Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Portraits and Scenes from the 23rd Istanbul Pride Walk

On June 28, 2015, I went to Istanbul's Taksim square to watch the 23rd Istanbul Pride Walk. 

The LGBT issue had recently become electrified in Turkey with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US, and the loss suffered by the AKP - the religious/conservative party that ruled Turkey for more than a decade, in the June 6 elections. As a consequence there was a very liberal atmosphere in Turkey, especially in Istanbul. Everyone was expecting this year's Pride Walk to be a fun and vibrant event.

When I arrived to Taksim, however, things were different. There was a line of police across the entrance of the square, no one could walk in or out.

An hour earlier, police had broken up the event with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. I was not there to witness the police violence - this picture is from Al Jazeera News.

The pictures were all over the news and social media by then, and global celebrities were condemning the Turkish authorities for their needless retort to violence. Their excuse for this action was "political sensitivities," but most people suspected it had more to do with the fact that the Pride Walk co-incided with the Ramadan - a "holy month" for Turkish Moslems and certainly no time for public debauchery as far as the authorities were concerned. Once again, this picture is not mine.

Two of the "nice cops," plainclothes officers who were blocking the entrance to Taksim square. These guys did not carry weapons and were kindly telling people not to walk into the square. The incoming crowds were diverted towards Cihangir - a nearby neighbourhood of hipsters - instead.

Young people waiting for their friends near Taksim square. The image in the background is a graffiti of Ataturk - Turkey's secular "founding father".

The view from the street leading from Taksim square to Cihangir. "Not-so-nice cops" of the Cevik Kuvvet - Turkish riot police - were waiting on the sidelines in case of a violent flare-up.

Hippie girls looking for their friends near Taksim Square. Almost everyone was focused on their smartphones, either trying to find their friends or checking out various social media channels to see what was going on.

A wall of riot police waiting next to a TOMA, a local kind of riot control vehicle and a fixture of Istanbul's public places since the Gezi Park riots of 2013. The ground was slick and wet from the previous round of water-cannon violence. 

The police were looking at the strangely-dressed Pride Day attendees and joking among themselves with a nonchalant attitude and a callous undertone of authority and power. Some of them were busy checking out Twitter and Instagram too. 

Another view of the police cordon.

Confrontations between police and liberal protesters always make for interesting scenes. This police officer was looking at this girl with a shocked gaze of admiration - as if he'd fallen in love! 

I think this encounter succinctly summarised the root of today's conflict in Turkey - rural, religious, under-educated, under-sexed men versus (slightly) more educated urban youth with more liberal attitudes towards sex and life. 

Citizen journalist at work. I envied his zoom lens - I was shooting all my pictures with my rugged Canon Powershot G16, a camera whose greatest advantage is its portability and unobtrusiveness. I never leave home without it.

Cops face disgruntled LGBT activists in front of the Taksim-Cihangir police barricade while motorcyclists try to get across.

A makeshift barricade of garbage bags - this was where most of the police violence had taken place hours earlier.

A bearded pride-day attendee looking for his friends.

A mixed group of police officers and young people.

Dutch couple trying to get to their hotel - pleasantly entertained by the low-level chaos around them.

A young mother and her son.

This girl in a gas mask was quite angry, possibly because she had witnessed the police violence first-hand earlier on. She looked at me with a glance that could kill.

Two young people, possibly teachers, carrying banners that read "I am a trans[sexual] teacher, so what?" "Elif and Işık (Turkish girls' names,) hand in hand in recess" and "I am immoral!".

A more colourful cast of characters began to appear as I walked closer towards Cihangir. Throbbing music coming from the neighbourhood hinted that a something big was taking place down there.

Young people walking towards Cihangir.

A few months after this event, I met the girl in this picture as part of a magazine interview, and we became good friends ever since. A funny coincidence, but it's a small world, and the world of liberal-minded people in Turkey is even smaller.

