Sunday, September 01, 2013

Swimming goggles, lemons and a clanging noise

During a recent visit to Istanbul, I found myself closer to the action in Taksim Square than I had expected. Although it was just after about a month of regular protests and police involvement leading to some violence, the previous week had been very calm, and the hotel staff assured me that everything was fine. So, it seemed that I was still "exercising extreme caution" in DFAT's terms if I merely ventured across the Galata Bridge and into town to meet some friends at a cafe.

Street in Istanbul pre-gas
Given that Istanbul was the only city on this trip where I literally knew nobody, I was very grateful for the contact, and to be able to hang out with locals. I ordered a lemony drink and began asking my new friends all about their jobs and what brought them to Turkey. As we were talking, I glanced at the shelf behind, and noticed a pile of leaflets announcing a rally to be held the next day. I took a flyer, noted the place and time, but contrary to my usual practice, it was in order to avoid being there. My new friends agreed that I could do more for the cause by staying safe and joining in the online campaign than getting physically involved.

Then, as we were wandering down the cobblestone street and considering where to go next, we came across some people running down the hill quite quickly, in the way that I imagined a stampede might begin. I didn't know which way to turn, and was reminded again that I am not good in emergencies. My new friends ushered me into a nearby bar, but not before I was exposed to a faint gassy smell, and my eyes began to water. Police had begun to spray tear gas on protesters again and we were in the firing line.

Once we were safely inside the bar and things had quietened down, my new friends started telling me stories about the situation so far. They lived very close to Taksim Square and had heard the events unfold quite literally before their teary eyes. One guy reckoned he had been gased by proxy about 20 times in the past month. As we sat there, small groups of people walked past the window with mouths and noses covered by gas masks, handkerchiefs, and interestingly enough, swimming goggles. We did wonder where all the swimming goggles were coming from, and whether any suppliers thought it odd that they were suddenly in such high demand. They also mentioned that within a few hours of the first incidents, enterprising street vendors were spotted selling gas masks, lemons and other useful items that one might wish to purchase post-protest, in much the same way that there is always somebody selling umbrellas the minute it starts to rain. 
protest flyer

Stories of creativity and humour started to emerge as well. Apparently the government had been making some comments about people "making noise for no reason", so people had decided to do just that and began clanging pots and pans randomly as they went about their everyday business. Even when people were running past us with tears running down their faces from the gas, nobody turned on each other. There seemed to be an overall feeling of good-will, and I couldn't help being reminded of classes in Nonviolence with Stuart Rees, who talked of historical figures such as Gandhi and King using humour, creativity, and retaining their *human-ness* in the face of oppression or violence.

I spent the next day taking ferry rides and exploring the less touristy parts of town. It was great fun, particularly as Sunday is family day and "day off" in Istanbul, so everybody was out and about enjoying the sunshine and parks. As I reflected on this, I realised why access to a park in the centre of town was so important to people. As the hotel manager told me, the police also have families, and enjoy parks, so it is perplexing why they respond with such vigour to essentially non violent protests about an issue they themselves would most likely support, if they thought properly about it. 

1 comment:

Birdie said...

I love Ghandi and his never ending devotion to non-violence. I do believe it is what will change this world.