I left the Tajik consulate feeling like I could finally start enjoying our trip. The itinerary for Istanbul was entirely planned by Will, because every other time we’ve traveled I’ve done all the research, planning and organising, and I wanted a break. I had only scanned it briefly so I didn’t know where the day would take us, and the surprise element of it was kind of exhilarating, even though it was my second time in Istanbul and so I’d seen most of the sites before. First point of call was lunch, however. Our breakfast had consisted of some deep-fried food bought from a street vendor and hurriedly shoved into our mouth before jumping on the bus, and my stomach was not happy to be ignored. We stopped at a tiny cafe in Florya where we bought deliciously fresh dolma and limonata, perfect for the 35 degree heat. The cafe was so small it couldn’t fit any tables or chairs inside, but it was one of the best meals I would have in Turkey. Although, let’s be real – most of our meals were contenders for that title, given that Turkey produces some of the most amazing produce in the world. After eating our fill we headed back to the Metrobus station to get a bus to Avansaray, from where we’d walk to Eyüp Sultan Camii. The Metrobus system is ridiculously fast and efficient; we never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a bus to come, which was lucky because I accidentally left Will stranded on the platform as I ran on to the first bus I saw, which promptly closed its doors behind me. Whoops.
Finding our way to Eyüp Sultan Camii was, like most of our time in Istanbul, a steep, hilly adventure with numerous stops at grocery stores for water, ice blocks and directions. The mosque was crowded with locals and domestic tourists; very few foreign tourists were present. Will got approached by some tourists that thought he might have been from Bosnia like them. They left disappointed.
Eyüp’s popularity amongst visitors is not due to its size or its beauty, like some of the mosques in Istanbul, but because of its historical and religious significance. The mosque and the cemetery date back to the 15th century, and it was the first mosque built by the Ottomans after their conquest of Constantinople. It is also the home of the grave of Eyüp Sultan, one of the sahabah, and so it forms a site of pilgrimage for many.
After visiting the mosque, we began the trek up to the top of the hill along the cemetery. The walk would probably have been more pleasant if there hadn’t been so many people jostling their way along, but the views of the Golden Horn from the top were worth it. At that point I checked my phone, the sim card having finally been activated. Six missed calls from Özgur. Crap. We had his keys and it was after 5pm, so he was probably on his way home from work. I called him back in a panic feeling like the worst guest in the world, but he was relaxed as always. He said not to rush home with the keys as he could find other things to do in the meantime, but if we were keen he wanted to take us to Taksim Square where what was being called the “Standing Man” protest had started to take off. I really wanted to be in bed by 9pm, but I also didn’t want to say no to the host who had been so gracious towards us so we agreed to meet him at Osmanbey at 7.30. We decided to start to make our way back home. Will was confident that there was something more on the other side of the hill, so rather than go back the way we came, we left the crowd and walked down the hill on the other side. People, there was nothing special on the other side of the hill. Luckily for us (and especially lucky for Will, given how cranky the heat had made me) Istanbul is full of the kinds of characterful streets and alleys that you could wander for days without tiring of them. Istanbul is also an extremely picturesque city, but sadly struggles with problems of garbage and pollution that are so common for cities of its size and density.
We walked down to the waterfront, and took a break in one of the many parks that border it. Like the parks we’d seen from the taxi on our way from the airport, it was filled with families sharing picnics and single men fishing.
By the time we had walked back to Avansaray, my feet were read to drop off. There was still more to come – I’d forgotten that buses still weren’t running around Taksim, and so the three of us walked the 2km from Osmanbey, which under normal circumstances would have been easy, but was now torturous. The first thing I noticed as we approached Taksim was the amount of cops in the area. Some stood in groups around Gezi Park, but most of them were in a stand off with lines of protestors standing in the square, 50m away. Gezi park itself was empty, and looked like it had recently been bulldozed. Piles of dirt marked where tents must once have stood.
The protestors who weren’t confronting the police were silently facing a large portrait of Ataturk, flanked by two Turkish flags; unsurprising considering how many of the protestors are Kemalists. There were only around 200 protestors when we got there, but more and more arrived in droves. During this time the police did not make any moves; neither, obviously, did the standing protestors.