Pride Walk attendee near the German Hospital in Cihangir.

A frustrated-looking festival participant.

These guys (and that cat) were wistfully looking at the beautiful women who had turned out for the Pride Walk.

Senegalese men in gangsta get-up - possibly immigrants living here, watching the Pride Walk visitors.

A Pride Walk visitor shows his true colours.

Istanbul's street merchants are quick to turn any event or protest to their profit. This guy was selling rainbow-coloured scarves that read out "We are here, we were here, we will remain here".

Another street vendor selling bright LGBT ribbons and medals.

She was seriously beautiful.

Pride Day attendees ask police officers for directions. Most police, even those in the riot squad, were calm and approachable. I overheard one saying that he was "very bored" to be waiting there for no reason.

This guy was seemed to be taking comfort in his pistol, insecure and shocked by the procession of seductively-dressed women and gender-bending men.

A faux queen in drag, calling her friends in front of an art-deco apartment door.

Cheerful girl with bright dress and mandala tattoos.

Out-of-place Korean tourists enjoy a meal, oblivious to the festivity and chaos around them.

An elephantine riot-control vehicle lurks in a side-alley.

Cheerful guys heading to Cihangir from Taksim square. With the main square cordoned off, Cihangir had become the new heart of the Pride Walk.

Three friends resting on a doorstep - one of them did not want his picture taken. 

A bored-looking policeman with a teargas-canister pistol. Shields rest against the sidewalk like disused roman scuta. Compare this guy's calm demeanour to the insecure, twitchy policeman seen I saw previously. I noticed that heavy weapons in the riot police arsenal were always entrusted to more stolid-looking guys, perhaps in order to avoid accidental violence.

Riot police and plainclothes officers (Turkish: sivil polis,) watching the new nucleus of the Pride Walk in Cihangir.

And this is what they were looking at. An enormous crowd of people had gathered in Cihangir, chanting slogans and venting their anger at the police attack earlier on in Taksim square. An ambulance vehicle was trying to force its way through the crowd. 

Some guys had brought over a red SUV, and were blasting loud music, George Michael and Pet Shop Boys hits to the crowd. Pro-LGBT slogans were waving from signs written in Arabic and Armenian. The rectangular sign on the right-hand side read: "Eating meat is a hate crime".

Two of my friends, resplendent in glitter and smoky make-up.

A beautiful girl with a cotton-candy wig, blowing a purple whistle to the tune of the music.

Workers at a nearby discount supermarket watched the protest with the same mixture of apathy, and puzzlement as the police.

"Proud to be a vegan" next to a kebab shop.

She carried a sign that read "what is the ban - ayol?". "Ayol" is a Turkish expression, usually used to cap off a sentence, that is associated with women and queer folk. 

A stylish duo at the heart of the Cihangir protest/party.

Onlookers in Cihangir.

This one guy had climbed a tree and was flinging little bright packets - candy? condoms? to the crowd. Everyone was cheering the unknown tree dude for his deed. 

Followers of Sappho from Cihangir.

Crack a brew! These bros in kaleidoscopic wifebeater shirts seemed to be having the time of their lives.

This determined-looking woman in red was loudly shouting slogans while walking up and down the main street of Cihangir.

Hot couple from Cihangir. Although such scenes are now standard fare in Pride festivals in Western countries, it still takes a bit of courage to celebrate in this attire (or lack thereof,) in Istanbul.

Her style reminded me of the fictional Daenerys Targaryen from the Game of Thrones.

Beautiful Kurdish woman with a rose tattoo, enjoying a cigarette while checking Twitter.

When it is not host to microcosmic Pride events, Cihangir is notorious as the playground of Turkish TV and movie celebrities. This girl may have been one of the semi-famous actresses or actress-wannabes who frequent the area.

Funky couple with rainbow-coloured accessories, she held a sign that read "So what if I am a Lesbian?". He had a sign in Kurdish - I couldn't read it.

