Sunday, July 14, 2013

Istanbul & Other People's Fights

I just got back from Turkey. It was an interesting couple of weeks.

One thing I took away from the trip was a bunch of crappy low-res photos taken with my four-year-old iPhone: Aya Sofya's layered domes. Illuminated signs strung between minarets. Gaudy mosaic lamps in the Grand Bazaar. A street selling nothing but buttons. Row after row of riot cops. A narrow side street filling with tear gas.

I also took away both a visceral respect for the popular uprising currently sweeping the country and a sense of unease vis a vis my relation to it.

Last Saturday, some friends and I caught a cab across town (in itself a rather harrowing adventure, given Istanbul's highly aggressive driving culture). We'd heard there was going to be an action at Gezi Park, the small patch of greenery that originally catalyzed protests in and around Istanbul's Taksim Square. We wanted to be there.

But minutes after we hit ─░stiklal, the neighborhood's main pedestrian thoroughfare, the seemingly relaxed evening crowd turned on a dime, and everyone started running. Huge white armored trucks topped with water cannons started clearing the street from both directions, driving everyone off ─░stiklal and into the narrow side streets and alley ways.

My group got gassed and water-cannoned, but not badly. We ran, like everyone else, then spent the rest of the evening hiding out in a series of bars while protestors and riot cops vied for territory. At one point, we found ourselves in an upscale cafe with huge windows looking out on a square over the Bosphorus -- a perfect, surreal frame for the tableau unfolding right outside. Ladies with shopping bags gave way to a crowd of mostly young people. When the crowd hit critical mass, they started chanting, and when the chants got loud enough, the cops moved in. Teenagers wielding slingshots and bottles crouched behind potted shrubs, eventually driven back by a line of cops shooting gas canisters at close range.

It was weird sitting there drinking Mojitos in the air conditioning. Part of me wanted to go outside, strap on a gas mask, prove I was more than a voyeur. But another part, the larger part, knew that would have been at best foolhardy and at worst a kind of riot tourism. Plus I didn't have a gas mask.

In the cab home, we talked about it: How do you stand in solidarity with a fight that's not ultimately yours? How do you participate in a struggle, when you only understand it in the broadest of strokes? We didn't have a lot of good answers then, and I don't really have any now.

With the internet abuzz with nothing but outrage over the Trayvon Martin verdict, with seemingly everyone in America grappling with questions of race, justice, and identity, today seems a better day than most to ask those questions.

I've seen a lot of this famous MLK quote recently: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The protests in Turkey are pushing back against a strong-man government seeking to curtail secular freedoms, against encroaching privatization and corporatization, against a militarized and brutalizing police force. If we're going to build the kind of world I want to live in, then those forces must be pushed back everywhere. In this, at least, the Turkish protestors' fight is mine.

But so much of being a good ally is listening. I think that's why I was uncomfortable as part of the Taksim crowd: a street fight with the cops is not the best place to listen.

Aya Sofya: church, then mosque, then museum. 
Like Istanbul itself: palimpsestic, often shabby, bafflingly huge.
Ramadan, Blue Mosque.
Retail in Istanbul: one whole street selling nothing but buttons.
Something from home.

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