In April, we were in Istanbul. We arrived on April 16, 2018. This was two days before Erdogan announced the snap elections- this meant the presidential vote would occur on June 24, 2018 rather than November 3, 2019. Erdogan is a highly controversial leader, and many suspected this changing of the election date to be a means to secure his campaign, to shorten the length of time for any opposition to plan and prepare. We were visiting Turkey in a tense, precarious time.
The government’s presence was incredibly palpable in Turkey. On Istiklal Caddesi, a central commercial street, armored police vehicles patrolled up and down at all hours of the day. They moved at an eerie, almost imperceptible crawl- one could pass them while leisurely walking. This slowness felt like an intimidation technique in itself. There was something utterly inhuman and unnervingly paradoxical about the contrast between the implicit power of the vehicle and this lazy pace. An almost-sleeping giant, a glacier.
In addition to these obvious, armored patrol vehicles, undercover police cars also kept watch over the public on Istiklal. These cars had black paint jobs and tinted windows. One could easily mistake them for normal traffic; they were disguised well enough to remain unnoticed. However, at odd intervals along the climb through Istiklal, these undercover vehicles would flash their sirens or emit a buzzer sound, deliberately attracting attention to themselves and removing the disguise. The message was clear: “just when you forget we are here, here we are!”
This watchfulness expanded beyond the outdoors and into private life. Soon after entering Turkey, my friend and I discovered we could not access Wikipedia. Further research supported this: we read articles explaining that Erdogan had banned Wikipedia in Turkey. We were forced to use VPNs and proxy servers in order to fully use the internet. We also could not use certain third-party websites to book hotels, cars, or flights. Booking.com was illegal in Turkey. These details may seem small when compressed into words, they may even feel small in my memory, but at the time I remember feeling such shock. I couldn’t imagine living in a country, under a government so paranoid of my activity, so paranoid about what I should or shouldn’t see online.
We arrived in Istanbul on April 16th. We planned on staying in the same AirBnB apartment until May 30th. On April 30th, we received a message from our host telling us we had to leave the apartment. The police had come and would be back to raid the building in the morning. Instantly, we panicked- where would we go? We were not familiar with this city; we could not even speak the language. We had booked this apartment months in advance. Any availability now would be far beyond our anticipated budget. We had already bought airline tickets to exit the country, tickets without flexibility. We felt stuck, and we felt angry with our host- why had he not come to tell us in person? His message was time stamped from hours earlier than when we read it. He had not checked to make sure we knew to leave. His brief message did not offer any suggestions on where to go. I called, demanding an explanation. He came to our apartment and told us that Erdogan was shutting down any businesses run through AirBnB. Our host explained that he used to rent apartments in multiple buildings through AirBnB. His other buildings had all been similarly raided and shut down- this was his last standing business. He told us that AirBnB existed in a legal gray area in Turkey, but Erdogan did not want AirBnB to exist because it wasn’t taxable. Our host suspected that a neighbor filed a complaint or a suspicion that a vacation rental service was operating in this building. The police had come to investigate, and they told our host that they would return in the morning to thoroughly search the building. Apparently our host did not own the building; he was renting it from a neighbor who owned a marble sink store. Our host and the sink salesman had already talked, and the sink salesman would move some of his wares into the rented building to make it look like he was not renting the building to our host. It was all very complicated, and difficult to fully decipher because of our lack of Turkish language skills, and our host’s limited English skills. Regardless of the specifics, we had to leave. We did not want to wait around for the police to come in the morning, so we tried to find a new place to spend the night. It was already 9:00PM. Booking.com was illegal, and we did not want to dip our toes into any other potentially illegal things. We did not know what to do. Luckily, my friend’s friend helped us; she was back in the USA and she could book a hotel using any service…she found a hotel and sent us the address. We had a place to go for the night (thank you, S).
We packed all our stuff…which was a lot, all of our clothing, all of our comforts from having already lived in the apartment for two weeks…and we went to the hotel.
