A tumultuous undercurrent

We flew into Ataturk airport in Istanbul just as a thunderstorm was brewing. Fat raindrops ran fast along the windows of the metro heading for Taksim Square. It was hard not to be nervous. This place had been the sight of four bombings in the last six months. I looked around at all the people in our carriage and wondered to myself, ‘what are you capable of doing?’

In the Taksim metro station a woman wearing a red dress played the cello against a mosaic of colourful tiles. Outside the skies had opened and crowds of people gathered under eves and in cafes. Entrepreneurial opportunists sold umbrellas at the exit of the station. I was unsure of how uneasy I should feel arriving in this volatile place. Was I being foolish coming here? Or would it be more foolish not to come at all? Every time a police vehicle or an unmarked van drove past my heart skipped a beat, frightened for a moment that I could be caught in the crossfire of someone else’s war.

It was Ramadan. In the evenings families would flock to the parks, restaurants and public squares to enjoy their evening meal. Outside the Blue Mosque, picnic tables were set ready to host hundreds. From around 7 p.m. people would arrive and start preparing their food or form long queues outside restaurants, placing their orders in anticipation. As the large golden sun would start to make its way down towards the edge of the Bosphorus you could feel the anticipation and excitement grow. People would slice and butter their bread, take the lids off their water bottles, salt their soups and have the spoons ready for that first mouthful. As soon as the call to prayer broke across the city they would quench their thirst after a long hot day with no water and then, they feasted. The nights stretched out in an almost endless fashion. No matter what time we were wandering through the streets they were always full of families and groups of friends soaking up life. The parks were alive with the sounds of kids playing. Men playing backgammon and drinking sweet tea spilled out of tea shops until the small hours of the morning. Each night was a celebration.

We took shelter at a friends place with red wine and a table full of cheese while the police spread fear, tear gas and plastic bullets in the neighbouring streets. It was Pride Week and a few brave souls were attempting to hold a trans-pride parade. On the premise of protecting their safety, the Government had banned any celebrations threatening intervention if anyone tried to march. After the police attacked gay pride marchers the year before, the pride community had put a call out asking people not to march as the risks were too great. This was a brutal attack on freedom of expression, and a few remained determined to march. The streets were seething with police ready to fight. Water canons lined the main road ominously sending a visual warning — if you disobey, we will attack.

“There are police all around us. IS [Islamic State] are just down the road. They are ready. They are organised. You’re not safe here as tourists. It’s dangerous, because you don’t know where the danger is.”

The threats to these people’s lives felt complicated — there was a gang of young men who identified with the Islamic State who, armed with sticks and machetes, had threatened to attack anyone who marched. Members of their group set a rainbow flag on fire in the main street while police looked on. There were the police who under a thin veil of ‘protecting the peace’ waited for no provocation to attack. They were closing off streets and herding the marchers into one area where they set off tear gas and littered the air with plastic bullets. Finally, there was the threat of the Kurdish militant groups who were targeting police and only a few weeks before had blown up a police bus in central Istanbul. With police everywhere, this event felt like a sitting target for another such attack.

The fear that our friend carried for those marching in the street was palpable. It was visible in the way her eyes would flicker, her panic when the computer would not turn on and her audible ‘oh god’ when the phone rang. She had the air of someone who had experienced the true brutality of police violence. She had no misconceptions about why they had come out in force this day — and it was not to protect the people.

We joined a group of five other tourists in a small art shop on the second story of a building opposite the Blue Mosque. A gentle man gave us a small history and insight into the Sufi traditions. We followed him obediently through the streets and got in a van and drove out to the old city walls built by Constantine. We stopped outside a small monastery in a back street and entered through an archway. Locals were gathered in the hall to share iftar (breaking of the fast) and perform their evening prayers. It was beautiful. Led by one man singing from the Koran and another playing the ney (a type of flute), everyone in the room started chanting, “Allah, Allah, Allah” with their eyes closed. You could hear the essence of their belief within their voices and the breathiness as they reached the …lah. It was powerful witnessing a room full of people lost in the sound of the name of their God.

After the prayers were finished they rolled back the carpet to reveal a wooden circle in the centre of the room. Musicians gathered on the mezzanine. A line of whirling dervishes, led by a woman, entered and formed a circle. Each was wearing a long black coat and a tall tan felt hat — a tomb for the ego. They removed their coats and one-by-one approached the woman. She leaned in and whispered something into their ear. Then, they were set in motion. It was one of the most mesmerising and peaceful things I have ever seen. Each entering deep into their inner world, they would circle out until they reached their place amongst the other dervishes where they would whirl on the spot arms outstretched, around and around. Their coats flowed in a dreamlike static motion, their head calm, expressionless and still on their shoulders.

