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On the Edge of the City: Suburbia and Thugs’ Novels in Turkish Literature (1990-2016)

Aux limites de la ville : banlieue et récits de voyous dans la littérature turque (1990-2016)
Timour Muhidine
p. 45-50


A new theme started to emerge in the 1990s in Turkish literature: depicting gangs’ life in the Istanbul suburbs and introducing a new type of individual –the thug– an anti-hero of contemporary fiction. Both intent on evoking the urban renovation and the « unseen » development of the city, the authors concerned manage to challenge the current sociological view of Turkey.

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Editor's notes

Timour Muhidine graduated in English, German and Turkish Language and Literature in Lille and Paris. He is currently teaching modern Turkish Literature and Translation Studies at Inalco (Institute for Oriental Languages, Paris). Active as a literary translator since 1990, he is in charge of a series of modern Turkish authors with Actes Sud (30 titles published). He also contributes regularly to Le Monde diplomatique and to a series of literary magazines.

Timour Muhidine est diplômé d’anglais, d’allemand, et de langue et littérature turques. Il enseigne la littérature turque moderne et la traduction à l’ Inalco (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales). Il est traducteur littéraire depuis 1990 et est responsable de nombreux auteurs modernes turcs pour Actes Sud (30 titres publiés). Il contribue aussi régulièrement au Monde diplomatique et à une série de revues littéraires.

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© Jean‑Christophe  Ballot

1For a literature trying to establish its urban novel, the suburbs are a rather delicate subject since those spaces had seemed neglected and forgotten for a very long time, even if fringe districts (kenar mahalleler) are not totally absent from the Turkish literary landscape. In terms of historical approach, many novels from the Late Ottoman times up to the Early Republican era, deal with these outward, neglected areas on the outskirts of Istanbul’s old centre, mostly set between the Süleymaniye and Fatih mosques and the City Walls. In this respect we may mention short-story writers and chroniclers Osman Cemal Kaygılı (1890‑1945) and Sait Faik (1906-1954) who devoted a great part of their short-stories (but with a sense of community and compassion) to what is not yet called « suburbia »: for instance, the 1948 short-story entitled The Story of a Hooligan by Sait Faik (Bir Külhanbey Hikâyesi). Although no precise reference is given to the district’s name, the narrative is obviously taking place in the port area (Karaköy) in the 1940s, a place far from being ordinary and acting as a sort of in-between, an edge situated at the bottom of Pera hill. All sorts of marginal characters and encounters are possible there: moving around are petty thieves, crooks, drifters who would have been out-of-place in the city‑centre, and whose presence enhances the transgressive quality of fiction in those years. As a counterpoint to these tendencies, we could mention, as early as 1950, the publication of Oktay Akbal’s The Street in Garipler (Garipler Sokağı), a novel pervaded with melancoly and reflecting a painful delectation at the situation of decent poor people: it also stands for acceptation of a whole social system and peaceful renunciation. Student Salih comes to this outpost of the city, stays for a while, observes its inhabitants but cannot succeed in being accepted. The dark and dull, monotonous district’s life eventually bores him and one morning, he leaves, heading for « places where the poisonous breath of the city will not reach. » In the end economic conditions are not so important, what matters is the age-old tradition of human relations, love and family. The local denizens are poor people (fukara) seen as emblems of the neglected parts of Istanbul, with a naturalist turn that amounts to accepting and, in a way, idealizing the derelict and suffering parts of the city, even if the main character cannot in the end endure that narrow local life. Anyway, these stories paved the way for further developments: the city was meant to change.

Fig. 1 – Suburbs in the 1950s: Zeytinburnu

Fig. 1 – Suburbs in the 1950s: Zeytinburnu

1 - The turning-point of the 1980s

2Youth Tribes and Counter Culture have become central issues since the 1990s, but the question of mimesis and realism still haunts this approach to the contemporary. It has never been easy for locally-anchored novelists to confront themselves to international and non-strictly Turkish issues, like teenagers or young adults’ emotional and existential crisis. But the first systematic approach of this theme must be linked to a preceding phenomenon (and more in keeping with our own vision of suburbia), the emergence of the gecekondu (shanty-town). We could thus remind the reader that a marginal vision of the city started with Latife Tekin (1983): Sevgili Arsız Ölüm and Berci Kristin Cöp Masaları (1984). Her metaphorical prose has more in common with that of fairy tales than with the language of conventionally realistic fiction: this fine portrait, semi-poetic at first then resorting to a grotesque and critical way, of the gecekondu introduces a taste of Underground in the sense that these populations are shattered and exploited but do not surrender. Here we have group portraits in the romance style, with a tendency to lyricize a harsh reality instead of elaborating individual psychologies and schemes where action would be considered essential. No real bad boys are to be found in these novels but old-style bandits and funny crooks, trying to escape from their dire poverty and never missing an occasion to challenge public order, the police: they emerge as the real heroes of their neighbourhood, Robin Hood-type characters in accordance with the local tradition.

