Did you know that I left Cairo the day before their famed Arab Spring protests began? I’d been there for a conference and was staying right in the city centre – where the protests happened. Then I moved back to Cairo a few months later to help design some post-revolution development programming. I was there for four months, during which there were, at minimum, weekly protests.
Even though I was staying barely a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square, where all the action took place, I was safely ensconced in a lush five-star hotel with climate control and windows that had no reason to open. So often, on a day after protests, a colleague who lived in a normal flat overlooking the main road would come in to work complaining of how his flat had been full of tear gas that day. I felt sympathy for him, because clearly he’d had a miserable day while I was enjoying my hotel’s spa. But I also felt an inkling of jealousy, wondering what it’d be like to have a front-row seat on history.
I was also in Khartoum, Sudan during some of their worst protests last year but was under no illusions: I knew better than to leave the house. By staying home I was bored out of my mind, but I was also pretty much guaranteed safety. Thinking back to my past, I recall that I was in Lebanon a week before the 2006 war started, and I was in the Middle East during the Palestinian intifada and the beginning of the Iraq War — both historical events which inspired masses to take to the streets. So… I’ve been close to danger many times in my life, but I’ve always been just-far-enough-away to be quite safe indeed. Even this past week, I was in Southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. Yes, the SYRIAN border, a very unsafe border which saw some terrible fighting this week. But I was in a peaceful village a few miles away enjoying local hospitality and working very hard on my computer and in meetings.
So how ironic it is that I arrived back in Istanbul on a sunny Friday afternoon with a lovely breeze floating through the city, and promptly walked into tear gas. Now that it is over, I can say with pride that I have now been gassed. But at that moment, I felt like I was experiencing the most excruciating pain known to humankind. Every inch of my body was stinging, I was barely able to breathe, a putrid smell kept sneaking its way through the towel I was holding up to my nose and mouth, and my eyes were watering which just made them hurt more and I was given lemon juice to wipe on them because that would hurt less! For the record, tear gas is completely inhumane.
A very sweet shopkeeper lady took me into her little airconditioned store to wait it out. Walking on the street was out of the question, after all. With tears – real tears, not just gas-induced – in her eyes, she mourned the events which had led up to an entire neighbourhood being sprayed with tear gas. And this was a neighbourhood with hundreds if not thousand tourists wandering its streets on a Friday afternoon! She apologised repeatedly and profusely for her nation. And she just made me fall in love with Turkey more.
Once the coast was clear, I passed about 200 soldiers wandering up the street of my flat, some of them still carrying gas canisters. I wondered what must be going through their minds right now and what they would tell their mothers next time they went on home leave. Were they proud of causing such pain? Were they frustrated that protestors would put them in such a difficult situation? Were they angry that they’d been recruited into an army that would ask them to gas civilians? They were so young, probably still teenagers, and they know so little of this world.
Anyway, for what I hope are obvious reasons, I did not take any pictures during the gas or in its aftermath, but I soon had another experience which was quite fascinating and so I’ll finish this post by sharing some photos… As you may know, Istanbul has the honour of being built across two continents. You can cross from Europe to Asia and back again on a ferry which costs about a dollar and takes about 15 minutes. Many people do this as a part of their daily commute to work. I’m living in Europe but yesterday I crossed to Asia to visit some friends. While there, a massive fog crept in – my friends said this was unusual. It passed quickly on the Asia side, but it settled on the Europe side, exactly covering the ferry ports. So all ferries were cancelled until further notice, which ended up being almost all day. I was stuck in Asia! After a few hours, I gave up and took a bus which took a long circuitous route over an enormous suspension bridge (it has only been in the last 30 years that there has even existed a bridge connecting Europe and Asia, before that it was ferry or nothing!). But all the locals have informed me that such events are highly unusual in Istanbul. Ferries are rarely cancelled, and fog of this specific nature hardly ever happens. So I took a few photos 🙂