By the time I went through the front door of the Turkish Cultural Center on Lawrence, all my fears about going to a members-only Turkish club subsided. On the street, the club is nothing more than a glass door next to a Mediterranean-style bar and grill. Faced with the prospect of being an outsider and with limited language skills, I was apprehensive as I climbed the blank stairway to the second-story club. Except for a single orange sign in the window above the door on Lawrence, there was no way to tell what I would find once I went inside.
When I reached the top floor, the door opened to reveal a broad space singularly devoted to Turkish culture. It revealed a space where people could gather after work to enjoy a tea and conversation before heading home.
The Turkish Cultural Center at 2619 W. Lawrence Ave. sits on an interesting stretch of road between California and Western Avenues. There’s Greek, Vietnamese, Pilipino, Indian, Bosnian, Bulgarian and English restaurants and clubs carving out their own unique spaces dedicated to cuisine and culture. Each one is a touchstone to a specific culture.
When I stopped by the Turkish Cultural Center, members lounged, eating sandwiches of grilled meat and onions while playing Okey, a Rummy-type of game that looks like a mash of dominos and Scrabble. Two televisions are broadcast Turkish television: one a basketball game, the other music and news. Soft Turkish music played in the background and every corner of the wall was decorated with paintings or photographs of Turkey.
Ilhan Kahraman has been in the U.S. for 30 years and he runs the Center with his wife, Palve Jokubauskiene. It opens during the week around 3 p.m. staying open until 10 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays, they open a bit earlier so members can catch European soccer games. Mostly the Center serves as a place for people to come to after work and unwind, or as a gentleman playing Okey put it subtly, “This is a place where men can get away from their wives.”
Indeed, the place is mostly men. Much like the Greek establishments that sit below the Center on Lawrence, the Turkish Cultural Center caters mostly to older men who immigrated to the U.S. years ago and keep in touch with each other and their culture through the Center. Kahraman says there are about 75 members of the Center with about 15 stopping in every evening. Like many groups in Chicago, the Turkish community has followed the trend of moving to the suburbs, leaving behind a mostly older population in traditional clubs.
Still, the Center serves as an important meeting point for Turkish people in Chicago. “People come from different places, but they call each other up and come here.” His wife Jokubauskiene says that it is a place where people can relax, speak Turkish and unwind after a day’s work. There’s no real membership requirements. “You only need to speak Turkish,” Jokubauskiene said. When I try to talk to some of the other members, most smile politely. There is some translation between Turkish and English, but Kahraman is one of the few that can speak English, if not fluently, at least passably.
If I was apprehensive when I first walked in, everything changed as Kahraman took me on an educational journey through Turkish cuisine. There’s kofta, which is a small grilled patty of minced meat and onions, similar to a kebab. He brought a small dish of yogurt, which he makes on site. He also makes cacik, a yogurt diluted with water with garlic, dill and cucumber added in.
Kahraman explained that in Turkey’s hot weather people drink cacik instead of water. “It coats you. It sticks to you.” There was a small dish of bulgar pilav, a type of pilaf that uses bulgar, tomato and green pepper. He finished off the culinary display with rice pudding.
The Turkish Cultural Center is one of a handful of private members-only clubs in the area. The most high profile is the DANK Haus, but the American Legion Post 973 and Niedersachsen Club are part of the mix. However, most of the places are small gathering places like the members-only Greek establishment a few doors down. As Kahraman says, they all fill the same need. It’s a way to stay connected to a culture through food, music, and company. “After work, people want to come here and relax and just talk.”