THESE DAYS it is considered foolhardy to mention the word “bomb” on an aircraft. At 39,000 feet it can lead to instant handcuffing – with nasty little plastic cable ties that pinch – as the plane diverts to the nearest airport. I learned last week in Istanbul that there are times when it is equally hazardous to mention the word terrorism – or more especially “big terrorism meeting” – even in a restaurant at sea level.
Recently, in my capacity as an academic in the school of media in the Dublin Institute of Technology, I delivered a paper at Kadir Has University in Istanbul on media reportage of terrorism. I fell into the company of an unlikely group of American, Saudi and Iranian academics and journalists.
On the final day of the conference, the Irishman, the Saudi, the Iranian and the American decided to go for a walk in the old city of Istanbul. In the city where East literally meets West, one travels from Europe into Asia by simply walking across the Galata Bridge that spans the Bosphorus Strait. The city is stunningly beautiful – set against the backdrop of the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. The famous Blue Mosque sits at Sultanahmet Square just a short distance from Istanbul University. In close proximity are the equally famous Atik Ali Mosque, the Nuruosmaniye Mosque and the Suleymaniye Mosque. My Saudi and Iranian colleagues were very anxious that we visit each of the mosques, and, acting as tour guides, extolled their various virtues in great detail.
Not to be outdone, I offered to guide my colleagues across the Galata Bridge to the historic Taksim Square area of the city. It was May 1st, and the Taksim district was bustling and particularly busy.
In a city of 20 million citizens, Christians, Jews and Muslims live side by side in relative harmony. In line with the transcontinental nature of the city, mini-skirts, business suits and high heels co-exist easily with Burkas and head scarves. The full spectrum of human beliefs, political persuasions and political ideologies are reflected in the eclectic dress code and architectural styles that constitute Istanbul’s exotic street-scape.
As we walked deeper into the Taksim district, my colleagues began to comment on the increasing number of young men carrying flags, banners and bottles through the narrow streets. I remarked with the casual calm of the seasoned security analyst that they were obviously on their way to attend a football match or some other such sporting occasion. I decided we should follow the crowds to see where the action was – so to speak.
The trickle of young Turkish men and women gradually metamorphosed into a full-scale howling mob from which there was no escape. Surging forward, carried by the now rampaging crowd, my new-found friends and I found ourselves being propelled towards a phalanx of Turkish riot police at the end of the street. I had unwittingly led my international colleagues to the very epicentre of the Istanbul May Day Riot of 2009.
As we approached the police lines, various young men began hurling their bottles at the serried ranks of riot Polis. My Saudi companion began to recite a part of the Koran that I was not familiar with while my American colleague loudly proclaimed – in decidedly undiplomatic language – that I was personally responsible for getting us involved in an international diplomatic incident. I seem to remember the word “goddamn” being used liberally along with other words not fit to print here.
Just yards from the police lines, there was a series of thunderous bangs as tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon were sprayed into the riotous assembly. Being at the front, thankfully, most of the artillery passed over our heads and we managed to duck into a restaurant whose shutters were still partially opened. The owners immediately tried to eject the four suspicious-looking gentlemen who had entered at the head of the screaming, howling mob outside. However, our Iranian friend spoke impeccable Turkish and when he asked for a menu, we were promptly offered seats at the rear of the restaurant.
Having ordered Iskander kebabs, Anatolian wine and sparkling water to revive us from our unexpected adventure, we were somewhat unsettled when a very determined group of Turkish policemen entered the restaurant and headed directly for our table. As the waiter translated in broken English, the ranking Polis officer pointed us out as having led the rioters up the street just moments earlier. Passports and identity papers were demanded. The Saudi was the first to react and he explained – rather loudly and indignantly – that we were attending “big terrorism meeting” in Istanbul.
After a moment of shocked silence, the Polis produced a variety of handcuffs – of both the plastic and metal varieties.
Before we were cuffed, our Iranian colleague managed to explain – somewhat hysterically in rushed Turkish – that we were delegates at an academic conference on terrorism at the university. There was a second moment of sceptical silence.
The senior Polis officer eyed me with hostile scrutiny and demanded to see my passport. When he saw the harp on the cover, he broke into a wide grin and said four magic words: “Aha, Irlanda – Johnny Logan!”. And with that, they turned on their heels and left us to finish our meal.