Home » Creative Nonfiction » Return to an Istanbul Smouldering

Return to an Istanbul Smouldering

“Kendinizden utanın!” I scream at the battalion of riot police, momentarily losing all semblance of journalistic objectivity. “Shame on you!” They resemble fascist astronauts with their black uniforms, white helmets, glass visors, and gas masks. Many of them are practically children. I’d finally lost my temper after a blast of pressurized water from the hulking TOMA water-cannon truck nearby soaked me and my camera and launched my phone from my hand.

Istanbul’s posh central Taksim neighbourhood resembles a post-apocalyptic war-zone. Mounds of smouldering garbage lay strewn around Istiklal Avenue, the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. Larger debris is still aflame, forming a blazing barricade against police incursion. The ashen smoke from the flames merges with the ghostly clouds of tear gas wafting over the street. This new mutant offspring is dyed a brilliant magenta from the deafening fireworks thrown by protesters. Many shops have pulled down their hinged metal doors, now covered in anti-government graffiti, and demonstrators pound them in earsplitting defiance. An Akrep – scorpion – armoured car lurks somewhere around a corner, ready to fire its bursting plastic bullets full of white chemical powder. A man who’s gotten a massive dose of teargas puts his hand on my shoulder to steady himself, without saying a word.

Despite the maelstrom, life persists as usual. A young lackadaisical girl leaning against a wall nearby puffs on a cigarette. A man walks down the street pulling his luggage behind him, baggage tags still attached. A mid-aged couple, likely tourists from the Arab Gulf, hold their three young children’s hands as they navigate their way past flaming rubble, police phalanxes, and masked protesters wielding bricks and makeshift flamethrowers. Another couple walks their dog and pushes a baby stroller. Two young well-manicured girls carrying shopping bags from European boutiques cover their mouths with designer scarves as they dart past. Mere metres away, Nevizade’s countless terraced restaurants and pubs are full of well-dressed Turks and foreigners, their faces lit up by street fires and distorted from coughing on the tear gas drifting through. A group of young Western tourists take a quick group selfie with a fascist astronaut background before scurrying down a side-street to a nearby pub. “This is protest tourism,” I hear someone mutter.

Tears pour from my bloodshot eyes. My skin screams. My lungs fail. I’m unsure I belong here, and feel like a charlatan next to these experienced photojournalists in their helmets and gas masks, and these seasoned protesters fighting for the fate of their country. Yet I can’t recall the last time I was this happy. At last I have returned.

 * * *

Just a few weeks earlier I sit in the rearward-facing seat of an articulated airport shuttle in Frankfurt on a chilly day in January, feeling like I’m moving backwards in time, back to Turkey. I stare at the hundred points of light spelling out the word ISTANBUL, mentally shifting my pronunciation from the English Istanbul to the Turkish Istanbul, wondering if I’m ready for the return.

I’d first moved to Turkey almost exactly eight years earlier, teaching English as a way to spend some time abroad between degrees back home. I was a wet-behind-the-ears 23-year-old who’d hardly strayed from Winnipeg. Those six months knocked my world off its axis and forever spoiled Canada for me, like dessert before a meal. Turkey pried itself inside me and refused to withdraw. How could I return to an ordinary life in Canada after living in Istanbul, City of the World’s Desire? Turkey launched me into a life of travel, a tour of fallen empires. I left on a Ukrainian ferry crossing the Black Sea to Odessa, with tears on my cheeks and a shattered heart. Swirling through my bewildered head were the prophetic words of a rakish old English teacher: “No one ever really leaves Turkey.”

 * * *

“Türkiye’yi sevdin mi?” some friends ask me the other day, enquiring why I came back. “Did you love Turkey?” “Yok, Türkiye’ye aşık oldum,” I respond. “No, I fell in love with Turkey.” It isn’t enough to say I simply loved the country. What I felt was visceral and fierce. It was aşk – passionate, romantic love. For years after living in Istanbul, I would get butterflies in my stomach whenever I thought of Turkey. My palms would sweat when I heard Turkish, as though seeing a former lover I’d never gotten over. I even envied other foreigners who spoke better Turkish than me, the jealous inamorato I was.

