My London

Aydın Mehmet Ali was born in Cyprus, has lived most of her life in London and recently returned to Cyprus. She is an international education consultant, project manager, researcher as well as an award winning author. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her publications include a short story collection, Pink Butterflies/Bize Dair (2005).

London is my city…

This is where I became a grown-up. Where I became the woman I am. Where I created the woman I have become. Where I fell in love. Where I first made love. London is where I came to seek refuge from a war. My arrival a historical accident, a history created by others, one I was forced to live. My stay, a choice.

London, I love. She created me as I created her. She would be something else if it were not for me, and others like me who came to stay.

This is where I ate my first curry, volcano in my mouth wondering at the limitations of pain for pleasure. Where I discovered old China Town in Limehouse and later at Gerrard St. Where I watched, awe struck, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev dance against Apartheid in a concrete maze I thought unfinished which later became one of my cultural oases. Where I walked through the escaping steam and pungent whiff of hops of the old Truman Brewery, mesmerised by the mural of buxom women on Clifton’s wall in competition with Nazrul’s, squeezed between Jewish materials shops. Now I can hardly cycle my way through the Bengali restaurant touts who have squeezed out the Jewish communities and converted the synagogue into a mosque in Brick Lane. The old Truman still holds onto its fig tree leaning on the red-brick wall unnoticed by the drum ‘n’ bass thirty-twenty-something crowds of the Vibe Club. Salt beef and salmon bagels still the pit-stop late at night for the black butterflies and tailed suits donned by men and bejewelled older women in Rolls Royces or Jaguars on their way back from the Opera heading to the ends of this City. I notice more people begging on the pavement at the corner by the traffic lights where I demonstrated against the fascist National Front who wanted to send the likes of me back.

The city where I became the guest of languages, some I could not decipher, sitting on the Number 38 bus from Piccadilly to Hackney sometimes to the music of the harmonica-playing conductor. I would smile when I could guess the language. The city where I learnt to distinguish the Caribbeans from the Africans and then those from their different parts. Where I learnt about slavery and met the great-great-grandchildren of the slaves. Where I saw wealth and experienced poverty. Where I stared at the muddy waters of the Thames in search of the sea, trying to impose the image of the crystal waters of the Mediterranean. I discovered towns in London: China in Soho, Bangla in Brick Lane, India and Pakistan in Green St., Beirut and Arab in Edgware Rd., Caribbean in Brixton, Cyprus along Green Lanes and Hackney, my town, a mini London with all its communities.

I go around the world in 80 minutes or less walking down Ridley Rd. Market. Alfie the cucumber-man is gone, so is Foreman the smoked fish hut reminding me of the Jewish communities, escapees of fascism and WWII. Navarino Mansions, their safe heaven, with its Art Nouveau iron window railings now house refugees from other wars in Africa, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq. The Hasidim Jews in Stamford Hill remain and still walk around on Saturdays, men with wide-brimmed fur hats, long twisted locks dangling on either side of their faces, women pushing prams in their Saturday-best wearing wigs of unchanged styles. At night, after the cacophony of the market has died down, I watch lone men in the dim light of the street lamps, sit on stalls pushed against the darkness of the walls waiting for dawn. Only their orange cigarette lights sparkle. The old sweatshops have become barren lonely hostels for lonely men escapees of persecution. Bare bulbs hanging from ceilings, washing left to dry on windowsills and sometimes music in different languages the only life in the deserted dark market street.

Hackney, where I am educated and informed of the world political and economic events, conflicts and wars through the changes in the people, faces and languages in the market. The Cypriots, leftovers from the 1960s and 1970s conflicts, the Caribbeans, the Indians, Pakistanis, Kashmiris, the Vietnamese, East Africans and now West Africans, the Nigerians, Bangladeshis, the Kurdish and Turkish communities, more recently the lone young men from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Somalis especially the tall women in their long dark robes and more women in hidjab and headscarves. And even more recently blond white women, fashion conscious, from Poland and other East European countries and well built stocky young men carrying pots and pans, brooms, microwave ovens and electric kettles ready to set up home. And now languages I can’t even begin to decipher…

