Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The ugly side of Istanbul

Sometimes, you just don't want to be right. Last night after work, I met up with some friends and headed down the main street in my old neighborhood to an "art walk" among a cluster of galleries hosting openings in the Tophane area of Istanbul. Civilized, right? Being as this is Turkey, I was a bit surprised to see some people strolling around outside with beer bottles and plastic cups of wine. As we approached our first destination, Galeri NON, the crowd thickened, blocking the sidewalk. "I hope this won't be a problem for them," I told my German translator friend, thinking mostly that the police might break the event up as they had a recent street party featuring alcohol.

When we finally squeezed our way into the gallery, the first thing we saw was a squat, comic sculpture of a winged Atatürk tipped over on its side. (Go to the gallery's website to see the piece, "Melek Atatürk ya da Rodin Kemalist Olsaydi," translated as "Angel Atatürk or If Only Rodin Had Been a Kemalist"; I'm not posting it here.) "Is that kind of thing allowed?" I joked to my friend. "What? The dog?" she replied, pointing at a skinny dog in a sweater sniffing around the statue. "Only if it pees on the sculpture!" she laughed. Mocking the founder of the Turkish Republic is, after all, punishable by law.

Nationalists and Islamists alike came in for their share of criticism in the politically minded exhibit by Extrastruggle. Our favorite piece may have been the sculpture of a bikini-ed girl lying out on a beach blanket, a jet fighter on her kicked-up feet, reading the 1982 Constitution.

But back to the real story. We left NON, met up with some other friends at Elipsis Gallery, looked at some unappealing photos of naked women, had a couple of drinks, and headed out to move on up the street to the next venue. It immediately become clear, though, that something was going on outside of NON. My favorite photojournalist and I hustled down the street to see what was happening (pure professional interest, of course) as the crowd started streaming back toward us, slowly at first, and then in an increasingly panicky fashion. I saw a few men brawling in the street and, not feeling I needed to see much more, signaled to my friend that we should go. I learned later he had seen a man get hit over the head by a bottle and a woman punched in the face. Bottles started smashing in the street. People were screaming. We ran.

Ducking into a side street as the mob of 20 or 30 young men (and the people running in their wake) passed, we tended to a frightened stranger who had been caught up in the fray and unable to run well due to her high heels. Shopkeepers kept coming up to say, "It's OK," but one man approached us in a very serious way. "There were people out drinking. That's not accepted in this neighborhood," he said. "They're going to come back. It will happen again. You should leave." It wasn't a threat, but, I believe, a good-hearted warning.

Regrouping with the rest of our friends, we learned that a street sign had been thrown through the glass door of one of the galleries as people tried to scurry inside. Debate raged about whether the drinking, the controversial art, or a combustible combination of both, had provoked the assailants. I'll leave that to the local press and the police to decide. (So far, they seem to be leaning toward the alcohol theory.) All I know is I don't really want to be right about something like that again.

UPDATE (Oct. 18, 2010): Turkish media devoted extensive attention to the story of the Tophane attacks, which also made the international news in many countries. Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet read this blog post and contacted me to get my take on the events, and the German culture magazine Perlentaucher linked to my post as well.

* Photos of police standing around the neighborhood, late on the scene as usual, and a man injured in the fray from Habertürk.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Istanbul 'expert' at work

After helping update guides to Istanbul and Turkey for DK Travel and Weissmann Reports [now Travel42], I've started an assignment as the "Istanbul expert" for Simonseeks, a new British travel site. I'll be scoping out the best hotels and restaurants in the city, and writing guides to sightseeing, shopping, nightlife, and getting around – not to mention highlighting some of my personal favorite spots in my adopted home. The Istanbul guide will debut later in the fall – watch this space for more details.

To go along with my new gig, I've also started up a second Twitter account, @TheTurkishLife, devoted to all things Istanbul and Turkey.

UPDATE: Simonseeks closed down in 2011. You can read some of my tips from my Istanbul guide on this blog.