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze upon Constantinople,” marvelled Alphonse de Lamartine, the 19th-century French writer and politician. Yet when I wax poetic about my love for Istanbul, many Turkish friends shake their heads in disbelief and ask me about how to get a visa for Canada. Tourists here often fail to see how hard life is for most people, blind to the sprawling working class neighbourhoods. The tourist’s Istanbul, the historic centre, is a pageant of colours and a bouquet of fragrances, but most of the city is in fact grey and dreary. Turks will never understand how foreigners see their country, just as foreigners will never be able to see it through the eyes of a local. We outsiders romanticize this ancient land just as many Turks idealize life in the West. For many Westerners, Turkey is an escape from the mindless tedium of home. For many Turks, the West offers salvation from the hardships of an authoritarian country in the throes of developmental growing pains.

Perhaps no one can ever fully comprehend a place where they didn’t grow up, but I contend that neither can anyone born and raised there. A country is too complicated and nuanced for one person to fully grasp. There are countless economic, political, religious, cultural, social, and regional groups within Turkey, and countless sub-groups within each of those. Not even the founder of the Turkish republic, Atatürk, or the famous Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet could have been familiar with every shortcut, every regional colloquialism, every local custom, and every lifestyle in “this hell, this paradise,” as Hikmet described his beloved homeland.

I became a journalist because I believe no other profession has a more intimate understanding of a society. A good reporter regularly spends time with people from every conceivable demographic. Even in my infant career as a journalist I’ve already had the privilege of interviewing child soldiers, genocide survivors, sex workers, drug addicts, refugees, dissidents, high level politicians, aid workers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and countless others.

I always knew I would return to Turkey, but only when I was ready, when I was worthy of being let in. The idea of getting to know such a labyrinthine society is a thrilling prospect. Now that I’ve found my calling and learned my craft, I set off to comprehend this knotty enigmatic land. It’s no easy task.

* * *

I’m greeted by the same somber eyes and earnest smile that bid me farewell eight years earlier. I still remember how Stefan heaved my luggage on his head up the nearly vertical climb to Taksim Square. “I used to work in a factory,” he simply said. Now he sports a fat platinum blonde Turkish moustache and speaks the language like it’s his mother tongue, drawing befuddled looks and admiring smiles wherever he goes. A congenial mixture of working-class values and erudition, Stefan is fascinated by the world. He is a walking encyclopedia of Turkey, and for that matter the rest of the planet, and had all of the world capitals memorized by the time he was seven. His incredible adaptation to Turkish culture and revulsion for package tourism had a profound impact upon my own travel philosophy.

My first night I’m once again haunted by my recurring dream. I’m driving a car on a busy street, but am viewing it from the outside and behind. It gets further and further away, finally leaving my field of vision, and I’m driving blindly. I wake up on Stefan’s couch early in the morning just before the first call to prayer, and am momentarily filled with a deluge of panic. What am I doing here? What is my plan? How am I going to support myself? How am I going to get Mahi here?

I retreat to the streets for a brisk walk, recalling how strolling down Istanbul’s cobblestones used to rejuvenate me. The city’s almost shocking bonhomie immediately confers a sense of calm, and I feel sure of myself once again, confident of my decision to move here. I was always reluctant to return to Turkey for fear that it would be different, that the magic would be lost.

As I revisit all my old haunts, I’m confronted with faded memories on every corner, like ghosts only I can see. Here’s where I fell in the mud after trying to hoist Jessie during a night of carousing. Here’s our old rooftop where the Stefans and I used to set the world to rights and ponder the future while gazing at the Bosphorus. Here’s the cafe where we played chess and shared laughs. Here’s where I first professed my love for someone. Here’s where I became a man. The memories sadden me, and I grow lonely as I realize how much time has passed. I’m a different person now, and Istanbul is a different city.

For a day or two, I’m enchanted once again, but soon the magic fades, and I’m left, simply, with Istanbul. Not a romantic facade, but the city itself, in all its splendour and darkness. The infatuation phase has passed, as it always does, as it must. Istanbul may not give me butterflies anymore, but now I’m free to get to know it on a deeper level. My passionate aşk has been transformed into a deeper, more meaningful, calmer love, into sevgi.

The city I return to is one I hardly recognize. There’s still the cats, pigeons, chirping doorbells, used bookstores, curvy incebelli tea glasses, and old Istiklal trolly. There’s the same cast of characters – the Russian tourists, hordes of beer-guzzling expat English teachers, bearded leftists, cranky Kemalists, platinum blonde tiki valley girls, old men playing tavla, and shopkeepers yelling their friendly buyurun – come on in! There’s the same Arabic call to prayer, which always sounded like a sad old love song to me, and the same colloquial niceties. Kolay gelsin – May it come easy, said to someone working. Geçmiş olsun – May it pass, said to someone ill or going through a difficult time. Eyvallah – a colloquial thank you or bye for now. These familiarities warm my heart.

