x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Selling fresh bread to earn a crust

From where I stand Riza Ece, a simitci at the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.

Riza Ece, 54, sells freshly baked simits that have been cooked in a traditional wooden oven.
Riza Ece, 54, sells freshly baked simits that have been cooked in a traditional wooden oven.

I was born and raised in Istanbul. My chosen trade was manufacturing. Ten years ago I ran a successful steel workshop in the industrial part of the city but then I suffered a brain haemorrage and I had to give up the workshop. At the time my daughter and one of my sons were at university so it was very important for me to be able to pay for their education. I applied for a license from the municipality and started to sell simits. A simit is the Turkish version of the American bagel, a ring-shaped bread snack that is often eaten with a cup of tea for breakfast. They are very popular with locals, and tourists see them as something typically Turkish, so it seemed like a good way to earn a living. I have been selling them ever since and now I have one of the best spots in town, opposite the entrance to the Topkapi Palace.

Every morning I arrive at 9.30am, just as the man from the bakery delivers the freshly baked simits. The simits I sell are cooked in the traditional way in a wooden oven. It gives them a much better taste. They come in three varieties, sesame covered, plain and sweet. They are simply a mixture of flour, water and salt but the secret ingredient which makes them so delicious is pekmez or grape syrup. In the winter, I sell about 100 per day but between April and September I can sell double that. Once I have paid the baker and the license [fee] I make an average wage. It is enough for me and my family.

It is important for my business to make sure the simits stay fresh for as long as possible otherwise I will lose trade. When they are delivered they are hot and so condensation builds up inside the perspex casing of the cart. I have to move them into stacks in a certain pattern and continually remove the moisture from the windows with a small brush. If I don't do this they go soggy and I lose money. Despite what people think there is a certain skill in my job - if I look after the bread then it looks after me.

I see hundreds of tourists come and go every day. Once, a few years ago, just before Angela Merkel was elected prime minister of Germany, she came to Istanbul and visited the Palace. She bought a simit from me and I had my picture taken with her. There were lots of press around and I think many other people took my photo that day. Other than Turks, my simits are most popular with the Greek tourists. After that Italians. At this time of year, in the winter, the majority of tourists who come here are Korean and Chinese; they do buy the snacks but not as much as others. My favourite time of year is summer: the weather is good, people are happy and then, of course, I sell more simits.

Last year, a tree fell on an Italian tourist in the grounds of the Palace thanks to very high winds. I didn't see it myself but everyone was talking about it. They closed the whole site for half a day. Otherwise, I work every day except Tuesday when the Palace is closed. If I am hungry or thirsty on duty then I call one of the restaurants and they deliver to my stall. I can't afford to take time away or I will lose business to other stalls. Fridays are the only day that I take a break when I attend the midday prayers at the Blue Mosque just down the road. Myself and the other sellers in the area all leave our stalls in charge of one of us. We take it in turns to do this duty. It is important to work together on the holy day.

I do enjoy my job. I meet a lot of different types of people and tourists are the one thing that, no matter the weather or the day of the week, keep coming. Otherwise I have no security in this life, no income, no retirement fund, nothing to fall back on. I come because I have to and I enjoy it because it brings in money. I visit the Topkapi Palace about once a month. I have friends there who let me in for free. It is really a very special place. To see the Prophet Mohammed's sword, parts of his beard and his footprint gives me a special feeling inside. Also there is live recitation of the Quran in this part of the palace and to hear is beautiful, sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.

When the day is done at 5pm, I return by bus to my home in Gazi Osmanpasha in the west of the city. I don't go out in the evenings. I would rather stay in, eat a home cooked meal and read a book or spend some time on the computer. I have two sons in banking and a daughter who has just graduated in biology, every day I thank God for them.