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.”