A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)

October 7, 2009

Charlemagne once said that to learn another language is to have another soul. If the man speaks the truth, I am on a quest for my fifth soul: I started Turkish classes the Tuesday after I arrived.

Pinching pennies as always, I passed on the highly recommended but expensive language school that most foreigners attend and found a discount program taught out of a teacher’s apartment. Hakan, said teacher, is a wiry-haired anarchist who speaks fluent Russian, Arabic, Turkish, English, and Hebrew. He has absurdly wide nostrils – the phrase ‘cocaine pipes’ comes to mind – and doesn’t seem to own anything that’s not black.

The one other student in the class was a Nigerian man who entered Turkey for ‘a conference’ and never intends to leave. After five minutes of Hakan and me trying and failing to pronounce his name, he said that we could call him Nibs (an odd choice, but at least it wasn’t Icemen). Hakan took great pleasure in telling Nibs how to get a job and a visa under the table. He also took great pleasure in teaching us when he felt like taking a break from chain smoking. After the two day free trial I decided this was not the best use of my time and threw my hat to the wind.

The proverbial hat landed at the steps of CNN’s closet-sized bureau in Istanbul, and so suddenly I have become an aspiring reporter. A disgruntled student with an uncomfortable shoe gave me my first clip by throwing said shoe at Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF. But things began to get really exciting on my third Tuesday in Istanbul.

We spent the morning at the annual meeting of the IMF-World Bank conference, which was remarkable most for its complete lack of inspiration. Most of the work of the conference – keeping the pockets of G7 bankers lined, disenfranchising the poor – had been done behind closed doors in committees and seminars over the weekend. Tuesday and Wednesday were for the press and the public.

As we unpacked the camera gear I noticed the cameraman had packed a gas mask. Fat chance we’ll be using this, I remember thinking. We were in a vast conference center protected by a thousands of policemen. They barely let me in the place, even with press accreditation. No shoe-throwing dissidents were going to spoil this party.

Not long after we arrived, I got an email from one of my new friends, a former (?) anarchist turned international lawyer. It was a forward from another anarchist, calling for people to ‘make the streets of Istanbul miserable for the people who make our lives miserable.’ The action was supposed to begin at 10am. We were doing live shots until noon.

Noon came and we went. I was partially right: no shoe-throwers were getting anywhere close to the conference center. They were being blasted by water cannons mounted on Armored Personnel Carriers on the street outside. But I was wrong about not needed the gas mask.

We left the conference around noon and made our way towards Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul. The maze of ancient streets that radiate from Taksim square are perfect for two things: touristy aimless wandering and playing cat-and-mouse with cops who want to stop you from vandalizing shops and creating general mayhem.

 It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. We either followed cops or gravitated towards the spots where lots of police helicopters were buzzing overhead. Protesters wearing scarfs over their face threw rocks through shop windows and at the cops, and the cops returned fire with tear gas and water cannons.

My brother has always claimed that you can go anywhere if you look like you know where you’re going. I did not expect this to apply to walking into the middle of a cop-protester skirmish, but our cameraman strapped on his gas mask and walked straight through the police line. I followed.

It turns out inhaling tear gas kind of feels like having strep throat. Reflexively, you start crying, which then psychosomatically leads you to panic, and all you can think of is stopping whatever mischief you are up to and running away. Thankfully, the sensation passes after a few minutes, and quicker if you squeeze lemon juice into your eyes. The correspondent, cameraman, and camera intern were hit much worse than me, and if my internet connection were faster I would link to the footage we shot that was briefly the top hit on CNN.com… I leave that to the more enterprising to Google (and if you feel like posting the link below, that would be great). UPDATE: Here it is!

Who knows what the next two Tuesdays will bring?

Share this:
Facebooktwitterredditlinkedinmail

3 Comments

  1. James says:

    Gillian, how crazy, I was in Istanbul that day!!!

    I had no idea you were there too!

    I was drafted in as an extra tenor for a choir from Warwick for a trip to sing in a concert in the “Istanbul Bach Festival”. The concert was that Tuesday evening in the St Anthony of Padua catholic church, actually not far from where lots of the demonstrations were taking place….

    So sorry I missed you, it would have been fun and memorable to see you in such an unexpected location!

    Hope you are still having a wonderful stay. How long will you be there? Such an amazing place (and I was only there for two nights, hardly scratched the surface….). I was surprised at how exotic it felt. It has made me think differently about other more familiar places too; eg the plethora of beautiful mosques (in the old part of town anyway) make me think about how it must feel to be wandering around Paris and seeing ornate churches on every corner, if you’re not used to that….

    I look forward to reading more about your adventures!

    James xx

  2. G says:

    Hilary, that’s definitely one of the clips – there’s a longer one somewhere out there that shows our intrepid cameraman going straight into the line of fire, and then an old man pressing lemons into the cameraman and the correspondent’s eyes, which provides (rather unsanitary) relief from the gas.

    James, I can’t believe I missed you! Let me know if you find your way back here in the not-too-distant future…

Leave a Comment