Istanbul in Disguise: Up Close and Personal

On Day 3 of hotel lockdown, I cannot help but break my splintering mind into letters that hopefully resurrect the thought process of a vacationer caught in a beautiful city plagued with turmoil due to intolerable regulation.

It started with my desire to experience the culinary, high spirited, cosmopolitan scene of everyone’s favorite middle east means wild west destination, Istanbul. A city which exudes the aura and aroma of Aladdin’s enchanting adventures. Only, little did the ethereal Julikg and I know, the foreboding sense of unease was shadowing us within moments of stepping into a charming, dark and blinging staple –  the W hotel. Facing a square that should have hosted a bazaar, its gorgeous view of the ocean turned into a dark epicenter of chaos, evidenced from a stark day and night capture of the riots that we witnessed.

istanbul @sssourabh

For, as everyone told us, this wasn’t really Istanbul. This was Istanbul in accidental disguise.

From peace to terror

Before I got to Istanbul, little did I know that conspiracy was brewing in the political minds and raising anger in the folks of the country. Gezi park, in Taksim square, is at the heart of a congested traffic area, and constitutes of several hundred trees, making it one of the few natural spots in the city (think Central Park New York, descaled). Prime Minister Erdogan announced that he would scrape it and construct military barricades (which stood there before the park), which would later become a shopping mall. Protests were natural, only they turned from merry, freedom-seeking voicers to a warzone with fire, barricades, blood, and severe amounts of gas attacks. Mostly courtesy of the police getting violent with the growing crowds. Social channels exploded with graphic photos and terrifying videos of police trying to keep crowds down with tear gas and water, aggravating the populations and bringing in folks who simply wanted to rebel. And ironically, the social channels said one thing, probably quite accurately and truthfully as documented earlier, while the government said another, with infamous quotes like “Twitter is a menace” or “Even if hell breaks loose, those trees will be uprooted”. Meanwhile, local TV channels showed cultural shows of music, dance, and drama, either forbidden or discouraged from live coverage, a notion that now put the entire country into cognitive disconnect, with multiple news channels feeding conflicting information. Thankfully, we received ours from the reliable CNN and BBC, and the ever updating social feeds with #istanbul and #occupygezi hastags, accompanied by media evidence in the form of photos, videos, tweets and vines.

istanbul @sssourabh

Day 1: Luxury with tear gas

Being luxury seekers, our first jetlagged day was spent hiking up in sexy clothing to the upscale Nisantasi area, lined with La Durees and Louis Vuittons and Christian Louboutins and charming cafes, with enough eye candy to give your eyes diabetes. Despite neighboring Taksim, we were told that the riots were unlikely to filter here, until a clashing noise, a hoard of crowds, and the sight of an asthmatic patient in heels crashing at the doors of Topshop made us realize that there was more than chaos in the air – it was tear gas. Covering out mouths and racing down glittering streets of slowly closing shops, we ran into dead ends of bedazzled tourists, red scarved protestors and a raging smell of tear gas. Finally heading towards the hotel, we saw hoards of protestors rallying up outside luxury hotels like the Hilton and Ritz Carlton, thanking our stars that we were in the Besiktas area where the W was, not knowing that the water trucks were tucked right around the corner near the Shangri La, and oblivious to the fact that a key government was down the block. The thought of a cancelled luxury downtown dinner for a sub-par one on a west-village style lane seemed like a first world problem that we eventually came to terms with.

istanbul @sssourabh

Day 2: Transitioning from old town to the heart of the clash

Starting out late due to an oversleeping issue, the day to the touristy sites of Sultanahmet was a delay, where exploring the Grand Bazar (kitch), the Hagia Sophia (opulent but fatiguing) and the Blue Mosque (enchanting) diluted the memories of tear gas. After a rooftop lounge drink and fascinating views of the Bosphorus, we began a trek towards the hotel, passing bakeries and baklava windows and carpet stores and the likes that epitomize the captivaitng city of Istanbul. After some sunset photos on the crowded bridge, we decided to take a taxi for the rest. The first driver said no, despite no passengers, which we realized momentarily was due to the danger ahead. Obliviously, we were thrilled that the second driver was actually gutsy to seat us, heading towards the epicenter of the riots. For as we past the Taksim square in the distance, we saw debris, people, masks, armor, visible gas, a burning car, barricades and much more that was in direct juxtaposition with the sun splashed tourist land across the water. The taxi halted smack in the middle of a river of protestors, who we thought would rip our doors and lungs out, but who politely asked us to turn the car around due to a bomb threat up ahead (later we found that a bomb had indeed exploded minutes after our trek across the bridge). While several protestors were marching forward with anger against the government, several were adjusting their body armor and sharing photos on social networks to spread the word.The bravehearted driver scurried out of the area and closer to familiar grounds that we had hiked the day before, which were now caked in graffiti, waste and symbols of rage. On asking us to walk 200 meters through the crowd to our hotel, the sheer horror hit us that the pleasant square outside the W was actually the center of the attacks this time.

istanbul @sssourabh istanbul @sssourabh istanbul @sssourabh istanbul @sssourabh istanbul @sssourabh