3Some of the thugs (i.e. Lado the gambler) are in a way integrated in the district, they are picturesque, old‑time kabadayı and in them, the figure of local tough guys merges into the political mythology of the 1970s and 80s. « Anarchist » is thus the apt word that encompasses all left-wing fractions who sought refuge in those far-away and uncontrollable suburbs, earning a living with robbery and illegal activities. The novel relies on grotesque scenes and digressions with a kind of social criticism emancipating itself from the usual writing of the period, stressing the lyrical aspect of lower middle-class and working-class districts. In short, we encounter the antithesis of Orhan Pamuk’s city and in a way, a not so exotic material.

4By the way, what thugs do we encounter in Turkish Literature? We do witness a rupture from the traditional kabadayı type, largely dwelt on by authors at the beginning of the century and Republican times. Refi Cevat Ulunay (1890-1968) for instance, a renowned journalist and popular novelist of the 1950s, documented the phenomenon in his 1958 novel, a testimony of a slowly-vanishing social phenomenon: Istanbul Thugs from Old Time (Eski Istanbul Kabadayıları). But the story of the decadence of such figures is best narrated in Mehmet Batur’s Madunköy (a name coined after an imaginary district, published in 2016) where the main characters are the next-of-kin or descendants of some real mobsters. This appears to be another way of deciphering the urban landscape, in terms of continuity and heritage. Obviously, new figures have emerged since and especially in the post-1980 coup era: thus a sociological typology of the bad boy type could be imagined, according to the period and the place, and extended to different cities around the country: Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir or Trabzon. In most Anatolian cities for instance, the term does not encompass the same idea, being more akin to the « aylak/serseri (loafer, thug) »onotions and can vary a lot to reach marginal figures, though not always criminal.

2 - Lost boys from the suburbs

5Since I decided to concentrate on Big City characters and representations, as a first instance, I would like to introduce Those going where they want (Istedikleri Yere Gidenler), a graphic novel by Metin Kaçan and Kemal Aratan, published in 1992 by a small publishing-house more specialized in caricature and now unfortunately gone out-of-print. A strange work, surrealistic at times, full of sex and violence and funnily tender in its gaze at streets’ kids. Never condemned, they just appear as victims of adults’ negligence and greed: at one time in the novel, they are prey to the sexual needs of the prostitutes they happen to share the flat with and then of the brutal mobster joining them. The plot is reduced to a mere story-line: tinerci (sniffing trichloroethylene) kids, Tura and Cengo are « adopted » by a police officer living with two street hookers. Menaced and exploited by Siyah Cantekin, a likely pimp dealing with a lot of shadowy business, the kids are eventually abused by the Monster but also get on well with him through drug consumption. In the end, as in a modern tale, all is well that ends well. Interestingly enough, the text evokes the hard conditions of urchins living on the street around Taksim Square in the 1990s and tries to capture the violence as used by them and against them (at one point they will be hunted down and slaughtered, a favorite theme of Metin Kaçan’s stories). One should also mention the fifteen black and white « real » photos of the tinerci world appearing at the end of the volume and which aims at giving evidence of a the real world talked about, thus allowing to stress social issues.

6Now this trend in Turkish prose has produced two masterpieces: the best-known title, gathering a large reception in the literary press at its outcome and then in general magazines before the release of a film by Mustafa Altıoklar in 1997, is Metin Kaçan’s Ağır Roman which was hailed as a radical renewal of Turkish prose when it came out in 1990.

Fig. 2 – Metin Kaçan’s novel: Ağır Roman

Fig. 2 – Metin Kaçan’s novel: Ağır Roman

7It tells the rather plain story of a street-gang from a poor district, Kolera, a transposition of Dolapdere down the hill, an area not far from the city-centre. Music and drugs (tiner, Bally, etc.) build up the background of the novel where a kitsch Yesilçam style of ultra-violence is mixed up with the fine linguistic charm of Istanbul’s popular districts. In a way, for the author, delinquency is fun. The age-old resourcefulness will be challenged by the new technological violence of the canavar (the unknown monster raiding the district) and eventually wipe off the classic street-gang. This text works as an hommage to street life and friendship, tolerance and liveliness as opposed to the new life proposed by a city excluding the lower classes. Bathed in nostalgia for a lost world, it seems to echo the urban changes experienced by most Istanbul districts from the mid-1990s onwards. As for its aesthetic aspect, the novel aims at establishing a new language, relying on the big city’s idiolects and embodied by a gallery of colorful characters more or less linked to petty crime: one finds the traditional bad boys and the new ones (sleazy, fearing neither God nor man, carrying more dangerous weapons): the latter take advantage and start ruling the area. There is something folkloric and joyful in this fictionalized world which recalls Hispanic fiction.

