Sibusiso Mkwanazi reflects on his travels to Turkey and needing to readjust some of the local’s preconceptions.
According to niche travel researchers and trend analysts, black people have very specific tourist traits. Interesting.
According to folk like Travel Noire, Nomadness Travel Tribe and Tastemakers Africa, who form part of the “Black Travel” movement, when black people travel, they interact more with locals, are more willing to pay for lavish accommodation than for experiences, and often travel in groups.
I think I am not black.
Doing The Opposite
The first thing I did after landing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport was not to interact with locals, as they often have preconceived ideas of what tourists are looking for.
I paid for the cheapest hotel I could find and then looked for the most secluded arts and culture gems on both the Asian and European sides of Istanbul.
First up was the town of Moda, situated on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, where no one is capable of pretending, and interracial etiquette is a foreign concept: just the way I prefer it.
These folks were not shy to call me “Africa” and, at the various cafés and restaurants, inevitably queried how it is possible for me, a black person, to be a vegetarian.
More melanin than the average Turk
That, if you know Turkish cuisine, is quite ironic … this is an ideal place for vegetarians. Most of their dishes start with a vegetarian base, and meat is generally an afterthought.
I was asked if I was sure of my order every time when I asked for vegetarian culinary staples such as kebaps, sigara böreği (phyllo pastry sticks filled with cheese) and zeytinyağlı dolma (grape leaves stuffed with olive oil and rice), as the black people they know, love meat.
The gawks did not end at the various eateries, but also extended to my home turf: the streets. Because I have more melanin than the average Turk, a few even dragged me to a street where Converse All Star sneakers were suspended on an electricity line.
Apparently, they saw this on a BET (Black Entertainment Television) show once, and this gesture was meant to make me feel “at home”.
Escaping The Crowds
I then did the most “unblack” thing possible and escaped the crowds to Balat. Formerly a bourgeoisie Greek Orthodox neighbourhood, its dilapidated buildings and old houses have proven to be the perfect canvasses for graffiti.
Local street artists such as tagger Fist (known for cartoon character pieces) and stencil artist No More Lies are just some of the talented creatives who ensure that areas such as Moda and Balat remain relevant for visitors and locals who are into public art.
I also made it a point to immerse myself in Gamze Yalçın’s works – one of the few Turkish female street artists whose talent is being acknowledged. Interestingly, she is an interior designer by day and she often translates her street art into homeware, and this means she is carving a niche sub-segment for herself.
Responsibility and Perception
The most important difference between the way black people travel and other races is responsibility and perception.
There were people in cultural hotspots such as Kadıköy who had never met a black person before, and their perception was that black people know nothing about arts and culture.
Conversations became even more interesting when I started asking about local contemporary artists such as Ahmet Ögüt, who works with videography, photography, installations and printed media, as well as Ayşe Erkmen, who prefers sculpture, animation and architectural interventions. Suddenly, they were stunned that an African could possibly be artistically inclined and just a tad cultural.
For some reason, some Turkish locals thought I represented an entire race, just because of what I did or said. For me, though, it was an opportunity to educate them and show that not all black people are into chicken, and that not all of us are great sportsmen, which is why I am into my arts and culture.