However, Istanbul seems to have turned into a sort of gentrified consumerist Disney World with a dark underside in my absence. There are glittering new hi rises, planes buzzing overhead every two minutes, soulless site gated communities, massive shopping malls, and of course, the infamous gecekondus – entire neighbourhoods of squatter homes built overnight. The mahalle – neighbourhood, community – seems to be slowly dying. Graffiti politicizes walls everywhere, and I find myself quickly learning a lot of new Turkish vocabulary. Katil – killer. Hırsız – thief. Devrim – revolution. Diren – resist. İnat – defiance. Boyun eğme – don’t bow down.

The ruling AKP, surely the most competent political party to have ever governed the Turkish republic, has successfully created a new class of pious consumers, either completely apolitical or fiercely loyal to their own party. The AK Party is worshipped by its acolytes and seemingly reviled by almost everyone else. Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reign, de facto military rule has at last ended. A tentative peace finally exists between the PKK Kurdish militant group and the state, after a 30 year war that killed 40,000. Turkey’s Kurds, though still oppressed, enjoy more rights than at any time in the past. Average incomes have tripled (in nominal terms; though in real terms, only increased fifty per cent), and GDP has skyrocketed. Accusations that the AKP wants to turn Turkey into Saudi Arabia are incorrect. More like Dubai.

At the same time, Erdoğan has shown outright contempt for anyone who doesn’t support him, has further polarized the country with his vicious rhetoric, often aimed at anyone who isn’t a practicing Sunni Muslim, and has established authoritarian control over the news media, Internet, and judiciary. Gentrification projects rip legions of working class people from their communities, so that their tenements can be transformed into high income housing and posh boutiques and cafes for the nouveau riche. Corruption, nepotism, police brutality, and environmental destruction run rampant.

* * *

I shuffle around the frigid apartment in my absurd uniform: an Ethiopian gabi – a massive white cotton blanket emblazoned with a glittering woven design at one edge; a ‘Rossiya‘ toque (winter hat for those unfamiliar with the Canadian lexicon) apparently only worn by Russian nationalists and football hooligans (“Kakoi uzhas!” decries a Slavic girl I meet at a pub when she sees it. “What a monstrosity!” Her friend adds, “If you see someone wearing this in Russia, you know they’re probably a racist.”); and of course my scarf with the red, yellow, and green of the Ethiopian flag, which just happen to be the exact same colours as the flag of the as-yet theoretical Kurdistan (risky apparel for a protest, but it helps with the tear gas).

I desperately gulp down glass after tiny glass of Turkish black tea and bowl after steaming bowl of red lentil soup in a vain attempt to fend off the inclement weather the apartment seems to suck in. I’d forgotten about the cold. This very same lentil soup once saved my life when my stomach shut down in a tiny Russian village near Gelendzhik in the Caucasus. I fled to Istanbul and it was the only thing that would stay inside me. On the desk sits my old copy of Crescent and Star, a book about Turkey by American journalist Stephen Kinzer that I read when I first lived in Istanbul. Not only did it unlock many of Turkey’s secrets, it became the first seed that eventually blossomed into my dream of becoming a journalist abroad.

I study Turkish and read all day long, plumbing the depths of Turkish history and society, while keeping abreast of the latest events. Simply following the news is an exhausting task in a country where history moves three times faster than normal.

One week after arriving I take photos of the first of three protests against a new bill increasing Internet censorship. The next day I go to the massive annual march in memory of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in broad daylight seven years ago just minutes away from my apartment. For a while the news cycle slows to a slightly easier to follow pace, focusing on the colossal government corruption scandal that broke last December, the ever-intensifying war between Erdoğan and Gülen, and upcoming local elections. And then Berkin Elvan dies, and the streets are once more set ablaze.