I watched the only market pub close down and become a beauty sop full of nail, hair, skin products, wigs and false nails. Even the local Hackney Action for Racial Equality has become a nail parlour. The Vietnamese experts in nail fashion. Outside the pub, the Caribbean elders no longer bring the chairs out to bang the domino pieces on a board precarioiusly balanced on an orange board from Morocco, commandeered from the discarded pile behind one of the stalls. Ganja doesn’t whiff across adult conversations and flirting amongst baby-mothers and baby-fathers while children run in-and-out of the telephone boxes on the corner, giggling and climbing on empty stalls. No longer the Rasta locks flying through the air with the flick of the head and bright green, red and yellow dress code and Supermalt in hand reminding you of tropical places. And the old working class white East End market families, sprinkled in-between, at first resentful that we dared touch their fruit and veg now sell pack-choy, bean-sprouts, flat-leaf parsley, passion fruit, mango, water melons and varieties of other melons, mint, coriander, aubergines, spinach, French beans, rockette, eddoes, plantains, yams, sweet potatoes, star fruit as though they have always sold them. They will even give you recipes and instructions of how to cook or eat them. They will even shout the weight and price in Turkish, after all, the largest language group in Hackney after English.

I watch the garment factory with its Stars of David at the end of the Market become the Turkish Food Centre from a small shop with a hill of watermelons on the pavement on the side, to a Mecca of food where you can buy anything on sale in Turkey. Freshly baked baklava and its 20 or so variations, breads and pide, fresh and dried vegetables, dried aubergines and peppers hanging from strings, fruits, nuts, drinks including wines and rakı, music cassettes and CDs, variations of olives and white cheese (feta), mangals (BBQs), skewers, Turkish coffee sets, shapely tea glasses, even short reed brooms to double you over in old age. And of course from the minute to the large vulgarly ostentatious blue glass “evil-eyes” dangling in their hundreds like a surreal installation from walls used to protect your car, house, newborn, at a price, from the “evil eye”. All attempts to reduce the longing for “home”, places, tastes, ornaments, people, smells, music, images left behind. Above the food centre the Alevi Cem Evi, replacing the mosque as a centre of spirituality, where young people walk through the market with their long-necked saz stringed instruments gently carried under their arms. And of course similar food-shops run by the Turkish Speaking Communities (TSCs) are spread all over London, open all hours of the day and night, generating and creating a different way of life, energy, buzz and excitement with an entrepreneurial spirit not there before their arrival. They have changed the face and rules of shopping. Follow these food Meccas, small or large, and you follow the nomadic adventures of the TSCs across London and beyond. When did the kebab replace fish and chips as the local dish of London and beyond? Now you can find a kebab take-away in the remotest market towns in Wales, north of England and Scotland.

Back on Kingsland Road, the old Roman road, your soul is safe from Shoreditch to Stoke Newington, with Süleymaniye Mosque in the south to Aziziye, a converted bingo hall, in the north. Both covered in beautiful blue-azure Kütahya tiles especially imported from Turkey. Lit up green during the two religious celebrations, Kurban and Şeker Bayramı (Eid) they are a hive of activity, distributing food to the poor and needy and Quranic wisdom to those at the precipice of temptation. The left-wing radical revolutionaries escapees of political coups and persecution in Turkey offer salvation to others in the numerous centres set up in the 1980s, walls crowded with the portraits of the martyrs to the cause, some still perpetuating sectarian animosities amongst dwindling Marxist congregations. Half way up the long road, Rio Cinema sustained my love of world cinema. This is where the Cypriotgreek and Cypriotturkish communities descended from all over London and beyond in the 1960s and 1970s to watch Greek and Turkish language films. This was before the time of videos. Alternate weekends ensured that the animosities generated in Cyprus didn’t spill into the cinema at the same time it offered opportunities for some to go to both films. Of the five cinemas on Kingsland Road, when I moved into the area, only the Rio remains. For the past eleven years each November the London Turkish Film Festival attracts thousands from the TSCs and others to celebrate achievements of films some with world cinema award garlands from Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Istanbul, while film shorts create opportunities for the new emerging TS actors and directors of the future London based cinemaphiles.

