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.