Queuing to pay for my lunch on Monday at the cash register of a diner here in Istanbul where I live, the customer in front turned to me and said|: “You’re that Englishman, aren’t you? I saw you on the TV last night. You work at Yeditepe university.” “That’s right,” I replied.
A few minutes later an old man stopped me in the street and asked if he could shake my hand. I gave it to him and he congratulated me. When I dropped into a grocer’s for a bottle of milk the guy behind the counter said: “You’re in the newspaper! Amazing story”
In fact, that morning I woke up to find that the previous night my amazing’ story had featured widely on Turkish TV news channels, and practically every Istanbul daily paper was running it, many with pictures on the front page of me being dragged through the streets by a gang of policemen, with captions such as: “ENGLISHMAN SAVED FROM LYNCH MOB” “THE MISUNDERSTOOD ENGLISH WAR PROTESTOR” and “SORRY, WE THOUGHT YOU WERE ISRAELI!”
It is quite an interesting story–a classic case of mistaken judgment and its consequences, so I’ll tell you about it as concisely as I can.
Last week I noticed some wall posters and a banner strung between streetlamps in the area where I live, announcing a demonstration in support of the Palestinian people and against Israel’s increasingly alarming savage aggression. The meeting was called by the Emek party, and was advertised to begin on Sunday at 11 pm at the large square on the seafront between the two ferryboat landings. I decided that I would go along to show support.
Sunday morning I made a kind of sandwich board with a couple of my collages blown up to poster size, one showing a gigantic spider with the Zionist symbol on its back, making its web over the United Nations, the dollar symbol in the center. The other picture showed a marching army of Nazi storm troopers bearing aloft the flags of America and Israel, trampling relentlessly over a weeping mother and her murdered child. I rolled them up and made my way to the place where the meeting was to be held.
There was a massive police presence when I got there, all lined up in their dark blue uniforms, helmets and truncheons, and the square was fenced off by their protective barriers. A stage was being prepared, microphones tested, but as yet no protestors. I put on my sandwich board and started walking around in front of the pier.
“What do you think you’re doing?” barked a particularly loathsome-looking cop
“Just walking,” I replied.
“You can walk” he shouted, and started making threatening remarks, so I thought I’d better get out of his vicinity. Hearing the sound of raised chanting voices in the distance, I made my way towards the approaching marchers. They were soon in sight, waving banners and placards as they marched abreast in the road. All traffic had been diverted. I stood on the pavement awaiting their arrival, planning to join in at the end of the procession.
Suddenly I found myself grabbed by two policemen who started pulling me away from the roadside, shouting something I didn’t understand, dragging me towards a police van. I asked what they were doing. They told me to shut up and come with them. I said no, and called out to the marchers, who were now there in front of us, shouting for them to help, to allow me to take part in the demonstration. A crowd of photographers and cameramen who had been filming the march, hearing the commotion, flocked over to see what was happening. By this time more police had laid hold of me as I struggled and shouted (thinking to myself that the police were Israeli sympathizers who wanted to prevent the demonstration.)
They twisted my arms and force-marched me across the road. One of my collages was ripped and destroyed; my flip-flop sandals came off and were left behind, and I nearly lost my glasses. I continued to shout that I had done nothing wrong but want to join the protest, but they didn’t listen. Eventually they got me to a waiting police car, dumped me in the back, and whizzed me to the local police station, only a matter of yards away.
Once inside, the policeman in charge demanded to know what my intention had been, appearing at the rally. When I told him I’d come to demonstrate against Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, he was more than a little surprised.
“You mean you aren’t a supporter of Israel?” he asked.
“Of course not” I replied. “Quite the opposite”
“Oops” said he. (Or words to that effect.)
It turned out that the police who had seen my collage with the US and Israeli flags had misinterpreted the image as pro-Israel, and also decided the black skull cap, which I always wear, was a Jewish kippe’. That, in fact, I was an Israeli provocateur, come to cause trouble and disrupt the rally. They said they had actually been saving me from furious demonstrators who wanted to attack me for my shameless effrontery. It turned out that the police were sympathetic to the cause of the marchers also, not the Zionist boot boys I had imagined. They gave me a glass of tea and we actually managed to laugh at the misunderstanding. They said they’d take me home after I’d given a statement, advising me not to go back to the meeting for my own safety’s sake.
But then two gentlemen arrived–organizers of the march–expressing their apologies for what had happened and the misunderstanding. It turned out that several of the demonstrators had indeed imagined me to be a Jew staging a counter protest. We all signed the statement and I was free, but instead of being taken home by the police, I accepted the invitation of the Emek party members to go with them to the meeting, where they presented me on stage, explaining the story of who I really was and the reason that I had come that morning. So I made a brief barefoot appearance with a raised fist of solidarity in front of the cheering surprised crowd. When I came down I was surrounded by reporters, flashing cameras, filming and asking questions. I was presented with a new pair of sandals by the Emek party to replace my old flip-flops, which the police said had been taken from the roadside by a poor beggar.
I didn’t stay long after the media had had their fill of me, but enough to speak to several members of the crowd who came to offer sympathy and thanks for coming. Some of them were wearing black headbands with Arabic writing on it. One showed me a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini.
“Do you like him?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, but he wasn’t offended. The main reason we were there, a public support of the Palestinians and a condemnation of Israeli war crimes united us. He gave me a set of wooden beads as a gift.
I quietly slipped away home to ponder the extraordinary series of events I had just lived through, and hopefully to learn from the experience.
One thing that the police officer had said was an encouragement. He said that the media would probably have ignored or given little room to this small meeting called by an insignificant political party, but that the extraordinary incident of my arrest would bring them a lot of publicity, and such has proved to be the case, as today again I have been called to give interviews to two leading newspapers and Turkish ATV. If this helps to focus the spotlight on the sheer hell that Israel is inflicting on its neighbours, then the few bruises I received were worth it.
But I miss my old black flip-flops!
MICHAEL DICKINSON is an English teacher who lives and works in Istanbul. He can be reached through his Saatchi gallery.