walking on Taksim

There were twelve of us in the café. Denizcan was the only one standing. He took his glasses off and wiped the lenses.

“Sit,” he told me. “Sit here.”

A small TV hung in one corner. It ran a streaming video from the Internet: Tayyip Erdogan in blue flannel, sleeves rolled twice below the elbow, pacing in front of a crowd of three hundred thousand, chanting like a general at war. Inside the café we watched him.

“He’s a maniac,” Denizcan said. The TV showed the crowd, thick enough to dam a river. “After he finishes his speech he’s going to tell them to come after us. Just watch.”

Cansu ate a panini sandwich with a knife and fork. Her yellow hair was off her shoulders in a ponytail. She drank water from a bottle that we had bought from a baker in Besiktas. In order to buy the bottle, we had to walk past mobs of police and hide our goggles and gas masks in our pockets. The police wore powder blue shirts and heavy boots. They carried bats.

“Don’t look at them,” Denizcan said.

A block away, protestors chanted slogans and waved Turkish flags. Cansu stopped to take pictures of them.

“Why don’t we join them?” I asked.

“We are a peaceful protest,” Denizcan said.

“Aren’t they too?”

“Yes, but the police don’t think so.”

“Will they think so with us?” I said.

“Maybe.”

The café was warm with our breathing. Two fans were mounted on the ceiling, their blades still. Erdogan spoke on the TV. Denizcan and Emre spoke at him, as if he could hear their words. My friends often laughed. They were certain that everything he said was lies and propaganda.

“Do you understand what he says?” Denizcan said, smiling. “He’s lying.”

“Yes,” I said.

“He’s lying and the people believe him. It’s funny, no?”

“It makes me nervous,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because they believe him.”

“You can’t be nervous,” Emre said. “You have two choices. You can either laugh or scream.”

“How do you choose?” I asked.

They both laughed at me. But this laughter that was trill and happy at first faded away after three clicks into uncertain half-smiles. Denizcan ran his thumb along the lenses of his goggles and tested its straps. Emre lit a cigarette and smoked it down.

The café was only three tables big. Five of us sat around a circular table with the owner, who served food and drinks at the menu price. I wanted to order a beer and drink it with a cigarette, but I was worried that my stomach couldn’t handle it.

“Once the gas hits, don’t drink water,” Emre said. He was writing his blood type on the inside of his arm.

I had a full bottle of water in my hand.

“You can’t drink water. Not for twenty or thirty minutes.”

“What happens?” I asked.

“Felc olmak—felc.” Emre stopped writing and looked to his left to find the translation. He was taller than the rest of us and dark skinned. He had graduated the previous spring with an engineering degree. Now he liked to say he had a degree in tear gas. “Paralyzed,” he said, handing me the pen.

A woman in a black tank top watched Denizcan. Her hair hung taut in ribbons, two inches above her shoulders. Across from her a shirtless boy with a thin patch of bear’s fur between his breasts typed on a cell phone and drank water. At the far end of the room, there was a small bar with a cash register on one end and a dessert plate on the other. A bell jar covered the desserts and protected them from the air. Behind it, a curtain made of evil eye beads hung in the open door and led to a sink and toilet.

“He’s lying,” Denizcan said. On the TV Erdogan was saying that the best countries in the world used tear gas. He had stopped pacing and was leaning heavily on a podium. He was quiet and intense. Denizcan looked at me. He wasn’t laughing anymore. This time he was much more serious. “You understand him? He’s lying and they believe him.”

“Of course they believe him,” the ribbon-haired woman said, “he’s paying them fifty lira to believe him.”

“Fifty lira each,” Denizcan agreed, “and paying their dinners, drinks, transportation.”

“I heard he bused people in from two-hundred kilometers away,” Emre said. “Two hours.”

“Three hundred thousand people,” Denizcan said.

“They say he was expecting a million.”

“You’re cooked Tayyip!” Denizcan shouted. He had to go to work tomorrow. They all did. “It’s over for you!”

“Brother,” the woman said, “come. Let’s meet each other.”

I stood and went to the bathroom through the bead curtain. I wondered what three hundred thousand people looked like trying to kill you.

The bathroom mirror was small and dirty. I recognized my face in it. It was the same face it had been eight hours ago when I had woken in my dad’s apartment. For a second I had been having doubts. I took my mask out of my pocket and strapped it over my mouth. When I breathed, air blew out from the top of the mask and fogged my glasses. I took them off and put the swim goggles on and put my glasses on on top of the goggles. I could see okay. Without my glasses I couldn’t see at all. Denizcan had told me to take my contact lenses out; that if I was wearing contact lenses when the tear gas hit I would go blind.

