the nothing whatever...

Trouble in Turkey

Turkey…a land with so much history, both modern and ancient.

And currently in the making.

I will post more about what we have been doing in Istanbul in next weeks blog, as the reassuring vibe of what I was originally going to write has been somewhat tarnished by the story below, and now I have to rework a little bit of it. For the first time since week one this will not be broken down into segments, as this one story has provided enough content to justify posting as a single piece.

No doubt you may have recently heard about the Istanbul riots, the backlash against the Turkish government’s heavy-handed approach in dealing with what was originally a civil and peaceful protest over the demolition of a park. The violence issued by the police and permitted by the government did what violence usually does and procreated, escalating both party’s motives and their actions, and now it is no longer about defending a park as it is defending the people’s very right to protest, the ever futile attempt to protect democracy through anarchy. Without wanting to delve too far into the history of it, this is not the first thing the Erdogan government of Turkey has done that would indicate his push towards a more authoritarian regime’, and rather than submit to the protesters and relinquish control, it would seem that the government under Erdogan has done the very opposite, pushing for the use of tear-gas and water-cannons and force by all means necessary, and at times threatening to bring down social media and destroy the flow of information.

This picture that I paint is anything but the Turkey we have been leisurely experiencing in our area of Istanbul, where we naively pass the time by meandering around historical monuments or sometimes discussing trivial things over an apple-tea and a kebap. Istanbul is a city split into segments by the Bosphorus and its adjoining rivers, and we are staying on a separate side to where all the civil unrest has been occurring. So, prior to this incident, there has been no hint of a problem other than a few ominous puffs of smoke we will sometimes see hovering up out of the city. Nic and I are sensible, we wouldn’t dream of heading directly into a troubled area, especially one so obviously marked, and we had previously discussed how stupid some people must be to find themselves caught up in a mess like this. But, as we found out, it is not quite that simple. The fact that this kind of thing (by the most part) does not exist in Australia means you carry around this assumption that the operation of business as usual is an indication of safety, that the pubs welcoming people into their venue during happy hour and the restaurants seating and serving patrons is a sign that the world around you remains immune to any possible danger.

So, how did we manage to convince ourselves to head over to the other side? Well, it is worth mentioning that aside from us, our hotel is filled with middle-aged holiday making couples, the kind that are way to enthusiastic about photographs, snapping themselves every morning eating the same breakfast in the same spot, the kind that wake up before what any sane person would regard as early so they can experience every day to its fullest before crashing out at 3:30 in the afternoon. However, according to the owner of this place, it is their model that we should be following, our rise time of 9:30am being, in his opinion, “a little late for Istanbul”. I became engaged in a long discussion with him about what we had been doing, what we had planned, and how long we had left. After I sheepishly told him all the sights we had seen and the things we had done, he proudly and dutifully pointed out the things we need to see before our departure date like a mother listing the chores she would usually do herself but instead needs you to do, some of those “chores” requiring a trip across the Galata Bridge to the side of Taksim Square. I expressed my concern over the events in Taksim Square, and he predicted that it was to dissipate that night, and that during the daytime it is usually safe to go exploring anyway (something that had been reaffirmed to me by a NZ guy we met on our first day).

Although we scrapped his “early rising” idea and woke up at our usual time, Nic and I decided that we would take a tram across the bridge and head into Pera Museum, home of archaeological artifacts and both modern and historical Turkish artworks. One thing that we have picked up on our trip that might be something worth knowing – if you want a quick insight into a place and its people, visit the art galleries. We have found that they succinctly convey unique qualities within the culture and its origin through techniques used, materials, subject matter, themes, colors etc. It makes it all very interesting, and picking up an audio headset and wandering for a few hours is a good way for both of us to relax, absorb and understand.

After perusing all five levels of the museum, we looked in the Lonely Planet for a place where we could go and get some lunch, wanting to make the most of our venture across the bridge as, according to the book, where we are staying in Sultanahmet is not the best side for food. But, for some reason, the map of inner Istanbul only lists a couple of streets by name, meaning that navigating by street is quite difficult. We found the main central street from which we could then triangulate all the surrounding points-of-interest on the map, and began our walk towards an arbitrarily nominated restaurant called “Konak”. We walked past cross-street after cross-street in a sea of typical casual everyday shoppers, both Turkish and tourist alike, quickly becoming unsure how far along we were on the main street with none of the street names evidently on the map. But still, resolutely, we marched on, unsure of specifics but relatively confident of our general proximity.

