Turkish politics are ruining my dinner plans

Eliot Claasen/Staff
School of Little Revolutionaries

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Two blocks from my apartment on the corner of a busy street is a restaurant called Sinem. From the walls to the front counter, the whole place seems to be made of glass. It’s open late and always lit up. There isn’t much in the restaurant besides chairs, tables and börek, a usually-fried phyllo dough pastry filled with meat or cheese or vegetables, which sits on display in a glass case. Like most börek places, Sinem looks like a hospital-themed fish tank. I sometimes peer through its glass walls to watch the TV mounted above the glass counter that shows basketball.

Standing outside Sinem late one night checking the score of a basketball game, I realized that I was hungry  and out of eggs. I have since become a regular at Sinem. The only man I have ever seen working there talks to me about American basketball.

I’ve been on the Boğaziçi Üniversitesi basketball team for about one week. After I expressed interest to a player on the team, he invited me to walk on. The coach evaluated me over the course of two team practices before adding me to the roster. We practice three to four times a week at a medium-sized gymnasium while the climbing club uses the climbing wall next to the court. The coach, Burak, is a very manly Turkish man. He sometimes motivates his players by telling them to be more manly. He will say, “Be a man  steal the ball.” When coach Burak invited me to play for him, I couldn’t wait to tell my börek friend.

Emerging from the metro station near my apartment that evening, I was met by a group of loitering riot police and a smoking dumpster. There were heaps of brick and fallen street signs and sheets of metal in the road, all silhouetted by scattered fires. There were few people on the street apart from the helmeted police and few cars. The air was smoky and tasted like tear gas. The ground was shiny wet, though it hadn’t rained, and there were dozens of empty gas canisters underfoot. I sneezed twice walking through the wreckage.

Scenes of protest aftermath

Scenes of protest aftermath.

Scenes of protest aftermath

The most recent wave of protests  of which this scene was a result   came after the death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan. During the Gezi Park antigovernment protests in Istanbul last spring, Elvan was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police on his way to buy bread. The impact sent him into a coma. He was 14 at the time of the incident.

On March 11, Elvan died in an Istanbul hospital. His funeral was held the next day in a neighborhood not far from mine. Thousands of people gathered for the funeral, which marked the beginning of three days of nonviolent and violent antigovernment protests throughout Turkey. Critics of the government are holding up Elvan’s fate as an example of police brutality and the violent extremes to which the ruling party is going to suppress opposition. Popular slogans of this most recent movement are “Berkin Elvan ölümsüzdür (Berkin Elvan is immortal)” and “katil polis (killer police).”

"Berkin Elvan is Immortal."

“Berkin Elvan is immortal.”

Farther up the road and closer to my apartment, the protest wasn’t over. A group of protesters dragged more things into the street while riot police amassed 100 yards away.

A typical protest here is like this: Masked protesters will gather on a major street, chanting and spraying graffiti and creating roadblocks and fires. Police will gather opposite the protesters, waiting for more shields or police tanks or water cannons. When they’re fully equipped, the police charge the protesters in a spray of rubber bullets and tear gas. Protesters immediately disperse when the police advance, usually running down side streets. Then the police retreat to reload, and the protesters regroup.

As I wove through protesters on the busy street by my apartment, I glimpsed an approaching police tank and decided to take a side street home. Things were calmer on my side street; there were older people moving quickly along the sidewalks, and some businesses were still open. I turned into a small grocery store to buy eggs. I was in the store for about 10 seconds when I heard a loud noise outside and shouting. I ran from the store and then from an approaching mass of protesters and tear gas. I chose a new side street and joined the older people moving quickly along the sidewalks.

Protesters flee approaching police tank.

Protesters flee approaching police tank.

At my apartment a few minutes later, I video-chatted with my mom and grandma. While we talked, protesters were forced from the main street onto my block. People in my apartment building and the buildings around mine leaned from their windows, yelling, banging pots and whistling in solidarity with the fleeing protesters. I showed my grandma and mom the scene. My grandma talked to me about Berkeley in 1968.

The next morning, I walked to the busy street two blocks from my apartment, thinking about glass and the force of the impact that sent Elvan into a coma. There on the corner, a group of men loaded the destroyed glass front of a bank into the back of a truck. The Sinem fishbowl stood intact 50 feet away. It was a good thing, too, because I was out of eggs.

And my börek friend was happy to hear that I am playing for the university basketball team.

Contact Eliot Claasen at [email protected].