I began to feel nervous. I felt I had unknowingly strapped myself into an incomplete carnival ride and only now, as the car jerked up its steep slope and I glimpsed the gap in the tracks below, did the full extent of my actions begin to dawn on me. I was wearing a hospital mask and swim goggles and tortoise-shell eye glasses on top of the swim goggles. I wasn’t a soldier. I wasn’t a revolutionary. I was playing crisis and revolution, shaking my fist with convictions built out of a safe and comfortable life.

My father had bought me the swim goggles earlier that day. Emre had lent me the mask. He said it wouldn’t help. He had a real gas mask, one that looked like the face from Munch’s Scream, and even that wasn’t enough. He said his mask worked as long as it could grab air with at least seventeen percent oxygen in it. He didn’t say how much tear gas had to be in the air for there to be less than seventeen percent oxygen.

Someone else had given me a long-sleeved shirt because the water in the water cannons was mixed with acid that burned the skin, and the tear gas could burn the skin, and the police were shooting rubber bullets and paintballs and it was better to cover the skin than to be wearing the clothes I had had on.

I tried to breathe easy inside the mask. In and out of the nose was the best way. With my mouth covered and my eyes covered no one would be able to recognize me. No one would take it easy on the safe, comfortable American boy earning his law degree.

I was thinking I could run if I needed to run. I didn’t want to fight. I thought about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and all the people that followed them. The sacrifices they made. Their families worrying, suffering. The sorrow. How did people have the courage to give their lives to anything but themselves?

I had never known anyone to have risked his life for anything. In my life, I had barely known anyone who consistently stood up to find the remote when he wanted to change the channel. These protestors were like me, men and women by age but not by experience. They belonged to my generation of entitlement, nostalgia, complacency, comfort. And they were not afraid. Whatever they believed, they were not liars. They were boys and girls thrust into a complicated world they only half understood, pretending to be fully grown, with fanatic passion and simplistic solutions. In their determined eyes I found truth: their entire universe depended on a few blocks of cobblestone. I felt solidarity with these strangers and their goal; and in this feeling, from the suffocating depths, my trust in humanity resurfaced like a charging whale. Once I recognized myself in Denizcan’s reflection I couldn’t go home; I couldn’t watch the action on a screen.

I could see clear through the goggles and my glasses weren’t fogging anymore. I pinched the wire on the mask around my nose to keep it tight. Then I took everything off and went back into the big room.

Denizcan and the woman with the ribbony hair were laughing. Cansu was out on the street taking pictures. Others smoked cigarettes and watched the hill. I sat at the table with my bottle of water. Eventually a round, bald man came and sat with me. He had patchy facial hair and round cheeks and he kept giggling and whispering, “They’re coming, they’re coming.” I wasn’t sure he saw me. I thought he might be drugged out of his mind. Then he said, “Are you ready, brother? They’re coming. They’re just over the hill there,” and he pointed with a girthy, dirty finger.

“This is my first day,” I said. “I just got in last night.”

He cocked his head, then, and leaned in close. “That’s okay, brother,” he said. “You learn quick!” He rocked back and roared with laughter, and I was afraid he would fall and injure himself. After a moment he came back into himself and clapped me on the shoulder and began to fondle the mask around my neck. “Not bad for a start, eh?” He was still giggling lightly all over himself. “You’ll get the bigger one tomorrow, eh? Won’t be a problem, my friend, won’t be a problem at all. Tomorrow I’ll see you and you’ll be a regular, won’t you? Won’t you?”

“Are you not coming with us?” I asked.

“My place is here, brother. I serve tea. Collect money. Tell jokes. Laugh. People need to laugh, brother. I stay here.”

I walked away from him then, because I wasn’t in the mood to laugh. I thought it might be better to laugh because it might loosen me up, but I didn’t feel like it. Denizcan rose from his conversation with that woman when he saw me. He told me to sit, as if that would solve all my problems, and then everyone that was out on the street rushed back into the café and there was shouting and on the street you could see people sprinting downhill. Somebody closed the door, and then it burst open and ten of ours ran in. There was noise, lots of noise. Everybody was talking. The ones from the street had white on their faces, their eyes rippled red from pupil to brow. They were crying and coughing. Denizcan shouted to make room for them and to get them antacid solution so they could wash. My giggling friend, no longer giggling, parted the crowd and locked the front door and closed the window shades and turned on the ceiling fans. We were all quiet.

