I was in Istanbul, Turkey, this past winter and I had the pleasure to walk in Taksim Square. I was impressed with the city as compared to the major centres in Morocco and Egypt I have seen. The ancient city, once known as Constantinople in honour of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, was modern, clean, well-organized and generally safe.
The highlights of my visit included the huge market, incredible ancient mosques, the Hagia Sophia, an historic cathedral and, of course, Taksim Square. It was obvious to me at the time that the square, which features one of the few major green spaces in the city, was a favourite meeting place for local people. The wide, pedestrian-only main street known as Istiklal (Independence) Avenue featured upscale shops, cafés and antique-like trams.
This street was full of the local populace shopping and simply hanging out. There were tourists from all over the world, many from the cruise ships docked at the nearby port. The port and city have had an interesting and colourful history dating back to 660 BC when it was founded as Byzantium. It was then called Constantinople under Roman rule. When the Ottomans took over in 1453 it became a major Islamic centre.
The most intriguing aspect about this city is that part of it is in Asia and the other in Europe. By simply taking a taxi across the bridge or using a ferryboat I could go back and forth between the two continents with ease. The two continents feature the meeting place of the Bosphorus, Black Sea and Sea of Marmara and this strategic location has made it a major trading centre for thousands of years.
I sat in the cafés along the port and sipped Turkish tea while most people around me sucked on huge tobacco water pipes. I was told it was apple tobacco. Apple tea is also a favourite drink. The local people seemed very western in their dress and their politics. I met many university students in the cafés and they were all very open and interested in life in Canada.
In contrast, I noted that in Cairo, Egypt, people seemed downtrodden and oppressed but in Istanbul there was a feeling of rich culture and progressive, positive attitudes. There were many tourist attractions and arts festival posters announcing concerts and exhibitions. I was told that although much of the country is Muslim, Istanbul has a history of being more cosmopolitan mostly due to its strategic location.
What a shock it was for me to read in the news a few weeks after my visit that there were riots at Taksim Square because the hard-line government had decided to develop the park near the square. I recalled my peaceful stroll through the old city and then up the pedestrian street to the lively and beautiful Taksim Square and it made me sad to think that the local people had to take to the streets to protect their most precious part of their city.
It also occurred to me as I read about the riots that beneath the facade of this incredible historic city with all the modern conveniences there was little democracy in governance. As is the case with many countries in the Middle East and Africa, our western governments help to make sure we encourage the election or appointment of regimes that are friendly to us. That is fine for business but often creates big problems for the local people who have to put up with semi- or non-democratic governments that in many cases are very right-wing and or run by religious fundamentalists.
All this made me think about democracy and how really fragile it is. Like the Turks in Istanbul and so many other people protesting in other parts of the world, we must remember that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to make sure that our freedoms, rights and liberties are not being eroded or being taken away from us.
I thought about the recent protests by my people across Canada and it made me feel good that we have not forgotten that we do have a right to let our governments know that we are not happy with something they have done. If we care more about what sports team won the game the other night rather than what our governments are doing, then we could end up in a country we never bargained on.