The place finally appeared on our left, which was a little puzzling as we expected it to appear on our right, where instead there were a few half closed shopfronts. Thinking nothing of it, we sat ourselves towards the rear of the restaurant and gorged on a few dishes consisting mainly of meat, yogurt and bread. While the service was abysmal (it was impossible to get the attention of the waiters, who were all standing at the shopfront and looking down the road with some insatiable curiosity) the meal more than satisfied our hunger, so we then decided to pick another arbitrary location on the map and source out a beer, somewhere with a terrace that might look out over that section of the city. We planted our finger on a good review, and continued ourselves in the same direction, now relatively confident of our location after having scoped out the last eatery.

But, again, the names of the streets weren’t matching up with the map. We continued walking, heads in our maps, trying to comprehend the scale that they were working to or the pattern of streets they were deciding to name, while around us there were more and more people leaning against the walls of the street and standing in the shopfronts, Turkish flags draped over their shoulders or used as bandanas, all looking down the street with the same fierce intent as the waiters.

We stopped when we saw the police at a crossroad behind the wall of a building. The surrounding environment had become very similar to the simmering tension at half time when the change rooms have been built too close to one another, two groups who clearly resent each other maintaining a gritty silence for the surrounding officials and spectators, with the knowledge that even a slight sledge might send civility toppling over the edge. In fact, I will go as far as to say it was much more civil than that of a football match. Most people were still going about their daily business, the elderly with their walking sticks, children clinging on to the hands of their parents, merchants selling and customers buying. The policemen were disinterestedly leaning up against their vehicles with their arms crossed as if they were supervising the Royal Easter Show, and the “protesters” pressed up against the walls along the central street were talking and laughing without any malice whatsoever, affectionately hanging their arm over one another the way all the Turkish men seem to do, even shaking hands and high-fiving with some of the shop owners. While I suggested we duck into one of the side streets and see if we could find a street sign to tell us exactly where we were, Nic was adamant we immediately turn and head back in the opposite direction, also picking up on that peculiar tension hanging in the air like it was something tangible and prickly. I did think her anxiety might be a little premature, but I agreed, and we began walking back where we came from.

A sign of just how imminent social breakdown may in fact be appeared not two minutes later. Directly in front of us were tens of people hoarded around an elderly vendor, who was frantically rushing to cater to all the money being thrust in his direction. Initially, Nic and I were drawn to him, as usually a mass of locals around a street vendor is an indication of a quality product, and we had the faint hope that he might be selling some sort of obscure foodstuff that we could try. But as we rounded the side of the crowd, we saw that it had slightly more daunting implications than that of a delicious local delicacy. The hot product that the vendor was selling were swim-goggles, and he had large cardboard boxes packed to the brim disappearing within seconds such was the demand. The likelihood that all these people were participating in some spontaneous Bosphorus bound marathon swim was extremely remote.

After walking for some time, we came to the far end of the street around where we had initially began, right next to the Pera Museum. It was an area heavily populated by folks who looked both unaware and unfazed by the events coming to a boil a few kilometers up the road. There was another “Konak” restaurant that fit all the descriptions of the one we had initially been looking for, obviously a fairly common franchise in the district. Seeing the complacency that everyone was exhibiting made us feel like we had definitely wandered a safe distance from it all, and we became a product of the lackadaisical attitudes around us, taking a left turn off the main street to look for a quite pub for an ale or two. It would give us a chance to pore over the map and detect our navigational error, plan a path to get back to the bridge, and to discuss the gravity of what we had seen way back up the road.

It was happy hour, and there were people of all demographics drinking in the bars lining the alley we had wandered into, a sure sign that things were calm and stable. We sat inside the Pacific Hotel with about nine other bubbly patrons, ordered two Efes (the local brew), and concluded that the Lonely Planet map must have been a lot more focused than we had initially expected, meaning that the distance we had walked had actually taken us out of the top of its borders and all the way into…you guessed it…Taksim Square. What clueless idiots we had been! With the danger factor having faded, we could do nothing but laugh at how close we got to being caught up in it all.

Our tensions eased, our mind-state mellowed, and for a while it became just another normal day. The Turkish news was blaring away on TV (as it has been in just about every venue we have entered since day one), and everybody else in the pub was facing behind us to watch it, while we looked out towards the small porch at the front of the pub that backed onto the cobblestone alley we had been traversing moments before, its large glass sliding doors fully open to allow for the easy flushing of cigarette smoke. The alley was by no means a main thoroughfare, but every now and then a large group of young Turks would make their way through, sometimes waving flags, sometimes chanting and clapping, all obviously on their way up to Taksim Square to meet their kinship and aid them in protest.

