On the Road to Gebze: Surviving in the Industrial Heartland

On the road to Gebze, where I teach twice a week, I have a lot of time to contemplate the passing landscape.
Out on the highway, the lanes are jammed with trucks — large trucks, many of them parked alongside the road, waiting for nightfall to move through the city. We’re miles — worlds — away from Istanbul, the Bosporus, and all the stuff you read about in the guidebooks. You’d think you’d died and gone to some diesel-fueled heaven (or hell, depending on your perspective) somewhere in post-war America.

In fact, you’ve gone to Gebze. Welcome to Gebze, Turkey’s industrial heartland, an hour southeast of Istanbul. In every direction lie factories, warehouses and distribution centers, as far as the eye can see. Where every day, millions of tons of products are produced and shipped, not only to Istanbul, but throughout the region.

road to gebze
(photo credit: James Tressler)

But it wasn’t always this way.

Not so many years ago, most of this area was empty farmland, rolling hills dotted with old houses and the occasional mosque.
Nowadays, it’s become a thriving industrial new city, with a daily population of some 2 million. Companies like Doğus Otomotiv, Halk Bank, and a score of other large companies have moved not only their facilities, but also their main offices here. Why? Because it’s cheaper than the business centers of Levent and Maslak in Istanbul. You save overhead, plus you’re nearer to where your goods are being produced — it’s efficient, I suppose. At least for production; for the people, not so much.

Most of the people are commuters, brought in on services buses from Istanbul, and other surrounding cities. Many of them are blue-collar, working in the factories, but also management and other professionals as well.
Over the years I have been teaching in Gebze, I’ve come across all manner of profiles and personalities, from marketing, planning, production, human resources, et al. I think of Samet, warehouse manager at one of the car companies. Every night before our lessons, we used to eat the sack lunch the company provided to students who were staying an extra two hours for English lessons after putting in a full day. The sack lunch was invariably the same: a half-stale simit with cheese, along with a juice box, served in a brown paper bag.
One evening, Samet informed me that he couldn’t attend our lesson.
“I have to work overtime at the warehouse,” he said.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “What time do you finish?”
“Around 10 o’clock.” I knew that Samet lived in Istanbul’s Goztepe neighborhood. With luck, he would be home by 11.
“That sucks!”
“Yes,” Samet said. “But there is good news.” He winked. “The company gave me an extra sack lunch!”

There are those who live in Beşiktas, on Istanbul’s European side, and each day commute to Gebze by car. That’s two hours each way — when there’s no traffic. So that means they get up at six, drive to work, start about half-past eight. They finish at six and if they’re lucky, they’re home by nine in the evening. By the time you sit down on the sofa, it seems like it’s already time to go to bed. All told, that’s 15-hour days, five days a week.
Of course , these people choose to live on the European side. They don’t have to. Most of the workers, I’ve found, have relocated to places like Kartal, Kurtköy, Pendik — neighborhoods on the outskirts of Istanbul that at least are within reason of Gebze. So you find these areas have, predictably, grown substantially as well.
Take my friend Omer, manager at a mining company. He used to live in Bostanci on Istanbul’s Asian side, but decided last year to buy a flat in Pendik.
“I bought it last year,” he says. “And already if I sold it tomorrow, I would make a profit. Because the property values here are really going up.”
This upward trend has other reasons than Gebze: chiefly, the proximity of Sabiha Gökçen Airport, which allows foriegn managers to fly in for meetings, and they need accomodation for the night.
For those who are willing to accept the fact that working in Gebze means some sacrifices, including relocating, it’s not so bad.
“Living in Pendik saves me a lot of time, compared to when I lived in Bostanci,” Omer says. “Now, it’s only maybe 20 minutes to Gebze.”

Over the years I have come to grudgingly accept going to Gebze the way I do the traffic in Istanbul: the price for the privilege of living in a grand, ancient city.
As great as the food here in Turkey is, every once in a while there’s a shit sandwich, and we all have to take a bite.
Also, I only have to go twice a week, and for half the day. A service driver from the company picks me up in the afternoon outside the school in Suadiye, and the drive to the company in Gebze takes only about 45 minutes, barring traffic. The lesson finishes at half past seven. I get on a service bus with the company employees. The driver drops each of us off near our flats. (God, what time does he get home? He has to drive all the way back to Gebze.)

On most nights, I’m grumpy and tired by the time I get home (ask my wife!).
“Why — in a city of 13 million –” I argue, “does my school have to send us to Gebze? Surely there must be plenty of lessons in Istanbul. Why the hell do we have to haul our asses all the way out to shitty Gebze?”
Well, because that’s the way the companies, and the city, is going.
Think about how many language schools have saturated the markets over the past decade, many of them substandard but offering rock-bottom prices. It’s harder for the established, quality schools to compete. The only way to go is East, young man. Follow the companies as they flee the high cost of doing business in Istanbul, and you have plenty of English business.
The only catch is you have to be willing to put up with going to Gebze.

Anyone who’s wanted to get a firmer grasp of some of the emerging trends in the Turkish business world – especially industry – need look no further that Gebze.
In fact, one afternoon at a lesson, I joked to some of the students at an American company that in wartime a strategic commander of a foreign power could deliver a stunning strategic blow to Turkey’s production capacity by simply bombing Gebze.
One of the managers gave a gesture of disgust.
“Unfortunately, you are right,” he said.
Anyway, no doubt things are already changing – when do they ever stop changing in this part of the world? Already Gebze is perhaps approaching the tipping point, where the land of opportunity becomes the land of diminishing returns. Low costs don’t stay low for long, not if everyone is catching the scent.
No doubt, the completion of the third bridge in Istanbul later this year, not to mention the third international airport, will add fresh, clean vistas — just as Gebze was once upon a time – to be crammed with overdevelopment.
There’s always a new Gebze, just around the bend. I’ll probably be teaching there in five years’ time. Nah — in three.

James Tressler is a writer and teacher whose books, including the recently published “City Scherzos: New Stories from Istanbul,” can be found at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.

James Tressler
James Tressler is the author of several books, including Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches. He lives in Istanbul.


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