But being there has changed my life. I have seen much beauty - in the countryside, in intricate patterns, and in the people...
The day before we left, however, I saw something more.
You may know by now that what began as a peaceful sit-in by about 50 people of all ages has turned into a five-day battle between protesters across the country and the government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The initial conflict centered around plans to raze trees in Gezi Park, part of Taksim Square, to build a shopping mall and tourist attraction.
When police responded harshly to the environmentalists, using tear gas and water cannons, something broke in the Turkish citizens. People swarmed to Taksim from all corners of Istanbul, as the police kept on with bombardments of tear gas and water cannons, escalating the violence in ever-widening arcs. Over the past four days, the conflict has risen and subsided and shifted, but has not resolved. There are massive protests in many other cities in the country now as well.
How did this explode so quickly? Are Turkish people REALLY that environmental? In reality, it was just the straw that broke the camel's back. For a long time, many Turks have mumbled about the controls PM Erdogan has been implementing, like alcohol restrictions and other "quality-of-life" legislation. He is often referred to as a tyrant, a dictator, a sultan, and a controlling father-figure. This situation was the final straw, and the people are making their voice heard, loudly and strong.
Last Friday night, some friends and I were having drinks at a rooftop bar to celebrate our final night in this amazing country. Below us, waves of cheers and horn-honking rose and fell during the evening, with local Istanbulites peering down through the glass to watch. We saw the helicopters a little ways away hovering over Taksim and the thrumming of their motors blended in with the DJ's music, but as a New Yorker accustomed to noise, I didn't take much notice. At one point I got a tickle in my nose, and then my throat. Looking around for cigarette smoke which I assumed was the cause, I noticed other people in our group registering discomfort. Suddenly one of our friends, a diplomat, shouted, "tear gas!" We all felt it. The burning wasn't strong, and it dissipated quickly, but then again, we were over a mile away from Taksim Square. When we crossed the bridge to hail a cab, we had to stop over and over again to clap along with people passing and cars driving by, horns blaring. At this point, we knew there was a demonstration going on, and knew it had grown, but the details were hazy.
The following day, I met up with some Turkish friends at a cafe by the water. They had gone to Taksim the night before, returning to their apartment when the tear gas got too strong. They would wash their eyes and mouths and rest, and go back out again. And again. And again. The next morning, after recharging by the Bosphorus for a few hours, they were heading back to Taksim Square. One friend pulled out his phone to see a live speech by PM Erdogan. People at neighboring tables leaned in to hear. My Turkish is very rudimentary, but my friend translated the gist of it. However, the most telling responses were the looks on his friends' faces - of disgust and disbelief. When I said goodbye to return to my hotel and go to the airport, they headed straight back to Taksim.
Over the past few days, I have exchanged many short emails with this friend. Of course I am worried about his and his friends' safety, but there is a part of me that is envious he is able to be in the thick of a modern revolution. He speaks of the importance of this conflict for his country, and that his presence in Taksim is one of support. I feel helpless all the way over here - I fell in love with Turkey and then abandoned it in a moment of crisis. Aside from getting back on a plane to Istanbul, there is not much I can actually DO to help. Except that my friend said, "Everyone can help when the time comes, for example you can start by talking about Turkey with your friends."
So that is what I'm doing.
We in the USA live in a land that is democratic and free, and too many people don't even vote. Or they do, and then just sit and complain when the "other guy" wins. Turkey is a secular muslim country and there IS a vote there - but whether these demonstrators voted for PM Erdogan or not (and many of them did,) they are not just sitting and complaining. They are fighting for what they believe is right, and the power of the people is strong.
In the car on my way to the airport, a huge group of demonstrators crossed the highway, bearing flags and shouting and cheering and clapping. As they swarmed past our car, I clapped and cheered along with them from inside. One gentleman and I made eye contact for a few moments. I saw the passion and determination in his eyes, and his gratitude for the support, the clarity of his convictions and his tenacity, all at once. And that was possibly THE most beautiful thing I saw in Turkey.
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Please watch the news for the latest information, and please help by talking about Turkey with YOUR friends. Thank you.