It is an odd way to enter occupied territory. To get to Taksim Square, the centre of the protests that have shaken Turkey, one need only catch a funicular train from the Kabatas stop, just beside the Bosphorus.
Around Kabatas, things are not exactly normal. Bulldozers scoop up stones near the prime minister’s Istanbul office to prevent demonstrators using them for barricades. Enterprising small boys sell surgical masks, lemons and swimming goggles to counter the effects of tear gas. Still, the authorities are very much in evidence – riot police mill in alleyways or slouch back in commandeered city buses, plastic shields beside them.
Take the funicular up the hill, however, and things are wholly different – the square may not be quite Istanbul’s equivalent of the Paris Commune but has a definite feel of the People’s Republic of Taksim. This is the centre of Turkey’s biggest city, yet there are no police anywhere.
Banners with the faces of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara flutter in the wind, though they are outnumbered by Turkish national flags and images of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic. Burnt-out vehicles dot the square, some serving as barricades to prevent the police returning.
Graffiti is everywhere: almost all of it attacking Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, who has denounced the protesters as looters and extremists manipulated by political extremists and possibly by foreign powers too. They, in turn, denounce the three times elected leader as an authoritarian Islamist.
“Oh, Tayyip, you are so sweet,” reads one slogan scrawled on a rubbish skip now blocking an entry to Taksim. “Welcome to fight club, Tayyip,” says another. Yet Taksim itself, if not the approaching streets, is kept tidy by bin bag-bearing protesters, with assistance from the municipal services. The cafés on the square do a busy trade. Tourists take holiday snaps.
I have always felt Taksim to be an ugly gateway to the vibrant streets of the European side of the city rather than a place with much in the way of personality. But it has roots in the history of the Turkish left – more than 30 demonstrators were mysteriously shot there during a rally in 1977 – and its role as the heart of Istanbul is beyond dispute.
When I came to the square last Friday to check out a small-scale protest about plans to build in the neighbouring Gezi Park, I did not expect much – and my expectations were initially met. A few people wandered around the square shouting at the police.
But then I walked on, into the square itself, and saw hundreds of people staging a peaceful sit-down. Moments later, we were all tear gassed. I made my exit by jumping into the front passenger seat of an occupied taxi. But the confrontation with the police went on and on, with plumes of gas visible over Taksim from the Asian side of the city – until Saturday. Then, with tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, heading for the square, the police were pulled out.
One person I know, an executive at a Turkish bank, said that on Friday he left work to head to Taksim – only to discover most of his top colleagues were going there, too.
The protesters take different forms at different times. At night, stone-throwing youths come out in other parts of Istanbul, although they are in the minority. During the day, Gezi Park is full of children and students, like Deniz, a 17-year-old on a business education course, who told me she was there “for resistance”. She added: “Although we are young, we know what is going on.”
There is a whiff of San Francisco. Yoga lessons at the front of the park; at the back, a more or less organised community of young people with food supplies, a makeshift clinic and a whiteboard calling for donations of toilet paper and bandages. They plan to publish their own journal. A couple in their seventies strolled nearby – she wearing a loose-fitting headscarf – having come from Edirne, 130 miles away, to demonstrate their support.
This cannot last. Sooner or later the police will come back and the banners and the burnt cars will be taken away. The demonstrators know the fragility of their protest as much as anyone. “If the government and the police really want to crush us, they can,” said Bengi, a young woman who recently got her PhD in economics in Massachusetts. “But they know if they attack us now, we will grow still more.”