Reporter's Notebook: Visiting Istanbul at a Time of Tumult
I can't recall when I first heard about the protests in Istanbul. It may have been just before my flight from New York City took off, maybe I caught a glimpse of CNN en route or learned about them in speaking with a colleague at the business conference I would be covering. But I wouldn't be able to avoid talk of the protests for long.
The conference I was covering for Entrepreneur.com was the annual Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network event, which gathers more than 150 entrepreneurs from 14 different countries. The reason Dell chose the largest city in Turkey was twofold. Turkey has been experiencing nearly double-digit growth in its gross domestic product for the past few years. And the tech giant, always on the lookout for new business, has long targeted countries in the developing world. Yet what Dell didn't expect was contending with a series of violent protests over a battery of issues just 10 miles away in Taksim Square.
Just about all of the conference labs or panel events would be abuzz with talk of the protests. That was hardly a surprise, since the demonstrations were consistently the top story on cable news channels from CNN to Al Jazeera and the BBC.
Many attendees expressed concern for their safety when traveling after the conference. If Taksim Square was overflowing with protesters, would they even be able to take in the breathtaking sights of the Blue Mosque or the Ayasofya Mosque? Or maybe they wouldn't get the opportunity to bargain over silk rugs and hand-woven towels at the famed Grand Bazaar?
Some Turkish women entrepreneurs found the conference an ideal platform for broadcasting their solidarity with the anti-government protests, which kicked off peacefully in Taksim Square's Gezi Park May 28 but turned violent in the days since. Many of the panel discussions and introductions at Dell's three-day conference starting June 2 would pay homage to Turkish people for voicing concerns and demanding improvement from a government seen as becoming increasingly religious and conservative.
For me, I have to admit to feeling skepticism. While I had received the multiple U.S. State Department travel warnings in the past few days, which I read with the intensity with which a starving person might devour a home-cooked meal, I felt insulated. Not only is the five-star hotel where the conference was held located in a remote fishing village, Dell was in the driver's seat. I knew that the Austin, Texas-based company wouldn't take any chances on risking the safety of conference goers, especially with 44 members of the media present.
I couldn't maintain that blasé attitude for long. Protesters took to the streets near the hotel where I stayed on at least two occasions over the week. They caused traffic jams and sleep loss, as they banged pots and chanted during the wee hours. I also began to hear stories about conference goers caught up in the tumult. One attendee claimed a tear gas canister had literally been thrown at her. Though she was unharmed, she called the experience "frightening." What's more, Dell eventually canceled a planned excursion to the Grand Bazaar due to security concerns.
The protests had also expanded into multiple cities around Turkey, as the reasons behind them widened to include anti-consumerist and anti-government ideologies. As the days flew by, and more and more groups vowed to join the fray, the reality of contending with a prolonged situation set in.
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After the conference wrapped up on Tuesday, my husband and I moved to an apartment. He had joined me in Istanbul two days prior. The apartment is near the Galata Bridge, which bisects the Golden Horn and connects the newer and older parts of Istanbul. The protests wouldn't be 10 miles away but just outside our window. The Galata neighborhood is also just one tram stop away from Taksim Square. Though upon arrival we saw one protest outside our window, things so far have been calm.
While calm is good and calm is safe, part of me wants to do more -- to perhaps join the protests and show solidarity with a people who feel oppressed by their government. But maybe that's just my reporter's instinct. Or, it's just being here -- seeing real people expressing their ideals in a place that has inspired praise from authors and heads of state. Even Napoleon Bonaparte praised the cosmopolitan city. He once said: "If the world were a single state, Istanbul would have been its capital."