A, Room, With, A, View, Istanbul, Activism, Middle East, Travel
DIREN_UT_ANICOLAOU

A Room With A View - Istanbul

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Getting ready for a Saturday night out in cosmopolitan Istanbul was never as frustrating or exciting. 

Sitting in the apartment at Cihangir and the sweat is running down my forehead, I can see it in pearls on my nose. I’d read about the Istanbul demonstrations – who hadn’t – but in the days since I’ve been here there has been nothing of notice going on. Sure, some graffiti escaped the whitewashers’ hands. 

The nearer to Taksim one gets, the more big fat grey brushstrokes there are that cover what presumably were anti-government slogans. Some of these remain, either because they were ‘refined’ enough not to deserve erasure, or because they materialized in the days after the clashes peaked in a well-hidden sokak near a dry cleaners and ice cream shop, and escaped the police’s notice.

Occasional police presence aside, things seemed normal in the hilly neighborhoods of Istanbul’s hipster paradise. I had the impression that the unrest had gone to sleep under the Istanbullu sun and humidity, like thousands of cats do all day long in this city, under cars, on the sides of busy roads, sprawled on steep steps facing the Bosporus. I woke one up once dropping my keys in the middle of the road while carrying groceries. It jumped up and looked at me in disdain.

Graffiti painted over by authorities. Cihangir, Istanbul. Photo credit: A Nicolaou

Graffiti painted over by authorities. Cihangir, Istanbul. Photo credit: A Nicolaou

It had crossed my mind that there was something deceptive
about this lull. It made no narrative sense for the story to end there, with the late night ‘clean up’ or ‘evacuation’ of Gezi Park in mid-June. They just put a lid on a hot pot. The multiple ingredients were stewing. The clanging of pots and pans coming from my 60-year-old female neighbor in the flat below, joined by a choir of other kitchen utensils from up and down the street every night at nine sharp for ten minutes, reaffirmed that under the mesmerizing effect of this beautiful, sprawling city, with its meyhanes and lokantas and quaint coffee houses that foreigners find so appealing, continued the resistance, the imperative of #diren that flushed our Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds a month ago and had us all running to Turkish – English online dictionaries.

The clanging last night began promptly. Perhaps it started a bit earlier than usual, as a response to the heated atmosphere of the city that was building up all afternoon. Last night it did not surprise me, as it had repeatedly this past week, since it flowed naturally from the clashes in the streets, which remained unseen but which I could hear, vividly, in the distance. Their sound was also brass – voices and props coming together. 

From #duranadam – the standing man protesting – and the bacchanalia of cooking utensils, both peaceful and relatively un-intrusive demonstrations, Istanbul had risen back onto its marching feet – the demonstration proper. Shouts reverberated between the tall walls of derelict houses in Cihangir, muffled by humidity and mingled with the cries of seagulls and other birds. They were far, the crowds, I could tell from the sound. But the overflow was reaching us, and I could see from my window that people were running away from Taksim towards the water, to Karaköy maybe, and chose the street next to my flat to do so.

Stencil in Cihangir, Istanbul. Roughly translated: ERDO-Gone! hopefully! Way to go! Photo credit: A Nicolaou

Stencil in Cihangir, Istanbul. Roughly translated: ERDO-Gone! hopefully! Way to go! Photo credit: A Nicolaou

I opened the window, and stuck my head out. That way I could see better. Three men had stopped at the corner of the street. They sat down watching. It was calmer now. Others were walking away with their heads turned looking behind them; some women across the street were taking pictures with their phones. 

The action seemed to be near enough, it was imminent, but it wasn’t actually there. Everyone was looking at something, waiting. They weren’t many. Like me, perhaps they were perversely looking forward to something with the kind of curiosity that sealed the miserable fate of the proverbial cat. Ten twitter posts later, the chants began bellowing. And the sound of running feet peppered the chorus.

“Gas! Gas! Gas!” was the only word I could make out.

