Beneath the towering domes of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and the glittering uptown skyline, a seedy side of Istanbul is making far more profit than the sale of souvenir aphrodisiacs in the stalls of the tourist-filled Grand Bazaar.
Prostitution is legal in Turkey, and far more widespread than most people let on. While some of the brothels are controlled by the government, many more are run by a mafia of pimps and brothel empire-owners, some of whom are extremely rich individuals. One of them, the late Madame Manukyan, was the top taxpayer in Turkey for five years in the 1990s. In Istanbul, the main hub of prostitution is where it has been throughout history — the Tarlabasi district, just round the corner from the British Consulate. It’s like Amsterdam’s red-light district, only without the sex shops. Sultry voices invite passers-by to their less-than-sumptuous quarters, trying out all the major tourist languages until they get a response. In Galata, there is an extraordinarily well-organised brothel that has all the hallmarks of government support — there is a security check at the entrance, complete with uniformed guard and metal detector, a sign prohibiting under-18s and a lengthy queue winding down the street, particularly at weekends. Wicker baskets full of condoms stand outside the nearby newsagents’ shops.
Transvestite prostitutes are a common sight in Tarlabasi. In one particular street (affectionately known as “Tranny Alley”) sturdy-calved ladies with suspiciously narrow hips and enviable manes of hair loiter throughout the day. One afternoon, I counted five, arrayed side by side in true sisterly fashion. There is an interesting theory in Turkey, not unrelated to the attitudes of classical Greece, that only the passive is homosexual. Hence, having sex with a transvestite prostitute is not really gay, if you’re not the transvestite.
In fact, there is real acceptance and affection for famous transvestites all over Turkey, even, bizarrely, among conservative Muslims. Many pop singers, for example, are outrageously ostentatious transvestites or transsexuals, and they appeal to men and women alike. The trendsetter and original grande dame of popular music was Zeki Müren, who made Julian Clary (to whom he bore more than a passing resemblance) look positively macho. He pioneered heavy make-up, impressive bling and was openly gay. In an increasingly Islamist country, it is astonishing that he had what amounted to a state funeral in 1996, and hundreds of thousands of people visit his museum in Bodrum every year.
However, this heroine-worship is misleading. Despite the public adoration conferred on charismatic figures like Müren, there is hostility towards transvestites on the streets, and harassment from police, who often operate independently of the state. Because it is legal to be gay, to wear women’s clothes and to work as a prostitute, the police stop transvestites on grounds of blocking traffic or violating the new law of “exhibitionism”, march them to the nearest police station and fine them 70 lira (£30) a time.
These coexisting attitudes are paradoxical, but perhaps no more surprising than the contrasting responses to a heavily made-up woman who happens to be a successful pop star on television, and one leaning out of a brothel window — the first is impossibly glamorous, the second a slut. Transvestites have to contend with more prejudice unless they follow in the stilettoed footsteps of Zeki Müren. Until then, they are confined to the teeming streets of Tarlabasi, adding zest and sartorial inspiration to my daily walk from work.