Attack at Gumushuyu: Gas bombs, burnt hands, hot chai

There were at least a thousand gathered at Gumushuyu. We were on a huge, sloping hill, to our left was the Beshiktash football stadium and straight ahead, falling downward across the highway onto the shores of the Bosphorus, the Ottoman government palace. Days before, members of Carshi, Beshiktash football’s  hooligan gang had hijacked a bulldozer and drove it into the gates of the Palace. The hooligans were quickly subdued but the effect added further momentum to the protesters’ cause. Reports and photos of the hooligans, joyously steering the ‘dozer through the gang of fleeing cops no doubt brought at least a faint smile from millions from Izmir to Rize. The flagrant abuses of the police force was obvious—the ridiculously overhanded attacks by the AKP government had angered millions of Turks whose politics might be generously described as moderate. Camped upon the hills of Gumushuyu were families, students, elderly couples, middle-aged secularists, drinking and eating like a picnic. It wouldn’t last.

As one moved further down the hill and approached the highway and the police lines, the ages of the protesters gradually decreased. At the very front were masses of exclusively young men, testosterone-filled, likely sexually repressed teenage boys itching for some confrontation with the police. The cops themselves numbered at least 300 strong, with a few water cannons added to their arsenal. Jack-booted and helmeted with war-time gas masks, many of the cops clutched thick, pipe-like guns–tear gas guns. The sun was going down and with its falling, the mood was changing. The boys at the front grew more restless, insults were exchanged between the government forces and rebels. Some began to chuck small rocks. You could easily feel things were changing — the hum was getting louder. Like two sides staring at each other before a battle–something was eventually inevitable.

One of the biggest differences between this and a traditional battle is that in Gumushuyu, only one side was armed. Albeit overwhelmingly with tear gas guns and water cannons filled with acid water and less with actual bullets. No doubt there were real bullets in the wait, but it would have been regime-suicide for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. It’s been  decades since the Turkish government openly gunned down its own citizen protesters ( That is excluding the conflict in the Kurdish regions in the east that dragged on as if the Turkish army needs something to do with its millions in military aid from America and the hands of nearly every Turkish male citizen from 18 to 20 years of age. Shooting bullets had been ruled out for now, but covering the city of Istanbul in a blinding blanket of tear-gas had somehow been ruled advisable).

More rocks were thrown. I’d wrapped a sweatshirt around my face in semi-effort to protect against the clouds of gas we knew were coming. A skinny teenager ran up to me–no goggles, no mask, adrenaline at full level. All I could make out was “Arkadashim”, my friend, but even an idiot would know what he was asking for. Without hesitation I removed the sweatshirt and ripped the cheap fabric in half. He kept speaking to me in Turkish, smiling, hugging me and giving me the trademark Turkish male head touching. I like that. All had become temporary brothers but this custom of gentle male-head butting is customarily universal across Anatolia.

An explosion came followed by a small cloud of smoke that rose from the police lines. The cops had fired a warning shot. This just prompted a hail of rocks and jeers from the young men at the front. Up on the hill, further back, crowds sat pensively, sensing something brewing but mostly, perhaps assuming themselves safe with their distance. The hill was at least 250 years away. The change then came suddenly; a cacophony of shots rang out, 8-9, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, quickly in succession. Within less than ten seconds, the air below was billowing with white gas, from the top of the hill it was impossible to make out what had moments before been perfectly clear. Cries of anger and panic flowed up the hill. The younger protesters were pushed back, fleeing the gas and retreating up the hill. I could smell the gas from my position up on the hill easily by now. That smell had become the little devil to all of us. I had a sick exhilaration from this smell; while a disgusting scent that will make your eyes and throat close up within a few seconds of exposure, that smell was a signal for my nervous system to send shots of adrenaline  and joy spurting through my body. The gas canisters then reached the hill, screeching downward from the sky. A canister landed within 20 feet of me. That was when the Chaos reached us.

The hundreds, reduced to a semi-frightened mob, fled up the hill. A fat, old woman fell in front of me. Another young man and I hoisted her up. Another gas canister landed closer. I couldn’t make out 15 feet in front of me, we were all in a cloud; a wreaking, annoying bitch of a cloud and ran into your throat and made your eyes cry shut. The fat old woman moaned something. Another gas canister landed further away, I couldn’t see it but you hear them hit the ground. The man called me again and we together dragged the woman up the hill, at least getting her up the most difficult parts. Yet another gas canister shot into the mud from the air. Excessive.  I watched the canister begin to sputter and puff out gas from both ends.There was some newspaper on the ground. With these thin layers of paper I filled my hand and then, a profoundly idiotic move, picked up the burning canister and hurled it back down the hill. Now picking up tear gas canisters that have just been shot at you and old women sitting close to you and hurling that back at the paid thugs is not anything to argue about in my opinion. I would estimate most than half of all canisters shot were picked up and returned to their source.  Turks are firey, fighting people. You can’t compare our Occupy with their uprising. We look like cowards; obsessed with minute theory, gender, race and class political correctness, doomed to destroy each other before the government even begins putting any effort into it. Not so with the Turkish protesters. Most of the people resisting at the very front were young men. The protesters  didn’t hold meetings and encourage a 50-50 male/female breakdown in these situations, telling the young men that many should hold back and let for an equal representation of genders, ethnic groups and sexual orientations in front; they just did whatever the needed to do and brothers and sisters supported each other as was seen fit.

