I was leaning with one foot to the wall of Burger King and facing the bustling Taksim square in Istanbul. Ivana² had gone inside to use the rest room and meanwhile the rest of the troop had left to wander on the long Istiklal Caddesi Street which opens as a ray from the big Taksim square. We had come to Istanbul for casual tourism. One guy and I were from India and the two girls were from Herzegovina and Israel. It was day one and we had Taksim square as meeting point with our host from Couchsurfing. Clear skies and typically a lots of trade happening on and around the streets of Taksim, it was a normal evening on the 28th of May 2014. Something banged on the wall right over my head with a loud thud. Turning around in shock and anxiety, I saw a huge placard was thrown from the first floor of Burger King. The thick wood had missed my head by a hairline. There were two young people holding on to the placard from the terrace. It had the picture of Erdogan with a “ban” symbol over his face and something written in Turkish, which I had assumed, knowing his reputation, was something against him.
In no time, I couldn’t judge where from, some hundreds of young people assembled in front of Burger King and started shouting slogans in Turkish. I was concerned for Ivana. The situation looked really chaotic and dangerous. I went in the building to get her back and found the toilet upstairs. I hesitated to go in women’s toilet, especially for it being in an Islamic country. This was our first time to Turkey and I did not know the sensibilities of the people. But the situation was not normal and with every moment I could hear the noise outside growing high and reverberating. I shouted inside the toilet and got a response from her saying that she would need few more minutes and that she would meet me downstairs. I went restlessly down and saw that the crowd had increased many folds. I could not leave Ivana and go out. Meanwhile I had no Idea of the other two and had no clue how to identify the couchsurfing host in this chaos. I had totally ruled out the option of meeting him.
Deafening Sirens could be heard. A van screech parked in front of Burger King and many policemen with guns hustled into the restaurant. There were around 5 customers and few attendants. They spared a Chinese girl and me for being obvious foreigners and with no second thought a policeman punched a Turkish guy in the restaurant right in the guts. From the dynamics, I could say he wasn’t belonging to the protestors group. This put me on alert mode and all I could do was just stay put and not move an inch. The rest of the police troop ran upstairs and dragged the two protestors down. The girl was screaming and the guy was slapped tight on the face. I was simply astounded in what event we got locked in right on day one. I was trying hard to maintain my composure. The least I could do was attract attention until the air clears.
It was the first year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. On the same day, an year before, around 3.5 Million people participated all over Turkey, 22 people died, 4900 people other were arrested and some 134 detained for protesting against Erdogan’s government for various issues concerning rights of citizens (Source: wiki). The plan to have shopping mall and having people evicted out of their favourite Gezi Park near Taksim had sparked that final trigger and brought millions to streets. This was one of the first world events which came to action more through the social media as any other formal way were suppressed. Thousands of people took to the square and it was one of the landmark protests in the history of Turkey. The famous picture of tear gas being sprayed at a girl with red attire might remind you of this event and the tension of the time. At this juncture, Turkey was slowly becoming the hotspot for the media, with many agitated people slowly showing up participation in protests and riots: of which the majority were the young. Erdogan’s government playing their religion cards had their major middle aged and old religious population on their side. We were aware of this tumultuous situation in the country, but our timing as tourists were miscalculated, as we least expected another protest to an anniversary of a protest!
The police threw both the youngsters in the van and drove out of the crowd. By this time, Ivana was already out. She was waiting at the stairs and not knowing any of the happenings outside. I called the other two and all of us came together soon enough. Surprisingly our Couchsurfing host Emre² had already turned up and had located the other two. He recommended us that the crowd could go big and soon enough more police would come. He mentioned that situation was going out of control at many places in the city and that he got punched by a policeman on the face in Kadiköy. Apparently he had just gone to a restaurant, washed his face and came to meet us as if nothing happened. Emre was working for the Turkish Airforce. He was saying the story with the calmness pertaining to the people of such fields. He could have simply sit at home and waited. After all he was living in Kadiköy and he was supposed to meet us in Taksim. Both were hotspots for any kind of agitation in the city. We are grateful to him that he was concerned and wanted to ensure our safety. We chose Burger King as a meeting point as it was internationally known and apparently the protesters chose the same location for the terrace had the perfect sight to reach out to a crowd in the square. Our luck! Emre mentioned that we could take refuge for a few hours in some place far from such demonstrations and he took us to an unassuming restaurant hidden in the small streets around Istiklal Caddesi.
