Tear Gas and Taksim Square

You’ve probably heard about the protests in Istanbul, Turkey on the news.  The anti-government protesting, which began in May, reached a head in mid June as police evicted the peaceful assembly from their camp in Gezi Park in the Taksim Square neighborhood of the city.  As tensions mounted between protesters and police, two misguided tourists sauntered right into the middle of the conflict.   Without intending to join in on the action, and just 12 hours after arriving in Istanbul, John and I found ourselves experiencing our first, and hopefully last, taste of tear gas.

Allow me to explain.

A few days earlier in Cairo, John and I began searching Airbnb.com for places to stay on our upcoming visit to Istanbul.  We had booked our flight from Egypt to Turkey well before protests began, and had no intention of changing our plans.  We did, however, think twice before clicking the “Book Now” button on a perfect apartment rental in Taksim Square.  Despite getting a lot of negative press lately, Taksim Square is a popular tourist district in the heart of the city center with many fancy hotels, nice restaurants and several tourist attractions.  At the time, protests happening in Taksim Square were contained to Gezi Park, a rather small area of this neighborhood.   Airbnb does not provide addresses for properties, only neighborhoods, so there was no way for us to know how close to the actual protests this apartment was located.  Seeing as the host/owner had included the word ‘safe’ in all capital letters in the property title and made mention that he currently had guests staying there, we presumed it was a safe distance away from the generally contained unrest.  We booked ourselves in for five nights.

The evening of June 15, as we flew on a late night flight between the two cities, the protesters and police clashed in Gezi Park.  Police used water canons and tear gas to oust the protesters from the area, injuring dozens of people.  Blissfully unaware of this news, we arrived to a hotel in another area of Istanbul very early in the morning and went straight to bed, planning to meet our Airbnb host the following day.

The next morning I contacted our host to plan a meeting point and time for check-in.   (For the purposes of this story I’ll call our host Faruk, a Turkish name that was not his.)  Via text, Faruk instructed us to meet him at a specific Burger King at 3pm that afternoon.   Satisfied with this plan, we lounged for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, enjoying views of the city and not looking at the news.

At 2:30pm we grabbed our backpacks and hopped a cab to Taksim Square, aiming for the Burger King.  As we approached the neighborhood, the taxi stopped in front of a street closure barricade and let us out, the driver instructing us that we’d have to walk the rest of the way.  Together John and I walked the few blocks up the street, wearing our huge tourist backpacks and using an app on my iphone to lead us to our designated meeting point.  The area was rather calm and quiet, with a few police officers sitting calmly on the sidewalk and pedestrians walking through the closed off street.  Following the map, we turned down a smaller alleyway, onto what looked like a pedestrian mall, and spotted the Burger King.  It took only a moment for the adrenaline to start pumping – the Burger King was located literally at the front lines of a police barricade on the edge of the square.  There was a reporter filming a segment in front of the line, and people milling around us with cameras and gas masks.  The Burger King – and nearly every other shop and restaurant nearby – was closed for business.  Confused and feeling completely out of place, I snapped this photo with my iphone before we headed down the pedestrian mall to call Faruk and regroup.

As we walked down the street the eerie silence erupted into cheering and clapping.  Then cheering turned into Turkish chanting, and chanting turned into booing.  As the booing began, I looked around me and saw a line of 10 police officers in riot gear standing to my left, and a group of booing protesters to the right.  My adrenaline skyrocketed.  This was the exact wrong place to be.  Suddenly walking much faster, John and I darted off the pedestrian mall, through a line of police officers, and into a quieter side street.  We walked briskly down the street until I felt we had reached a safe distance from the action, where I stopped to put down my heavy bag and unleash a fury of angry words about our host for leading us right into the middle of the protest area.  (We later discovered that protesters had publicly planned to re-enter Gezi Park at 4pm that day.  Though we were unaware of this plan, it’s hard to believe our young local host didn’t know what was happening in his neighborhood.  Why Faruk chose to meet us at 3pm in the heart of the conflict is beyond me.)

Once I had calmed down a bit, John took control and found a few older guys sitting outside a convenience store.  He bummed one of their cell phones to call Faruk and reschedule our meeting, and we sat out on the sidewalk to await his arrival.  After just a few brief moments, a flood of people came running down a side street and toward us.  Not understanding what was going on, I turned to an older man behind us wondering if we should be concerned.  He shook his head no, and I looked back toward the running crowd.  This time, instead of running people I saw a projectile heading toward us, spewing out white gas.  Once more I looked to the Turk standing beside me and saw that he and the other men had already piled into the store and were quickly shutting the door.  I ducked in beside them and scooted to the back of the store as far from the door as possible, just as the fumes started to spread.  For several minutes, the room filled with tear gas as the group of us cowered in the corners.  Closing my eyes and covering my face with my hands, I held my breath and envisioned Reiki symbols in my head, chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” to soothe myself.  (Apparently, I went to my New Age Hippie Happy Place.)  I could hear John saying “It burns!” and old men coughing around me.

As the smoke dissipated the door was opened to let in fresh air.  The store owner expertly sprayed our eyes with water and handed us paper towels while muttering “police fascists” under his breath.  Clearly this wasn’t his first experience with the tear gas.  We emerged from the store with red faces and watering eyes to be greeted by our Airbnb host.