Fig. 3 – Scene from M. Altıoklar’s film: Ağır Roman

Fig. 3 – Scene from M. Altıoklar’s film: Ağır Roman

8As a second example, Hergele Asıklar (Hooligan Lovers, published 2003) characterizes itself as a gay fiction taking place in an imaginary suburban district where political upheavals and skirmishes are daily stuff. At the core of the novel by Niyazi Zorlu is an unbearable cry of revolt against local politics, family ties and school at the same time, the three « powers » always at work to harass a youth teeming with energy and secret wishes. The high school is similar to an army barracks where love and revenge lurk. That homosexuality should be a dominant feature is a rare event in Turkish prose; relayed by the invention of a colorful language inscribed into the post-apocalypse landscape of an imaginary « Hell Hole », the most frightening gecekondu on earth one can imagine. Surrounded by armed police very similar to the militia successive Turkish governments sent to calm down political opponents to different parts of the country, daily life amounts to a series of fears and uproars. For the disreputable hero figures, the only possible redemption is love whereas common violence tries to extend its domination.

3 - Follow-up stories or reshaping the old political novel

9In 2002, Gönül Kıvılcım published Jilet Sinan (Razor-Blade Sinan) whose title immediately conjures up violent images: if jilet means a razor-blade, so is a jiletçi a classic pick-pocket who cuts pockets through but the verb may be combined to form jilet olmak (meaning to be high, to be « stoned ») but some characters also cut themselves up to punish and harm themselves. All these meanings are present and harped on in this novel which manages to be altogether realistic and depressing: the rhythm of action is slow and at times, inhuman. At the same time, it does contain a love story which is also altogether unromantic. But it is first and foremost a gang story where all characters remain tied up together: on the other hand, the apparently unconnected stories, anecdotes of their delinquent life, built into a whole, try to offer another and more elaborate idea of their inner life, their emotions and fragile hopes. The novel also introduces a new landscape: the unseen recesses of a modern, uncouth city, whether be it under a bridge, on a vacant lot or around a cash-withdrawal machine, they stand for the « objective correlative » of a world devoid of humanity. Contacts mostly happen with the police and the characters’ mode of relationship is only made up of rape, fight, bloodshed, in a word, ultra-violence. The energy pervading the novel being mostly made up of hate, a sense of revenge and devastation.

Fig. 4– Istanbul, 2014

Fig. 4– Istanbul, 2014

10Violence can also be perceived through language, as in Murat Uyurkulak’s Tol (2008) probably the most openly political novel of the past ten years which specifically links the old « militant literature » to the more explicit and revolted characters of nowadays. There is a fine confrontation in the central scenes of the novel between a young Kurdish boy, Yusuf, looking for answers to his « rotten » life and the old Leftist (Eski Tüfek) acting as a father-figure, talking on and on what the Old World was like. After giving us fragments of a destitute life, lost hopes and hints of a deep culpability and his aspiration for violent feats, can we say the character is a bad boy? Yes, but this time more in thought than in effect. Here, delinquency can be seen as a form of political struggle and, in a way, justified by social conditions. The novel opens in Istanbul and the main novelty is the picture of underground political circles and groups in a manner that emancipates itself from the very numerous prison memoirs and ideological semi-fictions dating from the early 1980s, like Ahmet Altan’s or Mehmet Eroğlu’s output.

4 - Renewal of the genre: cars and bikes

11Rich kids playing havoc also appear in the post-2000 Turkish novel: in Piç (BASTARDS, 2003), Hakan Günday’s immoral characters crop up on the European side and in Kadiköy, along the Bağdat Caddesi. The four rich « bastards », Barbaros, Afgan, Cenk and Hakan hate and consume, they can afford to do nothing, use big cars (by the way, they also steal them) and pick up girls in upper‑class parties: drinks, drugs, fast cars and a very ironic and hopeless version of contemporary love. Largely unemployed, bored and ready for any action that may break the daily routine, the boys embody the other face of jet-setters in Istanbul. A dark, ruthless urban maze of well-to-do family kids who happen to roam a futuristic and unreal city, « suspended » between night-clubs, late-night shops and private flats.

Fig. 5 – Hakan Günday’s novel, Piç.

Fig. 5 – Hakan Günday’s novel, Piç.

