Friday, 6 June 2014

Remembering Taksim 2013

 Travelling is a little like reading a novel. No matter how wonderful, there always comes a time when reality sets in. The book is finished and your suspended sense of disbelief must to come to an end. You enter a time of emptiness where you haven’t been able to separate yourself yet from the world you were a part of. You also haven’t found another novel to take you away again. This moment came for me this weekend. On Saturday, the country remembered last year’s violence at Taksim Square when, because of a people’s need to protest peacefully the demolition of one of the only parks in that part of the city, eight died in a police crackdown.

         Despite the deployment of 25 000 police this year and a warning to stay away from the square, a protest was planned for the evening. The day began for me when a friend posted a new profile picture on her Facebook wall. The picture looked like a scene from an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster.
            “Having an awesome day?” I posted. I knew she wouldn’t be having a nice day but when a little while later she informed me that this was a picture of Taksim Square last year, I realized I had not really understood the real the impact of that day. Outside, even the weather mourned with those who remembered loved ones, and with those who mourned the loss of trust in the authorities.
            Th had arranged for us to go and have dinner with friends at the Asian side so we wouldn’t be too close to trouble. When we got to the Karaköy dock by about five that afternoon, however, we were told the ferry was cancelled for the night. Whenever you get stuck here because you don’t speak the language, someone who speaks English will step forward. “There are things planned for this evening at Kadaköy,” a kind young woman told us. “That is why they have closed the ferries down.”
            This gave us pause. We knew people would try to get to Taksim Square and break through a police cordon. We didn’t know a demonstration had also been planned at the place we wanted to reach. However, we could still board another ferry that stopped at a quay some five hundred metres away from there. We briefly considered the cancelled trams and bridges on the first of May and vaguely wondered if we would be able to get back to Karaköy that evening. This is where travelling starts imitating life. You are on a course and you just can’t or won’t turn back.
            We boarded the ferry.

            The ferries that crisscross the Bosphorus are old enough but they still are quite capable. At least, the ones that are officially run. They also offer the cheapest and quickest way from one part of the city to another. They scoot across the water as if they were young maidens frolicking, and when they get to the quay they swing their derrieres to the side in order to dock. I always tense my muscles, convinced they will crash into the concrete wall. But these old girls still got it and they can squeeze themselves into tight places. And, like their human counterparts, they have tires at their waists to allow them to bump softly into others and not damages bones.
            Crossing the Bosphorus is a unique experience. You are in the middle of the city, yet the open water lies before you. There are always many boats making their daily and occasional paths. At one point, on an earlier crossing, it looked as if we were rushing to collide with a large cargo ship. With meters to spare, our ferry passed by the rump of the seafaring vessel and, caught in the waves of its wake, we hurried to the other side.

Travelling with my husband is always exciting. Unlike some, he only gives the most rudimentary itinerary, void of descriptions of the places we will go to. I thoroughly enjoy being kept in this state of perpetual ignorance as it allows me to see everything with fresh eyes. So when I asked where exactly we would cross to, he looked up briefly from his laptop and said: “straight ahead.” I turned back to peer through the window to the Asian side to try and calibrate the straight ahead, but that just led to an expanse of green by the waterside behind a stretch of harbour.

            “Is it to the left or the right of the lighthouse?” I asked.

