Taksim Square has been called the heart of modern Istanbul. It is where families go for a Sunday outing, young people go to be seen, and the politically active go to protest. It is part Central Park, part Times Square and part Washington Square all rolled into one frenetic, fascinating, and fertile package. Originally a place where water was distributed, the square now distributes people: it is a place where a busy Metro Station, many of the bus lines, and the funicular to Kabitaş all coalesce. The square itself is huge, with street vendors selling simit, others selling roasted chestnuts, here’s someone roasting up spicy meat, and of course, there are carts full of fresh fruit. On a busy weekend day, there is one vendor every 50 square feet or so. Ohhh the smells! How they tempt you! So far we have resisted in the interests of our general health but each week our resistance weakens. If you find a place to sit in the grass that forms a slender perimeter, someone will inevitably try to sell you çay (tea) from a portable supply. There are memorials, famous old buildings, and fountains, but it is the people that are the heart of the square. We have seen musicians and acrobats performing to appreciative crowds and lines of 20 people – strangers – learning a line dance with their arms locked about each other’s shoulders with traditional music playing from a CD player on the ground. It is here where the major student protests have been staged, but we have not seen these first hand.
Istiklal Street juts off one corner of the square like an exclamation point. It flows downhill from the square to the Galata Tower. With a ban on vehicles, the street is wall to wall jammed with people – in jeans and t-shirts, high heels and short skirts, and burkas. A touristy streetcar clanging its bell, will take you through the crush of humanity straight from Taksim to near the Tower. Young boys vie with each other to jump on the back of the streetcar and hang on to hitch a ride. The street is lined with every store imaginable from Western stores such as Burberrys, H & M, and Swatch to small shops selling dondurma (Turkish ice cream) to the ubiquitous shops selling kebab and döner, which start out in the morning as huge spits of meat that rival a small calf in size. They are cooked by vertical heaters, and slices are shaved off as the day wears into night. There are the “characters” who we have begun to recognize: the ancient man with a scale who will guess your weight for 1 TL, the shoe shiner with his elegant apparatus, the young men selling bubble wands who blow bubbles through the crowds. We have visited a kebab shop with a rooftop terrace from which to view the chaos below, and later sat with our “black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love” Turkish coffee in at Mandabatmaz in one of the covered “alleys” or passajes. We have gotten lost in the back streets.
[photos above from http://istanbul.for91days.com/tag/istanbul-blog/]
Istiklal Street is also home to many consulates, and we have on a few occasions witnessed an impressive police presence with young officers in riot gear and gas masks at the ready – prepared to encounter those protesting wars in the Ukraine or events at the Syrian border. While we were there, we noticed no confrontation, but the expectation of it chilled us and made us walk a bit faster.
One Sunday, as a respite from the crush of people, we meandered through a Municipal Book Festival in an open-air plaza a block off Istiklal. Second hand paperbacks, LP records, prints, maps, and other memorabilia were being sold from four or five dozen booths; at the center, of course, a café, where several browsers sipped cups of çay.
Pawing through a box of old post-cards, I found a vintage post card from Fire Island, New York – near my own childhood home on Long Island. Eerie! We came home with ten prints of ancient Ottoman calligraphy in brilliant golds, blues, and blacks for 10 TL (about $4.00). A Turkish friend who visited the festival later the same day told us that after some time happily browsing the books, her eyes started watering. At first, she wondered why, but then remembered the protesters were only a block away and that it must be a waft of tear gas that caused her discomfort. The push and pull of this society baffles us.
Still, the chaos, the crush of humanity, the crowds beyond imagination are endured in a way that appears unruffled and (most often) accepting. People make way for each other, ignoring the inevitable jostling and slight bumps; crowds and lines are endured. We saw no intentional shoving, heard no angry words. On buses, young men yield their seats to older men. The young women in head scarves help us with our translations at the lunch counter. Fathers hoist their children up on their shoulders.
A very popular catch phrase we saw on a few t-shirts captures the sense perfectly: “Istanbul, They call it chaos, we call it home!“
We are finding that the chaos of Istanbul is immensely energizing, even if we don’t fully understand what’s going on. It is a city that feels like it has the whole world flowing through its streets, and perhaps it does.