It is still rare for women to be allowed to train as a whirling dervish. Traditionally in Sufism this practice has been reserved only for men. However, in this monastery, a group of women had approached their teacher and questioned him on why women are forbidden to seek God in this way. Upon reflecting on their request, he could find no good reason why women should be excluded so he accepted their proposition under the condition that they train for three months, and only then, if they could reach the same standard could they join in the ceremony. If their participation in the whirling ceremony proved to have no impact on the connection with God, they would be allowed to continue to train as whirling dervishes. That was five years ago.

“Our thresholds are higher now.”

One evening a small group of angry young Muslim men attacked a record store where a few people were gathered to listen to Radiohead. They came in yelling and swinging as the confused and frightened Radiohead fans tried to save their computers and stereos from destruction. Those that attacked the small gathering were angry that they were disrespecting Islam by drinking during the holy month of Ramadan. But lets be honest, they must be angry about something bigger than that.

The next evening some people gathered peacefully in a square with candles and signs in support of those who had been attacked. The police came and shut down the peaceful protest armed and impatient.

A few days later we met a friend for a beer in a hipster alleyway where a big fat tabby cat lay across the top of the bar. She was a bright sparkle of a woman. We talked about the event in the record store and she brushed it off as nothing. A year ago we might have been frightened by this, she said, but our thresholds are higher now. I loved her honesty when she threw her head back in laughter and then looked at me over her beer and said, “In Turkey, we are all a little bit racist.” But then more seriously she said, “each of us is capable of the same things.” Everyone has the capacity to be cruel and to be kind. Through this philosophy she tried to at least gleam an understanding of the drive behind these acts of violence erupting in her homeland.

Early on in our stay in Istanbul we followed up a connection with a kemence (bowed string instrument) maker. We were linked through a very random afternoon we had spent a few weeks earlier with a news reporter and a sheep trader in Rize on the Black Sea Coast. The day ran away on us and we took off at 4pm on a Friday evening to a distant suburb in this enormous city. We caught the ferry across to Kadikay where we jumped on a bus in rush hour traffic not reaching our destination until 7pm. We approached hesitantly and found a small kemence-making workshop tucked away down a suburban street. Arriving as strangers, we were greeted as old friends and offered soft drinks and snacks despite the fact that everyone was heavy with the weight of a days fasting.

Musa is a kemence maker from the Black Sea region. His workshop was filled with instruments in various stages of construction. A caged crow sat in one corner and a song bird in the other. When the call broke out across the city, we shared iftar together. The rest of the evening he spent teaching us traditional songs of the Black Sea. He had endless enthusiasm for teaching us the music of his ancestors and would talk at pace at us in Turkish (he didn’t speak English) and then break into fits of laughter when he realised that we had not understood a thing he had said.

We returned a second time to meet these kind men, again arriving hours late after catching the wrong bus and journeying further into the suburbs than we ever could have imagined possible. We were greeted with unfaultable generosity and hospitality. We played and we laughed in the heat of the afternoon until the energy levels from fasting had dropped beyond the ability to concentrate.

“Tourists come here for one or two weeks and everything in Istanbul looks nice, but they don’t see what’s underneath.”

Istanbul is disarmingly beautiful. The Bosphorus holds a magical quality in its sultry deep blue waters that are always moving in a smooth ripple. River dolphins can be spotted moonlighting in the late evenings when the sun drops away red in the West. The fall of the sun was always met with a waxing moon rising in the East, until one evening it rose full, a giant ball of orange lighting up an already glittering city. The city was alight with beautiful bridges, old stone buildings, mosques steeped in history, the grand bazaar once full of life as the centre of trade and now suffering from a 75% decline in tourist numbers.

On our final evening in Istanbul there was a terrorist attack at Ataturk Airport. We were on our way to a restaurant and saw the news on a passing TV. We stopped to watch. Men armed with guns and explosive belts killed 45 people in the international terminal. The men inside the restaurant waved us away dismissively saying “don’t worry, it’s nothing.” The streets were empty that night. All the bars and restaurants down Istiklal had been emptied by the police. Walking through a backstreet we came across a plain-clothed man carrying a semi-automatic rifle. We put our heads down and kept walking aiming for home.

The dark undercurrent of almost invisible political and social forces that erupted in violence and division constantly intersected with the beautiful joyous celebration of Ramadan and the hospitality of a culture so deeply rich and diverse. Everyone we met was conflicted by their love of their home and the growing fear inflicted upon them by the violence that unpredictably punctured their lives. As I packed my bags ready for our next day’s departure, all I could hear were my friends words repeat sadly over and over again in my head…

“I want to get out of this place … this is no place to live anymore.”


Writing and photographs by Hannah Mackintosh. More stories can be found here: https://medium.com/for-all-i-see