Saturday afternoon and the ferry from Kadiköy to Kabatas is crowded. On the docks people wave flags and sing songs. As one ferry arrives, its passengers cheer those waiting to board. Everyone knows the name of everyone else’s destination, or the place they have just come from: Taksim. Quickly the name has spread and at protests across the world it is being held up along side Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park.
Children always go where they are told not to. On the ferry, two schoolgirls sit next to me. They are wearing Converse and hoodies, and they both carry backpacks. They refuse the tea offered by the man from the ferry tuckshop, and they never leave their phones alone: but their faces are serious. I wonder what they carry in their bags.
All around me people chant words and songs, laugh, share food. A song would start every few minutes, and then end as people carried on talking, carried on swapping phones to share news. Some flags hung over the sides of the boat, but not many. Another ferry full of people – this one with more flags – went by and on both boats the people cheered and shook their fists. Soon it was quiet again. Someone dropped a glass bottle and it smacked the wooden floor loud as a drum. A collective shock twisted the spines of everyone on board: for one second there was silence. It broke into nervous laughter, and someone picked the bottle up. We were close to shore.
The walk from Kabatas to Tophane was hot and the pavement was dusty. Along it walked groups of people with surgical masks, some with scarves around their necks. I fell into step with a boy and a girl who had been to Cape Town in February.
“A beautiful place,” said the boy. I agreed. The girl stepped into a pharmacy to buy a mask and I walked on.
I reached the bottom of Siraseviler Road and turned up into Çihangir. The road is steep and I began to sweat. Wind blew dust into my eyes, and there were people walking past me, their faces blank. A man went by with a black plastic mask – one with two air filters and a covering for his whole head – over one shoulder and a Nikon over the other. His shirt was dark with sweat and he looked at me sidelong but said nothing. I remembered the words of the friend I was walking to meet: be careful on your way here.
All that morning and the previous night people had been gathering. The images were iconic the second they were put online: forty thousand souls, maybe fifty thousand, crossing that elegant bridge to join a fight Erdogan had already dismissed as futile. Now, walking up the steep and narrow street, I wondered where those crowds were. Slowly, slowly, I began to see. At an intersection just above a vegan whole food cafe, across the road from a house newly built where construction workers leaned in glassless windows and lit cigarettes, a crowd stood and watched two people coming down the street. One was a woman with a mask askew on her face, the other a man with his arm around her. With his other hand he shielded her face. Cameras were turned to them, phones held up as they passed. The mask on the woman’s face did not hide the blood that flowed from under it. I watched them go and walked on to find my friends.
“We need to get you a gas mask,” said Aylin. “Have you got change?”
We stepped up to the door of a pharmacy. A boy leaned out and handed me a mask. I passed him some coins.
“Birtan?” he said. Just one? Aylin nodded, and we walked on.
“Here, this is for your nose. You can squeeze it tight so it fits.” I pull the mask on and we walk on up Siraseviler. And then we are there: in the crowd.
Taksim is another ten minutes walk up the hill. The intersection we are at is a collection of narrow roads that wind off into a warren of tea shops, ma-and-pa restaurants and vintage boutiques. It is a comfortable place. It eases you into Istanbul. But there have been cracks beneath the surface of this urban calm for years now, and they have begun to show. It is not a neighbourhood that likes its civil liberties to be infringed. Even more so: it is not a neighbourhood that condones the persecution, limitation and arrest of journalists, writers, artists and students.
Here, now, there are teenagers and students, foreign journalists and middle-aged couples, stray dogs and cats. All except the animals are ready for this. Gas masks cover every face; those who do not have sunglasses or goggles have eyes streaming and red. There is gas in the air like mist. The street runs with water. Up ahead the crowd is thicker and I can see a police vehicle indistinctly beyond the waving arms and the few flags. Something is burning.