When you pick up a burning tear gas canister, it doesn’t burn at first. At first you feel nothing. Then, the expected stinging, under your skin burning. Before I picked it up I knew it was coming but did it anyway. The more it stung, the more my anger at myself grew. I made my way out of the madness, I could barely make out the ground. I could spot the bursts of light coming from the tear-gas guns becoming surprisingly close. People were carrying those who’d succumbed to the poison in the air. I felt like a coward but had no gas mask and could no longer breathe. I followed others into an alleyway, the buildings blocking off at least the core waves of gas.

I wandered through the haze. I had been away from my group for the whole night now. That momentary sense of loneliness in a crowd that was essentially one, temporarily united unit was symbolic of the isolation I had then imposed on myself, pushing anyone away who got too close. These thoughts came and went throughout the train wreck around me.  Hazy alleyways, people running here and there, the sounds of explosions coming back from below. For reasons I cannot recall, I found myself in some sort of nurse’s or medical clinic within minutes of wandering these alleyways. There were six young Turkish nurses wearing white coats with one ancient leathery-faced old man with that typical, wondrous beak of a nose. I  was wearing a Kemal Ataturk shirt, but had just recently and somewhat accidentally, shaved a mohawk onto my head. That, added with the forearm tattoos and the obvious fact I spoke poor Turkish might not bode well with older, more conservative Turks. Erdogan himself had insisted the protests were being led by “foreign hooligans”. Perfect, as this dawned on me, I didn’t look the part at all. The old man tried to communicate with me, eyeing my curiously but one of the young, blonde nurses cut him off “Yabanjeh” (the Turkish word for foreigner). He stopped his question, reassessed and offered me tea. He even bothered with asking how many sugar cubes I wanted. This kind of hospitality, in the most unusual of circumstances, can strike some of Western foreigners as jarring and incredibly touching. We westerners don’t treat each other like this. We’re too overwhelmed with competing and have all been taught our whole lives that if someone is in a bind, it’s by their own doing and one shouldn’t exert too much energy on their comfort.

Turks, like many people not from the United States or Western Europe, take a different view. If you simply wander off into the hinterland of Anatolia, as long as you show basic respect and decency, you will more than likely be welcomed into and fed in homes wherever you go–even if you speak 3 words of their language. But it’s not just in smaller towns or the countryside that one will encounter this. Istanbul is a massive, sprawling red-roof tiled monster, an ancient, modern city-state and yet in almost any neighborhood, especially the poorer ones, you will find people offering you tea, meals, advise without any expectation of gaining anything from you.

The old man placed an ice block in my burning hand, served  me my tea and asked if I was hungry. I thanked him and told him I wasn’t. The blonde nurse returned with two other women who brought some sort of hand cream, more ice and bandages. We waited for the ice block to melt. The old man sat down with me, eyeing me but not in a hostile manner, perhaps wondering what the hell I was thinking picking up burning objects or what I was doing in the middle of a tear gas “festival” or what I was doing alone. He had to be pushing eighty. He seemed concerned though. He kept an eye on me while he watched the a football game on tv. Perhaps the government was broadcasting the images of the protests, perhaps it wasn’t. During the first 24 hours of the protest’s eruption, videos, images or reports of it had been completely non-existent. CNN Turk (the Turkish CNN affiliate), famously showed a documentary about penguins instead of mentioning the brutality and complete chaos erupting throughout the historic center of Istanbul. This night was a few days in though. Perhaps it was being broadcast somewhere.  The nurses eventually returned, applied cream and wrapped my hand. I thanked all of them repeatedly and got up to leave, still feeling extraordinarily foolish but warmed by their unfazed kindness. The hospitality from nowhere helps any viciously isolated American. I might be a yabanjeh hooligan fool but it didn’t stop them from going out of their way to give me basic first aid and share a cup of tea. My right hand was unburned and I offered it in thanks to the elderly man. He shook it and then tightened his grip and held it “Kolay Gelsin, gench”.

“Take it easy, young man.”

Are we not Men?

Are we not Men?

Oliver Vog is a talented tattooist from Cologne. I met him in the back of Danny’s studio, drawing away Turkish and Ottoman themed flash. Perhaps he had been promised customers, perhaps not but few had arrived since his announced arrival in Istanbul. Not having anything to do with Oliver’s work, which as mentioned was excellent, but due to the almost serious collapse of Istanbulites taking of tattoos. I looked over his fezes, flaming daggers, evil eyes and hookah pipes, ready to be burned into a Turk’s skin at any moment. Oliver was tall, blonde, blue eyed, with a sturdy, stocky body. Like any artist of his trade, he was covered in evidence of his craft. His beard had a sight point in it and the fedora fit on his hat without an ounce of pretentiousness. He had a soft, voice of a medium tone and spoke to anyone in the most respectful way possible without being timid. He beamed with an understated kindness, but also stood with the confidence of a man who would cut your throat if he needed to— the type of person you might want to count as your friend in the time of an unexpected catastrophe.

