A quick update on my life here in Istanbul. The most recent event was the disastrous May Day workers’ “celebrations” here in Istanbul. The government had banned Taksim Square as an assembly point for this year’s demonstrations. Instead of providing other designated areas, they just focused on keeping everyone out of Taksim. If you look at a map of Istanbul, you can see that there are a lot of entry points to be protected. So they shut down all transportation and closed many streets.
In the meantime, thinking that I would make good use of the day off from school, I made a dentist appointment to begin some major work on yet another tooth (and hopefully the last for a while). I naively thought that if I avoided the Taksim area, I should have no problem. Ha!
I checked the news when I got up and conflict had already broken out where I would normally take a boat to and from Uskudar. In addition there were no boats! So I thought to myself, how about a taxi? They are surely available. I went to my local taxi stand but no one was willing to drive over the Bosphorus Bridge. Finally the manager of the stand felt sorry for me when I pleaded that I just wanted to get over the bridge and that I would walk from there. It took 45 minutes to drive over the bridge and to find a place not blocked by police. He dropped me off and I began to walk. To get to the dentist, I first had to head through hundreds of fleeing demonstrators with the police in hot pursuit shooting tear gas canisters. Nasty stuff, tear gas … stings the eyes and burns the throat. I headed off the main street with my phone GPS in hand on a cross city journey down and up a couple of Istanbul’s 7 hills. I kept asking for directions and finally ascended my last major hill only to be confronted with another group of battling demonstrators and police firing tear gas and water cannon. These demonstrators were throwing things at the police. I finally was able to duck behind the police line and arrived at the door of the building where my dentist was waiting nervously.
I was the only one of her 8 patients that made it in that day. For doing so, she gave me a “Courage Diploma” for my trip to the dentist, with a smiling tooth waving at me. I will cherish this diploma and never forget this trip to the dentist. I stayed with her until late afternoon when the police and demonstrators finally had returned the streets to normal human activity.
So why this long story? The anger of people who have seen economic progress and a country that is functioning stems from having more and more of their rights to express themselves curtailed. Religious freedom has improved in many ways but political expression has not improved.
Tensions abound in this region with the economic collapse of Greece and Cyprus as well as the escalating and continuing conflict in Syria that has tried to spill over the Turkish border; the air is ripe for extremist organizations such as Al-Quaeda and ultra-revolutionary groups to gain a foothold. All these organizations need is a degree of instability. Think of living in a house where your next door neighbors are always screaming at one another and occasionally physical violence breaks out. Even though it is not your fight, you feel the tension.
Orthodox Easter is May 5th. So let us pray with our brothers and sisters for a world that demonstrates growing compassion and that better reflects the hope of new life with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed.
And now off to my math class followed by another planning session for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. One can find peace within one’s sanctuary.
Selam / Shalom / Peace
Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.