When Istanbul’s Taksim Square protests commenced on 28th May 2013, like many people I watched the scenes portrayed across our news screens with deep concern. I was appalled at the Turkish government’s reaction to what started as very peaceful protests. The original protest, which was in fact a sit in to contest the urban development of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, resulted in a brutal eviction. The violent police crack down in turn inspired subsequent protests on a larger scale across Turkey. Rather than focusing solely on the smaller issue of Gezi Park however, these subsequent protests highlight much broader issues which had been concerning many local Turkish people for some time. At the core of it were issues with freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the government’s increasing encroachment on Turkey’s secularism.
Naturally when scenes of violence are displayed across your TV screens – regardless of whether it’s the protestors, the police, or anyone else enacting the violence – people will inevitably ask themselves the question is it safe to go to that place anymore? Is it safe to go to Turkey? Is it safe to go to Istanbul? Having recently spent time in Istanbul earlier this month I can assure you that it is in fact a safe place to visit, but I think it’s also important not to polarise the issue - which is why I wanted to write this post to discuss the issue in more detail.
First off, without trying to sound like a broken record to any regular readers of this blog, it’s important to first point out that nowhere in this world is 100% safe. Death, injury, and illness can happen for all sorts of reasons in all sorts of places including your home town. Fear is an important survival instinct that we as humans have, but we have to use it responsibly and weigh up the real risks before we act on it. Otherwise we run the risk of letting that fear rule our lives in a way that would result in us not fulfilling our dreams, goals, and ambitions because of something that may in fact be irrational in comparison to other things.
So did I find it safe when I was there?
During the 6 nights that I spent in Istanbul this month (with my accommodation situated just 10 minutes walk from Taksim Square) I encountered no problems personally. I did see some riot police on the main shopping street that runs down from the square, and more alarmingly I did see them holding the rubber bullet guns, but they seemed fairly relaxed when I walked past them on several occasions. In fact, most of them seemed more interested in chatting up the local girls walking past than they did in engaging in any violence. I think in most part therefore they were just there at that point to create a presence. By the time I got to Istanbul the issue by enlarge had been greatly contained by the Turkish government – even if I do disagree strongly with how they went about doing it. Since I have left the city it also doesn’t appear to have gotten any worse either, so if it was fine for me I imagine it would also be completely fine for you to visit too.
Another important factor you have to take into account is also just how humongous Istanbul actually is! You could honestly have been wandering many of its streets and not even know there was a protest unless you had been watching the news or social media channels at the time. Particularly the tourist areas around the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar, where most visitors would be based or frequenting, it all seemed completely unaffected by what had gone on. Even Taksim Square itself, they key area of protest where things began, resembled nothing of what I had seen on the news. As you can see from me standing at the Taksim Monument below – an area I would not have stood or frequented had I felt unsafe – even the areas that were previously most affected are no longer in a situation where you should be afraid to visit.
Not to be confused with the Arab Spring
One thing which irked me a bit, even more so since I’ve visited Istanbul personally, are the people who confuse the protests in Turkey with the Arab Spring. I can assure you, as someone who has visited both Istanbul and small parts of North Africa, the two occurrences are very different in many ways. For starters, Turkey is a developed country. Its Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, was also democratically elected - which is a very key defining difference. The main reason the Arab Spring happened was because people in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were fighting against real dictatorships, hoping for change and a democratic leadership. Although some may argue that Erdoğan has shown traits of a dictator in recent months in his response to the protests - and this is not something I’m necessarily disagreeing with in sentiment – the truth is he quite simply is not a dictator. Not in the real sense. Like him or not he was voted in by the people of Turkey. There is a big difference between this guy and monsters like Muammar Gadaffi. It just doesn’t compare.
So would I recommend you visit Istanbul?
I always feel a great defence of countries like Turkey who have for many years been great touristic destinations, but have one incident, and then suddenly people are put off going. I do understand the natural fear when you see these types of displays across your tv screen and the reaction it can have, but I always think it’s important to put these things in perspective. In the same way that I would still visit London despite the London riots having taken place not all that long ago, I would also still visit Istanbul. In fact, I had an amazing time while I was there and it was the highlight of my trip through Eastern Europe.
Although there are some times when you really do need to listen to news reports when planning your travel itineraries, it’s also important to be aware that a news channel is only going to talk about the point of interest. The calmer areas of a country or when issues have been resolved are unlikely to be reported because, well, no-one would watch that on the telly. If you’re ever unsure as to whether a place is safe or not to visit before hand research the place in detail before you make an informed decision. Speak to people who have been there recently, read blogs, check governmental websites, use social media to search for answers and ask questions. Take every resource available to you and make an informed decision, and if that decision is that you still don’t feel comfortable going to that place then that is ok. I just hate the idea that people would rule out a place as incredible as Istanbul without seeking the full picture first because in my own experiences of seeing it with my own eyes, the city is really incredible.