These Were The People In My Neighbourhood: Notes on Istanbul, Tear Gas, Riot Police, Memory, Identity and Stuff

About four and a half years ago, I left Turkey.

I had been living there for six years at that point, mostly in Istanbul. I was both very ready to leave and not at all ready. I spent the next several years feeling quietly sick with grief and regret, snarling irrationally at Shanghai and building up a somewhat idealized vision of what I had left behind.

As the years went by and I became more and more deeply entrenched in China and my online identity became solidly enmeshed with Shanghai, I felt myself slipping further and further away from my old Turkish self. The loss, the disconnect, was palpable. I felt like I was losing years of my life, years of memories, years of my self.

Turkish me was an entirely different person in that peculiar group portrait of my life.


istanbul 033


After six years in a place, one tends to feel (I think) a strong bond, a sense of personal terroir, with so many little spider web filaments linking you to people, places, linguistic and cultural tics and patterns, specific energies, pathways, habits, expectations.





Roads you walked every day, tram lines you followed, metro trains and ferry boats you crammed into every morning, minibus taxis you hopped onto without a second thought.

People you met; people you loved madly and people you desperately tried to avoid. People you saw regularly, for years. People who flitted in and out of your life so quickly that they remain only in memory as a diary entry, half remembered.



Words you used, in Turkish and in English and in a specific blending of both that comes with time. Linguistic tics, like saying kolay gelsin or afiyet olsun or geçmiş olsun or bakkal even when in the presence of English speakers, speaking in English.

Certain types of buildings you lived or worked in and the particular shapes of the doors and windows and the layout of the rooms and the bird song of the doorbell.

The specific smells, the tastes, the textures, the noises.





The cobblestones and slippery marble tiles. The year of mud along the length of Istiklal as it was being torn up, laid with inferior Chinese granite tiles (or so the signs later said), then torn up again and relaid with fabulous Turkish granite ones.

The steep tilt of the hills and the fabulous musculature in your legs developed after years of walking those ridiculously steep lanes and alleys.




Between 2002 and 2008, I was deeply immersed in Turkey. It was a distinctly love-hate relationship, one of those ones that was passionate, intense, occasionally abusive and enraging and heart breaking, frequently heart-thumpingly gorgeous and enthralling.

When I left, I had so much rage built up inside me that if one more random guy approached me on the street to touch me, follow me, mutter crude propositions in my ear, I was ready to fling him to the ground and stomp on him.

If one more guy propositioned me as if I was a prostitute because I was out on my own after 9pm (when my classes often finished and I had to walk home, dressed provocatively as a teacher carrying a book bag), or if I was thrown into another police car for the exact same reason (red hair, foreign, out at night alone or with a guy: definitely Russian, ergo a prostitute), I’d scream in frustration and anger.

I was tired of military helicopters circling low over my flat late at night. I was tired of seeing the robo-cops out in riot gear in Taksim Square anytime anyone wanted to say anything.




I was tired of having to run away from tear gas and water cannons on May Day while trying to get to work.


erdogan 4 eva



I was tired of the fierce rhetoric blasting from all sides. I was tired of the xenophobic nationalism. I was tired of the sexism. The bullshit.

I was tired. Really tired.

Yes, it was time to leave. But I still loved Turkey and Turkey still loved me (or at least all my old friends and students there, who make up a ridiculously large proportion of my facebook friend list and who still send me notes, demanding I come back).




So there’s that.

And then the whole Gezi Park thing happened the other day.



For 3 of my 4 years in Istanbul, I lived in flats just a few blocks from there.

I used to cut through the park on my way into Taksim. I bought my Weekly Guardian newspaper from a newsagent at the side of it. I sat on the benches shaped like open books and tried to read the text. I cooled down in the fountain in the middle in summer, splashing my face and hands and neck.

I spent almost all my time in parts of Istanbul that are now filled with protesters, tear gas, water cannons, tanks, barricades. My friends are sending me links to articles about the protests. Petitions. They’re posting pictures of their wounds. Fresh impressions of tear gas canisters on skin. Gashed eyes. Pictures of the detritus. Photos of the massive throngs of people joining together, day and night, walking from Asia to Europe to join the Taksim Occupiers in solidarity. They’re posting updates about where they are and what is happening to them. They’re vocalizing what I hadn’t heard them vocalize before.

What’s happening is immense and powerful and very much an extension of the rage and frustration I had felt when I left.

I feel very far away.

I want to be there with them, because such a huge part of myself belongs there. I get it. I know where they are coming from. I know the roads they are marching. I know what it feels like to be tear gassed. I know how disconcerting it is to face robo cops and their tanks.  I remember.

But it was so long ago.

And I’m so far away.

I feel like an impostor, a superficial cheerleader, a voyeur.

I wrote this the other day:


My lingering question is this:

If you live in a place long enough to feel deeply rooted, deeply intertwined, deeply immersed, and then you leave and never go back and years pass, how can you deal with things when that world suddenly explodes and everything is violently upended and all of your friends and neighbourhoods are violently, frighteningly, excitingly, maddeningly plunged into upheaval? Is assuming kinship a bit presumptuous?


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.