Waiting in Istanbul

Waiting is a social phenomenon. There is a politics to it: to who waits for what and for how long, and to who doesn’t, and how impatiently, and at what cost. You can tell a lot about the hierarchy of a city by observing its distribution of patience and impatience, mobility and immobility. The more concentrated wealth in an area, for example, the more taxis; the more taxis, the more traffic; the more traffic, the longer people who can’t afford cab fare are left waiting for the bus. In this network of contingencies and indirect consequences, when one person takes a shortcut another is always left in the lurch. People feel this. A sense of injustice is fundamental to the experience of waiting.

For all that they came to symbolize during the months to follow, the protests were meant to emphasize that justice does not move at the speed of money.

Photo by Hannah Klein.

My bus home from work takes me on a crawl down the Bosphorus coast so slow that I wonder if it might be faster to walk, though I’ve never tried. In Istanbul, even short commutes are often protracted. The city was home to about three million people in the early 1980s, and the population has grown five-fold in the intervening decades. Infrastructurally, there’s been no keeping up with the unprecedented influx of migrants from Anatolia, as well as economic immigrants from neighboring regions—the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East—and intermittent waves of refugees from nearby conflict zones, primarily Syria. The city’s escalating population density results in, among other things, congestion.

Ambitious construction projects aren’t helping. Under the preoccupied supervision of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, formerly Istanbul’s mayor, the government has initiated a spate of ambitious development projects. An underwater rail tunnel was completed in 2013, and a third bridge over the Bosphorus strait is in the works, as well as a third airport. They’re marketed as traffic alleviators, but these projects only encourage expansion, bringing more people, goods, buildings, and vehicles to Istanbul. Meanwhile, Turkey under Erdoğan has fared well economically, and car ownership has surged with the ballooning of the middle class. So Istanbul waits in perpetual traffic.

Waiting is a social phenomenon. There is a politics to it: to who waits for what and for how long, and to who doesn’t, and how impatiently, and at what cost. You can tell a lot about the hierarchy of a city by observing its distribution of patience and impatience, mobility and immobility. The more concentrated wealth in an area, for example, the more taxis; the more taxis, the more traffic; the more traffic, the longer people who can’t afford cab fare are left waiting for the bus. In this network of contingencies and indirect consequences, when one person takes a shortcut another is always left in the lurch. People feel this. A sense of injustice is fundamental to the experience of waiting.

This past winter a massive corruption scandal over urban construction befell the Erdoğan administration. In December 2013 police detained over ninety government workers and contractors, many of them urban planning officials. Twenty-six were arrested on charges related to corruption, fraud, bribery, and money laundering. Several housing officials were revealed to have been accepting bribes from contractors in Istanbul, allowing them to proceed with construction without first acquiring zoning permits. Because of the backchannel nature of these arrangements, that money went straight into officials’ pockets, not into city coffers—and certainly not into efforts to rehouse the displaced. Again, one person’s shortcut means another is in for the long haul.


At the core of the Gezi protests, which began in late May 2013 and lasted through the early summer, was a concern about the development of the area around Gezi Park and Taksim Square. These central commons were slated to become a shopping complex; theoretically, they still could. The threat to public space prompted hundreds of thousands of Istanbul residents to take to the streets, effectively putting the breaks on the development plan, at least for the time being.

Real democracy is slow: it involves gathering input, striving for consensus, and actively seeking solutions that won’t further disadvantage vulnerable constituents. It requires that dominant social actors wait, even when they see an opportunity to sprint ahead. For all that they came to symbolize during the months to follow, the protests were meant to emphasize that justice does not move at the speed of money.

The police suppression of protesters was brutal from the beginning, and in mid-June Erdoğan gave what he insisted was his final warning to the demonstrators. “Our patience is at an end,” he said. “We cannot wait any more.” Thereafter, whatever minimal restraint the police had shown was fully dissolved. “We will clean Gezi Park of them,” Erdoğan promised, and quick.

Eight thousand people were injured in the course of the crackdown. Eleven lost eyes. By the end of the summer, five had died. My former housemate, a journalist, was exposed to so much tear gas that he developed a skin condition. He began taking several fingertip-sized pills a day, after each of which he could not eat for an hour, resulting in a strange and complicated meal schedule. Since the protests, his doctor told him, plenty of people were coming down with painful rashes, especially journalists who’d lingered too long in chemical plumes.


Now, Taksim Square is kept so clean you could eat off it. All of last summer’s graffiti has been painted over in a dull putty grey, and every uprooted cobblestone has been returned to formation underfoot. Some nearby areas have been paved over with concrete, which, unlike cobblestones, can’t be pried up and brandished against police. The only lasting evidence that last year saw one of the most massive popular uprisings in recent world history is the area’s glut of cops.

