Istanbul riots, 2013
It is 3:38 a.m., and I have finally fallen asleep in the cramped Turkish hotel room located eight floors up and surrounded by a still-bustling city, excited from that day’s riots. The window is open, and a small, plastic fan pathetically whirls and creaks from corner to corner, not so much making the musty, sticky, tan-colored room cooler as generating an obnoxious amount of noise for such a late hour. Having stripped down to a bra and underwear, I have passed out on top of the scratchy, worm-colored covers, with my virtual stranger of a roommate, a young athlete from Brazil – chasing her dream, as am I, at a professional tennis career - sweating in the small cot one foot away from my own.
Suddenly, the entire city explodes with noise.It’s as if a loudspeaker has somehow been installed throughout the entire city of Istanbul, and the strange language moves throughout my entire body as the first call to prayer attempts to awaken and remind the holy that it is time for prayer. I sigh heavily, knowing that four more calls to prayer are still to come, in a city attempting to show the rest of the world normalcy during a period where all seem to view its citizens as vicious rioters.
Having been here for a few weeks, I realize tonight that this has become “normal” to me. This is life for the people of Istanbul. This mass call to prayer multiple times throughout the day is like bars in college towns having specials on Thursday nights – expected, and perhaps a little reassuring. At 3:38 a.m. in this sweat-smelling, closet-sized Turkish hotel room, I realize that, despite the massive revolutionary riots occurring day in and day out, Turkey is not clawing at, but quite firmly holding onto its sense of being through religion.
Earlier that night, I had watched as thousands upon thousands of protestors stomped down one of the main roads, holding signs and chanting in time to their steps. The clustered crowd of civilians proudly swung the Turkish flag in the sky as they thrust their chests out like roosters during mating season, elated and passionate about being a tiny percentage of what had become a mini-revolution during the summer of 2013.
These people began their peaceful, sit-in protests in Gezi Park, the last patch of green in the city center of Istanbul’s central commercial district, after news that plans to demolish the park and replace it with a prison-like shopping mall had been put into effect. Immediately, the protestors numbers began to grow exponentially – as did the number of police. Riot police eventually moved in, hurling tear gas and pepper spray as protestors launched back bottles and barricaded the park.
Looking back on the incident over a year later, in 2014, it is clear that, in the end, the government won out.
“Considering that they’ve had an election, and considering the winning party and their [the people’s] support, it’s quite clear that the majority of people are for the government,” Professor Adrien Wing, who teaches U.S. and International Law at the University of Iowa, noted. At the time of my stay in Istanbul in the summer of 2013, however, this was not at all evident, as the number of rioters seemed to multiply daily.
After news came out regarding the bullish nature of the police response to the initial demonstrations, protestors grew in numbers and began attacking police. The riots began to spread, with protestors calling not only for Gezi Park to remain untouched, but also for broader changes in the government of the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The reasons for protesting had grown tremendously. As I sit, in that sweltering hotel room in 2013, listening to the haunting chime of the first call to prayer, the people of Istanbul are calling for a different kind of prayer – one for freedom of speech and a change of government.
A secular state that has a separation of church and state, Turkey is “not like most Muslim states,” Professor Wing noted. I can’t help but think, after experiencing the unbelievable life that engulfs Istanbul, that Turkey is not like most Muslim states for more reasons than that.
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The day that I was supposed to leave for Istanbul, Turkey, I had not yet bought my plane ticket. My father pored over the Internet obsessively, sending emails to his Turkish business friends and blasting BBC on the flat screen television in our living room.
“Are you aware at all of the rioting going on in Istanbul?” my father passively droned from his office as I sat on the sticky leather chair in our living room, playing with my dog. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with you traveling there by yourself…”
I rolled my eyes. Parents worry about the most ridiculous things. It wasn’t as it I hadn’t traveled to other countries by myself before.
Seeing my eyes roll from the room next door, my dad continued… “But let me see what I can find out, because very often this sort of thing is blown all out of proportion. It’s like when the Yankees win the World Series – Times Square might be packed with people celebrating, but in the East Village, you’d hardly know New York even has a team.”
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And here I sit, a few weeks into my journey, with a vastly different view of quite possibly the largest protest movement in Istanbul. What the foreign media largely describe as violent, dangerous protests, I find, are actually relatively safe. Of course, 11 people have been killed and hundreds others have been injured in these confrontations; however, tonight, I realize that the violence is very much centered in Taksim Square, the area where the infamous Gezi Park relaxes. The protests I see every night are peaceful, and now, even Gezi Park has moved towards silent protests – which consistent of hundreds of protesters standing silently, staring straight ahead, sometimes holding red flags representing their Turkish flag.
“Turkish police fire tear gas in worst protests in years,” notes www.reuters.com . “Clashes, tear gas, pot-banging: New protests sweep Istanbul,” CNN screams. I think back to these headlines, and shake my head at the incredible difference between the Western media’s creative minds and my reality. Where are these violent, pot-banging protests that are “sweeping” Istanbul? Does America realize just how big this place is? I think of these questions as it becomes more and more evident just how much my wonderful red, white, and blue country can distort reality when it comes to other parts of the world.
The normalcy in a time of massive civil unrest is incredible. Istanbul is a city divided into two; it has an Asian side and a European side. Both sides have been participating in the riots, with boats sardine-crammed full of humans traveling daily from the Asian side to the European side to participate in riots at Gezi Park. And yet, throughout these protests, life continues. Religion, a central part of Turkey from as early as the 7th century, continues to be a defining part of people’s lives, even during one of the biggest revolutions of Turkey’s life. The Western media certainly has it wrong, I think to myself.
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It is now 3:47 a.m. The structured call to prayer by the mysterious Turkish man throughout the city has died down, leaving those who follow Islam to drag themselves out of bed and begin prayer. Those who are not following the call to prayer, like myself, remain in bed; perhaps awake, as I am, staring at the ceiling as beads of sweat race down the back of my neck, but perhaps still asleep, now immune to the wishful Turkish man, the Muezzin, exhorting Istanbul to come and pray.
As I sit here, in the middle of the night far from home, I hear voices from outside. Eight floors below me on the cracked, sad brick roads, between the broken, drooping buildings, a group of protestors are chanting. The riots do not sleep often, matching the restlessness of Turkey’s main religion, Islam. Istanbul: a city torn into two; a city of history, a city of an ancient call to prayer that stops for nothing. And now, a city of revolution.
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.