A death in Istanbul

The death of an Istanbul homeless man illustrates to a Monitor correspondent the precariousness of life on the fringe of a city growing by leaps and bounds. 

Modern skyscrapers compete for attention with the iconic Suleymaniye mosque along Istanbul's skyline. The city of 14 million is brimming with new construction – but has many dark pockets as well. MURAD SEZER/REUTERS

Scott Peterson has been The Christian Science Monitor's Istanbul bureau chief since August 2005. The city has developed rapidly in the last few years, but the growth cannot completely obscure the darker side of the metropolis, where a person can easily slip through the cracks.

No matter the weather along Istanbul’s coast road, the homeless man Ramazan Ercan was there.

With his thick, cascading gray-white beard and dark wooly hat, Ramazan made a home on the basalt boulder breakwater just below road level, a few steps from the water. He situated himself behind a carefully raised wall of stones and a large umbrella tilted on its side, which weakened the north wind that blew down the Bosphorus from the Black Sea.

The long sidewalk that passed by Ramazan’s slap-together “dwelling” is one of the longest and flattest pavements in Istanbul. Over the years I have run along it hundreds of times, often with my running partner – Ivan Watson of CNN – and often alone, sometimes very late after deadlines.

Istanbul is a city of ever-rising glass buildings, brimming with cultural energy and packed with ancient delights and endlessly fascinating architecture. And Turks could not be more welcoming. 

But Istanbul, the bulwark that joins – and separates – Asia and Europe, is also a megacity of more than 14 million people, with dark pockets and fissures. It is a locus of human trafficking and drug routes that feed European addictions, a place where people from across the region pile up in their bid to get into Europe; or if from the Persian Gulf countries and Iran, to let their hair down and party in the anonymity of the city.  

The coastal road is not be the safest area after hours, and Turkish friends gave warning. The American tourist Sarai Sierra was killed by a homeless man and found at the base of the ancient city walls more than a year ago, literally across the street from Ramazan’s hideaway. In September a Swedish tourist was stabbed to death in the same district, while trying to break up an argument.   

There were other men who set up makeshift camps along the breakwater, but they were seasonal and more about casting a rod or swimming in the fast current than about survival on the fringes of a megacity. 

Ramazan was permanent. And over time we developed a habit of greeting each other as I passed, shouting Islamic greetings in praise of God, with him responding in kind when I kissed my hand and raised it toward him. 

If I were running on my own, I would stop to shake hands, and we would share smiles and encouragement.

During the summer, it could appear idyllic: From his bench, Ramazan looked beyond the black boulders to the water’s edge, where gulls wheeled and a pod of dolphins often played, and sea traffic was endless. During the long, warm nights, Ramazan cooked small fresh-caught fish and sometimes had visitors, usually fellow homeless men sitting around his stone table, beside a smoky fire.

During the winter, conditions could be grim. Ramazan was often alone as storms roared down from the north, their waves crashing on the breakwater, the hard winds and sleet and snow often driving like nails into the face, freezing hard into my beard as I ran past Ramazan hunkered behind his wall.

Inevitably we would be alone on such days and nights, for a short time sharing the same space against the elements. 

There are few hard facts about Istanbul’s homeless, but estimates range from 7,000 to 10,000 people. Ramazan was one of them until one night last October, during the religious holiday known as the “feast of the sacrifice.” 

I was in a taxi coming home from the airport when we zipped by Ramazan’s spot and I saw two ambulances and policemen – not an uncommon sight. My concern raised, I stopped by on my next run. Ramazan was not there. The men who were drew their fingers across their throats – Ramazan had been murdered, his throat slit. 

I found Tommy, a man who spent time along the breakwater, and who, with his bicycle sometime bought the homeless groceries. He had argued with Ramazan and not seen him for two months. 

“He was an angel,” Tommy told me. “But when he was drinking, he could be a devil. I warned him about it; he made many people angry. I told him it could be dangerous.”  

The Turkish media quoted a man taken into custody by police, a homeless man who admitted to the murder, identified as “Mehmet S.” He said he had killed Ramazan for religious reasons, as though he were an animal, and would have kept on killing had he not been caught: “I did not kill anybody. I do not know the person you are talking about, but I sacrificed him.”

The “feast of sacrifice” is a Muslim tradition that commemorates the legend of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then, instead an animal. By tradition these days the wealthy can sacrifice animals and share the meat with the poor, gaining prestige along the way. 

Days later, near midnight, I was running along the breakwater and it was absolutely barren of people. I stopped at Ramazan’s place and was surprised to find everything burned – the umbrella, the bedding, the splintered bench, a sack of clothing. The ashes were still warm; whoever lit that fire had not been gone long.

A handful of charred pots and Ramazan’s kettle had been tossed aside, dented or crushed; empty alcohol bottles had fallen between cracks in the rocks or been smashed. 

Every time I passed by on a run, more and more memory of Ramazan was dismantled. First it was the small concrete table, upended and broken on the rocks. The stone wall was pulled down a little, then completely. Every trace of Ramazan was being erased, except for the words I am writing now, the police report, and the memories of those who knew him – most of them homeless. 

I was profoundly moved by Ramazan’s passing. I have covered atrocious conflicts in my career, from Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda to the Iraq war, year in and year out. And yet Ramazan’s loss also brought tears to my eyes. 

These days when I run along that breakwater, I still bring my fingers to my lips, and throw a kiss toward the charred remains, to a man I hardly knew, who is no longer there.

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