English teacher recounts her brush with Turkish protests

Last spring, when Chris Singler warned Sara Gordon about her upcoming vacation to Istanbul and the demonstrations that were happening there, Gordon thought “uprising shmuprising.” She had been assured by the owners of the apartment that she was renting that nothing would be happening in Istanbul by the time she arrived with her family.

With an exotic and interesting vacation in mind, Gordon had been planning the trip for a year. She had never been to a country with a high Muslim population before, and wanted a refreshing cultural experience.

But when Gordon arrived in Turkey the political unrest that had been percolating was reaching a critical juncture. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan laid out plans to build a commercial mall/tourist attraction on the site of Istanbul’s last large green space, Taksim Gezi Park, prompting the first protests at the end of May.

The protests consisted of sit ins, online activism, marches, civil resistance and civil disobedience; all protests and demonstrations were peaceful. However, protesters were met with excessive force and aggression from the police and government, which only reinforced the protesters’ suspicions about further oppression from Erdoğan.

Gordon’s apartment owners believed that the unrest would die down by the time she arrived in June. This was not so.

Gordon’s apartment, which neighbored the Tower of Galata, was right at the heart of the conflict. On the first night of her vacation, Gordon could hear chanting and could see crowds of young Turks filling the square below her apartment.

It was obvious from the start that the peaceful protesters were not the threat. “It almost looked fun to go and mingle with the protesters,” Gordon said.

Then from a distance, she thought she noticed smoke. Gas masks and hard hats soon appeared in the crowd, and some protesters started to run away; it became clear that the gaseous clouds approaching her window were not smoke, but tear gas.

“It really burns. Like you’re inhaling sulfur, ammonia, and pepper,” Gordon said. “It really hurts your lungs.”

After this first incident Gordon decided to take precautions.

“We thought we might not be able to leave the apartment” if the protests resumed, Gordon said. With this in mind, she and her family went out to buy emergency provisions.

They returned with four bottles of wine and a box of cookies.

Despite their unusual provisions, the four Americans spent the night with closed windows, trying to ignore the riots outside their window by drinking wine, eating cookies, and playing Bananagrams.

The moral of the story, Gordon said, “is to listen to Chris Singler when he tells you not to do something.”