Resisting capitalism one cup of tea at a time: the 26A collective in Istanbul

A “lotus flower in the mud”. This was the image that came to mind when Özlem visited the 26A cafe in Taksim for the first time. The comparison rings true now more than ever, on this cold and grey January afternoon, with the heavy rain outside turning the streets into fast flowing rivers while we enjoy our hot tea in the warm and cozy interior of 26A’s newly renovated Kadiköy cafe.


“I was very impressed the first time I saw the Taksim cafe. When I entered I saw a place built by our own hands. It was very pretty. Very amateurish, but very pretty,” recalls Özlem Arkun, 28 who agreed to meet with me despite the bad weather and her busy schedule as mother of her 6-months old daughter Toprak. Together with her partner Özgür Erdoğan, 30, Özlem is keen to share the story of 26A, a collectively run cafe occupying two different locations in Istanbul; one in the heart of the city’s booming shopping district surrounding the famous Taksim Square, and another in the neighbourhood of Kadiköy, on the Anatolian side of the city.

Özgür explains that the initiative to start up a cafe was inspired by the belief that many people want to escape from the control capitalism has over their personal lives, but that often they don’t have anywhere to turn to due to lack of an alternative. The idea was that “If we create a space based on the principles of sharing and solidarity, the people can see this as an inspiration and get in touch with us.” As a young father, Özgür hopes that the model of 26A can encourage people to detach their lives from capitalism; to get together and organize themselves independently, horizontally and free from the oppressive forces of capitalism which not only facilitates the economic exploitation of the people, but also causes the cultural degeneration of societies and communities wherever it spreads.

The tea is always ready

The story of 26A starts in 2009, when a group of political activists were looking for a new place to organize themselves; a public space where they could welcome people, explain about their ideas and intentions and which could be a social experiment to see whether it was possible for them to live in a collective while generating funds necessary for survival through the cafe.

They soon found a location in one of the back streets of Beyoğlu—Istanbul’s central neighbourhood which is home to the city’s historical Taksim Square and the busy Istiklal shopping street—which was owned by an acquaintance of one of the members. Situated in a rough neighbourhood where the Turkish mafia owned several buildings, and with a local police station just a few doors down, the 26A cafe was up for a difficult start. Most of the time, the small group of five comrades that had collectively set up the cafe were doing little more than drinking tea, watching movies and waiting for customers.

Priority was given to tea, and they made sure always to have a fresh pot ready for the odd chance someone might walk in. In Turkey, where tea functions as the glue that binds society together, businesses can be made or broken over a cup of tea—and the comrades were very well aware of this. “Even when we didn’t have any customers, we always had good tea,” explains Özlem, “And besides that we were always inviting the people we met to come to our cafe and handing out free soup to the people after demonstrations.”

Unsurprisingly, in these early times the cafe was nowhere near self-sustainability, let alone that it generated enough income to support the political actions of the collective or to cover their costs of living. If by the end of the day they had sold twenty cups of tea it was considered to be a good day. Besides working in the cafe the comrades were thus forced to work odd-jobs as cleaners, hotel receptionists and waiters to keep their ambitious project alive.

Over the course of the first year the cafe became known among leftist, anti-authoritarian and anarchist groups who started to frequent this “oasis in the desert”, and slowly but surely it started to fill up with people attracted by its cozy interior, its political beliefs and/or its organizational structure that opposed all forms of hierarchy and exploitation. Functioning without a boss and without anyone taking home a salary, but rather working on the principle that “everybody gives what they can, and take what they need” the cafe soon acquired fame as one of the few places in the consumerist Valhalla of down-town Istanbul where one could escape from the oppressive forces of ever-encroaching capitalism.

“To know is to be cursed”

In 2009, Merve Arkun, Özlem’s younger sister who was 19-years old at the time, traveled from Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city situated on the country’s Aegean coast, to Istanbul in order to attend an anti-IMF demonstration. After the protest, she and a couple of dozens of comrades went to the 26A cafe where a big table was set out to share a meal and discuss the day’s events. For a few year’s Merve had been wondering how it would be possible to live in a crowded commune, not just with four or five people like she had been doing in Izmir, but rather with forty or fifty people, living, working and struggling together. What she experienced that day in 26A was like a dream come true.

It didn’t take long for Merve to make up her mind and move to Istanbul in order to join the 26A collective. “When I first took initiative in 26A it was very exciting because it was the first time I was involved in such a project,” she remembers. “It was exciting because when I joined I was still in a phase where I wasn’t sure if it was possible to live like this.”

As time passed she, just like many other comrades who had joined the collective by this time, became more and more part of the project, and at some point she realized she couldn’t do without the collective anymore. “There’s a phrase we often use [in Turkey], which is ‘To know is to be cursed’,” she says smilingly. “In a way, joining the collective is like this: because now that I know that I can live freely in the collective, I never want to work under a boss again.”

