There is a fairly well-known graphic t-shirt in Turkey. On the front is a convoluted cat’s cradle in the shape of Istanbul. Underneath are scribbled the words, “They call it chaos. We call it home.”
Every big city, of course, is organized chaos. At any given moment there are political deals and drug deals, protests, train accidents, silent auctions, job interviews, commutes, orgies, massive feasts and struggles to survive–parallel worlds existing side by side creating a chaotic urban universe. But even by the standards of big cities, Istanbul seems to me particularly schizophrenic in all the multitudes it contains. I experienced this acutely when, during the course of my day, I had to pass through Beşiktas–the site of the stadium of Beşiktas, one of Turkey’s top three teams–where, unbeknownst to me, I ended up in the crossfire between two rival groups of football fanatics firing themselves up before the start of the evening’s match.
After disembarking from a bus (traffic was at a standstill, so I decided to take to foot), I first noticed the sharp smell that immediately invaded my mouth and nose–tear gas. Then, the nearby public park completely trashed and filled with debris, then the overturned dumpsters in the road, and finally the slews of jerseyed fans aggressively hollering chants and slogans, uprooting trees and tearing out signposts from the sidewalks, sprinting around frenetically, pitching glass bottles and rocks at the gang of fans on the other side of the road which was being actively restrained by a row of security police. I stared at the scene for awhile, frankly intrigued by the pointlessly destructive behavior (What are they going to throw next?), Then came the shouting, crowds sprinting up the road past me, then the explosion, then the pungent smell of fresh tear gas, stronger and closer this time.
In the past I’ve often gone looking for trouble of this sort (a couple weeks ago I followed the Labor Day marches in Eskişehir to see if any scuffles would break out, and last week I put myself in the line of fire of thousands of three-foot-long flaming rockets) but in this case I had no intention to do so and was in no mood to find it. Shaken and wanting to avoid the gas, which was starting to affect me, I quickly left the scene and hiked up the road, seeking the escape of the nearest metro station. After a mere 10 minutes of walking, it was as though I had hit hyperdrive and entered another urban universe. People strolled around contentedly, shopping bags, ice cream, and Starbucks in hand. Being among this complacent scene, while tear gas still reeked in my sinuses and the clash was still raging a few streets away, jarred my senses, perhaps even more so than the initial shock of the street battle.
How can there be such placid normalcy alongside so much chaos? And, if I end up moving there later this year, will I be able to make this chaos my home too?
Photo: Football fans on the streets in Besiktas, and security police on Istiklal during a communist protest I ran into the same day.