This guy was beautiful in every possible way - what an amazing and mystifying style, like someone out of a dreamy, oriental cyberpunk story.

These girls were playing dress-up as mirror-image twins.

A serious-looking Turkish drag queen, making last-minute adjustments to her hair.

A same-sex group hug took place in front of one of the cafes.

Another, less successful Daenerys Targaryen lookalike was posing for her boyfriend on top of a concrete road barrier.

A general view of the Cihangir festivities. With the police standing down, the atmosphere in Cihangir  lost its tension and took up the air of a massive open-air party.

This guy was dressed in a black robe - possibly as a protest against the oppressive burkas and chadors imposed upon women by Moslem conservatives. 

A British tourist and his African mistress were watching the party from a street-side cafe.

A fancy couple from Cihangir.

Turkish taxi drivers are generally stereotyped as angry and conservative types. The revellers blocked the traffic and "blessed" passing taxicabs with the rainbow flag. This taxi driver, however, was no square, he cheered with the crowd and blew his car horn to the tune of the music. Everyone applauded him.

He held a sign that read "generally immoral."

Some of the houses facing Cihangir's main avenue were host to mini-parties themselves. These people were waving and cheering from the balcony of a spectacular art-nouveau / art-deco apartment built in the 1920s. The sign read "get used to it - we are here!".

She was shy, but the sign that read "what is the ban - ayol?" wasn't enough to cover her delectable features.

A striking queer guy, possibly of Gypsy ancestry.

She was one of the most beautiful and stylish people in the entire event. Not many people in the Pride Walk noticed me taking their pictures, but she did, and posed for me with a mischievous puckering of her lips.

A slightly drunk Kurdish girl was posing with a balloon with a message in Kurdish, which I couldn't decipher.

The Kurdish identity was a prominently visible in this Pride Walk, possibly because the HDP - a local party representing Turkey's Kurdish minority, had recently expanded its political agenda to encompass all civil liberties, (they were the only party that campaigned for same-sex marriage,) and finally managed to trump the anti-democratic "10% minimum" vote rule for entering the parliament.

The HDP's success was crucial for thwarting the conservative (and increasingly authoritarian) AKP's rise to power in the elections that took place in June 2015.

In fact, it was rumoured that the success of the Kurds was the main reason for the pointless clampdown by the police earlier - the government was mad at them (and the LGBT crowd,) for not voting for the right way. I don't know if there was any truth to this claim; but it was true that neither the police, nor the government hadn't intervened in Pride Walk events in earlier years. 

Suddenly this couple of kaleidoscopic girls whizzed by on their Vespa and I accidentally snapped one of the nicest photographs I took that day.

Divas and princesses posed for their friends.

Beautiful girl with a cool, Mesopotamian sense of fashion.

A couple of proud drag queens walked regally down Cihangir's main street.

A fabulous couple from Iran.

These two Turkish "health goth" youngsters were having a passionate argument.

This girl complemented her "gypsy" style with unusual platform shoes.

A regal "white queen" was challenging the authorities by stopping taxi drivers on their tracks.

This poor guy possibly had a substance-abuse problem.

Further down Cihangir's streets, people were making their own music by iPhones attached to portable amps, powered by the batteries of cars or motorbikes. Multiple songs added to the entertaining cacophony - on one street corner they were playing loud disco music, pumping out EDM on another, fancy Turkish songs and classic Pet Shop Boys hits in yet other locations.

These tiny, "one shot" cans of high-alcohol beer were everywhere - I hadn't seen them before.

The intoxicating mix of music, alcohol and freedom soon gave rise to impromptu performances and lewd theatrical dances. Everyone was happy and all dancers were wildly cheered at.

I later learnt that a little while before (or after) I passed through, Cihangir's main street was host to a spectacular show, of sexy, nude transgender dancers. I wish I had taken this particular photo - but I had to "borrow" it from Facebook, I was not there to see it.