One of the bizarre things we observed was that when these young renegades would pass on through, rather than apprehensively look on in disapproval the way people might in Australia, most business owners would stand out the front and applaud them, creating a sort of guard of honor and inflaming the passion with which they were pursuing their cause. You would think the presence of these people would strike fear into Nic and I, but the strange thing was that the surrounding vibe was not something to be feared. Aside from the small packs of protesters migrating their way to the battlegrounds, the normality was undeniable, and it was this normality that got us into trouble, the fact that fear in that environment just seemed completely out of place.

Gradually, more and more groups began passing by the front of the pub. The Turkish news had been turned down to a low hum, and people were chatting with each other with careless privacy the way they do in any other bar. But, as time wore on, I could see some of them start to take notice of the frequency with which the groups were passing, and their conversations became a little more subdued, like the topic had changed to something highly sensitive. Things began to lose control when we started seeing the very same protesters who were walking up the alley moments before sprinting back the other way. It was a chilling moment when the Turkish news had its volume turned completely down, yet the chant of thousands of people still remained in the air, like a chorus behind the pubs soundtrack. The Beatles, Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones all carried with them the angry distant rumble of hundreds, if not thousands, of Turks.

It became clear to me that it was too late to move when I saw that those who were running back up the alley were all wearing some kind of facial cover, whether it be a full blown gas mask, a piece of cloth, or just goggles and their shirt. The owner of one of the neighboring bars ran up to the owner of ours with jittery concern, speaking quickly and loudly in Turkish, and suddenly we were all moving our seats towards the back of the pub so its glass screen doors could be shut. I turned and saw on the news a live feed of where we were in Istanbul. The riots had broken their previous boundaries of Taksim Square and had pushed back into the street across from ours. Police were now taking action. We were stuck in the pub.

The owner asked us if we would like another beer, and, feeling that the moment was both the time and the place, we obliged. He poured us two more Efes before returning duteously to his post at the half-open door, looking with concern down at the entrance of the alley as more and more masked vigilantes came running at top speed back through it. Nic pointed out that the other nine or so people in the pub were now peering at us over their drinks, and when I also became aware of it, I began to feel the fear that I should have been feeling long before. It was the sudden realization that were not equals with these patrons in the pub, that they were not “in the same boat” as us, that their stoney resilience was deeper than some attempt at maintaining normalcy. They were already mentally fighting a fight that had to be fought, and they knew it was Nic and I who were caught in the middle, the helpless little lambs that didn’t quite understand, ill-equipped with the smarts or the passion to deal with what we might face out there.

Time passed, and although we knew that we had to get back across the bridge before dusk (when things apparently kick up a notch), every time we would make an outright decision to leave, something would occur that would send us back into our seats at the rear of the pub again, cowering over another glass of beer. The first was that we heard the shout of a large group of people at the end of the alley, followed by the crash of something hollow and metallic, like the sound of a steel awning detaching from next door and collapsing onto the street. Nic and I looked at each other with querying expressions, both stunned by the noise, and when several masked individuals bolted down the alley past the front of the pub, I thought it might have been an act of vandalism. But both the patrons of our pub and its owner knew the sound better than we did. A group of three twenty-somethings sitting at the table near the door quickly stood to close it, but before they could the owner had already darted from his location behind the bar where he was pouring beers and slammed it shut, the first time I had seen him with any legitimate urgency.

Now securely locked within the pub with zero ventilation, both our noses began to sting and our eyes began to water, and we assumed that it was due to the build up of cigarette smoke. But, as we glanced around and saw that it was not just us who was suffering this irritation and that even the smokers were teary, blinking and sniffing, we realized that the sound we heard outside was a tear-gas canister being deployed into the collection of masked people that had dashed past the pub previously, rebounding itself off the cobblestone alley and pluming toxic smoke into the air. The pub owner called in two young boys as they were coughing and gagging in the street, and he gave them a seat and a glass of water as they vacantly wandered in their chemical induced daze, drastically affected by significant inhalation of the stuff.

