By Marko Djurica
Everyone who has ever been to Istanbul knows their famed Turkish fast food restaurants, especially in Taksim Square. Doners, kebabs and other delicacies are on offer 24/7. The competition is vast and every vendor fights to lure customers. You can’t really go wrong: most of the places have friendly staff and tasty morsels of food. But in one restaurant I experienced a kind of service I could never have dreamed of.
Namely, on June 22 I was in Taksim Square covering the protests that had begun 20 days earlier when the government of Prime Minister Erdogan announced it would build a new shopping mall on Gezi Park, the last large green space in the city. A large number of protesters faced down a line of riot police armed with water cannons. No one needed to tell me what was going to happen; I have been in similar situations many times. The demonstrators shouted anti-government slogans, the police asked them to disperse because rallies are forbidden. Naturally, after a few hours, tensions rose and the police began to use water cannons and tear gas to evict the masses – now a common sight at Taksim.
Even though at first glance it was frightening, it seemed that both sides could get used to this. Tear gas rained down on all sides and so many canisters landed in front of the mass of kebab stands, the open kind which lack windows and doors to hide from the gas burning your eyes and throat. I decided to go inside and take photos, expecting empty tables, chairs flung pell-mell and charred food abandoned on the grill. But what I saw instead stunned me.
The entire restaurant’s operation: cooks, waiters and cashiers were working in a normal, orderly fashion from behind their gas masks and tried to help guests in the hopes of keeping them there for yet another kebab and beer. A small number of the guests ran outside but the majority of them, evidently prepared for the tear gas with makeshift gas masks fashioned out of swimming goggles and surgical masks, remained. The waiters politely brought customers their bills, the cook deftly manned the grill, flipping burgers. The only time he appeared a bit confused was when he noticed me photographing him.
They tried to tell me something, but communicating from behind a mask was near impossible. The police calmly walked past the restaurant and somehow it was possible to get the impression that this was a totally normal evening. Or maybe that I, as a Reuters photojournalist, was somehow the main target of a hidden camera prank.