By the time we left an hour later, there were close to 1500, if not more. Özgur had heard that the protestors from Gezi had moved to another park, this time in Beşiktaş, the suburb in which he’d grown up. The Beşiktaş football team, Beşiktaş JK, had announced their support of the protests, and they and two other rival football teams were attending the protest at Yildiz Park. According to Özgur, their displaying such a show of unity was a very big deal. We got on a dolmuş and were in Beşiktaş within a few minutes. We walked to the famous eagle statue near Beşiktaş centre which represented the football team and which currently had a portrait of Ataturk hanging from its breast, and a few books about Ataturk at its feet. A large crowd circled the statue, and a young man who seemed to be crying leaned against it.
We walked on to Yildiz Park, where a crowd of at least 4000 had gathered. Özgur was on the phone, and by the way he kept craning his neck it was clear he was looking for someone. Soon enough, he introduced us to his mum and dad, who lived just opposite the park and had come to support the protest. Because the park was in a residential area and it was getting dark, the speakers didn’t use megaphones, and the audience clapped silently, using the fingers of each hand to tap against their palms. We couldn’t hear what the speakers were saying from our location, but given it was in Turkish it didn’t make any difference to us. Özgur translated where he could,
By now my stomach was growling, having not eaten anything since the dolma at lunch. It was almost 10pm, and the jet lag was hitting me hard. As though reading my thoughts, or hearing the growls of my stomach, Özgur turned to me and asked if I was hungry.
“Yeah, but I can wait til after we leave,” I said.
“Do you still want manti?” Özgur asked. On the way to Taksim I’d pointed out a sign above a restaurant advertising manti, practically drooling in excitement.
“I’ll eat anything,” I replied, imagining biting into a big doner kebab. “But I can wait!”oz
Özgur walked off, leaving me to dream of garlic sauce. Within a few minutes he was back with his mum and dad.
“Okay! My parents have invited you to have dinner at their house. My grandmother has cooked manti.”
I stared at him in horror. “Did you tell your grandma to cook manti because of me?!”
He laughed and assured me that she had cooked it earlier. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not, but his parents were standing there beaming at us and I felt rude refusing their kind offer. We left the protestors and headed off to their home, just metres from the park. The news was reporting on protests in Ankara when we entered the apartment; judging from the footage, Ankara had clearly replaced Taksim as the site of the largest and most violent clashes between police and protestors. We were introduced to Özgur’s grandma, a tiny woman with white wispy hair who immediately ushered us to the table. She put a large bowl of manti in front of each of us, slathered in yoghurt. She went back into the kitchen and returned with a sizzling frying pan. Özgur informed us that this pan was full of butter melted together with paprika and garlic, which is probably one of the best things ever. His grandmother poured a generous helping on top of each bowl, the butter spitting as it made contact with the cold yoghurt. We dug in immediately, and kept digging in – it was absolutely glorious. I cannot even begin to express how delicious the manti was. I love Turkish manti, and it was the best I’d ever tasted.
I ate quickly and I ate well, but I still couldn’t finish the mound of manti they’d laid before me, which seemed enough to feed a small family. Will, on the other hand, had finished his, and was looking at the big bowl of leftover manti on the table, ready for seconds. Not wanting to waste food, I asked him if he wanted what I couldn’t finish, instead. Will was worried they might be offended that I hadn’t finished my dinner, but Özgur assured me that his grandmother wouldn’t care, so I swapped bowls with Will. Just then, Özgur’s mum came to the table with watermelon, and seeing the switch she asked Özgur if I didn’t like the food. I emphatically assured her that I loved it, but she looked unconvinced and said something in Turkish which Özgur translated as, “If you see a drum, you beat it. If you are given food, you eat it.” Özgur just laughed it off, but I was absolutely mortified, and made sure to tell both her and Özgur’s grandmother just how much I enjoyed the food at least another two times before we left. I left feeling ashamed and unsure about how I could have handled it any differently without doing permanent damage to my already bloated stomach.
It was past 11pm, and I was in a food coma. I followed behind Özgur and Will like a zombie, thinking we were on our way home, but soon found myself back in Yildiz Park. The crowd had surged to over 10 000 people, most of whom were scattered about the park on the grass, with beer bottles in hand. By this stage it felt more like a mellow music festival than a protest, sans the music. Everyone talked in low whispers, mindful of the residences around them. Özgur introduced us to one of his friends who had lived in Australia for a year. By that stage my brain had switched off. My feet, which had been throbbing with pain for the majority of the night, were now numb, and I could barely stand straight. We finally left around midnight; all I remember of the trip home was getting on a dolmuş, everything after that was a sweet sleepy blur.