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“Don’t go to Taksim Square today,” the carpet-seller warns. “Everyone knows there will be trouble.”
I am sipping tea cross-legged on a stack of carpets. In Istanbul you drink tea everywhere; in shops, supermarkets, in people’s houses, at the bus stop. Everyone keeps a little hot water urn around them somewhere just for the purpose of offering tea to anyone they happen to bump into. If not, they run to their neighbour or the nearest tea shop and come back bearing small glasses on a tray with a handle on top.
After tea, Nazif pours out two glasses of raki, the hard Turkish liquor that tastes of aniseed and is knocked down in neat shots. “Here – you will need this,” he nods knowingly.
I’m not actually planning to go to Taksim Square, but I need a visa for Syria, the safest country in the Middle East, whose people are busy celebrating the re-election of Bashar Al-Asaad. I get a taxi to the Syrian Embassy, which is behind Taksim Square. Along the side of the road, police vans pull up and hundreds of policemen jump out, armed with batons and shields. The traffic is being stopped and turned around.
“Get out here,” the driver signals. He is not allowed any further.
So I get out and cross the wide square on foot. 30 years ago there was a peaceful workers’ demonstration here that ended in bloodshed when tanks rolled into the square, trapping thousands of demonstrators. Snipers appeared on the roof and began firing as the crowd surged in panic, killing 40. The government declared the slaughter the fault of the agitators, rounding up and arresting the leaders of the Workers’ Movement. The May Day march was banned for three decades.
Until today: May 1st, 2007.
Hundreds of Turkish people have gathered in the square to mark the occasion, some carrying posters or photos of the victims of the 1977 killings. The demonstrators are mostly young people – students, secularists and socialists. All of them are holding red roses and as they move forward slowly they are singing and waving the flowers gently above their heads. A wreath is laid at the foot of the statue in the middle of the plaza.
An old lady hurries by, her veiled head cast downward and her hands lugging the morning’s shopping in bags. Men in ragged clothing carry sticks with rings of bread for sale and young boys scurry in and out of the demonstrators selling bottles of water. A group of Korean tourists is snapping photos. A beggar sits hunched on the pavement beside a pair of scales where for a coin donation you can check your weight. In Turkey, the beggars are entrepreneurs and the carpet-sellers are philosophers.
Then, the tanks roll in. Stretching my head up to look at the tops of the buildings surrounding us, I watch the snipers move into position on the roofs, soldiers armed with semi-automatic guns. Most of them are taking photos of the protest below on their mobile phones. Riot police come pouring through the gaps between the tanks, thousands of them easily encircling and outnumbering the demonstrators.
But the people in the march only clutch their roses as though they are weapons, brandishing them above their head. They keep walking and singing.
Facing them in rows, the police advance, step by step, pushing everybody in the square towards the demonstrators; the old lady with her shopping, the bread-sellers, the water-boys, the tourists, the beggars. The singing turns to chanting.
The elections are coming up in a few weeks; the Islamist Party which currently holds power looks set to win, and the battle that has raged for almost a century between the Islamists and Secularists threatens to flare up again. Fists are now raised in the air alongside the flowers. The students are joined by older people, women and teenagers.
One of the police officers, a fat sergeant, is strutting up and down before the front line of protestors, barking commands. This may just be the greatest day of his life. The police have hidden their faces behind gas masks and Fat Sergeant is having a screaming argument with an inferior officer. He ends it by reaching for the junior policeman’s mask, pulling it forward and letting it snap back. The man clutches his face and howls in pain as Fat Sergeant turns on his heel with a satisfied smirk, his pudgy hands clasped behind his back.
The demonstrators are pulling scarves over their mouths and noses but they haven’t budged. When the tear gas starts, I am not expecting it so my face is still uncovered. People start running in all directions, scattered, hurtling down the street, throwing themselves into doors. The police who don’t have masks run too. I am running blindly because I can’t see through the tears streaming down my face and I have shut my eyes anyway to stop them burning.
Police are waiting in the doorways of the nearest buildings, beating the crowd with batons, forcing them back into the gas-filled air. There are police everywhere and they are still marching forward through the smoke, swinging their batons into anything and everything before them. I crouch against a wall as the line of police moves towards me. To my right, an old woman falls when the baton hits her and a policeman kicks her on the ground.
I shout but my voice is lost in the chaos and even I can’t hear it. A policeman is in front of me and something hard slams into my side and knocks the breath right out of me so I can’t scream anymore. I turn around but there is only the wall behind me. I cover my head with my arms and lean into the wall. The baton strikes my back again and again and, once it stops, I stumble to a doorway where, inside, police and protestors are recovering together in the stairwell. Water is handed out from the apartment above and passed between them. My eyes are still weeping, my skin still burns, I am coughing and my back and stomach ache.
10 minutes later, the demonstrators are back in Taksim Square with their banners and pumping fists and there are even more of them than before. When the police reach for their tear gas they only pull their scarves over their faces and raise their voices and fists higher.
Not me, though. On my way back to the hostel, I stop off for tea with Nazif, the carpet-seller. He tuts when I show him the black bruises on my arms and back and asks if I managed to get my visa. I shake my head. “Well,” he chuckles, “at least you have a souvenir of Turkey.”