Community Interview: A Turkish sanctuary in urban London

From the outside it looks underwhelming; with no visible signage to even suggest that this is a business as well as an abode of relaxation and yet that is what Elbistan is.

Elbistan owner Ibrahim

Elbistan owner Ibrahim 

Located on Stamford Hill Road in the Cazenove ward of Hackney, ‘the Orchard’, as it is translated from the Arabic, acts as a sanctuary for a handful of old and middle aged Turkish men.

The owner Ibrahim, a rather stern looking fellow with a look more commonly seen in old high end military circles, is adamant about why he set up his business eight years ago.

After presenting me with a complimentary mint tea he explains in slightly broken English: “It’s just like the Englishmen have pubs, so we in Turkey have this café where we come and play cards, drink tea and enjoy each other’s company.”

Having worked in the old textile mills, Ibrahim explains the necessity behind his venture. “It is very important for us. You see everyone here is from the small Alawi sect of Shia Islam and many are also from the same villages back home. It is a space for all of us to come together; we are wanting to keep the links to our youth back in the Turkish Villages.”

One of the men playing cards is interested in our conversation and a little suspicious. “Why you asking these questions, my friend?” he asks as he leaves his seat and approaches us. He is placated by my explanation, although somewhat hesitant, and introduces himself as Nazim, a London bus driver.

He speaks confidently. “It is similar to things back home! You know in my village Cemevi we have three of these places. It’s just our way of life.”

Nazim explains the importance of the Elbistan café. “This place gives these guys something to do. You see a lot of them are retired and their children are doing well. They have too much time to kill.” His voice is down to whisper as he says with a slight grin, “truthfully they’re just wasting their time.”

Some of the card players look up poker-faced, slightly perturbed by a stranger asking strange questions. They anticipate my intention as I approach their table and before I can even utter a request for a chat and a picture a swift wave of the back of a hand indicates I am unwelcome.

“They don’t like to be disturbed,” says Nazim. “They come in here to get away from the world, not answer its questions.” I ask if the card games involve any money being won and lost but Nazim is quick to rebuff the suggestion. “No, no, no, my friend. This is not that serious. Like I said, time pass.”

Nazim may not take it seriously but as we are joined by a burly but cheerful man passing around a bowl of watered pistachios I am given the significance of the place in a simple sentence. Introducing himself as Samir, he is forthright with his explanation for the existence of Elbistian.

“Out there it is London,” he says pointing towards the traffic flowing up and down Stamford Hill Road, “and in here it is Turkey.”

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