That crowd at the very front is our litmus test, our warning system: every few minutes they surge backwards, shouting, and we all run. The first time a friend grabs my arm and Aylin’s and turns us down the branch of the intersection closest to us. “Run, run, it is the water cannon again.” Around the corner we stop. A minute later, breaths caught, we walk back to the corner. Water streams in the gutters and already the scattered people – hundreds of them – are coming back. The chants pick up again, and up go people’s fists. Again we surge forward, up the street. Outside a Dia supermarket the store owner is leaning against the wall heaving and wiping his face. The police threw a gas canister into the shop. The aisles are thick with it.
Quickly this becomes familiar, the sight of people sobbing and crying out for water to soothe the burn in their eyes and throat.
Explosions go off up the street. Again we turn and run. This time though the shouts say relax, relax. The gas didn’t reach us that time. A helicopter circles above. Twice, three times it goes past, lower with each circuit. The third time we move under an awning: they have been using helicopters to drop gas bombs.
‘They’ is not vague, here. It is Recip Tayyip Erdogan, his party, and his police. There is little room for ambiguity now, two days after the clashes started.
I turn into a pastry shop to change my film. There are men in white uniforms behind the rows of pastries and nougat. In a chair a girl is struggling to breathe and to see. People spray her face with a chalky mixture that neutralizes the gas, but she leans forward coughing and a woman rubs her back. Men with black shirts and black cameras change lenses. Back on the pavement I watch the crowd. It is young, and hip. A girl – and she seems an apparition, an absurd inversion of reality in this heat and chaos – walks by in leopard print tights and solid six-inch heels. A boy helps her put a gas mask on and she checks her hair in a shop window.
Around her are people who look like they know what they are doing. They wear thick black masks that look to me like something from the Soviet era. Not at all like the thin surgical one I am wearing. “They’re probably graffiti artists,” says Aylin. Girls and boys go by with Doc Martens and cans of paint, their faces set. All these things that have been the symbols of youth and rebellion and have been converted by the advertisers into nifty consumerist badges with little or no substance – the heavy boots, the spray paint, the torn jeans, the bandanas – suddenly have new meaning. They make sense: of course you want good boots, of course your jeans will be ripped and dirty. And a bandana makes a good mask.
We sit on the side of a tea shop, beneath some trees and away from the middle of the protest. Around us are people drinking water and tea, many of them breathing hard and many of them with whitewash on their faces. When the solution used to soothe the gas burn dries it becomes a chalk dust on the skin, like the makeup of a mime half-washed. Or like Xhosa initiation paint.
Again, we go back to the corner. The crowd is thicker and the day is at its hottest. This time, when the explosions come, it is different. They are louder than before, and more rapid. Something flies over our heads. Gas leaves a trail like a streamer. We run. Everyone runs. There are no shouts of “relax!” Moritz, a German friend, leans over a boy who is trying to smash a bollard up in order to throw rocks at the police – still invisible. Stop, he tells him, get away. We run past the tea shop, empty now, and run towards the next corner but then there are explosions ahead and gas and people turn back, down another street, but there too there is gas. Our heads are over our arms and the explosions have not stopped. Again we run down the first street and I see people turn into the door of an apartment building so I push Aylin in and call the others and we slam the door and run up the first flight of stairs. Aylin collapses onto a step, her face wet. “Fuck,” she says. “What the fuck are they thinking?”
There are other people in there with us, gathered at the door, trying to see out. There is a noise outside and they throw themselves backwards. Together we climb up to the roof but it is being repaired and we cannot see anything or get out. So we knock on a third floor door. Nothing. A girl bangs on the door with her fists and with the door knocker and then a man opens it. He lets us in and offers us water and cigarettes.
Even with the windows closed, my throat still burns. The office is an ad agency or something; there are movie posters on the wall – Turkish and American – and a blackened booth for photo shoots. Moritz sits beneath Daniel Craig and lights up. A man we don’t know brings his girlfriend an icepack wrapped in a dishcloth and she holds it to her collarbone.
