Istanbul is for the most part a very clean city. So clean that the only litter on the streets are cigarette stubs. So naturally, on my first night bar-hopping with some friends, when we had settled in to waiting for our cocktails, smoke in the bar wasn’t a big deal. There weren’t that many people in the bar, so maybe we could have evil-eyed the smoker in our midst and gotten him to stop.
Truth be told, I like cigarette smoke and I’m fine with people smoking around me. Bars and clubs feel odd to me when they are smoke-free. (Perhaps this is why I like going to Terrace so much, but I digress.) So here we were, after a decent dinner, sitting on this terrace in the bar district—on the Street of Flowers—waiting for the cosmopolitan, margarita, and Turkish coffee to arrive and we smell something—and here describing the scent is tricky, because it smelled itchy, and how at all does something smell itchy? It smelled like the smoke of a cigar that had been soaked in acid beforehand, which made for terribly acrid smoke. So naturally, in smoke-filled Turkey the question is: “who’s smoking that?”
Sam starts to cough, and then all of us join in. Everything in our nasal passageways starts to burn. People in gas masks walk by in a steady stream. We move off the terrace and sit inside. It’s still light outside. The burning intensifies.
”I think it’s pepper,” says Alice.
“I think we should stay for ten minutes to drink our drinks and then leave,” I say.
My drink arrives. The others are taking forever. Our eyes, noses, and throats are still burning. People are walking by with gas masks that look heavier. Sam walks up to the bar and cancels her drink. I down mine with adrenaline-inspired swiftness that leaves Sam and Alice staring at me open-mouthed, and we start to book it. I am disoriented. This is bad because I am supposed to be the navigator and this pressure is worsening my incompetence with navigation. We follow the crowd and end up in a subway station, where so many people are trying to get past the bars or frantically buying tickets, waiting for the tram to arrive. I try to tackle the machine.
“Leave it,” Alice and Sam say.
The two of them are trying too hard to be calm and not scream at me, and somehow this makes everything worse. Everything is in Turkish, and our vocabulary is limited to “doner” and “hamam.” I push ten lira at the machine for a pass and the machine throws it back at me. We can hear protesters singing. We can hear what should be fireworks going off. There is this awful quiet in the tram station, and in it you can hear that everyone is afraid.
The machine finally swallows the note and throws out a three pass card. We go through the turnstiles and wait. The singing intensifies. The subway arrives. We don’t know where it is going. If it goes forward, we will be even deeper in the “pepper.” The doors close, the tram moves, we hold our breath.
A man with tattoos on his left arm and calf, half-covered by his black shirt and cargo shorts hands us something. It takes a split second for us to realise that he is handing us wipes. His eyes are redder than ours; he has ventured deeper into the mayhem than we have. Here he is, offering some relief in a subway crowded with fear and half-emptied of bodies. Tense, we take three out but drop one. We do not speak Turkish, we do not know whether or not he speaks English, but we say “thank you,” anyway. I make eye contact with him for a second and think of how touching this moment is. I still think of this man, who coughed really hard after he had handed everyone in the tram a wipe. I couldn’t imagine how badly his face was burning, nor could I understand how he managed to show such humanity when everyone around him was losing it.
“Guys, I don’t think that was pepper,” I say.
The tram rolls to a stop. We can hear singing and our own fear. There is a man, with red-ringed eyes telling the story of his journey to Taksim, who looks ready to crack when the call to prayer announces that we are safe. “Is this our stop?” we wonder. The tattooed man says to us that this is the last stop, so we get off and find ourselves across the bridge, a decent walk from where we are staying. We veer off the main road and into a sketchy alley that screams, “This is where dumb tourists get robbed.”
Things at the other side of the river are strange, so quiet and calm that it’s creepy. It’s difficult to reconcile the gas masks with this beautiful place, full of ruins and mosques overlooking the river. Sam and Alice sigh. We look at each other and start to laugh. Ten minutes later, back at the hostel, we will tell this story with lots of brass and laughter, and as we do this, I wonder if it really is funny.