The Podium

Tears of Istanbul

People gather to protest in Istanbul on June 5.  Osman Orsal Photo/Reuters.
People gather to protest in Istanbul on June 5. Osman Orsal Photo/Reuters.

I am stuck with 30 Brandeis University MBA students in a hotel in Taksim Square in my hometown of Istanbul, the sounds of tear-gas grenades piercing through the night air. The whole city, it seems, is crying.

These days this isn’t a particularly novel sensation for my students, who, exactly a month and a half ago, were locked down in their apartments, peering out their windows at another traumatic tragedy back in Boston. From the marathon bombings, they learned that heartbreaking events can bring people together and help reveal a place’s soul — and we are already starting to see that here in Turkey.

The tears of Istanbul couldn’t be more different than Boston’s. We watch from the rooftop of our hotel as police and special forces use tear gas and high-pressured water on demonstrators, chasing their own brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers down the streets. Dozens have been injured and hundreds more are suffering from respiratory problems. The air is thick with pepper spray that makes even the stray cats and dogs of the city cry.


At the same time, there are also tears of joy as the citizens of Turkey realize that they are not alone. Through social media it’s become clear that the Turkish people have wide support in their fight against an increasingly autocratic regime whose long fingers have repeatedly reached into their lives to impose conservative rules and religious imperatives.

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What started with protesting the construction of an opulent shopping mall in Istanbul’s Gezi Park has become what could amount to Turkey’s own soul revealing itself, strong and defiant, ready for change. Like Boston, the country has displayed resilience and strength in the face of unexpected turmoil.

My 30 Brandeis International Business School students come from 24 different countries. After an amazing week of company visits in Istanbul, they are now witnessing something not in the syllabus. These recent events perhaps explain why the risk premiums of emerging markets are so high, and certainly show the power of immersive educational experiences for our students, who have watched first-hand as a non-violent sit-in transformed into a dangerous environment for thousands of peaceful protesters. It’s been moving to see students get inspired to reach out to media sources back in their own countries, to make sure that the entire world hears these voices and sees these tears.

Today, I am crying with Istanbul, like I cried with my other hometown of Boston back in April. But at the same time, more than ever, I am proud of my city. I’m proud of both of them.

Can Erbil is a senior lecturer at Brandeis International Business School.