When he asked me what lighthouse, I told him the one in the middle of the water. He had no recollection of it. I, meanwhile, have been humbled calling it a lighthouse. It goes by a far more romantic name. It is called Kiz Kulesi, or Maiden’s Tower.
            Left to my own devices, I looked across again and shifted my vision to the left of Kiz Kulesi. But that was the place where we had crossed before. So, no, that wasn’t it. And the place where three large building marked the city scape did not enter into my calculations because those weren’t really straight ahead, given that the coastline bends away towards the Sea of Marmara.
            We did get there in a straight line, eventually, after we made a stop at Eminönü and made our way far to the right of all that green. My sense of wonder built up when we sailed by the buildings that had kept me guessing for so long now, especially at night when they are all lit up. As I walked under the gateway that read Haydarpaşa, I walked towards the third building, a train station that connects Istanbul with the rest of Asia. It was built in the early 1900’s. I contemplated how important it is to get to know the names of things and I was happy that now that I stood in front of the train station, I knew I would be able to find the names of the other two buildings.
            You might well wonder why we hadn’t asked people what those buildings were but, when you are in a place where everything is new, there is so much that it isn’t always that simple. Besides, it kept Th and I busy while waiting for our friends. He thought the largest to be army barracks and the other a museum. He was right about the barracks and it houses the Florence Nightingale museum. She came to the Silimeye Barracks during the Crimean War of 1854-1856, with 38 volunteer nurses to care of British soldiers. The other building was a high school built in 1933, and now houses the University of Marmara’s Medical School.
            But there were our friends, kind as most people here I have had the pleasure of getting to know. They were driven to the train station by a taxi driver who had been none too happy to come, as he had at first understood he should go to Kadaköy. And with all the trouble brewing… But, with much delay, we were united and just then another ferry brought in their visitors from the States, who were on a three-day visit to Istanbul.
During dinner, talk inevitably ran to the significance of the day. We were shown pictures of last year. In it, none of them were wearing the Vendetta masks, as I had seen on television, but they were wearing gas masks. That piece of equipment was important to survive the day without getting your lungs burned. They had been hauled up in a library of some kind and the police had tried to break down the door to get in and look for protesters. A number of them spent the night sitting close together on a couch, sleeping as best they could.
            Mercifully, none of them suffered physical damage.
            After dinner, we walked by the seaside. A large paved path runs on for about ten kilometres. With the economists outnumbered two to four, and the same ratio of Istanbulu to outsiders, the dynamics were definitely different from when I am just one amongst many. As we walked, the economists drifted off into a conversation that measures the world in numbers and models.
            Our other host and I meandered down the path. As she started to tell me about her Istanbul, we spotted a large bird beyond the rocks by the water. It had just flown in on majestic wing and stood grey and white against the still greyer water. The orange beak a point of light. As we tried to identify the bird, she had the Turkish word and I had the Flemish word but neither of us could find the English word. We decided to consult the economists.
            “A pelican,” my husband said. To him all big birds by the sea are pelicans and all small ones are birds.
            “In Flanders we say these birds bring babies,” I said.
            My husband looked at me in a way that made it clear he thought I was full of beans. I don’t know what tales my mother-in-law told her children but my companion nodded enthusiastically. “Same in Turkey,” she said. Whatever way babies are delivered in Greece, clearly in Flanders and Turkey these are the birds responsible.
            We walked on. The day was waning and the restaurant at the end of the pier projected golden light against the darkening sky. I spotted the brown hump of a Bosphorus Boy. It was my time to bring in some information about this amazing city as I told my companion what I had learned about these dolphins.
            She nodded graciously, and then she told me of her love for her city that grew too big too fast but that she would never again leave, regardless of its problems. And the problems are many. The water is polluted and the fish harvested from it not the best to eat. Traffic gets snarled wherever you go. But, there always is the water, as an alternative to snarled traffic and as a place to come and let it all go.
            It is a place that pulses with life. It is a city determined to embrace progress, even if not all of it is as good as it should be. New high-rises add traffic without adequate parking. A street of a few families becomes a street of 300 people almost overnight as high-rises are being added to the cityscape.  Massive mosques typify the old city side; the solid Galata Tower, built by the Genoese way back, draws our side against the sky. But further out and on this side, the Asian side, high-rises stick out like sore fingers.

            But, never mind, there was the water again, ever present and everywhere you look still teaming with life, regardless of the pollution. As dark finally took over, a myriad of lights turned the world magical.
            As we walked on we conferred about the best way to return home. Thanks to modern communication devices, we soon learned that no ferries were sailing but that the Metro bus was still working. We settled on a taxi. And soon we were crossing water again, back to our side, where turmoil was boiling. The only way back that night was over the Bosphorus Bridge that lit up red and blue and took us high above the water. Below, lit up palaces drooped into the water and moving strings of light showed the few boats still out.
            We, the four visitors sat quietly as we were driven back to where we were staying. They in a hotel just above us, near the Galata Tower, meters away from where teargas bombs were thrown and water cannons sprayed away people; we in our safe place close by the water.
At the Muhit Café, Th and I stopped for tea. Th concluded the evening sending swirling clouds of cigar smoke into the air. In Turkey smoking indoors is forbidden but terraces still welcome it. Since most these places are open to the air, smoke dissipates and does not cause a problem for those who don’t smoke.
            When we got home we watched the images of the day on television and became worried our visitors might not have made it back to the hotel. We sent a text to our hosts but we didn’t hear until the next morning. By then I had already friended them on Facebook so we knew they were fine, even if they had to walk the long way around to make sure they didn’t get caught in the crossfire. For the remainder of the day, I couldn’t shake the image of the two of them, clutching one another, trying to get home safely amidst all this agitation.
            No one was killed, but neither did trust in the authorities get a boost.

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