The Istanbul municipality wants to remove the boats selling fish sandwiches from the historic neighbourhood of Eminonu, but a court has suspended the decision for now. Here’s what local and visiting fish-sandwich lovers say.
In Istanbul’s historic neighbourhood of Eminonu, the last day of October is slightly more crowded than usual, for good reason.
“Oh, it’s so packed today. They’re closing -- this is the last day to eat here,” a passerby tells his friend as they walk past the boats selling fish sandwiches.
The recipe is simple, yet tempting: grilled fish in wheat bread with onions, lettuce and lemon juice, and often accompanied with pickle juice. For thousands of tourists visiting the neighbourhood every day, taking a bite from the iconic Eminonu dish, sold at the boats, is as much a must-do as the neighbourhood’s Ottoman-era landmarks such as the Spice Bazaar and New Mosque.
But this tradition might die soon. The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality notified the owners of the boats harboured at the Eminonu, feet of the Galata bridge, that their annual contract won’t be renewed and they must leave by November 1. A court granted a motion for a stay of execution of the municipality’s decision on Friday, as owners acted quickly to take the issue to the court. Until the final court decision, the boats will keep working.
For Angelika Heilander, who's from Germany but works at a travel agency in Istanbul, the possibility of not having boats selling fish sandwiches is disappointing news.
“It’s a part of Istanbul [experience] that you should live and feel. I usually bring my guests coming to Turkey to taste fish sandwich from the boats,” she says sitting next to her aunt who came to visit her in Turkey.
Yasemin Haverkamp is a saleswoman living and working in Germany and says she brought her German 70-year-old mother-in-law because all of her friends who had visited Turkey recommended she eat fish sandwiches.
Haverkamp’s husband Gerlind, eats the fish sandwich every time he visits Istanbul, and he says the golden rule known among tourists.
“You should eat in the boats, not from the restaurants.”
Bayram Ceylan, manager of one of the fish boats says: “When you say Ortakoy, it’s kumpir, when you say Beyoglu, it’s chocolate, when you say Eminonu it’s fish sandwich.” But his main concern is on the possible unemployment of the crews of the three boats currently functioning there.
Ceylan has always been in fish business but began managing one of the boats since 2007, when the boat owners signed a 10-year contract with the municipality. He says he doesn’t know what’s behind the municipality’s decision of removing the Eminonu’s signature fish boats but hopes that the decision will be revoked completely.
“Fish boats have been here since 1985. This man’s family has been working here for generations,” he says, pointing out his older colleague handing out fish sandwiches to customers. According to Ceylan and other workers, the boats currently provide jobs for around 200 people.
The Istanbul municipality responded to TRT World’s enquiry about its plans for the fish sandwich boats with Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu’s earlier statement.
“No one is the permanent owner of a property in Istanbul,” Imamoglu said, stating that the contract ended long ago and has been renewing automatically after that.
“This is an arrangement, not a removal...In the recent past, individuals participated in the tenders but from now on, subsidiaries of Istanbul municipality will be taking part in the public tenders,” he said.
The municipality’s e-mail didn’t mention what would happen to around 200 workers or if there would be new fish boats. But the mayor’s statement said the municipality is trying to come up with a solution for a “better service”, and the process would be transparent if the municipality would have an auction for a new contract.
Ceylan, on the other hand, says working in the fish boats is a family business transferred to younger generations for a lot of people.
“We’re ready to collaborate with municipality but we have been working here the first, so we should be given a priority to be employed if there’s a new plan about this place,” Ceylan says. “Meanwhile, we keep seeking our rights in a legal way to keep our jobs.”
But this is a conversation dividing Turks, even though the ones agreeing with Ceylan are the majority.
“It doesn’t matter if they replace it with something similar, as long as they leave these people who have been working here for years unemployed and break these people’s hearts,” a 30-year-old man who doesn’t want to be named comments. Mine Gulcu, a 50-year-old retiree overhearing his complaint, disagrees.
“I'm glad about the decision. It’s not a good thing that these fish sandwich boats are monopolising the business, charging people as they wish,” she says.
“But, may God help you, I hope the municipality also provides jobs to the people working here,” she adds as three workers passing by look upset by her comments.