Kutluğ Ataman on Küba

Küba, named after the island republic, is one of the most notorious ghettos in Istanbul. Squeezed in the midst of a circle of low-income, high-rise suburban blocks near to the airport, the makeshift houses of Küba are made of cheap construction materials, scrap metal and soil: single storey hut dwellings in stark contrast to the rest of the buildings in the distant Istanbul megalopolis.

Even though the inhabitants seem to be from conflicting backgrounds, there is a strong sense of community feeling and an impenetrable solidarity amongst them. Living in Küba – above all else – defines their sense of identity, unique in the sense that it has no political, ethnic, gender, religious or national determination. If you’re from Küba, then that is enough.

A thief from Küba will never steal from his neighbours nor will a murderer harm them. A Küban left wing activist will never attack an Islamic or nationalistic resident, nor vice versa. A shared hatred of state and police as well as the developers who threaten their land provides a common bond that unites this community of outsiders. And a strong need to protect themselves from exterior elements is the powerful defining force that has created the borders of this neighbourhood, no larger than 2 football fields. And Küba certainly feels impenetrable. From law enforcers to taxi drivers, the outsider world is reluctant to stray in.

Küba is also called “a rescued neighbourhood” by its residents, meaning that it has been safeguarded from the rest of the society, state control and rule of law which they deem to be unjust and corrupt. This is quite different from traditional anarchist squats in Western European cities, in the sense that entire families reside in Küba and not just young intellectuals, students or bohemians. Moreover, Küba cannot be compared to the favelas of Latin America because rather than being an easily recognized zone of the city reserved for the poor, Küba is first and foremost a state of mind. This consciousness, etched in childhood and constructed throughout adult life, is more important than religion, ideology or origin.

Küba came into being in the late 60s as a shantytown where left- wing militants would conceal their weapons and themselves from the army and the police. However, its name does not come from Cuba as a direct reference to the neighbourhood’s left wing tradition. The residents tell varying stories, all pointing to the perception of Cuba as a small but proud island state rebelling against the global system. As left wing militancy faded away in time, other marginal elements moved to Küba and eventually formed an alternative society where everyone is considered “free”. For example, a thief who has transvestite lovers is not looked upon as immoral even by the Islamic group because he is from Küba. An old matriarch gathers fundamentalist Muslim women in her house in order to show them pornographic videos just for fun and, as she puts it, “education”. There is even a thug who steals from markets in order to redistribute the goods to the poor residents of Küba as a modern day Robin Hood. Some houses have pictures of Che Guevara aside the martyr prophet Ali and Turkish left wing youth heroes killed by the army after the military coup of 1970. It should be understood that the residents are against crime and violence in general but they also understand the reason why one becomes a thief or a murderer in a grossly unfair social system.

They poke fun at each other as well as themselves. Children are precious and valued. Even the most feared murderer becomes like a child in front of an old lady. When a certain food item is missing in the kitchen, a mother will often ask her child not to go and borrow it from the neighbour, but to steal, and says it almost always jokingly. In any case, food is common property and a family or an invalid will not be allowed to go without.

Kutluğ Ataman, 2005