This is not a Toilet

Posted on January 12, 2014



( “This is not a pipe.” The Treachery of Images by Rene’ Magritte )

A block from my apartment in Kadıköy, I spied an earnest and angry banner. It was defiantly strung up over a very short street.It is a sad stroke of luck for the little street that it is so close to the famous bar street and so conveniently dark. You can feel the indignant rage of the person or persons who raised the banner in the shrieking blue letters that convey: THIS IS NOT A TOILET!

This is not the toilet you are looking for

( Please do not use the toilet here. — Neighborhood Peacekeepers )

You can almost hear the old man in the picture say with a wave of his hand, “This is not the toilet you are looking for…”

Yet, to the drunken revelers stumbling the streets at night, it looks very much like one.  And you know, they have a point.

Unlike Magritte’s pipe which you can not stuff and light, you can definitely make a bathroom of this street  most easily. A safe guess would be that there are around 18 million souls in Istanbul. That’s 18 million bladders. 18 million intestinal tubes in need of vacating all that they have consumed throughout the day. And they consume a lot. That’s all a city does. It consumes hordes of people from all over Turkey willingly hurling themselves into the mouth of Istanbul in search of jobs. The country refuses to invest anywhere else, so how can you blame them? Istanbul greedily ingests meat, vegetables, concrete, and plastic by the truckloads and boatloads every hour of every day. If you stop to think about how many toilets are stacked on top of one another in the skyscrapers of Ataşehir, it’s easy to begin to see the city as one giant toilet flushing everything into the Bosporous.


A few times, I have been walking the streets in the early morning hours when I am slapped awake by a sudden WHACK! I turn to see a hot pile of trash a few feet behind me where there was none before. A window closes above my head where someone has just excreted their waste from four stories up. Now, the lump sits encased in the shining–almost wet looking plastic bag. But, it has not fallen to its death. Waste has a second life in this city.

During protests and riots, it is used as burning barricades to ward off the police and their tear gas. Like a reflex to any kind of police hostilities, trash is drug to the center of streets and lit on fire, and those streets will bear the scars. Discarded plastic hangers from clothing shops leave metal hooks and melted black plastic burns in between trolley tracks. They can not be scraped away and are now part of our lives. You always know there was a serious demonstration when you are going to work in the early morning, and you can smell the burning plastics and Styrofoam from the last night’s battles.


Gypsies slump morning and night with white sacks as tall as a man on their backs. They rummage through the garbage for whatever their preference is. For some, it’s plastic, and for others, it’s cardboard. They take what they want from one dump, and slump to the next with their ever swelling sacks. I can’t help but think about the dung beetles of Africa rolling their waste while trailing behind a herd of elephants.

The eskici (mobile junk peddlers) search through refuse for treasures. Then they display them on wooden carts and wheel them around the neighborhood. They sing a solemn song (Eskiciiiiiiii!), and sell our crap back to us. When they hear the song, folks turn their heads to see the trash that couldn’t get away.


Wrappers, eggshells, adult diapers, and rough drafts are all desperately trying to escape our city. It plops out of windows, hobbles on backs, soars off on the beaks of gulls and plumes of smoke. It bobs on waves and is plunged to the depths in bellies of fish. But so much of this waste won’t fade away. It will float up and resurface. To our horror, it will protrude into our lives once again. It will build a fuming tower of evidence. And we will stand agape in the shade of our sins.

“He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza—only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying perfumed water on the approach roads. He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one. Bridges, tunnels, scows, tugs, graving docks, container ships, all the great works of transport, trade and linkage were directed in the end to this culminating structure. And the thing was organic, ever growing and shifting, its shape computer-plotted by the day and the hour. In a few years this would be the highest mountain on the Atlantic Coast between Boston and Miami. Brian felt a sting of enlightenment. He looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behavior, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us.”

— Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, “Underworld” (Scribner). It was, of course, at Fresh Kills, the Staten Island landfill DeLillo described above, that the remains of the World Trade Center were trucked in between 2001 and 2002.

Posted in: Istanbul, Neighbors