Leaves From Taksim

Tag: Tear Gas

Istanbul Has Never Been Like This

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

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A Few Observations on Accumulated Knowledge and Collective Resistance

On Friday evening I finished work after the school shuttle service stopped running, so I took a cab from the end of the Golden Horn to my home near Taksim. As we passed the Kasimpasha exit and headed toward Dolapdere I could see a fog rising from the hotels at the top of the hill in Talimhane. “I can’t take you into Tarlabasi,” the cab driver told me after a muffled conversation with a fellow taxi driver on his phone. “There is a code 005.” I tried to argue with him, but he insisted it was something official and he could only take me as far as the bottom Kalyoncu Kullugu Avenue. “Fine,” I agreed in an annoyed tone. As I trudged up the hill, the quality of the air changed.  It smelled sulfuric, like rotting eggs, and my nose and eyes became irritated.  When I got home, the irritation continued the entire night. Even my cat seemed bothered by it.  A friend later told me that he had taken the ferry from Besiktas to Kadikoy on Friday evening and the clouds of tear gas were so thick that it was not comfortable for the ferry passengers to sit outside in the middle of the Bosphorus. Tear gas had enveloped the city.

This was not the first time most inhabitants of Istanbul had experienced the effects of tear gas.  State repression has a long history in Turkey. Over the years people from diverse backgrounds and of different political views have been the target of it for one reason or another: marching in banned May Day parades, protesting the right to wear a headscarf to school, participating in an illegal strike, speaking out against the ruling party, going to the concert of a banned music group. Police violence is a shared experience of living in Istanbul and many residents have developed tactics to deal with it.

Saturday morning I was having trouble breathing, so I decided to do some internet research on how to combat the effects of tear gas. On English language websites there was little information about how to deal with tear gas.  With the exception of a few anarchist websites, most carried the incredibly useful advice to simply stay way from situations where tear gas was present. Seeing as I was wheezing in my apartment with the windows closed this was obviously not an option I could pursue. Turkish language websites provided ample information on what to do in the event you are tear-gassed. Some suggested covering your face with a bandanna or scarf soaked in vinegar and biting into lemons. Others provided detailed instructions for making your own gas mask using plastic bottles and a surgical mask. One offered information about the chemical composition of tear gas and advice on over the counter remedies to counter its effects. The site even suggested mixing the antidote and keeping it at your side in a clean spray bottle for faster relief.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the square and met up with an old friend and his girl friend who had ventured to Taksim from the Asian neighborhood of Kadikoy on Thursday. He told me that before they left Kadikoy they stopped by their neighborhood pharmacy to buy some first aid supplies.  Every neighborhood in Istanbul has at least one pharmacy.  They are local establishments usually run by people from the neighborhood and staffed by members of the person’s family.  Many people go to their neighborhood pharmacist with minor health complaints and it is common for pharmacists to know not only the names of their customers, but also their medical histories by heart. My friend described this pharmacy as a classic Istanbul pharmacy with dark wooden fixtures, glass bottles filled with substances to cure every aliment, and staffed by an urbane gentleman wearing a clean white smock in his early 70s.  It sounded like the kind of place that smelled like my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and hadn’t seen much change since the early 1960s.  “That should be enough supplies,” my friend said as the pharmacist continued to gather gloves, surgical masks, bandages, medicines, as well as tear gas antidotes.  The pharmacist only stopped when it seemed he had put everything thing he had that could be of use on the counter.  When my friend asked how much money they owed, the pharmacist said, “I am old and can’t go to the other side, but since you all are young, I will give you what I have, so you can fight in my place and help others that might get injured.” He proceeded to then give them a lesson on how to administer the tear gas antidote he had provided them.

Later as we sat on a side street stoop drinking a beer, my friend showed me pictures on his phone of the pharmacies around Taksim that opened their doors to injured protesters and bystanders.  Many of the pharmacists, according to my friend, had refused payment for the treatment and medicine they provided.  My friend also showed me pictures he had taken on his phone of some of the people he had given first aid too.  One of the most graphic photographs was of an elderly shoe shiner who had been sitting in his usual spot on Istiklal Avenue when he was hit on the head by a tear gas canister. When my friend saw the injured man, he stopped the bleeding, cleaned the man’s wound, and put a bandage around his head. “Where did you learn first aid?” I asked.  “During my military service.” he casually replied.

The knowledge and strategies not only protestors, but also people in the surrounding areas, like shopkeepers, residents, and hotel staff, have used to organize themselves and defend themselves from police brutality over the past week have been accumulated overtime through a range of experiences. For some people their knowledge has come through years of direct political struggle against the state.  For others their experiences have come from running shops or businesses along popular protest routes and keeping lemons and vinegar on hand to aid affected protestors. For some Turkish men their experiences come from having served the state directly during the course of their mandatory military service. For others their experience in collective organizing comes from running football fan clubs or managing busy offices, everyday skills creatively deployed in a new context.

As I walked through Taksim and sat in the Gezi Park on Sunday evening it was amazing to see how this accumulated knowledge was being put to work in the course of the current struggle. A friend told me in the early hours of Sunday morning as he and some friends were resting in a Cihangir home word came across Tweeter and Facebook that vandals were beginning to attack shops and businesses along the stretch of Istiklal Avenue they had been fighting on Saturday night. They rushed to protect the spot, confronted the vandals, and stood guard until the proprietors returned later Sunday morning. “We weren’t going to let some thugs ruin this amazing thing we were creating,” my friend said.

Never before have I witnessed that kind of collective being or responsibility for shared urban spaces. Along the streets leading up to the square protestors had secured light blue garbage bags to lampposts, railings, and fences every 50 meters. In the square occupants were taking turns collecting garbage and picking up cigarette butts. This part of Istanbul has never been so clean! In the park people had placed fresh mounds of food for the resident cats and dogs and left containers of water for them to drink. It is common in Istanbul for people to feed the street animals and put water out for them, but I was touched that amidst protests and violent confrontation with the police the human inhabitants of the city were still caring for its animal inhabitants.

As I approached Taksim Square on Sunday evening I encountered a barricade protestors had erected across Iononu Avenue.  It looked as though every heavy object in the vicinity had been used in its construction: old sofas, steel filing cabinets, bus tires, wooden tables, and sheets of corrugated metal.  Crowd control gates originally belonging to the police had been placed on top of the heap like icing on a cake. The navy POLIS lettering had been covered by spray paint.  On some of the gates POLIS had been blacked out and on others people had crossed out POLIS and written “The people” or “The people’s police.” A friend of mine who is an artist and has been involved in some of the demonstrations against the upcoming Biennale remarked as we walked past one of the barricades “ Now that is public art, that is something people made.”

One piece of graffiti was “Partizan” written in black or red ink on a few concrete walls around the Ataturk Cultural Center. Another protestor had taken gold spray paint and written “Disko disko” invoking the Shantel song “Disko disko partizani.” Angry militancy meets wry humor. Graffiti becomes a collectively authored mosaic.

On Sunday morning another friend took her young daughter to pick up trash on the street they live in near the Gezi Park.  As they picked up garbage her daughter found several pairs of cracked swimming goggles and a snorkel mask some protestors had used to protect their eyes from the tear gas police had sprayed.  “Mommy,” she said, “this isn’t like the garbage we normally pick up. We are not at the beach!” We may not be at the beach, but as summer begins in Istanbul, it seems there is, in fact, a beach beneath the street.

Istanbul, June 3, 2013

An abbreviated version of this post was published by Bulent Journal: http://bulentjournal.com/i-hear-istanbul-saying/