A little up the road, Mangal II where Gilbert and George, the famous art duo enjoy their kebabs served by polite waiters usually studying for a “solid” degree, mostly unaware of who they are. “I think they are film makers,” said one when I asked once. I smiled. I could see why he thought that as I’ve witnessed more than once the American accented palm-sized expensive equipment-wielding bods filming them at their table. While the interviewer sweats and fluffs, they demurely get on with their food. I’ve witnessed a young woman waiting to be seated refuse a table and insist on waiting for Gilbert and George’s. Gilbert usually smiles shyly and says Hi when he becomes aware that you are Turkish Speaking and know who they are.

Mangal in Arcola St, gave birth to Mangal II by feeding workers from the local sweatshops and garment factories producing clothes paraded by long-legged catwalk models in the West End and beyond. At the numerous weddings, engagement and circumcision parties each weekend, undistinguishable from each other in the type of music, food and dance, the same dress parades and wiggles to belly-dance on the dance floor, to some love song from the depths of Anatolia on a short-legged plump body. The short bursts of “ziiiiiirt, ziiiiirt” of industrial sewing machines no longer overflow through the open windows, accompanied by the music of heart wrenching longing and unrequited love in Turkish. The factories have gone, first to Bulgaria and Romania with the blessing and funding of the EU and now probably on their way to China leaving 30,000 TS and others unemployed. The increased TS Mafia activity soon after is no coincidence. Arcola Theatre set up in one such ex-factory, by Mehmet Ergen, a young dynamic TS director, brings world-class theatre and plays to Hackney. This includes Stafford-Clark’s Macbeth, which played to full houses, creating a beehive attracting creativity from all over London.

Saturdays and Sundays I call pantomime days for the TSCs. Young women in satin fancy dress, in all colours, line up at the hairdressers adding flowers and tiaras to their hair, impervious to the plight of the cars covered in flowers and ribbons and their drivers waiting patiently by the curb in front of the flower shops next door. Yet another group of young people bowing to the pressures of getting married, some too young. Some young girls seeing marriage as an escape from parental pressure only to hand themselves over to the pressures of a husband and marriage. An agreement between families and clans more than between two young people. Living together not an option as it brings heavily punishable dishonour and curse on seven generations! But the flowers spilled onto the pavement especially on Valentine’s day with red hearts not only make good photographs but prepare you for a softer landing just before the police station with a history of deaths in custody, it is barely getting over.

Green Lanes is where Cypriots created “Little Cyprus” along the “Ladder” from Newington Green to Wood Green. While divisions and nationalist discourse raged in Cyprus, Cypriot men quietly drank coffee and played backgammon and cards in the sanctity of the mixed coffee houses, named after villages in the “homelands” but most importantly away from women. The same men both perpetrators and victims of acts of violence and generosity, some as servants of the colonial empire. I watch as that generation is dying out and the second and third generation move into larger enterprises or professions in other industries. The Turkish and Kurdish communities have recently taken over the inconspicuous Cypriot corner shop, café and fish and chip shop and transformed it into the loud coloured, flashing light decorated signs offering tastes of Anatolia rather than the Mediterranean. Yaşar Halim who in the face of Turkish nationalist fervour insisted on putting signs up for freshly baked bread, pide/pitta, hellim/halloumi and olives in Turkish, Greek and English is still there. People from all over London came to buy a little bit of Cyprus until the next visit to the village where, to the amusement of customs officers, luggage would be dragged along the floor packed with these goodies not available in London, now staple foods in all supermarkets. Now it is illegal to bring in halloumi cheese. Yaşar Halim was beaten up and hospitalised in the 1990s for refusing to make “donations” of about £10,000 per week, some say to the TS Mafia, others to left-wing revolutionaries and yet others say to the Kurdish PKK. A practice which still continues. Kurdish, Turkish and eastern Europeans work in his bakery and expanded shop and the products reflect it. Across the road Patisserie Halepi still holds onto the old recipes from Cyprus for philavones, gurabiye, lokma and shamishi amongst gory multi-layered wedding cakes, giving away the Middle eastern fusion of cuisines; Halepi, Aleppo of Syria. I make a special trip sometimes to close my eyes and taste the crumbling shortbread with almonds, gurabiye, or the syru- filled little pastry balls, lokma, to take me back to being a child in Cyprus.