“Turn the fans off,” the café owner whispered after a moment.

“What?” the giggling man said.

“Turn the fans off,” she said, “you’re bringing the gas in.”

“No,” he urged, “they keep it out.” He twirled his finger to show how.

They began arguing in hushed whispers, and then Denizcan joined in for one side, I wasn’t sure which, and then it became clear that nothing would be accomplished either way because nobody really knew.

“What’s going on out there?” Emre asked one of the people who wasn’t in such bad shape.

“Everybody’s up there,” she said, pointing up the hill. “The police came.” She was having trouble breathing and speaking at the same time. She had white streaks from her eyes to her chin and her eyes were bloodshot. “It was too crowded.”

Emre had told me the police’s new strategy was to push the protestors into the side streets. The side streets created chaos because people were too crowded and had trouble communicating. There was no where to run. This made the tear gas more effective.

“Brothers,” Denizcan shouted. He wasn’t tall but he stood out. His mustache and the rising patch of hair on his chin gilded his lips the color of tea. His eyebrows swung low over his eyes like beacons for his Roman nose. “What are we doing here? Why are we hiding here while our brothers and sisters are attacked? This is our time.”

The woman with the ribbon hair stood up in agreement, and everyone else stood up, and just like that we were all ready to go. At first none of us moved. Then Denizcan led the way out the door and we all followed him. The giggler pulled me over before I could leave and opened a box of Vaseline. He dabbed his fat finger into the jelly and spread it on the inside of my mask and left it dangling around my neck. My goggles I strapped to my forehead, glasses on my nose. Nothing in my pockets.

Denizcan led the way out the door and we all followed him. Rushing downhill a biker honked his horn and we hugged the wall to let him pass.

“Where are we going?” the woman with the ribbon hair said. Her name was Merve. She lit a cigarette.

We had been waiting around so long, nobody knew what to do or which way to go. Merve, Denizcan, and Emre talked, and the rest of us listened. The aim was to find other protestors. Being around other protestors meant we were participating in the movement, but finding the crowds meant finding the police. None of us wanted to taste tear gas. But we also felt that if we didn’t, we weren’t doing it right. It was no longer enough to merely wait to get hit, we had to seek it out.

“What’s the goal here?” I had asked Emre earlier, when we were sitting at the café.

“We’re going to take Taksim,” he said.

“And then what?”

“And then we’ll celebrate and sing,” he said, smiling. “This is what happens. We camp in Taksim, party, dance, eat kofte. Then the government rips it away with guns and gas and everyone gets upset and demands that the government give it back. It’s a cycle.”

“But when does it end?” I asked. “How do you win?”

“We want him out.” Emre shrugged and paused for a moment. He scratched his chest above his heart. He wanted to say this next thing in English. “You know, when my mom goes to work, she works in a government building, she gets searched all over, even inside her breasts. But her coworkers, the ones who wear the hijabs. They don’t search them. They don’t even touch them.”

We were all following Emre up and down Istanbul’s hills. Turkish flags the size of dinner tables hung from apartment buildings three stories in the air, the wind swooping underneath them, sending them swelling out toward the street. The red banner had become a bellowing symbol of rebellion. Mothers and their children leaned out of windows to watch us pass. Some of them wore head scarves. None of them cheered or smiled or acknowledged us in any way.

“They’re calling everyone outside right now a terrorist,” my mom had told me earlier. With a mother’s superpowers she had found out where I was and what I was doing and how to contact me. “You’re going to get yourself killed, do you know that? What the hell are you doing?”

We were climbing a mean hill, about ten of us. One of those hills where you pull your parking break before putting the car into first gear. All the people from the café were there, Emre and Denizcan, Cansu with her camera, Merve and her friends. One of her friends was a fat man, friendly in face, with thick black hair. He was struggling to move, wobbling to keep himself afloat. I fell to the back of our troop and put my arm around him.

“Brother,” he said, smiling, “it’s not going to be good for me.”

From far away we heard a chant: “We are Ataturk’s soldiers! . . . we are Ataturk’s soldiers! . . .”

We all started running toward the noise. Denizcan fell back and found me and we ran together. Cansu had her camera out. Emre was in front.

We ran into an intersection and hit the front of a mass—men, women, college students, dogs, people with gas masks on, people without, people leaning out of their windows three stories in the air banging pots and pans. They were all clapping. Cansu was taking pictures. We were all cheering. There was so much noise I didn’t know how I heard the tear gas being fired, the crisp snap, steel on steel, a gunpowder thump and the sinister suction sound accompanying it, as if a canister of air as big as a wine bottle was removed permanently from the earth’s surface. White smoke rushed ten feet into the air and then fell. You could taste it immediately. It tasted like acid and sand.

