Back from a whirlwind fall break in Oualidia safe and sound (forthcoming! forthcoming!), I wanted to post something right away since I haven’t posted in 4 days. So here is an ode to my favorite Istanbul hangout, Agora Cafe Bistro. This piece was originally written for the travel writing course we’re taking from our field supervisor, Mark Allister. While I have been loving exploring Fes, I feel a pang in my chest whenever I think of Istanbul. Don’t worry Turkey – I’ll be back soon.
‘Taksim Night Music’
We’ve been walking around Istiklal street for a good 30 minutes now, hands on the trigger, but not quite ready to pull it. It’s our first night in Taksim and to say we are overwhelmed is an understatement. The sights, the sounds, the smells. It’s ten at night but the street is as bright as day, aglow with lights of every kind – Christmas lights, pulsing strobe lights, neon signs proclaiming “CLUB”, “hookah!”, or “doner kebap” as far as the eye can see. People rush by, walking in every direction in their short skirts, jeans, heels, tennies, and button downs. We’re wearing our Chacos and white v-necks, and are as overwhelmed as much as we stick out. We fumble with the blue pages given to us at orientation as we try to decide our next move. Club? Bar? Shopping? What should we do? Where should we go? What side street should we take? We had already halfheartedly decided to eat dinner at a fish restaurant, where the waiter had presented us with a plate of dead fish and then proceeded to hold each slippery one up to tell us how much each filet was. As their scales glinted in the yellow light and their gummy eyes stared blankly back at us, we realized we had chosen poorly. Now, apprehensive to again pull the trigger – our precious time in Taksim and we had to make it count! – we were determined to choose wisely.
And so we walk further down Istiklal street, into the heart of Taksim. Lights are strung along the dark sky ceiling of the street and every place we pass blares with life. We hear talking, feet slapping, laughing, shouting. And music! Music everywhere – upbeat Turkish music, top 40 hits pumping out of clubs, soft twinkling music in stores that sell t-shirts, books, and rows upon rows of turkish delights and candy and sweets. We stop for a second to take it all in, and then I hear it – a different breed of sexy, smokey, music cuts through the noises of Taksim and reaches our ears. The sounds of guitar, drums, and vocals are oozing from the second story of a tall grey building. Like moths to a flame, we’re drawn in. We pull the trigger.
We snake through a hallway and up a flight of stairs, following the music to a sign that says AGORA CAFE BISTRO. Naked Barbies and rusty old-fashioned alarm clocks hang above the doorway. To the left is the bar, but that’s not where the action is – we follow the sounds of guitar and thumping feet to the main room, where everyone is bathed in purple and red light. We settle in at a small standing-only table in the back as a live black and white feed of Istiklal street is projected behind us, its grainy picture playing like an old movie. Wall sconces are covered by Mardi Gras masks and yellow light beams out from the eyes and mouths of the painted faces. Behind the stage, random toys and knick knacks rest on shelves that climb up to the ceiling – instruments, shoes, even a “Makeover Barbie” head like the one I used to have as a child. There are people everywhere – standing, dancing, drinking beer, eating salty nuts from bowls on their tables. And the music! Two men sing while one of them also plays guitar. They both wear button-downs, one black, one red, and both are unbuttoned to their chest. Another man plays a wide circular drum, tapping out the heartbeat of AGORA CAFE BISTRO. Thump, thump, thump.
The singers croon in Turkish and the crowd sings along to songs we don’t recognize with words we don’t know. The fact that we are the only non-Turks in the room swims to the surface of my brain and then gently recedes – that doesn’t seem to matter here. We’re all too busy clapping our hands to the same beat to worry about what language each person speaks. The Turks don’t notice, so we don’t notice. And as the night wears on and the music seeps into our bones, we tap our feet and sway our hips to the sounds of the guitar, the drum, the heartbeat of AGORA CAFE BISTRO just as well as any of them.