James Tressler / Sunday, May 5 @ 7:29 a.m. / Elsewhere
“Wanna go for a walk?” my flatmate Omer asked.
“Sure,” I said, though not really in the mood. Still, it was a holiday, and a beautiful spring day, so it seemed like the thing to do.
Outside, the streets near the flat were that rarest of Istanbul scenes: completely empty, scarcely a car in sight, nor the hint of a honking horn. People were out though, in light clothing and tennis shoes, enjoying the fine morning.
“It’s Workers’ Day,” Omer said encouragingly, as we walked. “We are workers, too. We have earned this day with the tears of our brow.”
“You mean, ‘sweat of our brow,” I corrected. Though, on a teacher’s salary, it might as well be tears. Omer worked as Middle East-Africa manager for a chemical and mining company, and was frequently away on business trips.
“You capitalist,” I teased, as we walked.
Actually, neither of us would cut much of a figure as a Red. Still, with the May Day holiday, there were sure to be demonstrations somewhere. In the news, we’d read that the prime minister had expressly forbidden any mass demonstrations in Taksim Square, the traditional site, citing safety concerns and the fact that there are construction projects currently under way there. The city has controversial plans to build a big mosque and a shopping center in what is now one of the few parks near Taksim.
May Day demonstrations have a troubled history in Turkey. Back in the late 1970s, there was the infamous May Day Massacre, in which dozens of people were killed when the protests turned violent. After that May Day demonstrations were forbidden anywhere in the city until the ban was finally lifted in 2010.
To forestall any impromptu Taksim Square gatherings, the city this morning suspended virtually all public transport, including the ferry services, and the square was essentially sealed off.
“But there probably will be something on this side of the city,” Omer said.
As we approached Rihtim Caddesi, the main road in Kadikoy that runs near the harbor, we found he was right. Normally the road, even at this time of the day, is jammed with traffic, with taxis, buses, and cars. But now it was occupied by hundreds of demonstrators. Most of them were university students. They carried the names of their universities on banners. There were also other banners denoting TKP, the Turkish Communist Party, with the hammer and sickle. Still other banners displayed caricatures of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also head of the ruling AK Party.
“What does that sign say?” I asked. There was a picture on the banner depicting Erdogan in Ottoman dress.
“Oh,” Omer said, reading the sign. “It says that (Erdogan) wants to be a Padisha, or Sultan. You know, the socialists really hate him because he wants to get rid of our constitution and make a new one full of his own ideas.”
Leftist groups in general in Turkey, I’d observed, generally regard the prime minister and his ruling AK Party with suspicion, even outright hostility. Their reasons are varied, judging from the tone and color of the banners, as well as the chants of the demonstrators. Some, as Omer observed, fear that he wants to be a kind of dictator, or sultan, who wants turn the country, which is a secular democracy, into an Islamic state like its neighbor Iran.
Other signs protest against the country purchasing Patriot missiles from the United States, and still others decry the exporting of Turkey’s natural resources to foreign powers.
“You notice,” Omer said, as we continued up Rihtim Caddesi toward the ferry station, “many of them are wearing Nike, Addidas, Tommy Hilfiger, talking on their Blackberries. And they are supposed to be Communists.”
It was true, the majority of the protesters were typically dressed students.
“I just think it’s funny that it is a Workers’ Day protest and the majority of these kids don’t work and live with their parents,” I said. “It’s easy to be a communist when you don’t have to earn a living.” Inwardly, I winced at myself as I said it, knowing that I sounded exactly like my father, or even grandfather. Hell, it’s the kind of thing Archie Bunker would say, for that matter. But what can you do? Maybe I am getting old after all.
Actually, it was a peaceful protest, and I reflected that they had a right to be there. We were, at least presumably, living in a democracy. There weren’t even that many police, not like when the BDP, the Kurdish party, has its own demonstrations in this same spot. Then the police presence is very formidable. Once, during such a protest, they stopped me and asked to see my papers. Maybe they thought I was CIA or something, or some kind of foreign provocateur, who knows. There was another time, during a Peace Day demonstration, of all things, when some masked guys showed up and began clashing with police, and a near riot had broken out.
We reached the ferry station, where all the marching groups had gathered. There were going to be speeches. “Hos geldiniz! Welcome!” a man on a loudspeaker said. There were other people out, but they were more interested in finding somewhere open for breakfast than in listening to speeches. Some of the waterfront restaurants were open. Evidently the waiters and cooks of the world, who work as hard or harder than anybody (I know because I’ve been both), still have to serve the rest of working humanity.
“Want to get a Turkish coffee?” Omer asked.
“Sure.” The poor waiter. We would have to celebrate Workers’ Day on the sweat of his brow.
We passed the demonstration and walked over to the cafes near the Fish Market. We found a place that served good Turkish coffee and sat outside. It was a lovely morning, and it felt good to be sitting outside.
“So,” Omer said, when the coffee arrived. “Here is to us, the workers.” He raised his cup.
“Cheers,” I said. “Workers of the world unite!”
“Yes,” Omer said. “The workers, and the sweat of our brow!”
“And the tears, and the blood,” I said. “Let us rejoice in this day by not doing a damn thing except maybe having a beer,” I said.
“There were some nice girls at the demonstration,” Omer said.
“There always are. Leftist socialist girls are usually really hot. Maybe we could go and meet some.”
“Yes,” Omer said, agreeing. “We could invite them to have coffee with us and have them explain socialism to us. We are ready to be converted.”
“Yes,” I said. “Decadent capitalists we may be, but we are willing to learn.”
We finished the coffee and ordered another. The waiter served the coffee with small glasses of ice cold water and a Turkish delight, served on toothpicks. Not being big on sweets, I gave my Turkish delight to Omer. He was paying for the coffee anyway.
Afterward, we headed back to the flat. The streets were still very quiet and empty.
“You could dance in the street,” Omer observed.
We walked on, past the demonstrators. A man was giving an angry speech. You could hear his voice shaking with rage, and the crowd showed their alignment with his mood with accompanying boos and hisses.
“He is talking about how they wanted to meet at Taksim Square and the government will not allow them,” Omer explained. “That is where they usually meet, since it is the city center. “
“Well, I’m just happy there wasn’t any craziness,” I said. “That’s all we need. Can you imagine? They’d probably see me, a foreign capitalist and want to beat me up.”
“No, no,” Omer said. “You are our guest here. And these people are not like that.”
“Got plans later?” I asked.
“Yes, a friend is coming from the other side to visit, but he has to wait until the ferry boats reopen. You?”
“Nah. Just going to hang around. That’s what we do on Labour Day in America.”
“You have a Workers’ Day in America?” Omer asked.
“Yes, but we celebrate it in September, for some reason,” I said.
As we neared the flat, I thought about that. In America, I don’t recall there being any kind of political ideology attached to Labor Day. In Prague, it was a big deal. I remember one year there were simultaneous demonstrations by the communists, the anti-communists, the nationalists and the pro-Jewish groups all on the same day. It was surreal. You felt like you could trip over agendas in the street and wind up hurting yourself.
In America, perhaps there was a legitimate political history, but people generally didn’t tal