I was surprised by the emails and phone calls I had been receiving from friends and family fearing my safety in Istanbul. “Wear a scarf on your head,” they said. “Keep to yourself. Keep your mouth shut,” they wrote. “Tell them you’re from Canada,” they whispered. I was surprised because I’d been there two weeks, and I’d yet to feel fear. I was visiting a country brimming with anger, but the widespread riots were about maintaining a democratic ideal, about feeling threatened by a leader they had trusted, and about maintaining a space where their religious identity didn’t define them, and peace and freedom of expression does.
Turkey is an incredible country, and from the moment I stepped foot in the crowded streets of Istanbul, I was inspired. Turkey is expansive. Turkey is progressive. Turkey has surprised the heck out of me, and I’m a better person having been there during a time of turmoil. Sometimes the most beautiful things can come from the most broken.
Last week, I visited Taksim Square. The night before, I sat on my hotel terrace and smelled the fumes of the burning cars. I felt like a coward in my beautiful hotel, but I told myself it wasn’t my fight. I was an outsider, a tourist. I felt like I didn’t belong, but then I remembered that human rights are everyone’s fight, and after that, I couldn’t stay away. The next afternoon, when I climbed out of the Metro station into the square, I was speechless. The park the people were fighting to protect had been destroyed. There was graffiti everywhere, vandalized and burned vehicles, banners plastered on every building, broken windows, and yet people were happily gathering, talking, sharing food and spreading blankets. Just the day before, people had been arrested, gassed, shot with water cannons, but today the bright sun was shining on the protestors, and there was singing. I heard laughter and chanting, and I watched a man cut a watermelon to share. I walked around for a couple of hours, taking pictures, listening, and watching. I saw a group of college-aged kids painting banners and several people cleaning up a burnt rubbish pile. I saw dancing and yoga. I saw smiling and flag waving, and then I realized that this was the Istanbul everyone else in the world was missing. This wasn’t on the television. My American friends weren’t seeing this part. They were seeing the fear, but they were missing the moments of joy and the celebration, and that was heartbreaking to me. As it grew later, more people were coming to join the protest. It was possible that this night, like the others, could become violent, but the afternoon? It had promise. The afternoon had shown me the resilience of the Turkish people. It showed me that no matter what horrors they endured in the darkness, they would rejoice in the light. I felt honored to be there in that moment. I could feel the spirit and the fight of the people, and it was pretty incredible.
The night before I left, I was enjoying a lovely dinner with my husband in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Bosphorous. At dusk, the lights of the city across the water lit up like a thousand tiny lanterns. We toasted our last night in Istanbul, and we toasted all that light shining like hope. Today, I am home, but I am still toasting Istanbul. I am still praying for all the voices in Taksim Square. This country has wormed her way into my heart, and truly, I wish I were still there. Despite the turmoil, despite the violence, the country has brought me to my knees. It’s so much bigger than all that anger and fury. It’s a human lesson in perseverance and strength. I’ll raise my glass tonight, and I will raise my glass every night until that fear and violence is replaced with safety and with peace. To Turkey! Şerefe!
About the Author: Jen Lambert is a founding editor of burntdistrict and Spark Wheel Press, and her work has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies including most recently The Los Angeles Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, and Raleigh Review. A fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Jen is currently living in Newfoundland with her husband and three wildly beautiful children.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.