My sister and I were in Istanbul June 2013, the year of the Gezi Park protests. The second day that we were there, a Sunday, we figured that we should go check out Istiklal area and Taksim Square. We picked early Sunday afternoon because in our minds, logically, that is not exactly prime protest-riot time. And for a couple hours, we were right. The area was calm and lovely. We found an awesome book store and browsed for almost an hour. When we went back out, it was busier outside than it was when we had stepped into the store. Continuing down the street, we noticed a few American stores and fast food joints were boarded up or had their security grill down. The French Embassy was covered in graffiti. Cops in riot gear were popping up. We agreed that we’ll take a quick peek at Taksim Square which was close by at this point and we’d leave.
After quickly checking out Taksim Square and started the trek back down Istiklal Street, the crowd around us started to chant Turkish slogans of some sort. The atmosphere was both thrilling and unnerving because we had no clue what they were saying – was this crowd pro-government or anti-government? At this point, I noticed pretty much all stores were shut and then I realized that we were walking down an enclosed street with one crowd behind us and a slowly approaching crowd in front of us. Crap. Thank goodness one store saw our dilemma and just before they slammed down the grill, they waved us to hide with them. It’s amazing how a grill makes one feel safe! The grill was the open kind so we were able to see what was going on as the two factions drew closer and closer together. I think the Turkish men with whom we were hiding were rather amused at our being stuck with them. I was rather amused, too. Then suddenly, one of the guys said “bye!”. My sister and I were a bit confused – why is he leaving this free entertainment? Suddenly we heard, “Bang! Bang!”. And chaos erupted.
This is when we learned that while an open grill is great for seeing the action, it doesn’t do a whole lot in protecting you from tear gas. It turned out that we were not in a store (thank goodness) but rather one of the many passageways scattered up and down Istiklal. It was a veritable stampede through the passageway out to the open street on the other side. Tear gas moves quickly – either that or a stampede doesn’t move as quickly as one would think. Either way, getting that stuff in your throat is a burning and choking sensation and getting it in your eyes is a pervasive burning. Tears do nothing to ease the pain and rubbing makes it worse. I could have kissed the guy who saw my distress and poured some sort of water solution into my eyes. At that point, I didn’t care what was in it as it provided instant relief. But at that point, my sister and I decided that we had enough of Istiklal Street for one day.
So did being caught up in a protest and tear gassed negatively impact our view of the area or Istanbul? Nope. In fact, we went back to Istiklal Street twice more! Once we did have to hustle it out of there as another protest seemed imminent, and another time it was fantastic.