22 February, 2010

Like protest for chocolate

Saturday again, and i am on a mission. Our screenwriting assignment for the weekend: visit a chocolate shop, or the chocolate aisle in a supermarket, and write character descriptions of the people we see, focusing on the visual aspects of their behavior, motivation, and whatever backstory inferences can be made from these. Thanks to friend Mehmet for the lead, i search the streets of Kızılay for Ali Uzun Şekerçilik, a traditional confectionery shop. But - i have forgotten my Ankara street map.

Just like last Saturday, Polis vans line the curb of Atatürk Boulevard, and guards stand beside them with automatic weapons. Shouts, coalescing into a chant, filter through the buildings, but from where i cannot tell. This weekend i am less on edge; the locals seem unperturbed, as though they hear and see these things every day. Near Olgunlar Sokkak, a group of police stand alert. In halting Türkçe i ask for directions to Selanik Caddesi (Selanik Street), and to my surprise one officer replies in English. "Speak slowly," he says - and points me in the direction of the chant.

In the heart of Kızılay, at Guvenpark, the broad thoroughfare of Ziya Gökalp Cad crosses Atatürk Boulevard. There is no traffic there, and as i round the corner i can see why. Beneath a pedestrian bridge, a line of armored polis vehicles closes the street, and a wall of officers stands in front of them. A few television cameramen stand atop the bridge, and on the other side, a chant rises. Selanik Cad is there, where the crowd has gathered. So i follow a thin thread of locals around the barricade.

And what a sight. Protesters stroll toward the bridge, carrying banners, bullhorns, drums. Hayır, hayır, they shout: work-worn old men, idealistic students, feminists. There are red and yellow flags, flags emblazoned "Sosyalist Demokrasi Partisi"; later i see blue, and black-and-white. Each party has its own colors, but they have come together to protest for workers' rights. A few streets away on Tuna Cad, the TEKEL strikers' tarpaulin-tents stand: it is the 34th day of the strike, by some sources, and by others the 47th. (I learned, while writing this post, that Saturday's march was organized by Turkiye's largest federation of labor unions in response to several recent instances of injustice related to privatization.)

I turn down Selanik Cad first in one direction, then another; the street is thronged with people. Building numbers are hard to find here, and after a long search, still no chocolate shop - but so much to see. Fresh red graffiti dries on a bus stop. In front of the Burger King on Ziya Gökalp i stop, and write for a while. The street is clear, and before traffic resumes, street sweepers in two-tone neon green jackets clean litter from the sidewalks. Nearby, a pair of simitçi work, one serving customers, the other making change (simitçi are street sellers of the local pastries). These two are older, wrinkled, mustached - but there are young men tending some of the simit carts, and on occasion you will see a simitçi balancing a tray, piled six layers of simit high, atop his head. A tray of the small, vase-like traditional bardak (tea glasses) hangs by three wires from a çay seller's hand; the simitçi buy from him. A mass of police still stand stiffly on steps down to Selanik Cad, though small groups walk by now and then, talking and laughing, as though they're glad this was a boring morning.

I ask a young man for directions - and much to my surprise he speaks excellent English. His name is İlkin, and he studies French at one of the universities downtown. He is friendly, a willing guide - though he doesn't know where the chocolate shop is, he offers to help me find it, and together we set off - into the crowd on Selanik Cad. At the broad cobblestone intersection with Sakarya Cad (a pedestrian street crowded with markets and restaurants) protesters coalesce; chants fade into conversation. Around a single drummer, a circle of people link arms in traditional folkdance. On a sloping roof above them, several men young and old stand. Two hold a banner; one catches a can of spray paint thrown up to him. A few words with one of the older men, and he stops shaking the can. Later, a bus is parked on the same cobblestones, blasting music from speakers on its roof. Banners hang from the buildings above us, and people stand on the balconies. Nikons and television cameras seem to be everywhere. The march has become a street party. It's a good day for a simitçi, weaving through the press of people, tray atop his head. The police presence, a massive show of force, limits itself to the edges where these streets meet Ataturk Boulevard open, confining the march to back streets on its way toward Sihiyye.

photo courtesy of İlkin

I never did find the chocolate shop - but i found a great new friend, and we walked the city for much of the afternoon.