“Istanbul seems to be burning,” I thought, congratulating myself on having come up with a piece of deathless prose. I had this minor epiphany while walking down Aynalı Çeşme Caddesi, a street in Old Istanbul that wears the city’s Byzantine and Ottoman heritage with pride.
‘Caddesi’ means ‘street’ in Turkish, and it was one of the first words I learnt during my stay in Turkey’s capital. The other phrase on my mind that evening was ‘adani durum’. Adani is a lamb kebab that I had grown fond of, and the durum (wrapped in bread) version of adani was my standard dinner. But on my second-last night in Istanbul, while tracking down the eatery that served my go-to delicacy, I inadvertently stumbled upon a riot being put down in the Kurdish section of the city.
I was walking towards the street corner where the kebab shop is located, salivating at the thought of biting into a warm adani durum. I should have been able to tell that something was off: People were moving in the opposite direction (towards me), and I had to keep swerving to avoid them. This isn’t too far out of the norm for Istanbul, though, which could explain how I missed the signs that something was not quite right. There was a burning odour in the air that was making my throat raw and eyes water. I had never encountered CS tear gas before, and it was only when I heard the popping of grenades and saw the smoke that I realised I was not going to be eating at my usual kebab place after all.
Looking back at it now, the riot seems impossibly tame. Yes, there were clouds of tear gas billowing out from the streets ahead as a helicopter hovered far above. And I could hear the wailing of sirens all around me. But in the background chaos that is Istanbul, even a riot can go unnoticed—until you’re almost in it.
I had been walking along quite oblivious to my surroundings, a coping mechanism that Istanbul with its clamour demands of you. For one, every mosque seems to run on a different clock. While the muezzins call out the adhan to bring the faithful to prayer, there’s always a slight overlap, with one or two leading the pack. The chorus leads all the other sounds in Istanbul, five times a day. In the gaps between, there’s the traffic. It’s far more chaotic than my native Mumbai had prepared me for. A bold, but accurate, claim.
Desperate for attention and outraged at the perceived Turkish apathy, Istanbul’s Kurds had been at boiling point for a while and, soon enough, the graffiti on the walls in Beyoğlu began to sprout requests for change and demands for action. The writing was on the wall, literally, calling for a large public demonstration, and I had walked by, completely oblivious. The paste-up posters and spray-painted manifestos of the Kurdish youth in Beyoğlu are their way of organising protests offline, a final reminder to the public to show up. Social media and Twitter, in particular, are far more effective at organising such events, but the graffiti is akin to a last message for those who may have missed the electronic summons.
Rich, a 32-year-old American expat who had lived in Beyoğlu for 14 months, explained this system to me. We met for the first time at a local grocery store, both of us buying milk to rinse the tear gas out of our eyes. Realising that we could just as easily share the milk, we struck up a conversation, and he told me about the local dynamic. “This is a pretty regular thing now,” he said. “The Kurds organise and get a protest going; the police break it all up with tear gas. There’s usually a fair bit of force used as well.”
The use of force in conflicts is not new to Istanbul. The city has been the site for riots, war, sieges and massacres for hundreds of years. As most crossroads towns will testify, the business of war is similar to the restaurant business: Location is everything. Istanbul’s unique position on the Silk Route, guarding the gateway to Asia and the East, has placed it in the cross hairs for almost every conqueror and would-be world dominator from the time of its inception in 667 BC as the Greek city of Byzantium. Under the Romans it was renamed Constantinople, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
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(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)