Sitting in the restaurant we were asking him the background of the protests and I was especially curious on how or what had driven the youngsters to take charge. Emre mentioned a name as the drive: “Atatürk”. That was the first time I got conscious to this name. Earlier I had seen this name at the International Airport in Istanbul. It was the name of the airport itself: Atatürk International! I never cared to inform myselves on names of international airports1. The story what I heard from him then was something I witnessed resonating with multitudes of young people. Getting to witness all these happenings this travel extended to be more than just sightseeing and was starting to inspire! Three things resulted out of this travel. First I got a great friend in Emre. Second I got two best souvenirs ever and the third is simply that I made a mental note to inform myselves on the people, whose name are given to Airports1. These names seem to reverberate more to the concerned societies. These are also the names that the respective countries want to showcase to an international audience as their chief identity. Being in Turkey and discussing with Emre, this was my chance to get to know their identity Mr. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Leaders create „hope“ for a society and only a very few among them end up “doing” something about it and make a revolution. The society wants to partake in the vision of such leaders and together they achieve something extraordinary – simplified story of how Atatürk got to be the foundation of the modern Turkish society. He freed the country from the powerful occupants, the Allied forces and the frail ottoman empire, purely by game of wits and muscles. Once the county came in his hands, he founded the Republic of Turkey. Although he released the country from the empire physcially, he saw that the social issues were still gripping it. He decided to revitalize the society and went about being a visionary to clean it from inside out. He brought a religious revolution to free people from the suppression of the stringent doctrines and earned them the rights of free speech, equality, participation, opportunities etc. To give an identity to this liberation, he even dressed up in suit and motivated people to do the same to welcome modernity. It’s a common sight to see civilians in Turkey dressed up in suits. They are directly or indirectly adhering to his vision. It’s a pure genius move to see how he converted his vision to something of a daily habit in each person. Each time they wear a suit, it’s a reminder what they are striving for: Pure Genius!
Given the passion with which Emre was narrating the story, I assumed that Atatürk’s lifetime was something recent. Atatürk died in 1938! Living in 2018, 80 years from his death, I could feel that it takes some genius to be that of a visionary to foresee a problem of the future and begin the tweaking already in his lifetime in the early 20th century. He is still alive for the relevance of issues in the contemporary Turkey and not to miss, his sustenance measures. A coat might be a cloth, but it’s one of those symbols sustaining his thought to further generations until the issues are put off.
The next day on going around in the neighbourhood of Karikoy, we walked by a street filled with his pictures on a wall to its whole length. The more we saw him in the society, the more the image of him grew in my mind. At a local market, I was lucky to have a found a English copy of his biography. The kind of tension I could feel around and the thoughts what were fed into my mind over the last evening, made this biography feel heavy on the hand. It was the first time I approached a biography with complete respect. I’m halfway through the book, while I’m writing this. For the readers, here’s a wiki link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustafa_Kemal_Atat%C3%BCrk
That night we were roaming around the Kadiköy district. By this time, protests have been suppressed. Istanbul’s extreme busy life can bring back normalcy in minutes, without having a trace that a big event happened just a day before. On a random street in the district, there was huge banner of Erdogan tied to two houses on either sides of the street. It had him dressed up as Atatürk and symbolizing him as the future of Turkey: an alleged religious tyrant wearing the mask of a celebrated rational leader. At the time when they couldn’t oppose the enemy, they seemed to try the strategy of befriending the enemy to appeal to their followers. The fun fact in the whole story was that his true opposition was someone who was dead long before. I was wondering whether he had seen his opponent at all. Atatürk was dead, but it was miraculous to see that the “concept” Atatürk was still very much alive and giving a strong fight to the residing unwanted elements of the society. I could see him in every modernity and every politically charged youngster in Istanbul.
On our final day in Istanbul, we were headed to take the metro to the Airport in the morning. At the entrance of the Metro station, there was a young boy distributing some card to the people in a dutiful demeanour. I went to him and got a card for myself. That card from that boy about 10 years old was without comments or without any writing on it. It had just a face: Atatürk! and handed over by a 10 year old!
“Peace at home, Peace in the world” – Atatürk
P.S. It’s just any biography and a picture. Experience added value to them and till today, of any travels I made, these two souvenirs have a special place in my collection.
1 Eponyms of Airports in the world: Examples
- Anna International Airport, Chennai, India
- Mother Teresa International Airport, Tirana, Albania
- John F. Kennedy International, New York, USA
- Franz Joseph Strauss International Airport, Munich, Germany
² These are not the real names of my friends
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