Whenever you stroll through the district of the Covered Bazaar and the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar you probably will see human pack mules with all sorts of cargo on their backs.
Bent over, groaning under their unimaginable huge burdens, they trudge through the streets, up the hills, and even up the stairs in the wholesale houses – the traditional Turkish ‘hans’ where they deliver the goods. Their loads range from carpets to refrigerators, and boxes with bicycle parts to furniture.
These men are dirt poor. They work six days a week, long hours and in groups, usually from the region they came from. They have a leader who collects all the money and at the end of the day he divides it equally among the men. If one needs a back surgery, they collect money among each other until there is enough money to pay the surgeon.
‘Hamal’ (porter) is the name of their profession; from the Arabic verb ‘hamala’ (to carry). It is done in several Muslim countries and is the second oldest profession in this city. The saddles on their backs are made by themselves. I have great respect for these guys (aged 18-70), who work in a way that hasn’t changed for thousands of years.
In his autobiography Istanbul. Memoirs and the City Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk writes about these men too. “During my childhood we were all uneasy when European tourists photographed the fearsome hamals I’d see crossing the Galata Bridge with tin piled high on their backs, but when an Istanbul photographer like Hilmi Sahenk chose the same subject , no one minded in the least.” (p. 235). And “The hamals and their burdens, noted by so many travelers of the republican period – like the old American cars that Brodsky noted – were no sooner described by foreigners than they vanished.” (p. 234).
It is obvious that Pamuk is not in a position anymore to stroll through the backstreets of Istanbul anonymously, as he did in the old days. He is too well known as Nobel laureate. Otherwise he would have noticed that the second oldest profession of Istanbul is still alive and kicking in the bazaar district. But their numbers are dwindling. And sooner rather than later Pamuk will be right, and we will no longer see the hamals of Istanbul.