Heads were sticking out from the apartments opposite mine before contrapuntally springing back inside and shutting the windows. On the third floor a woman with a headscarf; on the fourth a man in a green t-shirt and moustache smoking a cigarette. I mirrored them and shut my window too. I placed myself at an angle so that I could look down onto the street with the window closed. A kid was still running down the slope chasing after a football, seeming oblivious to the politics of the moment around him. On the adjacent street, yellow builders’ safety helmets, swimming goggles and painting masks emerged for about three seconds before being lost from my field of vision, a ten-meter stretch framed by two buildings to my right. They were swiftly replaced by another set of motley figures, both old and young, stripes of colors in a long exposure shot, and they by others and so on. The background chants persisted.

We sat on the sofas in the living room, but every few minutes or so the volume of chants would increase – the shouting would get more aggressive, there were sounds of mini explosions – gas canisters fired? – and we’d run to the window again. I called the restaurant we had a reservation with to ask whether there was any trouble in that neighborhood.

“We have a reservation for 9:30. There are protests here. How is it there?” I said, slowly.

“Yes. Yes. Okay you want to cancel?” they said, in broken English.

“No – no!” did we? “Is there problem there?”

“No problem, nothing here.”

“Okay, see you soon,” I said.

The place was an upmarket lokanta, one of my finds after hours of cross-referencing print and online Istanbul guides. It was a special treat for a Saturday night. The contrast in my predicament couldn’t be more blatant, and the heat in the apartment was unbearable. We need to get out of here. We opened a window to check whether the coast was clear. My nostrils prickled immediately. It smelled like fireworks, the gas. It pricked my palette. We’d have to wait. The sweat clung to my skin and I felt cabin fever coming on despite being indoors for under an hour. At that moment, I pictured my Saturday night, my first in Istanbul, locked up in an apartment in the middle of politics, with no air conditioning and not enough guts to exit the building and join the party. It would be a long night. Fortunately that nightmare didn’t materialize.

Eventually we left the apartment and made our way down to Karaköy relatively comfortably. People were sitting outside talking, some were eating, others were smoking nargileh on makeshift tables. We arrived at the restaurant twenty minutes late, and it was half-empty, but full of Americans. After a gourmet spin on Turkish kitchen and a brief stint at the Istanbul Modern’s terrace – another ‘upmarket’ spot in the city – with a splendid view of the Bosporus over wine and beer, all the elements of a romantic evening, with a breeze, we made our way back up the hill from Tophane. The house of canons, an armory, a remnant of the Ottoman artillery industry. Where canons and canon balls were made centuries ago.

It was just after midnight. The tear gas couldn’t possibly have lingered. The climb up is hard enough as it is, it gets you panting less than half way there. It started with a whiff, faintly – the smell of firecrackers. I looked around, two men were playing tavla at a shop’s entrance, their tea glasses handy, their movements slow. No sign of panic. As we kept walking, I felt it scratch my eyes and the back of my throat. My friend was slowing down. He covered his face with his hands but we kept walking. My eyes began to sting and it felt like every breath would fill my lungs with sea urchins. Two minutes left, go on. We kept going, but we were slow. Almost there – but we had actually lost the turning, so there were ten more minutes to go. Don’t hyperventilate, it makes it worse. As we crossed a nondescript dark alley, a short cut to our place, a rare but welcome Google Maps omission, a tableau of people were waiting, it seemed, or had frozen there under the orange light of the neighborhood’s old lamps, slowed down by the chemicals that laced the air.

“Solüsyon var,” said a man in the corner, pointing to his backpack. 

I thought he was referring to drugs, I don’t know why; my mind could only be suspicious at that moment. The rest were looking at us from a barber shop’s front window that was half open, and the light from inside was a clinic white. Their heads moved slowly with us, watching us move away. Come on, keep walking. The man from the corner caught up with us. I tried not to turn around when he talked, but when I did I saw that he was offering my friend a solution – a thick white liquid like milk– that my friend was soon rubbing on his hands and face. I realized my mistake and thanked him more than twice. Tear gas is indiscriminate, so whoever came prepared, prepared to share. Which was much appreciated. The next day passed as if nothing had happened.