“Don’t run,” people called. “Don’t panic. Walk. There’s nothing to worry about.”

My eyes were burning. I shut them as tight as I could and felt tears leak out to seal the gaps I couldn’t. I put the mask on first and then the goggles. To put the goggles on I had to take my glasses off. I held my glasses in one hand and pulled the goggles down over my eyes with the other. My goggles had been strapped to my forehead where I had been sweating and when I put them on condensation made seeing impossible. I pulled them off and wiped the lenses with my fingers and snapped them back on and put my glasses on over them. I looked for Denizcan. He hadn’t moved. He was bent over his bag with his mask on, wearing his glasses. He had pulled an extra hospital mask out of his bag and strapped it onto an older man, and now he was looking for his goggles.

The crowd was pushing past us. People called out, “Don’t panic! Walk, don’t run!” Denizcan found his goggles and turned to put them on the old man, but he was gone. I clapped his shoulder and he recognized me. Then there was another blast, the gun shot and the suction, and the white smoke shot to the sky and then plunged back to earth and chased us downhill. We ran. There were so many of us we all ran into each other. We were jammed inside a narrow street and the noise was deafening. There was so much movement you couldn’t concentrate on anything except what was directly in front of you. And every time you slowed down, even if you were trying to help somebody, somebody else rammed into you from behind or shoved you out of the way because they couldn’t see either, and they didn’t know where they were going, and it was too loud and chaotic, and all anyone wanted to do was stop this disgusting acid from creeping down the throat.

I had my arm on Denizcan’s back to let him know where I was. I didn’t see Emre or Cansu or anyone else. We couldn’t speak to each other with our masks on, but we heard, “Come, come. It’s safe here,” and we turned and saw a line of people running into an apartment building.

Three stories up we tore off our masks. Denizcan was crying. His eyes were puffy. Somebody pushed me out of the way, “Here, here.” She sprayed solution into his face and down his throat.

“Where’s Cansu?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

The living room window overlooked the street. People were still running. I didn’t see Cansu. More people ran into the apartment. The ladies who lived there were telling them to sit. I tried to remember what Cansu had been wearing. She would be one of the only blondes. Then I saw her.

“Cansu!” I went to open the window and everyone started yelling at me.

“Don’t open the window! What are you, crazy? You’ll let the gas in!”

Denizcan screamed that our friend was down there. I ran downstairs and opened the door and shouted her name. She saw me and ran toward the apartment. Before she stepped inside she took one more picture of the street.

“I got an amazing video,” she said, once we were upstairs.

I didn’t want to watch it. I went to the window and stared out onto the street. There was nothing to see. One or two more people ran by. Parked cars looked deserted, like post-apocalypse deserted; like the world had ended at 12:05 pm Thursday afternoon and everything was frozen exactly as it had been at that point. Nobody leaned outside of their windows anymore. They were all shuttered up or the drapes were pulled. From the right, a man stumbled out of a side street. He wasn’t running fast, but he was trying to. He looked older, maybe mid-forties, and he had the kind of stubble over dark skin that was characteristic of Turkey’s working class. From behind him, four police officers chased him down. One threw him to the ground by the collar and in an instant the rest were on top of him, kicking his head and body with their heavy boots. When they were satisfied they picked him up, one officer on each arm, and dragged him away.

“Come away,” someone said, “come away from the window.” It was one of the women that lived in the apartment. She was my age, clear-eyed with thick black hair and a smile that came easily. She told me it wasn’t safe to stand by the window. I wanted her to smile more.

“Come away from the window,” Denizcan said. “Everybody stay away from the windows.” He was on the phone talking to someone, first this person then another, recounting what had happened. He said Emre was safe. Everyone else was okay too. Cansu was watching the video on her camera. Someone had a cord that connected cameras to computers and was telling her she could put the video on the Internet if she wanted to. “Everybody’s okay,” Denizcan said. “Sit down, it’s okay. Everybody’s safe.”

“What are we going to do?” I asked him.