“Vud yu like a tattoo?” he asked as he watched me look over his art. I lamented that I hadn’t the money to spend on tattoos at this particular moment in my life. “I’m waiting to make it big as an English teacher in Constantinople” I said. “Oh no, ther vil be no charrge. I vant to practice mein flower. Can I put it un your laig?” the gentleman from Cologne asked. I agreed without a moment of hesitation. “Too eager”, I immediately thought. I felt like I was committing some minor sin, allowing a thoroughly accomplished tattoo artist from a country with hoards of serious artists of this marking of the flesh trade, but I couldn’t say no. He had offered, it would actually be an insult to refuse his flower.

“Haus you leg?” he asked in his excellent but Tuetonically-flavored English. “My legs are mostly empty.” “Vunderbaar. De side of the shin vould go nicely.” I agreed but warned him that there would be much shaving required before he could begin The Marking. “Dun’t vurry, I have verked in Turkey before” he remarked with a lovely grin.

The bed was prepared, the mass of hair was scraped away, the equipment and ink was readied and i lied on my side with one of Danny’s classical art books, on Degas or someone like him. “Figures… I picked the only impressionist who officially sided with the fascists”.
Oliver turned on his machine, dipped his needle into the ink and moved towards my leg. I waited for the prick, that precious injection, the joyous Little Stab to begin. I kept waiting. I felt the faintest sensation, but nothing more, as if he was keeping the needle above my skin. This continued for minutes. “Oliver…you can put the needle in completely…”
“Wat? I am. I have a special majchine.”
Oliver, inexplicably, had a machine that was considerably softer than what I was used to experiencing. His speed was standard for outlines. I felt mostly nothing for the first thirty minutes. However, that feeling drastically changed as he worked his needle towards and above my shin bone. Now I felt it—yes, you couldn’t miss the needle marking you into the shin. Professional muay thai fighters, being used to taking kicks to the shins endlessly throughout the day, will roll steel bars back and forth across them at night, the permanently kill the nerved. Let me just say I am no muay thai fighter. I played soccer as a teenager. I had always wished the game was a little more violent than how we play it. I felt like some punching, full body shots and sidekicks should’ve been allowed (Rugby wasn’t offered in Georgia at the time and I found American football stupid, never understand the constant stopping and starting,  in addition to all of those pads and smothering, blinding helmet.) But there was and still is a distinct unpleasantness of being kicked in the shins, even for the most seasoned sado-masochist macho-striving teenage adrenaline-slave. That feeling of a direct, solid smack to the middle of the shinbone when your shin pad had moved off to the side, can knock all but the most determined human off their rhythm.

Now, I wasn’t having to suffer through some redbulled-up young man straight up leg cracking me, but I was getting a new experience, the more relaxed and acute sensation of a prolonged needle jabbing into the shin. It was worth it. After the initial surprise, I began, like many others to thoroughly enjoy it. Oliver moved back throughout the 8inch x 5 inch area. Outlines, colors, shading. It would take him over two hours, as this required diligence. Towards the end I began to show the a dreaded Weakness. This was a serious mistake in these areas.

One did not, could not do this. In pre-modern societies, from Tahiti to Japan, a major purpose of the tattooing of one man to another was this necessary demonstration of strength and to keep this poker face to the Master in the face of hours and hours, many times days of pricking and poking of a needle in the hand, into the flesh. Among societies in Polynesia, one did not leave boyhood unless he had, among other things, correctly lived through the process of near-full body tattoos. Rites of passage, uniform to pre-modern societies, are almost gone from our’s.  The comedian Joe Rogan has remarked “The Universe favors bravery. It doesn’t want weak bitches (men) spreading their seed”.  In the United States among our younger generations, this is not a sentiment that can be said to be uniform or even held by the majority of males or females, where displays of traditionally masculine characteristics can have any male accused of sexism and misogyny . Not so in Turkey or in the Great Nation of Deustchland for that matter.

I was just getting a tattoo, like billions of others. This was not some difficult, remarkable feat. However, fidgeting, moaning or bursting into tears is not seen as appropriate behavior by almost anyone. Ayca noticed my discomfort and ratched up some Tom Waits on the stereo. I’m not sure if Ayca cared at all for the melodic moaning of Waits but she’d noticed I had showed a recent, mild obsession with it. Oliver also noticed my discomfort. “Hoe are we doing??” he asked over the hum of the machine. I said I was fine, but was admitted I might need a break soon. “I am almost don mae friend. Do you feel it now?”. I had to tell him I did. “Dat is fine” he said as he continued to work, but then paused, looked into my eyes and gently but firmly asked “But are we not Men?”

Oliver produced a valuable tattoo that sweltering, summer day.