We take turns standing at the windows that have their blinds up. The street is empty. There are no protestors, no police. In the apartments on the upper floors people close their windows. For a time the only living thing I can see are the flowers on the balconies.
At a restaurant across from us, a waiter leans against the metal grille – everything on the street is closed, save the tuck shop on the corner selling water. He has a cloth to his face and is doubled up, banging his fist and calling out. No one comes so we begin to open our window to shout to him to come up to us but as we do that another waiter comes and opens for him. The window was open a crack, no more, but the gas is thick enough to make us cough.
Later, we laugh and talk. Aylin points to the studio equipment. “I could use some of that stuff, you know.”
“Ja,” says Canan, who is Turkish but grew up in Germany. “I mean, it’s war you know, we take what we can get. How about some of these chairs? That TV might be difficult, though.”
There’s anger, too.
“Those were cops in plain clothes, they threw the gas right into the crowd. It’s fucked up, it’s so fucked up,” someone says.
The streets begin to fill again. We leave eventually, thanking the man whose office it was.
The police have gone. No one knows if they will be back, but there is something triumphant in all of this now and the people pull off their gas masks and goggles and drink tea and beer on the street. We are offered pizza, and water, and beer. A boy walks past where we sit in the shade. “So are you ready for total war?”
But I think: don’t wish for that. Twitter statuses about the protests proclaim civil war, rejoice in it, almost. That is what makes me wonder if Erdogan and his police know what they have started. They were the first to attack, and the protestors are peaceful, but they are angry too. There are fractures in this society: there are the Kurds, persecuted for so long. The BDP, the Kurdish political party, was at the protests from the start. Then there are the nationalists who don’t want Erdogan but don’t really want the Kurds either. There are all shades of left and right beginning to make their concerns heard – or is it just that suddenly people are listening to them? And this is a city. These people live side by side.
On that Saturday, sitting there watching the dust settle, it felt as though nothing could stop what had begun. Forty thousand people – the ones from the bridge – were gathering in Besiktas and Çihangir and other parts of the city to walk to Taksim. Once a state has shown its hand and made clear that it neither respects nor wishes to engage with the protestors, the protest itself is amplified. People grit their teeth. And, again, no one knew what was happening: the news was still silent, and Twitter and Facebook were so full of stories and pictures that clarity was impossible. And it still is, though it is improving now that coverage is better. I began to rely on people who were actually there, but even this can be confusing.
It turned out the police left Çihangir and Taksim for Besiktas. But we didn’t know that yet, and from the balcony of an apartment in Çihangir we watched black smoke rise above Taksim. Aylin tried to phone people who were there, Moritz included, but none answered; Internet and phone signals in Taksim were blocked – or simply overloaded, depending on who you believe. Finally, Moritz came back, beer in hand. “I’m sorry,” he said to her, “my phone was dead. The protestors have burnt the police station in Gezi Park. It’s fine, it’s ok.”
We stayed there until it started to get dark, keeping tabs on the news feed and drinking wine. Eventually, I had to catch a ferry. I took the tram across the Galata bridge. There, on the shore, people are shopping. Tourists take photographs of the water and the Aya Sofia. Every movement in my direction makes me jump. I jump a lot. Then I find that the last ferry has left. “Go to Karakoy,” says a security guard. “The last one is at eleven.” It is half-past ten. Back across the bridge I go, pressed in amongst boys and men and girls, some with gas masks, some with shopping bags.
In Karakoy, I bought a roasted mielie and sat down. Soon the waiting area for the ferry is packed with people. I stand up, exhausted and claustrophobic. But the mood is good, energetic.
On the ferry, the man next to me starts a conversation. I tell him where I am from, he tells me he’s a hairdresser. Rihanna is his dream client.
“Were you in Taksim?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I work there.”
“But the protests?”
“No, no.” He shook his head. “I don’t like politics. And you? You like politics?”
I laughed. “Yes. I like politics.”
He was silent for a while. Then he turned to me.
“Nelson Mandela,” he said. “Good idea.” DM
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