Rose Asani

Istanbul’s European side is seeing its freedom eroded away

Istanbul's European side is seeing its freedom eroded away
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It was meant to be a relatively quiet event. A few fans gathering to take part in a global listening party in support of the new album by Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool. Instead what happened last Friday - and what followed over the weekend - has drawn attention to the changing nature of Istanbul.

For centuries this Turkish city has been a melting pot of cultures. Two continents living side by side, separated only by the Bosphorus strait. It’s not unusual for Istanbulian’s to have breakfast on the European side, lunch on the Asian side, only to pop back to Europe for a night cap. And to the untrained eye this city is as cosmopolitan and free as any European capital.

On any given night you can walk through the main drag Istiklal Street and see women wearing little to nothing. People pour out of bars in the early hours of the morning, and nobody batters an eye lid. Or at least they didn’t. What happened at the Radiohead party shows how tensions are growing and the city is changing.

On Friday night, men stormed Velvet Indieground, an Istanbul record store, and attacked Radiohead fans with pipes. This was all allegedly carried out because alcohol was being consumed during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan. Had the attack happened in an area known to be highly conservative, it would have probably received less international attention, but this took place in the heart of the city on the European side. A side where bars are ten a penny and the clinking of wine glasses can be heard on every corner.

But that wasn’t the end of it. As news of the incident spread through social media, it wasn’t long before temperatures soared. By Saturday evening, things really got out of hand. Hundreds came out to protest against the attack, and most had a bottle in hand. They were angry that a few thugs had dared trample on an event where people were just having a good time. But as the crowd grew, so too did the reaction of the police.

Streets away the tear gas could be smelt. As I walked home I bumped into an old acquaintance running away from the violence. Violence which the police were fuelling. The demonstrators had been beaten back by officers, rubber bullets were fired and water cannons were used to disperse them. All because they had come out to show solidarity with those who had been attacked at the Radiohead event.

Freedoms on the European side of Istanbul are slowly being eroded and the demographics are shifting. You only have to visit a side street off Istiklal to realise that being slightly less than fully covered up attracts tutting or disapproving stares. Meanwhile the foreigners who live here are becoming increasingly cautious about where and when we drink alcohol. Pockets of conservatism are springing up and overtaking neighbourhoods that once were free and easy.

Street gangs have got a foothold in areas long known to be European in feel, and they are making their displeasure of western ways known. Couples are more wary about the simple act of holding hands in public, Kissing, with the exception of a peck on the cheek, is fast becoming a no-no. Yet despite the lengths some are going to to avoid attention from these thugs, they cannot escape it.

I know of one couple whose rude awakening to the changes in Istanbul came when a brick was lobbed through their window. Why? They had been out in their private, walled garden minutes from Taksim square, drinking beer. There was no way they could be seen from the street, but the gang had watched them buy alcohol, and the brick was their way of saying ‘not on our watch’. The incident came after weeks of taunts and verbal attacks, and the couple have now decided to move.

Gangs like this are not representative of the general population. Yet resentment and hatred towards the West is here - and it’s growing. Turkey is increasingly becoming defined by the views of its leader and the trickle-down effect is apparent.

Rose Asani is a journalist based in Turkey