I got those Taksim Square (Istanbul) blues, babe...

2013-06-11 02:56

Prior to arriving in Istanbul, we’d seen images of violent protests; we’d had plenty of facebook messages from our children – Be careful! Stay away from Taksim Square! But us Saffers, we’re used to trouble. On the day of our departure from Cape Town we nearly missed our plane, cursing as reports came in of burning tyres on the N2 highway.

In the here and now Istanbul is bustling. We walk through the old city, from Saltanahmet towards Karaköy. Along every route entrepreneurs entice with goods to be bargained for.

You wouldn’t think there’re any problems at all in Turkey. It’s one big business: from selling roasted chestnuts to custom-made Napa leather jackets, the hustle is on.

‘Come look! Cheap price! You American? Kiwi? Aussie? G’day, mate!’

On occasion we respond, ‘We’re from South Africa.’

One of two reactions is a surprised stare followed by the words 'But you’re not black,' as the tout strokes his cheek, his interest diverted for a moment from trying to sell us a guide book, a tour, a carpet. The other typical reaction is, ‘Ah, Mandela!’ as the tout nods his head knowingly.

‘Hold onto our stuff, Jo,’ says hubby. ‘Walk past with confidence. Try not to look like a tourist.’ He’s kitted out in flip-flops, a peak cap and Proudly South African shorts sewn from Bokomo Flour bags. I’m in a leather cowboy hat made in Dassiesfontein and I'm clutching my rucksack in front of me as if protecting a pregnant belly, not our passports and money. We couldn’t look more like tourists if we tried, we look as if we’ve stepped right off a Thomson’s package-tour jet.

Indeed, we’ve ‘done’ the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace; we’ve taken a boat ride along the Bosphorus, the strait with Istanbul in Europe on one side and Asia on the other. And now we're heading for Taksim Square.

I want to saturate myself with Istanbul. Most of what I know about the city is remembered from the flick Midnight Express, the story of American student Billy Hayes’ incarceration in a Turkish hell-hole prison after he's caught smuggling two kilos of hashish out the country. You know the song? ‘I got the blues, I got those Istanbul blues, babe....’; and a vague childhood memory of a pair of pointy Turkish slippers with pom-poms at the tips, which my mom brought me from the Grand Bazaar.

We've been walking under a hot sun for a while now and I'm a little crabby. ‘Did you have to wear that T-shirt?’ I ask.

Hubby (aka Bob) shrugs off my complaint that the Thai Chang-beer print is 'entirely inappropriate in a Muslim country'. He says, ‘It’s a pic of two elephants! Here a man can wear what he wants, as long as his wife follows two steps behind covered in hijab.’

A few minutes later he takes his turn to complain. 'Why are we doing this? I don’t even protest about things I really believe in... I’m realistic and cautious. A riot about something I don’t understand is not a place I wanna be.’

But of course, I want to get there in a hurry.  I might look like a tourist, but in my heart I'm an intrepid journo hunting out a story, Bob is my sidekick cameraman carrying his Nikon Coolpix. We're ready for action.

We cross the bridge over the Bosphorus, catch a tram, then struggle the last stretch up a steep street to Taksim Square. We’re struck first by the disorder. Every street entrance to the Square is barricaded with metal poles, rubbish and debris collected  after the earlier clashes with police. But although traffic is restricted, pedestrians come and go as they please.

At Topkapi Palace guards were out in full force with their machine guns, keeping watch over the Sultans’ treasures. But here I see no police or military presence whatsoever. Tourists and pukka news hounds alike take photos. Protest songs are piped through loudspeakers; cool drinks, boiled corn and bread are for sale. An entrepreneur flogs spray paint to any person with the vaguest anarchistic tendencies. Another vendor shrugs, says, ‘This is the Turks,’ as he sells the Turkish flag which teenage girls use to cover their heads, ‘we’ll turn anything into a business opportunity.’ The Revolution, today, feels more like a party.

The central Mustafa Kemal Ataturk monument is draped with the colourful  flags of political parties that ordinarily clash. Now the Kurds, Communists and Kemalists share space in an effort to mobilize followers. The visual impact is significant as Ataturk is hardly a popular figure with the current government who’d like nothing more than to obliterate his name as the ‘Father of the Turks’ blamed for initiating political, social, cultural and economic reform in order to strengthen Turkey as a secular nation after the Turkish War of Independence ended in 1923.

However, a  banner, stretched across the base of the Ataturk monument, and incorporating a portrait of a slain youth, is  a stark reminder that this is serious business. Young people have died here on Taksim Square, many are injured. Burnt out vehicles are covered in Post-It messages left by thousands of supporters in remembrance, and in solidarity with the cause.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan, apart from resurrecting Ottoman Barracks, and 'possibly' (he says after the fact, it seems) a shopping mall, is to erect a mosque, which in effect  means he has the support of the majority of the Muslim population. But when a section of Gezi Park was unexpectedly appropriated for the urban development, the city architect and conservationists got bolshy, and the youth stood up to save one of the last public open spaces in Istanbul.

As I climb the few steps from the Square to the Park, I understand the emotion attached to saving not just the trees - Erdogan has assured more will be planted - but the land. How grateful I am to be in the shade, to find a patch of nature, a patch of ground where plants grow free. I look up, see the light shine through translucent green. Gezi Park particularly is a breathing space in the congestion of the city.

A pretty protester chats to eco-warrior sidekick Bob now lounging about on the grass. She says, ‘There are nineteen malls in Istanbul. In New York there are only seven. We don't need more malls.   She must be eighteen, nineteen. She reminds me of my daughter, with the same eager conviction. 'We have been here ten days and we're staying.'

Fears are that an increasingly autocratic and authoritarian leader, in Erdogan, spells trouble for the concept of Human Rights. So Taksim Square and Gezi park have become symbolic of many issues, not just saving the saving the public space. Erdogan, one hopes, might have learned a lesson: a leader can’t arrogantly dismiss the concerns of the people. People get fed up, they get brave, they take risks to fight for what they believe in. No matter how young the protesters, no matter how small the secular minority, the government should take seriously the concerns of all citizens and residents.

As the sit-in continues, I wonder what plan Erdogan must be hatching? Will he wait for the ‘kids’ to get bored, pack up their tents and go home? And if they don’t, what then? As he's also experienced the devastating effects negative publicity has had on the economy, will he compromise for the sake of economic stability?

Our hotelier chats with us on our return: ‘This should not have become a political issue. But what it points to is that there is no organised opposition to the government. Erdogan does what he pleases.’ He adds, ‘The true heroes are the young people. Socialists, Liberals, Conservatives, no one expected the youth to organize something like this. They have stood up for what they believe in, and that is a shock. The youth are not complacent.'

The call to prayer sounds across the city. I am reminded that I often take the fact that I have choices for granted. I can choose what religion I want to follow, if any; I can choose my politics, and what I want to wear.  Indeed, we’re all fighting for Freedom. To have a say, to be heard. To feel part of a process, never side-lined.

I'm tired. My feet ache. The intrepid journo wants her dinner. The eco-warrior cameraman wants his dop. We enjoy a ‘bufé’ of mezzes, flat bread and Efes beer at a local eatery.

We live to report another day.

Follow me on twitter @JoanneHichens

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