Day 2: Night behind the walls and pink glass

The crowds were honestly not harmful, and many restaurants had eaters gaping out of windows, but the panic and hysteria in the tear gas saturated air was drenched in fear. We raced, clutching onto dear lives, cameras, and companionship, towards very familiar paths that became increasingly unpassable, and were thankfully whisked into the back entrance of our hotel, breathing air conditioned air like we had returned from outer space sans oxygen tanks. Racing right up to the bar which had panoramic 3rd floor views of the square, we were fixated to what was the epicenter of the evening, held conveniently in this central location as it was opposite the prime minister’s office. From burning dumps to broken road signs to ripped out trees and kidnapped barrels, the scene was like one from a thrilling action movie, only we were neither the audience nor the extras. We peered through the pink reflective glass windows, courtesy of the ambiance provided by the contemporary hotel bar, which dramatized the view. Squinting through the tear gas soaked air (even inside) we bonded with our hotelmates in observing cars being broken down, men being beaten up, and helpless eyes gazing for a simple gesture of freedom. And it would have been akin to watching a movie, had the landscape not shifted to a bloodied hotel guest crippling in down in the middle of the bar, shattering the glass dial light fixtures, having arrived from upstairs. He had been hit by a tear gas grenade that explodes on contact, his face gnawed by shrapnel and his body bloodied. We then raced out of the bar in panic and into the safety of our rooms, where we could still hear sirens, footsteps, and where anxiety hung dense in the the air. A few trips back and forth to the bar confirmed that it was slowly getting taken over by protesters, as the gas began to leak into the hallways too. Torn between sympathy for the hotel staff and anguishing pangs of hunger, we ordered room service, only to be told the kitchen was under attack, but the 3rd floor was serving dinner. And on heading up to it, the panicked staff was hospitable but naturally suffocating from tear gas rising from the floor below, reddening my eyes and choking many throats, which again mandated us to evacuate pronto. Eventually, the pleasant hotel staff was able to seal the seized areas and express concern for the guests, and in hospitable SPG fashion, the room service did finally arrive. Nonetheless, panicked guests collected in hallways to share stories in attempts to extinguish anxiety, as we glossed through the #istanbul, #occupygezi twitter and instagram feeds for shocking news about bloodied civilians, violent policemen, and a demonstration that had spiraled out of hand.

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Day 3: The calm after (and before) the storm

This day commenced with a tour of the damaged square, where graffiti and debris was sprawled wide enough, but being immaculately taken care of by cleaners, some of which were protestors, again depicting the goodwill of the population. Clearly a sign of living in a luxurious neighborhood. One cracked glass and some broken signs, along with sprayed anarchy symbols, were all enough to make us want to switch hotels into a more closed location. The Ciragen Palace Kempinski seemed to be bordered with Asia style gates and security, and it overlooked the water, which made us hope that trouble didn’t arrive via the Bosphorus. And as we left at 2 pm, the protest marchers began wandering towards Taksim, beckoning us to check in to our new residence pronto. En route, we passed by the spot where the car had burned last night. The road was singed and the walls still sprawling with bent metal barricades and oodles of graffiti.

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Day 3: Disenchanted by an eerie silence

The hotel was luxury for sure, but to a degree that saddened us, for as we sat bathing on the infinity pool, feeling infinitely safer, the disenchantment from the plight of this city’s population got tremendously distanced. It was a paradoxical juxtaposition to cross the golden gates and observe the setup of an opulent wedding attended by finely dressed dignitaries, models and radiantly wealth folks, while just behind the gates was a series of people fighting for their freedom at the cost of their lives. A much needed outdoor dinner resulted in our taxi once again getting stuck in a thinner but evidently active crowd of protesters, which we avoided by swaying through back alleys, only to notice undercover policemen. The entry to the hotel was greeted with concerned faces of the friendly staff and towels to calm us of tear gas inhalation. A much needed break of cappuccino and cookies greeted us in the opulent lobby, but we could not help being distressed by the sheer disparity between the coexisting lives separated by the golden gates. Every time the doors cracked open to let shaken hotel guests out of yellow taxis with brave drivers sporting positive attitudes, the whiff of tear gas filtered in, as did the jarring sound of honks and sirens. Twitter was abuzz with the Bosphorus bridge shut down for the first time, as other social networks shared news about universities and city squares being attacked profusely, all adding to the disenchantment. The feeling that silence is eerie was never more dominant than at this point in time, but the contentment of safety and the familiarly smiling faces of hospitality were nonetheless comforting. As lightning dominated the skies, making it a dramatic backdrop for a halted bridge and a plethora of sirens and spectators and rioters, we began to languish out of fatigue.

istanbul @sssourabhistanbul @sssourabh

istanbul @sssourabh istanbul @sssourabh

And while news has it that the destruction of the park has been halted, the chaos ensues, putting residents, their children, and tourists in the thick of the conflict in an otherwise flourishing economy.

And with one day left in an otherwise enchanting city, a working week day at that, I do hope that lines of communication are cleared. For above any matrix, framework, or act of expression, comes the need to listen, articulate, and communicate.

As for vacationers like us, the key was the very trending slogan: Keep Calm.

istanbul @sssourabh

9 responses to “Istanbul in Disguise: Up Close and Personal

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