Green Lanes at the corner of Newington Green reminds me of the hundreds, arriving and leaving from the offices of the company running over-land trips between Cyprus and London, well before the days of cheap flights. The screams, laughter, tears of joy of separations, excitement, the long waves goodbye, the kisses, the silence of sorrow, wiping of the eyes with the corner of the headscarf still linger on. A little further north, the Fleet Street of the Turkish language press where four out of five newspapers printed in London exist side by side alongside the Turkish Bookshop struggling to survive. Local newspapers are available free in all the supermarkets, off-licences and shops run by TSCs alongside papers from Turkey and Cyprus. Just as important as the news are the smiling faces dressed to kill posing in the hundreds of clubs and restaurants plastered all over at least three-four full pages in each paper. The owner of Kıbrıs Studios a little down the road is now over seventy and has photographed Cypriots throughout the decades. He must have a phenomenal archive. African babies and newly-weds smile from his shop window now. A couple of shops down was the soup shop where all the nightclub musicians and singers would congregate for hot soup, a chat and catch up with the news before daybreak. At the Wood Green end of Green Lanes Turkish London Radio broadcasts events, news, music amongst jingles for property investment, catering wholesalers and even more. With satellite dishes popping up like mushrooms all over London buildings the TSCs can access over 50 channels from Turkey and Cyprus. The links with the “homelands” of some and the Turkish language is as strong as ever.

Football has always been big in the TSCs with its own Football Federation and League. Over 400 teams take over Hackney Marshes on Sundays where big business rules, players are bought and sold and where winning the League is mega. Nationalism and prejudice seem not to have a place in the League as African-Caribbean and even Cypriotgreek players play in TSCs teams. The European successes of the big football clubs and the national team of Turkey in the World Cup have boosted the confidence and profile of football in London.

Green Lanes and Kingsland Road are but a small reflection of the life of the TSCs across London and beyond, their hopes, aspirations, loves, preoccupations and thirst for life. From the respectable to the most hidden, from the honest, hard working trying to make it in this city despite all odds to the money launderer, people smuggler, credit card fraudster, those exploiting women for prostitution. I feel the pain and anger as I walk past basement cafes where young blond women serve tea and coffee and I suspect sex and feel their desperation and helplessness. I don’t pretend not to see the adverts for sex in all the local Turkish language papers bar the Toplum Postası while “namus” (honour) and morality is shoved down the throats of TS young girls and women. I note the community centres providing much needed services to desperate people and note those who receive large sums on behalf of the communities but fleece them. One thing is certain: the TSCs have set up networks and systems that do not require going “outside” the communities. The chain of jewelers, accountants, finance companies, lawyers, travel agents, import-export, catering, household goods, building, ICT companies and its millionaires are a testimony of economic self-sufficiency. Some of these companies are suppliers to British supermarkets and catering industry while others like Hüseyin Özer of Özer and Sofra restaurants chain is mentioned as one of the three chefs with the most influence on the new developing British cuisine. Weekly cultural events of theatre, music, festivals including singers from Turkey and the high visibility events such as the Turkish Fest at the Southbank, a Turkish harbour at the Boat Show, Euro Vision and Miss World successes, Mercan Dede and Whirling Dervishes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall coupled with the new political developments in Turkey have made a positive impact on the TSCs in London and the rest of Europe. The lack of going “outside” can be interpreted as a strength necessitated by isolation, racial prejudice and sheer determination to survive; no different to other communities. At times a weakness, as it may exclude others and the self, and may not contribute to the creation of new multi-cultural societies. However, it seems the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, and the inevitable bombings in London have become the pretext to rob us of rights and freedoms as citizens of this City and take us back to the dark ages and leave race equality in shreds. But I would like to think that we are more resilient than that and we are all still learning…

July 31, 2005