These days it’s the police who do the most visible waiting in Istanbul. The Atatürk Cultural Center on the square, once an elegant opera house and recital hall, has been converted into an ad hoc law enforcement headquarters. Uniformed cops wait all day and night for any sign of disturbance, at which time they’re prepared to haul out tear gas and water cannons again. Sometimes, this actually happens; once, maybe twice a month. But mostly they just stand there. In several spots around Taksim Square and Gezi Park police have parked white buses with tinted windows, and dozens of officers wait around outside in huddles. They drink tea and poke at their smartphones and stare out at the square. Sometimes they horseplay, kick each other’s shins and tussle each other’s hair. In a parking lot behind the cultural center I watched one lift his gun and take mock aim at a stray dog, presumably out of boredom.

Sometimes the cops station themselves in a narrow alley by Galatasaray High School, off the city’s main pedestrian artery. On grocery errands I take that route to avoid the crowded commercial thoroughfare, and I periodically find myself ambushed in their company when I round the corner. To get through their throng I pass so close that I can smell their aftershave and make out the tiny embroidered stars and crescents on their uniform patches. Sometimes I meet their eyes with a kneejerk deferential apology I regret afterwards. Other times I scrutinize their weapons with detached unease. But mostly I just train my gaze on their boots and duck through as fast as I can.

In February people took to the streets again, albeit in smaller numbers than during Gezi. It was a warm Saturday night, and Erdoğan’s internet censorship initiative, largely intended to insulate the public from the corruption scandal, had come one step closer to realization. Protests were organized, and the police reaction was swift and brutal. My girlfriend and I went to Taksim to see what was happening, and were swept into a narrow passage choked with demonstrators. Many had resurrected their gas masks from the previous summer. When the tear gas came, we dove into a small corner restaurant, meat sizzling on an open grill, where we waited for the clouds to pass. It felt like forever that we were stuck there. The cooks watched a football match on television as people outside jogged past in confusion.

When we finally ventured out, we caught gas almost immediately. A stranger ushered us into the narrow stairwell of an old building, where we stood coughing for about fifteen minutes, waiting for another break in the action. A seasoned protester poured vinegar into a scarf brandishing a football team logo and had me hold it to my face until my lungs and eyes stopped burning. A young couple, still faintly coughing, lit a cigarette and passed it back and forth. Protests are like this—the gas, the dispersal, the reassembly, the gas, and so on. There is a lot of repetition and a lot of anticipation, a cycle of frantic action and just waiting around, trying to kill time.

Demonstrations flared up periodically over the late winter and early spring. Anger about the corruption scandal and the internet censorship initiatives intensified. Then a teenage boy died from injuries sustained during Gezi, prompting a citywide outpouring of anguish and indignation. Every other Saturday the dumpster outside our apartment vanished, wheeled away by protesters to be used in a barricade against armored police vehicles. After midnight the protests would dissolve, and a few young guys would be left behind in the residential districts, armed with slingshots and taunting the cops, who reliably sprayed them with rubber bullets.

I watched these extended standoffs from my apartment window, my throat raw from the gas that filtered in through the wooden frames. I often went to bed before they were over. But the street was always cleaned up the next morning, the graffiti painted over by mid-week. Meanwhile popular participation waned, and increasingly clashes were just between preexistent radical leftist organizations and the police. Everyone else—those who had made up the immense and diverse base of the Gezi protests—mostly saved their energy for the weekends.


Last summer’s protests had been a moment of clarity: the mandate to protect the park brought a kind of obviousness and ethical discipline to the city’s sense of its own story. This purposefulness became harder to locate and sustain once the park was lost to police. Now every time it seems like a protest might happen, the cops block off the park and all the side streets around it, depriving protestors of both a point of convergence and Gezi’s powerful place-based symbolism. A year after Gezi the city is comparatively calm, with occasional eruptions. But the calm feels transitory, transitional.

Parts of Istanbul are divided into hyper-specific sub-districts, a remnant of the city’s old mercantilism. There are clusters of paint stores, rows of drapery shops, a couple blocks in Karaköy where nothing is sold but showerheads. In Dolapdere, a poorer central neighborhood whose residents are vulnerable to displacement, there is a mannequin district. The bare figurines line up in shop windows like terracotta soldiers. At night, backlit by after-hours security lighting, they evince a sort of expectant vigilance, as if any second now they’ll spring to life.

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