If you want to have a nice, leisurely taxi ride from Ataturk Airport to a hotel anywhere near Taksim square, you should avoid booking a flight that will put you into Istanbul at rush hour on the eve of a Rihanna concert within walking distance of a park called Gezi. Your three hour trip may run to five and a half or six hours by the time you reach the hotel.
Some years ago, my wife worked for a top Wall Street law firm with offices all over the world. Unlike most law firms, hers valued the bonds established by associates who put in long hours on their behalf. It tries to maintain those relationships through an alumni association and by having reunions in North and South America, Europe and Asia.
There have been twenty-five European reunions in places like Tuscany, Crete, and even Lapland, but we have never been in the right place at the right time. This year’s event, booked for the weekend of May 31 through June 2, was to be held in Istanbul, only three hours flying time from Amsterdam, not far from where we are living out of suitcases. Nomads that we are.
Most of the alumni were booked into the huge Swissotel, a spectacularly situated hotel overlooking a soon-to-be-demolished concert venue. As our taxi crawled up the steep slope to the hotel, a huge billboard told us more than the driver had during our two and a half hour ride– Rihanna, May 31. We didn’t yet know about the events unfolding in Gezi Park and Taksim Square.
The reunion would bring together some eighty-five people, including lawyers, spouses and a handful of grown children. The organisation had been done by the alumni based in Istanbul. Moving all those people around in a city designed for donkey carts would have been tricky at the best times. When the police started closing down bridges and roads to stop the steady stream of people heading for Taksim Square, the logistics of our visit turned into a nightmare.
Friday went smoothly, with a visit to the beautiful Byzantine church now called Chora Museum, the new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, and the Grand Bazaar. But well before our evening cruise on the Bosphorus, all hell had broken loose. As we descended from the busses, a cloud of tear gas seized our eyes and throats. People were fleeing the Square, holding handkerchiefs and scarves to their noses and dabbing at their eyes.
From the deck of the boat,the City seemed calm. We drank and chatted and stared at million dollar homes on the Asian side. The boat steamed up to the second bridge as the sky staged a spectacular sunset. Our restaurant was within walking distance of the place we had started. We had a late dinner at a fabulous fish restaurant, but it was almost midnight by the time we got to bed.
Many, many years ago I spent several weeks in Istanbul in mid winter. I stayed in the youth hostel, hung out at a place we called the pudding shop, haunted the Grand Bazaar for sheepskin coats to take back to the Netherlands. It was very cold. I remember the rose petal jelly I had with crusty bread for breakfast.
One day I stumbled across a man who was selling postcards outside an abandoned gas station. There were street scenes from “old Istanbul” and titillating French cards as well. Once I discovered the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, I was hooked. I spent hours sorting through the stacks to find each and every one. Their turbans and faces where almost interchangeable, so it was the dates that were important. I had the instinct of a collector and postcards were one of the only things I could afford.
When I had had enough of the noise and pollution of the city, I got on one the boats that went up the Bosphorus. Someone at the youth hostel had told me about Polonezkoy, a village established as a Polish enclave in the middle of the 18th century. It was getting dark when I arrived and the only building in the village was a concrete block building, combination cafe/store. There were a handful of men sitting around a wood stove smoking hookahs. Silence fell when I walked into the room.
Then a teenager greeted me like a long lost friend. His uncle was in the Army in New Jersey, he said. There was no guest house for tourists, so he led me home and I met his family. His grandmother had been educated in French and retained it still, so there was one member of the family with whom I could communicate in more than a smattering of Turkish. The next day, after breakfast, she got me up on a ladder to help whitewash their large house. Later on, in a Turkish village on the Mediterranean, I would encounter the same generous hospitality, the same simple insistence that strangers, no matter how unusual in appearance or manners, should be treated with kindness and generosity.
Saturday had been planned as the big day out, starting with a meeting at the hotel to plan the venue for the next reunion, followed by a visit to the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern and Blue Mosque. Our hosts had booked a restaurant within the grounds of the Topkapi palace for lunch. Later, there would be dinner and dancing at the Sabanci Museum overlooking the Bosphorus. The best laid plans….
Overnight, the city had descended into chaos. No one knew if two large busses could get to the Sultanahmet and return. A heated discussion took place, the risk-takers versus the conservatives. It may have conjured up memories for those who had been in hot spots before and experienced days of living dangerously. In the end, safety won out. An itinerary was improvised, sending us north along the Bosphorus for a leisurely lunch in a residential neighborhood. The agenda for Saturday slipped forward to Sunday. Lawyers are nothing if not pragmatists.
Last night in Taksim Square, reports are the police were even more brutal than they have been to date. At least four people have died and thousands have been treated for injuries. Prime Minister Erdogan has met with a hand-picked group of people he designated to represent the protestors, but warned others to stay away from Taksim Square. He has had enough of the protest.
The Istanbul I saw so many years ago is being transformed beyond recognition to make way for more malls, gated communities and more mosques. A third bridge over the Bosphorus is in the works, as well as the world’s largest airport. The plan to trash Gezi park and build a replica Ottoman barracks/shopping mall is not an isolated oddity, but part of a pattern. It is now far more than a symbol of developmental destruction, it is a call to the barricades.
The police have used up a year’s supply of tear gas in the last twelve days. Industry sources said foreign manufacturers are now preparing various “solutions” based on advanced technology, including smart weapons and state-of-the-art electronic surveillance and jamming systems. The private security market has its eyes on Turkey, with good reason.
Erdogan maintains huge popular support despite recent signs of irrationality, paranoia and despotism. He seems unwilling to show any signs of a conciliatory posture. The protestors, coming from all stripes of the economic and political spectrum, cannot put forward any one leader to represent them. Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, waits and watches, no doubt hoping that his political rival has gone too far.
Michael Petersen-Gyöngyösi, one of the alumni, has been good enough to share his photos with the group and with me. I have re-posted many of them to my Flickr account with attribution. He managed to cover a lot more ground than I did and got some wonderful shots of people in the street. All the pics can be browsed and downloaded by clicking any one photo running alongside this post. Many thanks to Kerem, Asli, Norma, Graziella, and our great guides and drivers.
I look forward to another, much longer visit, in peaceful times.