Not that long ago, the hive of activity that is Taksim Square in the European part of Istanbul was in the news all over the world… and not for the first time.
Back in 1969, in February some three years before Ireland saw its last Bloody Sunday, about 150 demonstrators were injured in clashes with right wing groups on a day that is also remembered as Bloody Sunday. In May of 1977, in what is known as the Taksim Square massacre, 36 demonstrators were killed by gunmen on the square on Labour Day. Fast forward to 2000 when two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death on the even of the Leeds vs Galatasaray (UEFA Cup semi-final). In October 2010, a Kurdish suicide bomber injured 15 police and 17 civilians in the process of taking his own life. Most recently, in June 2013, protestors trying to save the park from government developers keen to turn it into a car park and expand the shopping area, also met some heavy-handed treatment with three demonstrators and one police officer losing their lives.
There is little about the square to mark these events. It’s throbbing with activity day and night – with kids and adults alike just hanging out, chatting, enjoying the evening sun.
Like spokes on a wheel, the streets that converge on the square are lined with shops offering everything from designer gear (is it real?) to Turkish tat. And off the main arteries, the side streets are a maze of bars, restaurants, and cafés. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland when she went down the rabbit hole – I had no clue what to expect and was soon caught up in the melee. On a Friday night about 7.30, the place was like Grafton Street on Christmas Eve, with tides of people moving in either direction. Moving back and forth was fine – but crossing the street required sharp elbows and bare-faced determination.
Here in Budapest, there’s a pharmacy on every corner – or so it seems. When I went in search of one in Istanbul, I had to really look. I wonder what that says about the nation’s state of health? Is there a correlation?
If you’re into people watching, Taksim is the place to be. Every shape, colour, size is on view. Watching the tourists flail around like headless chickens (no doubt someone somewhere was watching me do likewise) was amusing. Those who’d already been in the city a few days knew enough not to take out their map. Maps are like magnets for the helpful agenda-ists – best to soldier on and pretend you know where you’re going. And if you pass the same people hanging on a corner three times in a row, just offer up their knowing grins to the tourist god.
It was here that I found a bookshop with English-language translations of local writers. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into over the years whenever I travel – looking for translations of local authors who are not widely published. I am currently engrossed in Buket Uzuner’s Two Green Otters: Mothers, Fathers, Lovers, and all the Others. It’s a fantastic read – so good, in fact, that the typos are just niggling rather than annoying. And that’s high praise indeed. While I was there, I read Olen Steinhauer’s The Istanbul Variations, an impressive account of the Cold War set in the city in 1975. And for later, when I come down off this post-Turkey high, I’ve another of Uzuner’s waiting in the wings.
Istanbul – you were quite an experience. I’ve made my peace with you and, if you’ll have me, I’ll happily return.