Tear gas. Sirens. Stinging, streaming eyes see paramilitary police with automatic weapons chase gas-masked protesters on wet streets. Burning skin. Makeshift medical centres, injured and bloodied bodies.
I hadn’t intended it to be like that. I travelled to Istanbul on May 29th for a holiday. The first day panned out as expected – kebaps, sun in Gulhane Park, a visit to Dolmabahçe Palace. But on the morning of the second day that changed. Sitting in the lobby of my hostel I came across a two paragraph article on the English-language site of Hürriyet about the eviction of a small protest in Gezi Park by police. My travel partner, Tommy Gavin, and I were both journalists. We delayed our plans to visit the Blue Mosque and headed towards Taksim to take a look. It was a decision that plunged us into the middle of an historic revolt in a country we barely knew.
Covering events as a journalist was challenging. From the first day we wrote under pseudonyms, a decision prompted both by Turkey’s status as the world’s leading jailer of journalists and our intentions to travel onwards to Iran at a later point. Pseudonyms kept our real names from an embassy Google search. Later a contact warned us the Turkish police were looking for Irish people at marches.
That first morning in Taksim Square we were so security conscious that we took interviewees to a local cafe rather than take out our recorders in public. But with time the spirit of the movement emboldened everyone and, gradually, we went from hanging around its fringes to live-tweeting yards away from police lines.
One night this probably went a step too far – we travelled to Gazi Mahellesi, a Kurdish-Alevi ghetto on the outskirts of Istanbul, without the contacts or experience we should have had. Clashes there were the most intense we had seen and we came quite close to being trapped as police broke through barricades.
Writing about Islam was also tricky. When I left Ireland the Woolwich murder and the carnival of reaction which followed was dominating the news cycle. As an anti-racist that put me on guard against Islamophobia. Yet, when the protests kicked off in Turkey, people were voicing their dissatisfaction with Islamism. One slogan I saw graffitied on the wall read “Tayyip – I hope the minarets you love impale you”. This forced a difficult adjustment, bringing me out of some of the simplistic paradigms into which leftists and anti-racists sometimes attempt to hammer questions of Islam.
Some more discerning protesters were conscious of the position I found myself in. Aware of the rise of Islamophobic sentiment in the West since 9-11, which would discriminate against pro and anti-Erdogan demonstrators alike, they emphasised the universality of what they opposed. Using religion as a subterfuge to advance capitalism, attempting to restrict the rights of women, demonising and stigmatising the LGBT community – these weren’t specific to Islam but were practices of the religious Right the world over. As one feminist in Gezi Park put it to me, “Here they are trying to take away our right to abortion, to make us cover our heads, to make us be quiet in society. But they do these things everywhere. they just have more power here now than other places. We are not anti-religion but we are against this control over our lives.”
My lasting memories of the experience will be its positives. Wading through tents and seated circles of people in Gezi Park on the first day, tentatively enquiring if anyone spoke English. Waking on the second morning to the sound of chanting – emerging from the hostel to see enormous crowds, an ocean of people on Istiklal Avenue. The atmosphere of celebration upon re-entering Gezi Park on the first Saturday – people hugging, dancing and bands playing Bella Ciao. The education I got about a society I knew nothing about.
I also learned about resilience. I met so many seemingly ordinary people who were acting with extraordinary bravery. Seeing adaptation in these conflict situations was instructive – people who would never have considered confronting the police for most of their lives were thrust into the front line of a movement that they owned. In response they fashioned anti-tear gas solution from Gaviscon, built barricades, developed novel new methods of protest like ‘standing man’ and built solidarity across barriers like ethnicity that had seemed impregnable in Turkey.
As the crowds grew in Istanbul and across Turkey, that first week, the boundaries to possibility seemed to just disappear. People began to really dream. Not dreams of commodities and personal advancement, but a real unencumbered imagination about how society might look and the way we might relate to each other. Being witness to that encouraged me to be less pessimistic about the chances of radical change.
My emotional journey in Turkey was elation, inspiration and excitement on the one hand, fear and exhaustion on the other. I’ve found talking about my time in Turkey in positive terms hardly seems appropriate when so many people have been imprisoned, injured and killed. But discussing only those aspects wouldn’t do justice to the wonderful moments I witnessed. Seen in its totality it was a complicated and contradictory experience. But a remarkable one that I won’t soon forget.To read Rónán’s reports from Turkey visit rabble.ie/ and search for ‘Reuben’.