The second time we made an effort to leave, I had risen to my feet and put my backpack on, a ritualistic confirmation of the decision. But, just before we made for the door, we heard the spine tingling screams of a small group of people outside, guttural screams of genuine fear. Two plain-clothed young adults, a boy and a girl, both threw themselves at the glass door of the pub with a look of wide-eyed panic, and the owner hastily let them in with no argument, then closed and locked the door. Ten seconds later, about eight or so police officers equipped with batons, vests and full riot gear hurriedly stomped their way down the alley in such a terrifying manner, an organized unit that seemed mechanistic in movement and intent. I remember reading somewhere that fear is an additional tactic of riot-police, and that the masking of faces and synchronicity of movement is a way of creating that fear, the abandonment of everything human. Well, having never before seen these clans of cold calculative cyborgs in kill mode, I can say that it works a treat.

The owner of the pub told the two recently acquired refugees to hide in the back area, and, having seen where their targets had disappeared into, the wall of blue came to a halt outside our pub. One of the officers broke character and pulled his mask off, knocking on the glass window and pointing his finger in accusation and unbridled fury at the pub owner. We all knew exactly what was he was angry about, and I felt that the entire room was collectively holding its breath, all of us completely and utterly terrified that if those doors were to open, we may be witness to brutality that we did not want to be witness to. I still had the vision in my head of the unadulterated terror in the eyes of the two people when they scrambled into the pub, obviously aware of what their adversaries were capable of having seen it acted out upon others around them. The pub owner kept his cool though, shrugging at the accusations and refusing to open the door, and eventually the police moved on. The whole pub looked around at one another with a careful grin, sighing a mutual sigh of relief.

We sat for a while and discussed the most logical thing to do. It was a tough scenario as while the idea of remaining right where we were in our safe glass bubble was extremely tempting, we knew that if we did not act soon, we may not get back across the bridge that night. A small table of girls near us stood abruptly and made the executive decision to leave. Right before they did though, one of them tentatively approached us and handed us both a filtered-mask and some antacid tablets (I am not sure what the tablets were for), explaining that we should be OK, but that they were for “just in case”. The interaction was so subservient that it was almost apologetic, and we tried to make like we understood in what felt like a natural response to her compassion, some strange obligation to give her peace of mind. Even though I was putting on a brave face, never before had I valued looking like such a blatant ignorant tourist as I did in that moment.

The Turkish news was turned up again. On the screen was a live feed of the street we had been walking down just a few hours before, one street along from where we were sitting, and it now resembled a battleground. Large trucks full of riot police were being deployed in tactical formation, bottles and tear-gas canisters littered the streets, groups of rioters were being blasted with water-cannons as they tried to flee the area. We stayed and watched the live feed for about an hour, praying for a lull in the action. Finally, after a lengthy period of time without anybody darting urgently through our cobblestone alley, and with the chilling sound of the chants of the masses having temporarily subsided, we went for it. We thanked the owner of the pub, nodded solemnly to those that remained, and staunchly marched in the direction of the Bosphorus, working on the rationale that the protesters would find it too easy to get cornered near a body of water and would therefore be absent from any waterfront. But, in all honesty, after seeing the menacingly regimented nature of the police and the way they were carrying out their duties, it was not the protesters we feared.

There were so many things going through my head as we were walking. What if the police overlook that we are tourists, what if they just put us under the blanket of civil disobedience? Should we run if we see them, like everyone else seems to be doing? I couldn’t get out of my head the terror in the eyes of the two protesters who were clawing through the half open door to escape, and the contorted fury of the policeman’s face when he was pointing at the pub owner, a man completely engulfed in reckless destructive emotion. If I saw him marching in formation towards us, would I trust him to hear us out, to understand our mistake, to do the right thing? Hell no.

We finally got to the bridge without seeing so much as one police officer, our rationale thankfully holding true. As we were crossing back to the safe side with our masks in our hands, our antacid in our pockets and exhausted relief on our faces, all the Turkish youth heading in the opposite direction and back into the fray met us with pats on the back, nods of the head, and supportive thumbs up. I returned their strange camaraderie with a half grin, but it was not until later that I began to wonder why they seemed so enthused to see that we were returning from their battleground. Did they mistakenly think that we were protesting on their behalf? Unlikely given our inappropriate attire and token backpacks. Were they trying to reassure us that the conflict we had just been exposed to was not some uncontrolled opportunistic hostility towards anything or anyone, that there is cause behind it, their nods of recognition indicating to us we are “friendlies” in this fight? Or was it just an appreciation of the fact that we were there to witness what is sure to be an important time in their, in Turkey’s, history? I don’t know, and I may never know. But one thing is for sure, it makes you appreciate the domestic way in which conflict is resolved in Australia, and ironically, that might just be exactly what they are fighting for.