12In Hikmet Temal Akarsu’s Kaybedenler’in Öyküsü (A Losers’ Tale) first part of his Istanbul Quartet (1998) and so-called Rock’n Roman, we encounter the lesser-known atmosphere of Kadiköy’s occasional bikers, hard-rockers or punks who, in a way, are not destitute people…uThey more or less conform to the idea of the larger Underground scene: in the Dekadans Bar, they maintain a desperate revolt against the times and try to establish the contemporary legend of the city. Teeming with political and anti-Western criticism, the novel never really manages to install a real writing, also because the atmosphere of the early 1990s on the Asian side of the city with a flavor of gentrification and unremarkable style is best transmitted through movies. Akarsu calls up an image of gentrified youth tempted by illegal feats but their aspirations do not sound very convincing. Playing at « being a thug » is not being one and traces from road movies and rock attitudes will not stand for delinquency. Another half-failure in terms of novelistic achievement, Alican Ökmens Kirli, Paslı, Bozuk (Dirty, rusty, broken, 2012) indicates that another step is made: a full geography of the city as seen by car-stealers and amateur drug-dealers. Their action range is wider, the topography of the city extends to the limits set by the motorway: it is nevertheless one rare instance in the contemporary Turkish novel when the notorious northern district of Bağcılar and its nondescript architectural surrounding are evoked. If in a first step, violence seems mostly directed against the characters themselves, the introduction of a detective-novel plot (the youths accept to kidnap a policeman’s child for a large sum of money) suddenly gives some momentum to the novel. Beyond drug consumption, suicide attempts and the ordinary lot of young drifters, life at large seems to enter the narration. The other notable thing is that the book appeared in a « Yerlaltı » series by Ayrıntı publishing-house where this rather dull text cohabits with Chuck Palaniuk and Bukowski. It seemed to have been chosen to embody the Turkish version of that Underground novel « craze » with a reference to the urban decay and untrodden territories of the city. In an equally recent novel, Varos (DERELICT, 2016) by Mustafa Yurthan (even if we eventually gather from a few details that Izmir is the setting-place for the novel) we are confronted to a very contemporary basis in keeping with the larger islamic dimension of underdogs’ lives, drugs, joblessness and sexual frustration that allow for a questioning of the value of faith and religion. And the novel manages to be highly documentary, aiming at being an authentic depiction of a particular environment, the nowadays’ reality of conservative underdogs.

13The emergence of the afore-mentioned novels on a rather short period (from 1990 to 2012) indicates both a didactic interest for a new category of characters, a change in the sociological aspect of Turkish low life and -as far as we can judge- a sign of integration into World Literature. There is, in most literatures, a specific genre integrating hooligans as revolted, problematic characters. If European and American Literatures also developed a specific « suburban » literature (very often concerned with minority groups), these bad boysnovels have more in common with South American social conditions and the outrageous « favellas » characters. Thus, probably the most striking fact (in this part of Turkish Literature we decided to dwell upon) remains the emergence of suburban description and atmosphere, even when not exclusively related to delinquents or marginalized youths. Big City life is emerging, as seen through sociologically-tempted eyes and relying on a critical turn (that is, critical of the urban schemes and structures as well) unknown until then. All these characters play with the limits of morals, and adults tolerance, the transgression society can effectively deal with: they are indeed a contemporary form of rogue novels, as appeared in Western fiction in the 18th century but seen through the filter of modern life. Very little adventure, a taste for naturalism and the disappearance of positive characters indicate a wish to introduce new aesthetics where different styles are competing, as varied, complex, antinomic as the city itself. In Turkish literature at large, very few « classic » novels were able to achieve this.

14This is a revised version of a paper presented at last year’s Underground Workshop 5 in Istanbul (ORIENT INSTITUT, November 2015).

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List of illustrations

Title Istanbul
Credits © Jean‑Christophe  Ballot
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Title Fig. 1 – Suburbs in the 1950s: Zeytinburnu
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Title Fig. 2 – Metin Kaçan’s novel: Ağır Roman
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Title Fig. 3 – Scene from M. Altıoklar’s film: Ağır Roman
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Title Fig. 4– Istanbul, 2014
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Title Fig. 5 – Hakan Günday’s novel, Piç.
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Bibliographical reference

Timour Muhidine, « On the Edge of the City: Suburbia and Thugs’ Novels in Turkish Literature (1990-2016) », Méditerranée, 129 | 2017, 45-50.

Electronic reference

Timour Muhidine, « On the Edge of the City: Suburbia and Thugs’ Novels in Turkish Literature (1990-2016) », Méditerranée [Online], 129 | 2017, Online since 06 July 2018, connection on 14 October 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/mediterranee.9032

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About the author

Timour Muhidine

CERMOM, Inalco, Sorbonne‑Paris‑Cité, 2, rue de Lille, 75007, Paris,

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