24 Mar 2011 / 12:20

Ethnicity, Numbers and Identity in Istanbul

Altin Raxhimi
Istanbul

Salahetting Bolukbas’s 21-year-old niece stands on a glass bar serving hunks of Bosnian burek in the main thoroughfare of Bayrampasa, a suburb on the European, western side of Istanbul.

In the 1950s, Bayrampasa was home to a sizeable immigrant population living in one-story flats. Those flats were bulldozed during the construction boom of the 1980s and have been replaced by swankier apartments and housing estates. It is also where many Balkans folks have settled.

Bolukbas, 42, opened his borek bar two days ago, he told me today, as a way to go back to and strengthen his Bosnian identity. His family is from Rozaje, a Muslim village that lies between Serbia's Sandzak province and Kosovo.

Bolukbas’s original family name was Kuci. While he was born in Istanbul, he speaks Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. Together with four friends, he runs a group called Bosnak Dunyiasi, the Bosniak world, just one among the many Bosnian associations here.

"One feels good being a Bosnian," he says. A trained economist, he says he gave up his jewellery business and work in a textile mill to operate this nondescript snack joint. He sells just one type of burek; the Bosnian burek his sister makes at home.

His musical heroes during the 1980s included the ‘turbo folk’ stars of the former Yugoslavia, Lepa Brena and Dragana Mirkovic. But the wars of the 1990s changed his musical tastes, as ‘turbo folk’ became associated with Serbian nationalist propaganda.

Bolukbas is staunchly proud of his roots, and claims he is very far from alone in that. In fact, he claims there are between five and seven million Bosnians in Turkey – most living in Istanbul or Bursa, a town almost 100 km south of Istanbul.

He may well be right, but as I have no way of disputing or confirming his claims as the Turkish government does not collect information on the ethnic origin of its 75 million population. Ankara has not quizzed it’s citizens on which language they speak at home since the 1960s.

Not long after we talked, I headed to Aksaray, a district in the centre of the city, to drop in on members of a Kosovo Albanian association. Tuna Turkkan, led the way to a fourth-floor apartment building where about a dozen members of the Kosovar Cultural and Solidarity Association were waiting for me.

Turku's family came to Istanbul from the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
 
The association, which he chairs, was very much a social club. The folks were mostly from Mitrovica and the nearby town of Vushtrri. Members got together to reminisce and sing old Kosovo Albanian songs.

After a while, they began singing other songs, including the Gallipoli Song, a mournful lament of the bloody battle the Turkish fought against the Western Allies during World War One.

“I feel half Albanian, half Turkish,” Rusen Inani, a lawyer and group member, tells me.

Rafet Karyagdi, another association member, was still at high school when his family moved during the 1960s to Istanbul from Prizren in southern Kosovo. He claims there are almost five million Albanians in Turkey.

When quizzed on how he arrives at this figure, he tells a well-known story about the Turkish president telling his Albanian counterpart during the early 1990s that there are more Albanians in Turkey than in Albania. ‘So, I am the president of the Albanians,’ went the punchline.

Still, why this obsession with numbers and ethnicity? If there are five million ethnic Albanians and seven million ethnic Bosnians in Turkey, that would be 11 million of a total population of 75 million.  A staggeringly high number by anybody’s standards. What isn’t in question, however, is the pull of nationality and identity.

Altin Raxhimi is reporting from Turkey and the Balkans Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative project: Turkey and the Balkans. He will post regular updates throughout the trip.

Fellow Bio

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Altin Raxhimi

Altin Raxhimi from Tirana, Albania, is an experienced journalist currently working freelance from Albania for a host of English-language publications, including BIRN, www.reportingproject.net, Inter-Press Service and The Chicago Tribune

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Turkey and the Balkans

The re-emergence of Turkey as a growing economic, political and religious power in the Balkans is the subject of the latest Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative project.

Meet the Journalists

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Altin Raxhimi

Altin Raxhimi from Tirana, Albania, is an experienced journalist currently working freelance from Albania for a host of English-language publications, including BIRN, www.reportingproject.net, Inter-Press Service and The Chicago Tribune

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Lavdim Hamidi

Lavdim Hamidi was born in 1982 in Trnovac and is currently living and working in Kosovo. He is an experienced economics reporter and works for the daily newspaper, Zeri

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Gjergj Erebara

Gjergj Erebara was born in 1979 in Tirana, Albania. He has been specialized in economic reporting and currently works as journalist in “Shqip” daily published in Tirana and BalkanInsight.com publication.

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Aleksandra Stankovic

Aleksandra Stankovic was born in 1973 in Pirot, Serbia. She graduated in 1997 in Arabic language and literature from the Faculty of philology at Belgrade University

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Yana Buhrer Tavanier

Yana Buhrer Tavanier is a freelance journalist and a human rights activist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Previously she was editor of weekly Capital, and worked as a journalist for Tema magazine and daily Dnevnik.

Alumni Stories

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09 May 2011 / 10:10

Turkish Health Sector Eyes Balkan Market

Altin Raxhimi

The main entrance hall of the Acibadem Maslak Hospital in Istanbul’s European quarter is crammed with relatives of Turkish pop singer Ibrahim Tatlises, who is being treated here for gunshot wounds, and security guards, anxious to keep the press at bay.

21 Apr 2011 / 11:11

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Compiled by Altin Raxhimi

Q&A with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu

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24 Mar 2011 / 12:20

Ethnicity, Numbers and Identity in Istanbul

Altin Raxhimi

Salahetting Bolukbas’s 21-year-old niece stands on a glass bar serving hunks of Bosnian burek in the main thoroughfare of Bayrampasa, a suburb on the European, western side of Istanbul.

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22 Mar 2011 / 10:10

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15 Dec 2010 / 08:55

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15 Dec 2010 / 08:50

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15 Dec 2010 / 08:45

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15 Dec 2010 / 08:40

Turkey-EU row stymies Serb export deal

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15 Dec 2010 / 08:35

‘Balkans stability impossible without Serbia’

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Turkey’s former ambassador to Belgrade says relations with Serbia are at an all time high, but warns his successor’s to-do list is long and difficult. He gives Balkans Insight his end of term report.