* * *

Berkin was a 14 year-old Alevi boy from Istanbul’s working class leftist stronghold Okmeydanı. He was brained with a teargas canister while fetching a loaf of bread during the Gezi protests last spring, knocking him into a dark slumber from which he never returned. After 269 days in a coma, his slight 16 kilogram body finally yielded to death, and he became Gezi’s eighth* lost soul, and a martyr for millions across Turkey and beyond. Those responsible for his murder were never named or brought to justice, and the same prime minister who publicly cried for Egyptian and Palestinian protesters refused to offer even the hint of a condolence or regret. We had all been grimly awaiting the inevitable, bracing for what would follow Berkin’s passing.

As if on cue, and perhaps intentionally, the brutal police response galvanized a peaceful protest into a violent one. “God didn’t take my son, Erdoğan took my son,” said Berkin’s mother, and the word used in chants to ridicule Erdoğan morphed from hırsız – thief, to katil – killer. This time the pandemonium visited my own doorstep, as my neighbourhood became one of the focal points for the largest protests since Gezi.

The widespread discontent that erupted during Gezi in late May and June of last year never really disappeared. The protests were simply the tipping point for an accumulation of frustration and discontent. The announcement to build a shopping mall on top of one of Istanbul’s last green spaces didn’t cause Gezi, but rather the savage police response to a tiny environmental protest after the announcement. The plan to build the mall was simply the latest in a long list of controversial policies.

In the preceding April, riot police brutally dispersed a group of prominent directors and actors demonstrating against the destruction of the historical Emek Theater in Taksim. The authorities also tried to ban people from marching during last year’s May Day, a major event for Turkey’s leftists held on the first of the month, by closing Taksim Square. On May 24 restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol infuriated millions, and this was the first policy that directly affected many people’s daily lives. Finally, on May 29 the government announced it would name the third Bosphorus bridge, planned without the approval of proper authorities and predicted to destroy over 300,000 trees, after Yavuz Sultan Selim (“Selim the Grim”), who slaughtered tens of thousands of Alevis. As Stefan says, “Imagine if they named a bridge in Berlin after Adolf Eichmann.”

People now feel as though they have a voice, but that it’s powerless. Smaller post-Gezi protests, though still larger and fiercer than pre-Gezi, have become a sort of social activity, something to do on weekends. “Shall we go to the protest or stay home, have a few drinks, and watch it on Twitter?” I ask Stefan one Saturday night. The demonstrators are mostly students, professors, leftists, anarchists, activists, secular Kemalists, and neighbourhood kids looking for a bit of fun. There is violence, but it is political rather than gratuitous, and minor. Bricks are lobbed at heavily armoured police, but never at ambulances, photographers, or onlookers. I’ve never felt uncomfortable hanging around even the most radical of the protesters. Banks are sometimes targeted as symbols of capitalism, but never small local businesses. If you fall, whoever is beside you will pick you up. The police violence is more senseless. Journalists and bystanders are often hit by tear gas, water cannon, or plastic bullets, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately. Shops lining the streets where protests rage have been flooded with teargas and had their windows shot out by water cannons. Passersby out for a stroll often end up joining the fight after witnessing and becoming outraged by the police brutality.

Commentators comparing Gezi to the Arab Spring were way off. Though it’s always been an authoritarian country, Turkey is still politically closer to Europe than Egypt, Syria, Libya, or even Tunisia. It’s a highly flawed secular democracy moving in a dangerous direction, but it still has free and meaningful elections, an extraordinarily sophisticated educated class, and a fearless, wily civil society. Stephen Kinzer, the journalist whose book inspired me, summarized Turkey’s peculiar mixture of democracy and authoritarianism: “In no other country does so much liberty coexist with such sustained violation of elemental human rights. Of all the countries with bad human-rights records, Turkey is the freest.” I came upon an Egyptian tourist while ducking into a small shop for cover during a protest in Taksim. “The police here are so gentle,” he remarked, drawing the situation into context. The authorities use non-lethal force as brutally as they can, but nobody’s shooting live ammunition.

Many people feel impotent, but still defiant. Immediately following the Twitter ban, Turkey’s tweeps responded by tweeting 33 per cent more. During the Hrant Dink march I saw a young woman with two small children walk past a column of riot police. All three of them, smiling brazenly, shrieked “Tayyip the murderer!” right at their faces. The cops simply marched onwards.

Woman and children at Hrant Dink March Istanbul

*There’s several ways to calculate this death toll, with numbers as low as six and as high as 11, but it’s undeniable that most of the dead are from Turkey’s persecuted minority Alevi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Please see my photo blog for photos from many of the protests.

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