“Don’t cry!” Faruk exclaimed to me, a big smile on his face.

“If I could stop, I would,” I said, still wiping my eyes and quite annoyed that I’d ended up in this situation.  ”This isn’t the best introduction to your country.”

“When you see the gas coming, you just have to run.  I’m fast, so they never get me!” he said with pride.

Faruk then hoisted my backpack on his back and started leading us to the apartment we had rented.  Along the way, he mentioned that just the day before he had been tear gassed while sitting inside the apartment he lives in down the street.  Even with the doors and windows closed, the gas still came in and affected him.  John and I exchanged glances, surprised by how nonchalantly Faruk discussed being tear gassed and horrified at the idea of being gassed within the safety of your own home.

A few moments later, Faruk stopped to point out some of the local sights.  Standing right in front of the police line on another side of Taksim Square, he pointed out restaurants, shops and metro lines that were usually great for tourists (but currently closed down.)  Concerned by our return to the vicinity of protesters and tear gas canisters, I began to wonder where we were heading.

“Where exactly is the apartment?”  I asked.

“300 meters from here,” Faruk pointed, just up the street from the square.

While normally this location would be ideal for travelers – proximity to shops, restaurants and public transit are excellent – it’s proximity to consistent tear gassing seemed like a pretty big downside.  It was time to shut it down.  With a five minute conversation I informed Faruk that he needn’t take us further as we would not be staying at his apartment.  Seeing as we only had a few days planned in Istanbul, it seemed best to avoid being tear gassed a second time.  Besides, since nothing was open in the neighborhood, we’d have to take great pains to get out of the area to enjoy the city anyhow.  Clearly disappointed but understanding, Faruk agreed to our cancellation and directed us back down the street to where we could find a cab to a less complicated part of the city.

Highly aggravated and ready to get out of this area, we hightailed it down the street looking for a cab.  We now had no plan – nowhere to stay and no idea where to go.  After walking about 1/3 of a mile down the road our bags were getting heavy and we were tiring, so at the first nice hotel we saw John hopped inside to inquire about the rates.  As I stood outside the lobby with our bags, gazing down the street away from the direction of Taksim Square, I saw another group of people running, followed by a projectile of white gas.  This time it was far enough away not to affect me, but it was unsettling to see tear gas rolling down the street in this area as well – I had been certain we had gotten far enough away from the center and were walking away from the problem, not back into it.  It seems the entire neighborhood was being swept by police to prevent any attempt by protestors to reassemble.  When John reemerged from the hotel lobby, we decided to grab a cab and leave the area completely.

Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones trying to leave and there were few cabs to be had.  As we waited on the street for an available taxi, yet another gas projectile came rolling down the street, this time closer to us.  We (along with a few other tourists) ducked inside the hotel lobby.  Unlike the convenience store, the hotel lobby kept us sheltered from any of the effects in the outside air, which was fortunate because that wasn’t the last tear gas to be released in front of the building.  As we waited, John saw a police tank rolling through the street in front of us and over a barricade, followed by 50 or more police in riot gear.  Every fifteen feet one officer would stop to shoot another round of tear gas into the street before continuing on.  We ended up staying inside that hotel lobby for about an hour waiting for the chaos to end.

Once the gas had cleared, a hotel staffer hailed a cab for us and we hopped in, heading back to the safety of the neighborhood where we had stayed the night before.  We drove through the streets with the windows down, smelling the faint burning smell of tear gas in the air.  Beside us protesters wandered through the streets wearing makeshift gas masks, revealing injuries from rubber bullets, and at one point blocking traffic from exiting the neighborhood.  Five hours after departing our original hotel, we returned looking for a room for the night and a little peace.

I can laugh at the whole incident now, but at the time the experience was surreal and a bit frightening.  While tear gas doesn’t cause too much damage (at least if you aren’t too close to it or repeatedly hit with it, as more injured protesters were), I feared that things could escalate at any point.  As someone who has never been involved in any variety of civil unrest, there was something very unsettling about finding myself in the middle of a protest I didn’t fully understand or support and witnessing firsthand the aggression of a foreign police force.  I later read that the police were instructed to view anyone in Taksim Square that afternoon as a terrorist, but I assure you we were just tourists in the wrong place at the exact wrong time.

Originally John and I had planned to stay a month in Istanbul, but we decided that this was not the time to spend a month in Turkey.  Istanbul is a gorgeous city, but even though most of it was unaffected by the protests I felt a bit nervous hanging around longer than a few days.  We booked a flight to Crete for a few days later, determined to enjoy as much of Istanbul as we could fit into our short visit without returning to Taksim.

On a side note, the standard Airbnb cancellation policy would not have refunded us any of our money for canceling our rental on such short notice, so I sent a polite email to the customer service team.  It seems the line in my email reading “We were tear gassed by police while waiting to meet our host at the set meet up point” qualified our case for what they call ”Extenuating Circumstances” and they fully refunded our money.  I should think so.

Istanbul » Tracy Carolyn Photography - July 1, 2013 - 1:28 am

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