Tim Chester recounts his experiences travelling through Turkey a month ago - including a brief encounter with tear gas - and explains how the current situation doesn't reflect the country as a whole.
Nothing prepares you for your first faceful of tear gas. It dismantles three of your senses at once, knocking out sight, smell and taste as the acrid burn drips down your throat, permeates your nasal passage, and reduces your eyes to tears. It’s a relentless affront that continues to work its horrific magic long after you’ve run away, in a blind, disorientated panic, from the assailant.
I only caught the fringes of a tear gas cloud hovering with ghostly menace on Istanbul’s İstiklal Avenue back in early May, but it was enough to send me sprinting away with the rest of the Saturday afternoon shoppers. I was in the city for a forthcoming Rough Guide and the clash between protesters and police I witnessed on May 4th was, depending on how you view it, either a precursor to the chaos that’s been beamed around the world recently or another skirmish in a long line of clashes that stretches back decades in the Turkish city.
The events of the last fortnight have drawn the eyes of the world’s media to Turkey (while much home-grown coverage looks the other way), and gasps of horror have echoed across the globe. While this reaction is wholly justified – lobbing tear gas canisters indiscriminately into crowds and injuring thousands of protesters shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone – the overall picture of a country in chaos distorts things somewhat. And comparisons to the Arab Spring are way off the mark.
Turkey is usually sketched as a country divided, struggling to reconcile the ideology of its secular and liberal-minded populace with that of the more religious majority. On the one hand, and in the eyes of the protesters, it wants to become more progressive, a member of the EU, and continue the westward shift that Atatürk began some ninety years ago. On the other, as favoured by current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party, it’s looking to reinforce religious values, restrict alcohol and inhibit certain lifestyle choices.
This schism is laid bare the minute you arrive in Istanbul, a city straddling Europe and Asia, and a place often tagged “East-meets-West”. The call to prayer echoes out simultaneously from numerous minarets while locals duck into bars for an Efes beer after work. It’s not limited to Istanbul, either. Konya, one of the country’s more religiously conservative cities, was – along with Bursa – the only place I struggled to find alcohol on sale. It was also the one spot I saw drunks on the street. Raki at home replaces communal drinking.
So while these protests began over plans to redevelop a park, under the surface Turkey’s very identity is at stake. How it will pan out remains to be seen, but this isn’t an all-or-nothing game. Compromises will have to be made. And crucially, the country isn’t burning to the ground.
I saw several demonstrations as I travelled round the country, in Istanbul, Ankara and Bursa. I also saw a strong and well-armed police presence, and in Istanbul I witnessed first hand the variety of brutal ways protestors can be suppressed. But that's only a part of the picture. The hospitality I experienced from the Turkish was, to use the old cliché, humbling. From Cappadocia to Konya, Edirne to Antalya, they were warm, friendly and welcoming. In fact, the hardest part of updating the Rough Guide was getting in and out of each hotel in less than an hour. Everyone wanted to sit down over a cup of tea.
From bus stations to bars, we talked politics, religion, the country's love of gambling, and - in the case of one student in Çanakkale - the merits (or otherwise) of Jason Statham. A flight attendant on a coach showed me a self portrait photo with Didier Drogba; a kebab shop owner in Selçuk gave me a ride on his motorbike to Ephesus. Not once did I feel I was in a country on the brink.
The situation in Turkey is tense, and will be for some time. But I really hope the current conflicts don’t deter travellers from considering this beguiling country, an endlessly fascinating place made all the more interesting by its history, politics, and people.
Read more features on Turkey, explore our Turkey destination page, and get all the Turkish info you need in the comprehensive Rough Guide to Turkey.
The Guardian: Why the Turkish protests matter to the West
The New Yorker: Memories of a public square
Always check the latest travel advice from the FCO (or your local equivalent). For Turkey (as of June 12th) they mention "specific and credible threats" but also declare: "Over 2,500,000 British nationals visit Turkey every year. Most visits are trouble-free".