Istanbul, Turkey – As a politician, he is Turkey’s most successful prime minister of modern times, a man who stepped out of a prison cell to lead his party to three straight election victories, at the same time raising Turkey’s profile on the international stage and leading his country to unprecedented prosperity.
Erdogan is in our hearts, a man of the people. There are those that hold him in high regard and there are those who do not...
But on the streets of Istanbul’s deprived Kasimpasa and Kulaksiz districts, on the shores of the Golden Horn, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is simply a neighbourhood hero; the boy who used to sell bread and play football on the streets.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained more than half of the votes cast in Sunday’s parliamentary election; testament to the enduring popularity of a leader almost two decades since he first stepped onto the political stage as mayor of Istanbul in 1994.
But it is only the residents of Kasimpasa and Kulaksiz – workers from the countryside, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, even children – who can claim Erdogan as their own, refering to their famous son as “bizden biri” [“One of us”].
In a local park in Kasimpasa, Ahmet Kara, Erdogan’s distant cousin and a 46-year-old former ship worker, sells tea where his famous relative once sold simit – the circular bread roll that is a popular snack in Turkey.
‘In our hearts’
“Erdogan is in our hearts, a man of the people. There are those that hold him in high regard and there are those who do not. But the majority of people living here see him as an example of what is possible if you work hard,” Kara said.
“Erdogan sold bread, I sell tea. He has proven that it doesn’t matter what kind of background we come from – dreams can come true for us all, and the longer he is our leader the stronger Turkey will be.”
Yasar Ayhan, Erdogan’s hairdresser in Kasimpasa stands proudly next to a photo taken together with the Turkish prime minister inside the Kardesler [“Brother”] grooming salon.
“I’ve known Erdogan for over 16 years, our fathers are friends. He is an honest person who has made our lives easier,” Ayhan said.
“When I went to the Hajj in Saudi Arabia in 1998, no one accepted the one million Turkish lira I tried to exchange. But when I returned in 2010, I was given 250 Saudi riyals in exchange for a one hundred lira note; that’s when I realised there’s life now, a future.”
Ragip Meral, a 58-year-old taxi driver originally from Rize – the same Black Sea region from which Erdogan’s own migrant parents arrived in Istanbul – credits the prime minister with changes to the country that have given his family security and access to medical care for the first time in their lives.
“I’m in my late 50s and for the first time in my life I am insured, thanks to our prime minister. My family now has a safety net if anything should happen to me,” Meral told Al Jazeera.
“My 10-year-old daughter’s teeth rotted from eating too many sweets, and in the past it would have cost me a fortune to have them fixed, but now children are under the care of the government until they reach 18,” he added, driving past newly built schools.
“This area used to be a garbage dump. Now look at it, we only have one man to thank for our fixed roads, homes and schools. Our prime minister.”
In Kulaksiz, a group of men outside a traditional coffee shop start to reminisce about the days they played football with Erdogan, under a large photograph of his infamous “one minute” outburst at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009.
We have a leader that stands upright opposite Israel, the European Union and America now. We are proud of him.
Erdogan, angrily denouncing Israel’s attack on Gaza in a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, demanded one minute more to finish his argument as the moderator attempted to cut him short, before walking out in protest.
“We have a leader that stands upright opposite Israel, the European Union and America now. We are proud of him,” Hoca Yasar, the owner of the coffee house, says as he gestures at the photo.
“I cannot speak a word of English but I have learnt to say ‘one minute’ and I use it often.”
The apartment where Erdogan grew up, perched atop a steep hill overlooking Kulaksiz, is now home to a Kurdish widow, a native of Elazig in the east of the country, who asks that her name is not published.
The woman lives in the apartment with her three children, and Erdogan’s success has given her hope for their futures.
“If this neighbourhood shaped a man who sold bread into the prime minister of Turkey,” she says, “what’s to stop it from shaping my children into the future leaders of tomorrow?”
Follow Ayse Alibeyoglu on Twitter: @aysealibey