – ones like the third bridge across the Bosphorus and the new airport – are all about generating money, but good facilities like these are important for a city. It will make Istanbul the greatest it’s ever been.”

Going behind the counter and pouring his own cup of tea, Ertuğrul loudly refutes the public’s negative reactions to recent gentrification and development projects by explaining how Erdoğan has positively modernized the neighborhood. Most recently, Erdoğan transformed the old Kasımpaşa futbol stadium into an archery range, a popular sport in Turkey throughout the nineteenth-century; the new outdoor facility opened only a week ago. Ertuğrul also mentions how gentrification in Kasımpaşa is not like that in other areas – Erdoğan has simply built better apartment complexes for people to live in; no one is forced out, and rent prices remain steady.

This is why, Ertuğrul says, the Ottoman construction project in Gezi Park is such a good idea – it revitalizes the glory days and creates a place of historical importance. “The park will remain underneath. Plus, the Prime Minister plants trees on every free bit of space in this city. This is not about tearing up a few trees.”

When it comes to Erdoğan’s kasımpaşalı attitude, Ertuğrul believes that it has factored into his successes as Prime Minister. “A kasımpaşalı man is hard-working, honest, proactive. The European Union warned Tayyip about behaving this way, but we are not a part of the European Union; it’s okay to handle things like this, like a kasımpaşalı. We are very proud of him and that we are from the same place.”

And so, what appears to the rest of the world as excessive political control and brutality – authoritarian pişti, so to speak – is just business as usual for Erdoğan hometown supporters.

Around the corner from Meydan, a withered man slowly opens the front door to the Erok Futbol club. As he hobbles down the stairs and the entrance creaks close, two pairs of knowing eyes stare out onto the street: Atatürk and Erdoğan, whose photos hang side by side, keep watch through the crevasse.


Atatürk and Erdoğan portraits hanging at the Erok Futbol Club in Kasımpaşa.