Some people say that this act was "just too extreme," "especially in Ramadan," but I strongly disagree. Endemic rape and murder, and stifling sexual conformity are making Turkey an awful place to live in.

Extreme protests at "sensitive times" are precisely what such an environment needs. Someone needs to be doing this and stretching the conservatives' nerves, so that more "normal" acts such as public displays of affection, dressing the way one wants and simply sleeping with the partner of your choice are tolerated. In my opinion, even the basest, most lewd actions against the Turkish shibboleth are as noble acts of resistance as the salt satyagraha or what that one guy did in Tianenmen Square.

Later in the evening I had dinner with my friends, and once again started prowling the streets in search of more action and more portraits. By now the street party in Cihangir had dispersed, and the Pride Day attendees had began to regroup in various "after-parties" across the neighbourhood. The police were quick to strike those as well, one gathering was attacked by tear gas, and revellers were subjected to random ID-checks and detained at another location. 

The air was rife with rumours of thugs with billy clubs patrolling the streets, looking for gayly-dressed people to beat up. This final bit thankfully turned out to be incorrect - apparently the only armed thugs out that night were the cops.

I nevertheless wanted to visit both after-parties that were claimed to have been shut down by the police. As the night wore on, the cops withdrew and the gatherings in both sites once were again brimming with people. This was the view at the neighbourhood of Asmalimescit soon after midnight.

This late into the night, a far more sexual atmosphere had gotten hold of everyone and anyone. If the party in Cihangir had been about dancing, the festivities at night were more about ... getting it on. Many couples, of both heterosexual and homosexual persuasions, were fondling, hugging or making out wantonly in the streets. All this in the middle of Ramadan - what a victory, (in however small a microcosm,) for the liberal lifestyle! 

Classy ladies at the Asmalimescit street party.

I recognised some of these characters from the gathering in Cihangir earlier on.

Drunk with love and beer, this couple fell to the floor and started making out right then and there.

Others were dancing, or watching, their eyes shining with unmistakable, predatory gleam of passions aroused.

I then went to the run-down nightclub called "the Mekan," at the nearby Beyoğlu district. This was the venue attacked by tear gas earlier on.

The club was filled with a strange, suffocating atmosphere, a mix of tear gas, body odour, and the effluvia of drug-laced sweat and sex. Because of the delay caused by the police bust, the LGBT party had gotten its schedule tangled up with a bump-and-grind gathering of African RnB DJ's to take place later on, and members of both subcultures were coming together in a cathartic meltdown.

A view from the venue. People were overflowing with a sense of victory and pride - not just LGBT pride, but the pride of having stood up to police raids and winning.

One of the more spectacular characters from the "Mekan" gathering. One of the African partygoers hovers in the background.

Proud-but-tired couple posing against Istanbul's skyline.

The "Mekan" venue was made up of a convoluted series of hallways and interlinked auditoria. Many discreet encounters were taking place in the narrow, dirty, sweat-oozing corridors.

A dark beauty from the nether regions of "the Mekan."

These guys were looking tired after too many beers, soon it would be time to go home.

Others, kept on dancing until the small hours of the morning.

I took a few more parting shots of the final gathering and left for home.

All in all, what a night. It was a superb experience, and while I harboured no illusions of a sexual or social revolution, seeing all these people at the Pride Walk and the parties after filled me with an optimism for the future of personal liberties in Turkey.

I know much has been written about this year's Pride Walk events already and I cannot match, and nor do I care to replicate, the job done by journalists.

However, I feel that little has been done to illustrate the human aspect of these events. There are more to protests than shaky videos of police shooting tear-gas grenades and people falling down under the blast of water cannons. So I tried to offer you portraits, human faces from this event - so that you may get a better gauge on the people going through tense, fun and strange times in this abnormal country. Hope you have enjoyed my trip to the Pride Walk.