“We’ll stay here until we can leave, if that’s okay with—”

The two women who lived in the apartment were already bringing hot tea on saucers. They ushered us into seats and brought sugar for the tea and cookies and crackers. “You’ll stay here as long as you need,” one said. “You can sleep here if you need,” the other said. Denizcan looked to me and sighed. For the first time since I’d met him he looked visibly tired. He let himself fall back into his chair, and he shut his eyes with his forefinger and thumb. “And we’re supposed to be the barbarians . . .” he said, under his breath, barely audible, as if the wind from his lungs had borne the reluctant words out.

The home was familiar in its decorations, the cloth over the sofa, the formal dining room table, the mothball smell, the TV from 1996. A framed portrait of Ataturk stared down at us from the living room wall. It reminded me of my grandma’s place. Our hosts offered us watermelon, and everyone smoked cigarettes in the kitchen. It became clear to me that as long as we didn’t run out of cigarettes, everybody was going to be okay. God help the police, or anyone else, if we ran out of cigarettes. Denizcan wanted to turn on the TV, but the local stations were either showing playbacks of Erdogan’s speech or critics analyzing Erdogan’s speech. None of the news stations were showing the streets.

“I think we should wait until it’s dark,” Denizcan said. We had to get across the water, from Istanbul’s European side to its Asian side. My dad lived on that side and so did Denizcan and Cansu. Our options were to take a taxi across the bridge or a ferry. Denizcan was worried the ferries would be shut down. He asked our hosts to call a taxi.

The street outside the window was very quiet. Eventually I saw locals walking with grocery bags and tourists with book bags. Taxis and other cars drove past. We discussed going down to hail a cab, but Denizcan wanted to wait until dark. I was okay with his plan. I sat sipping tea and listening to tales. We were so comfortable in that apartment, the people were so lovely, that dark came too soon. When it did, our hostesses’ uncle came in and told us the streets were better now. No taxis would pick us up, but he thought the port in Besiktas was running again and he said he could take us there.

We stripped ourselves of our gas masks and goggles and anything else we thought the police might use against us if they searched us. Cansu took the memory card out of her camera. Denizcan told me to speak in English if we got stopped. I thought about my mom and dad.

We said goodbye to our new friends, the kind, goodhearted people who opened their door to us. I tried to give them the gratitude they deserved, but the right words didn’t come and the moment felt like it was slipping away and we all hurried out the door to capture any good luck we could.

We staggered down one street and then another. Everything was beginning to look the same to me. I had no idea where I was. Night had fallen on Istanbul and the street glowed green from the light spilling out of curtained apartment windows. No one was out now. The street was ours, but we moved swiftly, our heads on swivels. Erdogan’s civil servants would be out now, with bats and brass knuckles and maybe knives. We turned a corner. Our uncle stopped to get his bearings. He was old and short and wore his shirt tucked into his pants. If we got hit with the gas, I didn’t know how he would hold up. He asked a man walking down the street where Besiktas was. The man pointed left. We started to go that way and immediately ran headfirst into a mob.

For a moment we didn’t know what to do. The night was hot and bright. The mob was marching toward us. I thought it could have been one of ours. Nobody acknowledged us, and I couldn’t hear what they were chanting. Then our uncle turned and ran. Without warning or question, he ran, and we all ran after him.

At first we ran hard. But then nobody chased after us, and after a block we ran only because we were afraid. I didn’t know what we were running from or what we were running to. Newcomers on the street said we were running toward the police. Others saw us and started running themselves. All day all I had done was sit and run, sit and run, one after the other. I hadn’t accomplished anything. I didn’t know why I was here. Was the world going to change because a few kids exposed themselves to tear gas? I didn’t understand it.

Night was on and it had started to rain. I heard the drops splatter against the window from the same seat I had sat in an hour ago. Our hosts made more tea. Denizcan was pacing the living room. He worried about me and Cansu, and about the fate of his country. If the people were being lied to, he had to tell them the truth. But he didn’t know how and, anyway, there was nothing he could do about it right then.

“Sit,” I told him, and he stopped pacing and sat next to Cansu. He couldn’t not care. He couldn’t hide the fire behind his eyes, the irreplaceable spark that kept the hero in his soul burning. When I remembered him, I wanted to remember that he had fought for the world he desired. That he believed he could save the world by saving an individual. I didn’t understand him, but I knew he was honest.

“Are you okay?” he asked me.

I told him I was, and he took a deep breath. He stood up. He couldn’t sit for too long.

“We’re going to get you home,” he said. “I don’t know how, but we will.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100005139099419 Ed Ward

    this is great

  • John Silva

    Very well written Doruk. I am very impressed.

  • Paul Mahoney

    Amazing first-person account. Honest and clear-eyed. You’re a hell a writer.