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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Surviving Istanbul

Even though I hail from Pakistan's city by the sea, Karachi where major civil unrest is a regular occurrence and often comes without warning, never did I expect to find myself caught up in all this thousands of miles away from home on the cross roads of the two continents. Istanbul, the largest city of the Turkish republic and the only major city that falls between the two continents of Asia and Europe. Media coverage has been very minimal in Pakistan, some are however courtesy of foreign media outlets familiar with the events that unfolded in Turkey's largest city Istanbul over the past few weeks. 

It all began a few weeks ago with demonstrators mainly the youth gathering at Gezi Park  which is located next to the iconic Taksim in Central Istanbul to protest against a development project that involved the planned demolition of the park in favor of a mega shopping plaza along with luxury apartments. The arguments of the protesters in the early days were that it was one of the very few green spaces remaining in Central Istanbul and for environmental reasons the Park must be protected. What started off as  movement to protect the park evolved into violent and destructive anti government protests with calls demanding the resignation of the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyeb Recip Erdagon. Different varieties of Anti Government protest groups had joined the environmentalists in Gezi Park, and the figure occupying the park and adjoining Taksim square had multiplied.

Majority of Turks living in Istanbul and other major cities particularly the youth are very proud of their secular and non religious identity and they feel threatened by the Prime Minister's recent initiatives for mildly curbing the sale of alcohol. I say mildly because, the only restrictions he has introduced is that you can not have liqour stores around mosques and corner shops can not sell from 10 pm to 6 am. The latter is also applied across most European Union countries including the United Kingdom, hence making it essentially a very European initiative. His opponents now label him an Islamist dictator in the making.

I was originally destined to stay a few minutes walk from the iconic Gezi park and Taksim square, because of the nature of protests and demonstrations which had prospects of turning violent, I opted to stay at a hotel located about 1.5 km away from Taksim Square in an almost equally happening and vibrant part of town. I arrived back at the hotel around 930 pm on Saturday night, it was mostly calm around Taksim at the time, and everything in my neighborhood was business as usual. I woke up the following morning and saw the hell that had been unleashed in Osmanbey and Sisli neighborhoods of Central Istanbul. I had stepped out of the hotel in the morning as usual to witness carnage. The entrance to the hotel resembled a make shift clinic with doctors treating the injured protesters and the air outside was not breathable, there was enough tear gas residue in the air to cause a burning sensation in one's eyes and throat. After taking a few quick snaps, I rushed back into hotel and headed straight for my room. The street right outside the Hotel was unrecognizable and resembled a war zone. Through out the night and the morning a major conflict had taken place between protesters and riot and the neighborhood of Osmanbey had become the new front line in the battle. I later came to know, that the night before, the Prime Minister had finally lost his patience with the Gezi Park and Taksim demonstrators after issuing them ultimatums repeatedly to evacuate and had ordered the riot police to march into Gezi park and empty it.

I returned to the lobby a few hours later just in time to check out and leave for the airport. Battle between riot police and protesters had resumed outside the hotel with fresh rounds of tear gas bombs and rubber bullets being fired by the police while the former were hurling stones at them. By now tear gas had made its way into the lobby, and even the air in the lobby was intolerable. The staff was very cooperative and helping indeed, they facilitated my exit from the hotel through the underground staff car park through the back of the hotel as I hopped onto a cab and made my way to the airport for my flight back home.  There was momentary panic but it subsided once I reached the airport. Such chaos is rare for this beautiful city and I can only hope that these protestors and the Turkish government are able to find a common ground and life returns to full normality in Central Istanbul very soon.