Eyes watering from tear gas as he crawled along a street of broken glass and upturned cobblestones, protester Ercan Karakaş didn't expect help from anyone.
That is, until a waiter rushed into the battle-torn Beyoğlu street where he was struggling and managed to pull him inside. "I couldn't see anything. I didn't know where I was. I would have collapsed where I lay if I didn't get help," said Karakaş. Bülent, the waiter that pulled him into a second-story restaurant before giving him water and a place to rest, said there wasn't anything special about what he did. "Things were extremely bad on Friday, and we saw people struggling or running in panic constantly. I'm a human being, I had to help them," Bülent said, looking tired and worn from the city's past week of clashes between police and protesters. If İstanbul seemed at its worst this week amid a police crackdown on demonstrators in Taksim other central districts, the helpful actions of many İstanbul businesses, health clinics and mosques have shown the city at its very best. As shops, restaurants and hotels in Taksim and İstiklal Street returned to some semblance of normality this week, tales of charity and kindness have provided a defiantly positive note amid reports of police brutality and vandalism by protesters.
Amid prolonged, bloody clashes between protesters and police on Monday, the historic Dolmabahçe Mosque opened its doors to protesters and became a makeshift hospital. Taksim's major hotels, notably the Hilton and InterContinental Ceylan, opened their lobbies to exhausted demonstrators and provided water and resting places. Desk clerks at several hotels along Tarlabaşı Boulevard say they shuttled food to tourists who feared to leave their hotel at the height of clashes on Friday and Saturday.
At one Taksim bistro, a squat, middle-aged maitre d' named Kaya applauded the solidarity of competing restaurants. "This whole street and most of this neighborhood acted together," he said. "We gave protesters and a few tourists a place to stay and recover from the gas. The hardest part for us was finding enough outlets for the smartphones protesters wanted recharging," he said. For two German customers, "this wasn't an ideal vacation," but after Kaya offered them free food and drink when protests grew on the street below, he saw them return the next night for another round. "I told them 'come back, we'll take care of you!' And after this 'special vacation,' they'll have some good photos to take home, won't they?"
Domestic and international media has portrayed Taksim as a place of burned out cars and broken shop fronts. But as early as Sunday morning, broken glass was being swept up, protesters were cooperating with municipal trash collectors and, despite an abundance of fresh anti-government graffiti, Taksim has returned to work, servicing tourists, demonstrators and regulars alike.
For many restaurant patrons and small business owners, their woes with the government are local, and focus on developing a working relationship with the police. Kaya, Bülent and other restaurateurs dismissed rumors that police are demanding the names of protesters they sheltered, but they say they fear being singled out for "taking sides" by police and asked that their restaurants not be named. "Rumors about how police are demanding we give up names is exactly the kind of exaggeration that will make this protest seem illegitimate," said Kaya. "But we sometimes still feel afraid of the police," he said. Police and restaurants in Taksim have been at odds since 2011, when police removed thousands of outdoor tables in the district, and many restaurant owners have also been vocal opponents of restrictions and higher taxes on alcohol.
The already-frayed relationship is why Kaya says he felt "a chill down my spine" when plainclothes police did indeed request the restaurant's video surveillance records after his bistro was included on a Facebook list of businesses that had helped people on Friday. "It's not the same as asking for names, and they didn't come back. But because we're small, we worry that we can be punished for anything. We want cooperation with the police, but we don't want them to have the power to fine whoever they like over this." Waiter Bülent, meanwhile, says that for all the chaos that many predicted in the absence of police, Taksim seems surprisingly normal. "In the meantime, people are making sure everybody follows the rules and we keep an eye out for vandals or troublemakers. It's much the same as before," says Bülent's boss and restaurateur, Fevzi.
Amid the positive atmosphere in Taksim, deeds of kindness do seem to be in abundance. In one amazing display of generosity on Monday night, this correspondent watched as a seller manning a rice cart gave a passing homeless man a steaming pile of chicken and rice. When he saw the man was also cold, he gave him his coat, too.