The call came from a friend today, June 11, at two o’clock as I was leaving my apartment to get some lunch. “Kate?” she asked in a worried tone. “Are you at home?” “I was just popping out for a minute. Why?” I asked. “The police have just entered the park. They are firing tear gas and water cannons at the protestors. Please be careful today. Things could get bad.”
Instead of crossing Tarlabasi Boulevard to get some lunch at a restaurant, I decided to go to my local supermarket to pick up some provisions for the next few days. My neighborhood grocery is about half a block away from the main Beyoglu district police station. In order to exit or enter my neighborhood via the main road, I have to pass through two police barricades. The last few days the police have seemed bored and relaxed, sipping tea, playing with their phones, or sleeping in the parked city busses that have been commandeered to transport them. However, today they had morphed into human-sized insects. They wore white helmets, black body armor, and carried clear plexi-glass shields. Something was happening.
On the way home from the store I stopped to chat with an old woman who lives at the top of my street. She was sitting on the front steps of her apartment building enjoying the afternoon sunshine. When I greeted her, she invited me to sit and chat. After my friend’s phone call I was feeling anxious and thought chatting with her might calm me down some. “Take a piece of cardboard from inside the door, my dear,” she instructed, “I am afraid there is only an egg carton left.” I took the cardboard, placed it on the top step and then gently pulled the door closed, so we wouldn’t feel the building’s damp breath on our backs.
“Oh my dear,” she sighed, “I have never seen Istanbul like this before.” She says she is ninety years old, which makes her as old as the Turkish Republic. The first time we met she told me that she has two names a Turkish one, Birsen, and an Armenian one, but she has lived her life as Birsen. During WWI her family migrated to Istanbul from a small town on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Her parents had survived 1914 and wanted to make a new life for themselves in Istanbul. Birsen has lived her entire life in Tarlabasi. She was born in a house somewhere along the street the Sunday market happens on and lived there until she was in her early 50s. Once their children had grown, she and her husband moved to the smaller apartment she lives in now with her eldest daughter. Her husband died a long time ago and today she told me about him for the first time.
They had married when she was 15 years old. Her father was a shoemaker and owned a small workshop near the fish market. Her parents didn’t have any sons and her father wanted the shop to stay in the family, so when she was old enough to marry he arranged for her to marry his apprentice. She confessed she wasn’t all that keen on her marriage partner at first, but he had green eyes like emeralds, a dark complexion, and was very handsome. Despite their modest means, she always had beautiful shoes he made for her. “He was such a good shoemaker that he made Ataturk’s shoes. I had the same shoemaker as Ataturk!” she chuckled.
We sat in silence for a while watching a pair of grey kittens play with a bug on the other side of the street. “I don’t understand what has happened to Istanbul,” she exhaled loudly as she tucked a few stray hairs under the fine muslin scarf with a crocheted edge she always wears wrapped around her head. “When I was young we thanked God everyday we had enough food to eat and our bellies were full. When I was a young wife I felt rich because I could make tripe stew with meat and chickpeas. But now people walk around with their eyes wide taking whatever they want whenever they want for themselves. Is that right?” she asked rhetorically. “They never stop to thank God for their health or the food they eat.” She paused for moment before throwing her hands in the air and declaring “Istanbul is broken.”
Tonight, as I write this post in my apartment, I can hear tear gas canisters exploding. Protesters are taking refuge in the street beneath my window. The people of Istanbul are once again being choked.
Istanbul, June 11, 2013