BY FIONA LOWENSTEIN
At the bottom of Galata Tower, a medieval stone landmark built in Istanbul by the Genoese in 1348, young Istanbullus sit and drink beers late into the night. Chatter from nearby outdoor restaurants floats through the warm, clear air and children kick a soccer ball against a brick wall. Conversations between strangers are struck up with ease and often lead to the sharing of food, drink, or cigarettes. You can sit, eating your lamb durum, as I did last night, and let the tranquil night air lull you into believing this is the perfect Istanbul moment. And then the moment ends. With two powerful loud bangs, your moment quickly turns into another that has become iconic of Istanbul, and you are dropping your bottle, hearing it crack, and sprinting through a growingly panicked crowd as your throat starts to constrict from the ominous clouds of gas winding their way down the narrow cobblestone street.
Less than a month before I was due to leave for Istanbul, protestors occupied Gezi Park in Taksim Square, one of the few green spaces on the European side of Istanbul. They were objecting to plans to build a shopping mall in the public space. To the surprise of many in the international community, the Gezi protestors, a small group initially, were met with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets, a police reaction that quickly inspired greater numbers to join in the demonstrations.
The first weeks of the protests were intense. People from all walks of life found themselves at Gezi and small communities were formed there. People played music, doctors treated injured demonstrators, and tear gassings were common. On my couch in New York City, I watched CNN footage of men in goggles with black scarves tied around their noses and mouths throwing rocks at police as canisters of tear gas blew up in the air in front of them.
For my first two weeks here, tucked into a dorm at Boğaziçi University, a twenty-minute drive away from Taksim Square, the Gezi Park demonstrations were nothing more than an interesting political backdrop for me. Most of the students and professors at Boğaziçi had strong opinions about the demonstrations and many had marched in Gezi, but the discussions of the demonstrations were often light-hearted and consisted mostly of making jokes about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or the penguin documentaries CNN Turkey broadcasted during the protests. Nonetheless, the protests could be felt nearly everywhere in Istanbul. My first night, a group of students marched down the street banging pots and pans and announcing a public debate about the protests in the nearby park. My third night, I stumbled across a tribute to the fallen protestors in Beşiktaş, a neighborhood far from Taksim. At 9PM every night Istanbullus have taken to clapping, chanting, singing, honking, standing still or banging pans to show their support.
After a week in Istanbul, I ventured to Taksim Square to attend a film screening that would kick off Pride week in Istanbul. As I stood on the metro, barreling toward Taksim, I felt my stomach flip a couple of times. What would greet us at the top of the stairs? The Taksim metro stop has been closed intermittently, but on this day it was open and the entrance was surrounded by police with glass shields and sticks. A small group was marching around the square, but the park was closed. There was palpable tension in the air, but no gas.
My next trip to Taksim was five days later for the Pride Parade. I felt confident that the parade would not be interrupted by police activity, but as I hurried out the door, late to meet my friends, I found myself grabbing my swimming goggles and throwing them into the bottom of my bag, along with my bandana.
The Parade was invigorating and although there was an ominously large group of armed policeman surrounding the metro station, the night was untouched by teargas and the feeling was one of cautious empowerment. We marched under a huge rainbow flag, blew neon whistles, and sported rainbow facepaint and lipstick kisses on our cheeks. A woman in the crowd explained to me that the parade was bigger than it usually was, and it quickly became clear that many marching on behalf of the LGBTQ community that day were also marching for something else. By the side of the rode, street vendors sold pins. Some had rainbow flags, but others sported cartoon penguins or “her yer Taksim” slogans. As we marched down İstiklal, the large boulevard that has been the host of many of the demonstrations, people marching paused to loudly boo Starbucks and Mado (a Turkish dessert chain) for not letting protestors seek shelter during the Gezi Park demonstrations. The night ended with big parties on rooftop bars and joyous dancing in İstiklal all night.
This past Saturday night, Taksim exploded for the first time since I’ve been here. Posts on facebook and twitter told us that people were going to try to storm Gezi Park. I stayed on the Asian side of Istanbul all night, but a friend who came and met me got caught in the tumult and when she finally made it onto a ferry, she said the boat was its own sort of floating protest with people on the shores yelling support to the passengers and vice versa.
Last night the metro station to Taksim was closed, so my friends and I grabbed a cab at the previous station. As our cab meandered through Taksim Square, people on the street around us started to applaud loudly and drivers in the cars in front of us honked back in approval. We chatted with our cab driver in Turkish and gleaned that he was not in support of the protests. He told us that clapping was bad, but he seemed mostly to feel the traffic was a nuisance than to have any real grievance with the demonstration. We got out and started to make our way to the restaurant we’d hoped would be our destination, when we saw a huge group walking and jogging away from the direction we hoped to go in. We quickly turned around, our noses tingling from the highly dispersed tear gas that had made its way toward us. We settled on skipping the restaurant and having durum and beer by the tower.
When the gas found us at the tower, I ran as quickly as I could, trying not to panic in the huge crowd. My throat felt as though it were about to constrict my breathing. The only thing I could think of was what I would do if the gas got worse, and so my feet automatically propelled me forward, through the narrow, weaving cobblestone streets that I don’t know well enough to navigate without a map. I was fine. Uncomfortable, coughing, tearing, but fine. My friends and I flung ourselves onto the nearest tram to make our way home.
I stood on that tram thinking what if: what if I had been separated from the group? What if I had been closer to the source of the gas? What if I had been hit by a rock meant for a police officer?
And then the stranger next to me offered me and the rest of the passengers on the tram chocolate covered hazelnuts and the old man on my other side started talking to me about his childhood in Istanbul and the Gezi Park protests why democracy is necessary (demokrasi lazım), and a young woman laughed warmly at our fragmented Turkish conversation and I stepped off the bus, yelling “Memnun oldum!” (nice to meet you) to my three new friends.
At 9PM every night, Istanbullus clap. It is not just noise. It is a way to express oneself, to gain attention, but it is also a way to appreciate one another. When people pass protestors in cars, they honk in support, or yell words of encouragement. Even in the panicked crowd running from tear gas, there is a sense of solidarity; a mass of people looking for somewhere to go as a group, leaving no one behind. While in temporal duration, these moments can be fleeting, the union they build upon and create is ever-present.
Fiona Lowenstein ’16 is in Saybrook College. This summer she is blogging from Istanbul. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.