By now, almost six years after its foundation, the 26A collective has grown from five to fifty people, the majority of which are not only working but also living together, in communal houses spread across the city. In 2011 the collective opened a second cafe in Kadiköy—originally intended as a second-hand bookshop/library, but after its most recent renovation the books have disappeared and the addition of a professional kitchen (entirely built by the members of the collective) has turned the place into a little bistro. A third cafe which was opened last year in the working-class neighbourhood of Kartal, had to be closed recently due to post-Gezi financial struggles and a concentration of most of the political activity in the city’s centres.

The youngest member of the collective (after the six-months old Toprak, of course) is 14 years old, while the oldest is 50-plus. All together they share the same dream of a world wherein no-one is exploited and forced to sell their labour. Maybe their model is not yet an alternative to capitalism, but at least, in Merve’s words, “it’s showing that another way is possible.”

No meat, no Coke

The 26A cafe started as a project to transform people’s lives, and the way to do this is by setting the right example. Decisions in the collective are made in the weekly assemblies, where everyone has a say in matters concerning the running of the cafe, the assigning of funds for specific projects and anything else that might come up. In the early days of 26A one of the comrades, who happened to be vegan, brought up the issue of whether or not meat products should be sold in the cafe. After a lengthy discussion—not selling meat would be yet another economic challenge—it was collectively decided that the menu ought to be 100 per cent vegetarian.

From the very start it was also clear that all Coca Cola products should be banned from the cafe. Due to the company’s exploitation of its workers and its role as a symbol for global capitalism, Coke products cannot not be found on the menu. Moreover, everyone bringing with them a bottle or can of the stuff to the cafe will be kindly requested to either dump it or drink it outside. “Since six years no Coca Cola has entered this place,” conveys the 18-year old Gizem Şahin with a certain amount of pride.

According to Gizem, who joined the collective two years ago when she visited the Taksim cafe to grab a bite to eat after a demonstration and the next second found herself working there, the most important role of 26A is that of a “barricade against capitalism.” She continues, “26A is a place with no waiters, and no customers; with no workers and no bosses; without an oppressor and without any oppressed; it’s a place of sharing and solidarity.”

This ideal of sharing and solidarity extends far beyond the physical limits of the two cafes. The members of the collective can nowadays be found in faraway places like the Syrian border, where they have set up camp to express their solidarity with the Kobani resistance; the Anatolian heartland where they support the struggle of local villagers against the construction of hydroelectric powerplants; and in many universities and factories across the country where they fight against all forms of institutionalized education and the exploitation of subcontracted workers.

The seeds have been sown

A quick look around the Taksim cafe leaves little doubt as to where the collective has drawn its inspiration from: A big flag and a bunch of posters of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) cover the walls while bags of Zapatista coffee are stacked in the kitchen. Özgür mentions the indigenous rebels from Chiapas, Mexico as one of the examples for the 26A collective, as well as the Spanish revolution of 1936 and the worker cooperatives that started emerging in Argentina after the economic depression of 1998-2002. “But to be honest,” he adds, “we haven’t heard of any other examples that are similar to our experience. Ours is a total communist model: we don’t get paid for our labour, we don’t take salaries.”

During the Gezi uprising in the summer of 2013 many of the comrades of the collective were out on the streets to support and participate in the protests directed at the authoritarian rule of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, while at the same time the cafe doubled as an infirmary for injured protesters; a resting place for those needing a break from the actions on the street and generally a safe haven for anyone fleeing the ultra violent police that were patrolling the streets around Taksim Square. Not a single piece of food was sold as long as the popular insurrection continued. Rather, everything was given away for free in solidarity with the protesters.

During the Gezi events strong bonds were forged between 26A and other cooperatives, both at home and abroad, such as the resisting workers of the Kazova textile factory in Istanbul and the Vio.Me worker collective in Thessaloniki, Greece. Although still very informal, it are connections like these that are a first step towards realizing the future plans of the 26A collective. In stead of focusing exclusively on the cafe, the comrades view it as part of a bigger project in which the creation of an alternative model of organizing labour in society occupies a central place.

“If we talk about five, ten years later, we dream about many places without a boss; many cooperatives where there is no distinction between consumer and producer,” Özgür explains. “It’s very important to have a network of these cooperatives. When we look to the future we see it’s important to have a many of these places and [for us] to get in touch with as many of them as we can.”

Whatever the future brings—whether the collective manages to expand into other branches of the economy by establishing a bakery, a solidarity clinic or a textile workshop, or whether a government crackdown brings the project to a preliminary ending—the seeds have been sown and the example has been set. The members of the collective have shown that this is not a game for them, but rather an essential part of total struggle to restructure the very foundations of society. While sipping my tea in this “amateurish, but very pretty” environment, I too, am overcome by a revolutionary spirit and filled with hope that one day baby Toprak will reap the fruits of the collective’s struggle.

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

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