Thoughts on Istanbul, the Biennale and the 2013 Protests

Recently, I spent a week in Istanbul.  On the same month and just two weeks before I arrived, there was a large protest taking place near Taksim Square.  It was not until the morning of my flight were I pretty much decided that I might as well go right ahead with this trip that has been in the mind since I booked my flights in April this year.

The main reason? The Istanbul Biennale.  It was also because I wanted to go to Turkey and that Istanbul is among my list of places to go this year.  It was a good balance between the east and west, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

There is a chance that the title of this entry is misleading in that while the protests were very much in the forefront of my mind, it ended up not being the core point during my trip.

I remember the moment I stepped into the taxi to my first night’s accommodation in Sultanahmet or the Old City.  It was a straight forward drive from the airport and looking outside I could see small pockets of the locals – some enjoying the night air near the old fortified walls, others gathered around for a night cup.  I felt apprehensive about arriving so late and felt a bit sorry for the taxi driver who probably felt it as well.  The first day was spent around this area and the main tourist destinations – Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque/the Blue Mosque, a quick walk through the Grand Bazaar, the Topkapı Palace, the Basilica Cisterns.  I had an afternoon turkish coffee at a cafe in the middle of a Muslim cemetery and found the sanctuary peaceful until I decided to make my way to Taksim Square which is my main accommodation in the city.

There is one thing that I didn’t realise about Istanbul and those were the hills.  I realised that I was entering Taksim Square via another entrance and so the narrow walkways didn’t meet my mind’s eye as I compare it to the scenes of the protests which seemed to have localised itself this year when discussed synonymously alongside ‘Istanbul’.   The closer I got to the square, the busier it got…the more I saw signs of local urban life such as the banks, the hotels, the cafes.  After checking in, I decided to head to the Square itself.  Closed to traffic, it has turned into a pedestrian only zone shared by locals and tourists milling about, a tram, birds and pedlars selling coffee, tea, and various other Turkish fast food.   There was Istiklal Cadessi with its masses of people going to and from.

The Protests

During my time in the new city, the only main surface indication of the protests was the heavy police presence rolling in Saturday with more than a few water cannon tanks (which looked like trucks, but they were tanks all right) and piles of police men either standing around or waiting inside their chosen mode of transportation.  I wasn’t sure if this was a weekly happening now or if it was a precautionary measure in response to a recent demonstration in the Asian side just a few days before and/or the fact that it was a Saturday.  In terms of the topic of conversation, I usually wait until the locals start talking about it.  Below is just one of my conversations with a local:

They have been living in Istanbul for several years after moving to the city from Europe.  They agree about the general idea – ie going against the new developments of a green, shared space such as Gezi Park Taksim Square but they are against the protests because of the a criminal element to it.  They however didn’t really extend this point as to what is meant by ‘criminal element’ but have made an interesting point in that many Istanbullus are against the protestors, but not necessarily the protest itself. The only thing of note is that they are not Turkish and feel that this matter should only be in the hands of those with a national interest in the country.

The Square and The Park

My personal thoughts on this is that Taksim Square is already touristic and commercial so urban redevelopment of Gezi Park into a shopping mall will only service the tourist and Istanbul middle to higher income earners.  There is already a large shopping mall strip (as well as associated laneways) running from Taksim Square such as Istiklal Avenue that services this purpose.  If the government were create a development servicing its own cultural and economic agenda and without the consultation with the right stakeholders then they should rightly face opposition regarding this especially since development will mean affecting a not only a green, shared space but also a landmark of significance for the locals.  I didn’t realise this about Istanbul until I stared out into the expanses of buildings but it is very much a built, densely populated area.  I also appreciate green space in such an area, having the luck of living and working near one of the Royal Parks in central London, so can empathise with the opposition in regards to losing something like Gezi Park.

The Biennale

It was a really interesting time for the Biennale – the main topic was “Mom, am I barbarian” and it was already predefined before the events in May 2013.  They had to scale down the art in public spaces and retreated indoors to the main venues and it also affected the preview/VIP season prior to the public opening.

I found this to be at odds with the development plans the Turkish government has in ‘centralising’ its own cultural agenda and forcing a stamp of its own approval via the planned construction of a replica military barracks museum as proposed by the Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş after the initial response!

The Islands

In the middle of all this, I decided to go on a trip to the Princes’ Islands and decided to stay in Büyükada after I fell for its charming mansions and the far more peaceful nature.  I also wanted to pick up a bicycle, which I did (after negotiating the price down to 6TL instead of 25TL) and ride around the island.  It has been several years, maybe even more than a decade, since I last rode a bike and here I was cycling in Turkey.  The island was stunning as it looked out towards the Sea of Marmara and back to Istanbul (the Asian side), its abandoned and well-maintained mansions, its large hills and also the monastery that was there.  I also found it interesting that the only other traffic I had to face were the horse-drawn carriages servicing tourists whether they are from Turkey, from the Middle East or beyond.