I Was Eating At An Istanbul Restaurant When the Tear Gas Poured Through the Streets Around Us


My world-traveller former roommate from Vienna (Latasha Wilson) who is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey met me in Istanbul this past weekend, which turned out to be truly unforgettable. This city, where history meets modernity, was everything that I expected it to be — the buzzing Istiklal Street, majestic Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the energetic Spice Market, the sparkling lights that lined the countless side streets, and the unbelievable diversity of people who flowed throughout the veins of the city collectively makes a magical experience that understandably leaves an indelible mark on all people who grace the streets of Istanbul. It certainly did for me. As always, I had a great time people watching and captured a few moments that I absolutely loved, in a city that's gained international attention over the last few weeks for massive, anti-government protests.

These boys ran up to us and asked to take a photo! This was, by far, one of my favorite moments from this weekend.

Latasha and I had dinner in a beautiful restaurant on a side street off of Istiklal Street on the terrace and noticed that about a third of people in the fine establishment were eating dinner with a gas mask around their neck, placed on their head, or somewhere on the table. About 30 minutes into dinner, we heard protesters marching through the street below with whistles and drums that rhythmically complemented their chants.  

*Every single person* on the terrace started to clap enthusiastically, sing, chant, and yell out phrases of solidarity. An elderly woman even brought out a whistle from her purse! The cheers were cut short with a cloud of dense tear gas that covered every surface of the terrace (mind you, we were almost half a mile from Taksim Square where the heart of the protests was taking place). People put their masks on, while others grabbed napkins to cover their noses and closed their eyes shut.

Latasha snapped this photo when the tear gas got particularly strong. Interesting thing is that no one left the restaurant despite the repeated clouds of tear gas that transcended on the restaurant. People just dealt with it.

A young lady about my age had brought a liquid mixture of crushed anti-acid tablets and water and started spraying it into people’s faces (including mine) to alleviate the stinging from the tear gas. After the worst was over, people broke out into cheer again! This scenario (graceful dining, punctuated by chanting passerbys and the diners breaking out into song and cheers, which was then quieted by powerful tear gas that I could actually see) repeated itself almost 15 times throughout dinner. After a long dinner, we were about to head out when our Turkish-only speaking waiter blocked us from leaving and motioned that there was too much tear gas outside so he recommended that we wait on the second floor for twenty minutes. I peered into the restaurant next door, and onto the streets below that were packed just minutes before, and this is what I saw. (Forgive me of the hazy photos … I snapped the photos through windows.)

This window divided our restaurant and the one I peered into. Note that we are in fully enclosed areas, yet people were still coughing, crying, and tearing.

After we finally walked onto the streets, we were stuck. For every direction that we wanted to walk towards, we were told that there was either too much gas, too much police, or both. So we lingered on Istiklal street a few meters from Taksim Square where thousands of people were in gas masks, and we sprinted into side streets when the crowd ran (this happened many a times). I saw many young men selling gas masks and goggles on the street. I bought one, because it was impossible to breathe without one. I wore my sunglasses in the dark to protect my eyes, but that didn’t help after a few minutes because they were coated in opaque white after a few minutes from the tear gas.

Little boy selling gas masks for 5 Turkish lires each.

Frankly, it was exciting to be in a place that seems to be the pulse of the universe these days. Some people helped us out  when things got a bit too dangerous and we ended up buying a few cans of Efes Pilsner (Turkish beer), and drank it on the street while talking politics with our new friends.

The morning after, I walked around Taksim Square, which was clear of the protesters from the night before. I may have snapped too many photos of the square, because a policeman came up to my friend and asked in Turkish who I was, and why I was taking so many photos. After my friend calmly answered back in Turkish that I was just a nice American tourist with no political interest. Still skeptical, the policeman stared at me for the longest one minute of my life, and said in perfect English, ‘Welcome to Turkey.’

Right behind us are the standing protesters in Taksim Square.