I am not sure if you are aware of the reputation of Taksim Square, a large important piazza and park in the middle of the old town on the Galata side of Istanbul. (Refer St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians!)
After we visited Istanbul last May (2013), I sowed so much dissension in the streets of Istanbul, that protests broke out in Taksim Square and its surrounds which carried on for weeks leaving 11 dead and many injured.
As a result I felt the need to go to Taksim Square in September 2014 (incognito!) and pay my respects to the lost protesters. What better place to have a Café Latte than at Starbucks in Taksim Square and commune with the spirit of Turkish protest? It was no coincidence that I chose this café, particularly as it was the scene of an ugly incident during last year’s protests, the story of which was passed on to me via the Galatian Underground Movement. It goes something like this…
Kadir was a Turkish University student who had gone along to a protest in Taksim Square with some of his friends, mainly to impress a western oriented girl from his Business Economics class. He was not to know that his luck was well and truly out that evening as this was the occasion when the Turkish Government had decided to clear the square of the protesters, no matter what methods it took. If his attention had been on his surrounds as he walked up Refik Saydim Cd, he would have noticed the busloads of police in the side streets, as well as the revving noise of the spanking new vehicles designed to power their front-loaded water cannons with devastating effects on the human body. As usual, Kadir’s attention was on the girl.
Again when he reached the Square, his attention was drawn only by the smoke bombs, the large crowd of Istanbulis waving red Turkish Flags, the huge protest banners, the overwhelming noise…and the girl. If he had been more alert he would have noticed the huge number of heavily armed police and soldiers slowly moving into the square to surround the crowd. It was only when the noises changed, grew louder and his fellow protesters started to sense something wrong with the event, that Kadir wondered whether he should have come out that night. He didn’t know why but he started to sense panic in those around him and so he decided that it was time to move away. As they had been late comers, Kadir’s friends had found themselves at the front of the square, not far from the Coffee shops that catered for foreign tourists…this was also not far from the main entry point where the militia arrived, like they had done so many time before in Turkish history, ready to make a very clear point to these socialist protesters.
Kadir’s luck had run out.
The first thing that happened was he lost sight of the girl.
The second thing was that a tear gas bomb landed a few yards away from him and the crowd ran in every direction, knocking him to the ground.
When he was able to get to his feet he took off in the direction of the coffee shops where he hoped he would be able to find refuge.
The third thing that went wrong that night was that he ran into the security-grill that had been pulled down in front of the Starbucks Café. After picking himself up again, he looked through the grill and saw that the café was full of foreign tourists having expressos and quietly watching the entertainment outside in Taksim Square. Not far into the Café he noticed a waiter who was delivering a Cappucino to a group of ladies and who then turned to watch the fleeing protesters. Kadir called out to the waiter and begged him to open the security-grill and let him in. The waiter didn’t blink an eye as he said,
“You are not a customer Sir…I will not be opening the grill!”
“No, I am a customer…I come here all the time…don’t you remember me…I’d like a cup of coffee now!” In desperation, Kadir started searching for his wallet; extracting a twenty Lira note out, he poked it through the grill to the waiter and said,
“See…I have the money…all I am asking for is an expresso…and to sit out the storm!”
By now the water-cannon vehicles had arrived and were starting to prowl the Square like vengeful daleks out of a Dr Who movie set in Istanbul. The waiter looked at Kadir and asked,
“Do you take milk and sugar with your coffee?”
“NO…I take it straight…just open the grill!” Kadir knew that if he could hide among the American Tourists he would be sacrosanct from the prowling avengers. However, as he was beginning to realise, his luck was not in that night. The waiter looked at him dispassionately and said,
“I will place your order immediately Sir…it won’t be long.”
Kadir’s desperation increased. He turned back to the spectacle in the Square where he could see protesters, wreathed in smoke and gas, rushing in all directions, desperately seeking to escape the black uniformed, gas mask wearing militia. The waiter returned to the front of the Café behind Kadir and announced,
“Your Coffee will be ready shortly Sir…will there be any food with that?” Kadir’s desperation was exploding and clutching at the grill, he yelled,
“Yes…Yes…Croissants! Croissants! With Jam! Open the grill for me!”
“Just a moment Sir…I will change your order…it won’t be a moment!”…and with that he returned to the safety of the kitchen.
It was then that Kadir noticed that he had been joined at the grill by an old Nonna, holding her black scarf around her head with one hand and with the other, holding out a plastic cup to Kadir demanding money for her poor babies…not even the sound of gun fire in the background, the smoke billowing from the trees around Taksim Square or the panic-stricken stampeding students around her would stop her automatic requests for small change. Kadir thought he was looking at some vengeful angel from hell in the shape of his long departed grandma…coming back to haunt him for his loss of faith in the old traditions. He immediately gave her the twenty Lira note that he held in his hand.
This kind action seemed to trigger a number of events that appeared to occur simultaneously.
Firstly the waiter arrived behind the grill with a tray holding a small expresso and a croissant. He attracted Kadir’s attention and announced that that would be 18 Lira and to pass the money through the grill. Kadir looked at him, and as he was pointing to the old Nonna who clutched his money, she was snatched from sight in a torrent of water blasted from behind by the roaming water-cannon Dalek; she was slammed up against the grill and held there prone by the force of water. Kadir only had a millisecond to turn back to the waiter, desperately pleading for help, when his luck really ran out…he too was blasted from behind by a short range water cannon burst and pinned to the grill.
When the water-cannoneer trundled on, the slightly wet waiter, pushed the up button on the security-grill raising it a metre…he passed the tray of expresso and croissant under the grill, snatched the 20 Lira note from the crone’s hand and lowered the grill again. The movement of the security-grill did not dislodge the spread-eagled pair who were stuck tight to it by some rictus of fear that had hit them with the water blast.
Eventually, with the Square cleared of protesters, rolling smoke and gun wielding militia, the medicos arrived and began their own prowl of the square, gathering the injured and the dead and transferring them to the waiting ambulances. Perhaps the saddest sight they encountered during their search of the square was the two dead bodies crucified against the grill of the now empty coffee shop, stuck fast to the last barrier they experienced before their weak hearts gave out with the shock of the water blast at close range.
The foreign tourists had returned to their hotels after being let out the back door of the café, led by the now quite disturbed waiter…his training at waiter college had not prepared him for the last look in the eyes of the two people pasted on the grill of his café. Perhaps even sadder for the medicos was the sight of the tray at the feet of the sacrificed pair, still holding their uneaten last meal of an expresso and a damp croissant.