When we first started planning our trip to Turkey is when the unrest started. What started as a peaceful protest against commercial development of a small city park turned into violence and riots around Taksim Square in Istanbul. It hit the news quickly and we watched closely for what was to come. Over the next few months, U.S. media lost interest and turned their heads toward Egypt and Syria. Discovering what was happening in Turkey was hard to see for an outsider looking in.
But travel warnings ended and it seemed that the city was quieting down. So we made our way to Istanbul. One day, I went searching for signs of what occurred just this past spring. I walked up Istiklal Street from our hostel to the square. Along the way Turkish ice cream vendors clanged bells and attracted crowds performing tricks with their ice cream scoops. Groups of young women browsed through the fashionable clothing stores. Stray dogs sniffed strangers and of course kebab vendors sliced piles and piles of meat, the smell of doner all around. No signs of unrest.
I continued to Taksim Square where I was sure I would find damage from explosions, makeshift shelter in the park, and graffiti lining the sidewalk. As I approached the crowds got bigger. People were walking in every direction, criss-crossing their way across the pavement. Going home, to school, to work, or to meet friends, I’m not sure. But people were going along with their everyday lives. I sat in the park- the source of the initial conflict. I watched two little boys roll down the hill as their mother watched along. A few couples and groups of friends sat on the benches talking. And tea vendors walked through chanting “chai?!, chai?!”.
I drank my turkish tea and people watched, looking for signs of what occurred. I found nothing. Graffiti has been painted over, new street signs put up, new sidewalks and pavement set, and flowers and bushes planted. To an outsider there is no evidence of the voices that were heard from Turkish people this past spring. It felt as though they had been silenced.
It wasn’t until later that day that I began to notice what has been leftover. We walked to dinner and saw two buses of police. As we sat inside the restaurant eating they began to gather in the side street in full riot gear. They stood there the whole time we were eating. And as we walked home, down alleys and small streets were groups of two or three police officers smoking cigarettes and just watching people go by. We asked a local what was going on that night. He said you’ll often see the police gather in crowded areas of the city, ready for any disruption, ready to silence it as quickly as possible with tear gas and rubber bullets. This is what the Turkish citizens were fighting against in the first place- freedom of speech and freedom of press. Something I take for granted, but something others continue to fight for.
I won’t pretend to understand what is going on in the minds of Turkish people. I don’t know if they think about these issues daily or if they just continue to live their lives with discontent for their government in the same way many in the states feel about theirs. But I do know we encountered many smiling faces while in Turkey- the friendliest people we’ve met so far on our trip. And I hope that the words that they speak are soon heard by their government.