In "Turkmen Street"

Turn a corner in Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, and you might imagine you are suddenly somewhere in Central Asia. This small part of the sprawling covered market is known as “Turkmen Street”. Here you will hear the Turkmen language spoken as often as Tur

In "Turkmen Street"

Turn a corner in Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, and you might imagine you are suddenly somewhere in Central Asia. This small part of the sprawling covered market is known as “Turkmen Street”. Here you will hear the Turkmen language spoken as often as Tur

Tuesday, 16 May, 2006

The people here are Turkmen, but they are from Afghanistan rather than Turkmenistan. Here in Turkey, they form a coherent and vibrant community which still retains some links with home.



As with other Afghan ethnic groups, large numbers of Turkmen fled south to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979. For the Turkmen it was not the first exodus – the bulk of their community was made up of descendant of those who crossed from what is now Turkmenistan to escape the Bolshevik takeover of Central Asia in the early Twenties.



In Pakistan, a new generation of refugees grew up, learning Urdu and English as well as their own language. Their third move came in 1982, when nearly 5,000 Turkmen people were granted citizenship and moved to Turkey under a deal agreed by the country’s then president, Kenan Evren.



They were settled in villages in the Tokat province on the Black Sea of Turkey, with land, homes and money provided by the Turkish government. Among them was Abdulkerim Mahdum, an influential community leader who was a member of the Afghan parliament in the Seventies and who was instrumental in persuading the Turks to grant refugee status to his people.



Mahdum still lives in Tokat, though he says only financial considerations prevent him returning to Afghanistan.



But some of his fellow-Turkmen were drawn to Istanbul as a place where they could sell handicrafts such as their famed carpets and jewellery. Eventually they cornered Terlikciler Street in the Grand Bazaar for themselves and set up their shops there, forming a new urban community.



But ties with Afghanistan remain strong. Some of the traders returned home after the Taleban regime fell in late 2001, and began using their connections to import Turkish goods.



Although the bulk of Istanbul's Afghan Turkmens date to the group who came en masse in 1982, there are also some later immigrants who made their way here via Pakistan or Iran – or directly from Afghanistan – in the Nineties. The earlier arrivals have mostly acquired Turkish citizenship, while more recent illegal migrants are still in limbo.



Rashid, a 17-year-old minding one of the shops in "Turkmen Street", has been here for just over a year. He recalls how he went to school first in Afghanistan and then in Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, where he studied Urdu and English. His father then started this handicrafts business in Istanbul – the immigration process smoothed by a Turkish company he had worked for in Kabul.



Zeytinburnu, the Istanbul suburb where the merchants mostly live, has become a little Central Asia in Istanbul, with Uzbeks and Kazaks mixing in with the Turkmen. In the evening dusk it is common to see a group of "aksakal" or elders in their traditional robes meeting sauntering through the streets. The men often meet up to eat a meal of pilau rice and meat and discuss the events of the moment. Younger people are increasingly turning to Turkish, but like their elders they too retain their own language and a memory of their original homeland.

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