Dozens of people attacked Istanbul’s Thai consulate overnight. Windows were smashed as the protesters, armed with sticks, tried to enter the building.Unfortunately, the Turks are more excitable over violations of Ramadan than they used to be. This isn't a new phenomenon.
The protest followed news that Thailand had deported dozens of Chinese Uighur refugees to China, where they say they are persecuted. It is not clear who the attackers were, but Turkish nationalists have carried out a series of often violent demonstrations in support of Uighurs, who they identify as ethnic Turks.
Earlier this month, nationalists were blamed for attacking a group of Korean tourists mistakenly identified as Chinese. Beijing has issued a travel advisory for Turkey. Turkish Islamists also are supportive of China’s Muslim minority.
Tensions in Turkey have been on the rise following unconfirmed reports that Chinese authorities have banned the marking of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. Beijing denies the reports.
You may have heard about a July 2011 incident where, in the buildup to Ramadan, Turkish police pounced on the popular outdoor seating venues in Istanbul and violently ripped them up.
But this afternoon, police and municipal inspectors swept through, confiscating outdoor furniture and ordering the demolition of decks built outside of restaurants. A pile of rubble, previously a deck, stood just downhill from the stylish House Café, while across the street waiters worked frantically with crowbars to remove a particularly permanent-looking structure.Even this was a santized version of the events. I know because I didn't hear about it on the news, or read about it.
I know because I was roughly where X marks the spot in the Google Maps shot above, enjoying a raki on the patio† when the crackdown came down. It was decidedly evening at that point as well. City officials and police showed up at the bars, guns quite noticably already deployed, yelling kaldirmak and giyinip süslenmek and quite critically not having any translators handy. I'm in no way fluent in Turkish, but I did have a few words and most importantly a pocket dictionary. "Kald" was distinctive enough that I was able to look it up: "remove". So I was a little less confused than some were, and was able to tell some annoying Austrailian guys that we were being removed. It turns out, the patios were being removed, but there was definitely a lot of confusion.
The official reason was enforcing the outdoor seating laws: because of an indoor smoking ban, all bars setup huge patios. Some, but not all, didn't have permits allowing them. It didn't matter to the Turkish police, who ripped up all the patios, even the ones where restaurant owners had paid the city to install. It would be like removing those Whyte Avenue sidewalk patios just because one restaurant set one up without getting approval first.
The real reason, pretty much every Istanbul server would explain to you if you asked about the crackdown, or looked like you might one day ask about the crackdown, is that the outdoor drinking offended Istanbul's growing hardcore Muslim population, and in the days before Ramadan Tayyip Erdogan decided to flex his Islamic Social Justice Warrior muscles.
Witnesses saw a convoy of five or six black sedans roll into the neighbourhood on July 15, part of a three-day religious holiday. It’s rumoured that Mr. Erdogan was marking the occasion with a visit to the Galata Mevlevihanesi, an historic hall founded by Sufi Muslims in 1491.Ramadan 2011 in Istanbul was a bit of a treat: outside the tourist areas, you couldn't get a bite to eat and if you did find a restaurant open you had the whole place to yourself (most memorably: Sultanzade Sofrasi right across from the Eyup Sultan Mosque. There's something deliciously subversive about enjoying some Iskender Kebap while teen boys get circumsized in the mosque across the street. But I definitely got some weird looks from the devout passerbys.
A bar owner, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation against his business, said he saw the convoy leaving Beyoglu, slowly creeping down a hill. It was a typical Friday afternoon, he said, with patrons jam-packed at small tables that occupied the entire sidewalk, forcing throngs of pedestrians into the cobblestone street. The scene would have reflected the cosmopolitanism of this urban enclave, with local Muslim girls in short skirts often indistinguishable from tourists.
Somebody who appeared to be a bodyguard poked his head out of one of the black sedans and started screaming at people blocking the convoy’s path, the bar owner said. He cast doubt on a widespread rumour that patrons had lifted their beer and wine glasses to salute the Prime Minister, but added that it may have happened when he wasn’t looking.
If one of Mr. Erdogan’s bodyguards did lose his temper, it wouldn’t have been an isolated incident. A United Nations guard was hospitalized with bruised ribs on Sept. 23 after a fight with the Turkish Prime Minister’s entourage.
Nor would it have been unusual for Mr. Erdogan to make policy spontaneously: Last January, upon seeing a pair of concrete statues built in eastern Turkey in the name of peaceful relations between Turkey and Armenia, the Prime Minister reportedly called the sculpture “a monstrosity” and ordered it destroyed.
Whatever the impetus, municipal authorities scrambled to clear away the patios. A series of raids began on July 20, with swarms of security officers removing tables – at times, locals say, while patrons were eating.
Will that continue to be the worst I got? Already I'm seeing travel threads and even news articles warning that you can't eat in the Eyup distict during the day anymore: the rise of extremism in Turkey isn't all just a Erdogan-sponsored event. Even after he was voted out this year, Turkey still shut down Christian schools.
In other words, especially during Ramadan, Turkish Muslims are getting more radical and more bold. The stories that China has been cracking down on the derka derkas has created a mini-powderkeg, and now apparently the Thai consulate has paid the price.
Fortunately, the Thai consulate isn't in a big tourist district: it's far closer to Levent, the business district in northern Istanbul (though it's in fact just south of the massive Zincirlikuyu Cemetery, which is starting to become a tourist attraction in its own right). For now, the average Istanbul resident or visitor won't be impacted by the violence.
But if you're asian, this may not be the time to check out the City of the Seven Hills‡
† Okay technically speaking I wasn't "enjoying" the raki. It's actually sort of bad, especially sitting outside on a nice day. The raki I had at one of the overhyped Galata Bridge seafood restaurants was far better because it had cooled down and raki does really go better with seafood. Please note too that this TripAdvisor post was from 2013. Critically, I ate there in 2011. Overpriced, seafood wasn't great, but a much better way to enjoy Lion's Milk.
‡ If you read my piece on the foolish Edmonton funicular, you'd know that that title is well deserved: I think I climbed every one of them, at least twice.