We spent one night in this hotel before moving to a more affordable spot. This meant we had to change hotels on May 1st, May Day. May Day in Istanbul has been historically horrible. In 1977, a gunman opened fire in a rally in Taksim Square, killing 36 people. Turkish people have consistently gathered in Taksim Square on May 1st since this massacre, but in recent years May 1st has been a symbol of the clash between civilians and the government. In 2010, Erdogan began banning any gathering or rally in Taksim Square on May Day. This has resulted in riots and violence. This year, 2018, was no exception. The Turkish people petitioned to hold a rally in Taksim Square on May 1st, and the government rejected this plea.
On the morning of May 1st, we packed our bags to change hotels. We asked the concierge to call us a taxi. At first this seemed a simple request, but we quickly saw the concierge’s face turn from optimism to concern as she was on the phone with the taxi agency. Our current hotel was south of Istiklal Caddesi. Our new hotel was north of Istiklal Caddesi. The police had barricaded the entirety of Istiklal Caddesi, and many of the significant streets that intersect Istiklal Caddesi. There were sporadic checkpoints along this maze of streets, checkpoints at which the police would allow a handful of pedestrians through the barricades. We would have to walk.
Istanbul is a city of hills. Our current hotel was at the bottom of an incredibly steep hill. We walked up for what seemed like a mile, up towards Istiklal. It was exceptionally quiet. There were very few pedestrians, and we saw many police officers, confidently strolling in groups of two or three. Finally, we reached Istiklal. The street was entirely covered by police barricades; every shop, every sign of life was shut down. The typical shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic cajoling through the street was replaced by absolute stillness, absolute silence. Armored vehicles were parked in this emptiness, while police officers in riot gear silently leaned against their sleek, gray sides. We found a narrow checkpoint, lined up behind other pedestrians who wanted to cross Istiklal, and were ushered through by a police officer. We made our way to the new hotel.
It was too early to officially check in, so we left our luggage and went for a walk. Nearly every shop, every cafe, every business was closed. There were two distinct, repetitive sights: we saw many tourists confusedly wheeling their luggage, attempting to navigate through the maze of Istanbul without a taxi, and we saw cops, loads and loads of cops, confidently walking in small clusters. The cops seemed cocky, often laughing amongst themselves, as if silencing an entire city for a day were some massive joke. It felt offensive. It was frightening. This city, this massive, lively, vibrant city, could have its fire extinguished at the whim of a dictator. He could justify this shutdown by calling it an appropriate defense against the threat of “terrorism.” His citizens drew up a petition to hold a rally in Taksim- they followed his steps to legally exercise their freedom of speech, of celebration, and this was his response.
We didn’t dare approach Taksim Square that day- the police presence was threatening enough where we walked. We could hardly imagine what might be in the vicinity of Taksim. Later, we discovered that around 80 people were arrested for attempting to hold a rally in Taksim Square.
The rest of our time in Istanbul was fascinating, but definitely contextualized by the potential for oppression. We were more afraid. We now had more reasons to be afraid. We bought new plane tickets, deciding to damn the cost and get out of the country sooner rather than later. We stayed in Istanbul until May 14th, now in a new location (thanks again to the help of S), a new vantage point from which to observe the city. This hotel was half a block from Istiklal.
We had a window in our hotel room, through which we could hear blaring techno every night of the week until 5:00AM. We could not see the source of the music by looking out the window. This nightclub was further than expected, which meant the music was playing at a truly incomprehensible, unapologetic volume. This phenomenon made both me and my friend smile; the government in this city was so heavy handed, so ready to snuff out the first sign of rebellion, and yet here there Turks were, partying with abandon for all to hear. It felt like a giant middle finger to everyone in earshot. This specific experience left us with such a fond memory of the Turkish people: they are resilient, they are deep, they are vibrant, they are unafraid. The police rejected the petition to rally in Taksim, but still people gathered, willing to risk their well-being for the principles of freedom. This is something, some internal substance truly worth admiration. I hope to return to Istanbul someday, at a time when this collective passion is respected and fostered by the ruling party. I hope to see Istanbul as it is meant to be seen; not as a light slipping through the cracks of some concrete fist.