Istanbul, Turkey -- The special welcome begins at Attaturk airport. The line to purchase visas snakes down the corridor and halfway to Iran. I stand dejectedly in it for a moment and then notice that while Americans and Europeans, along with almost every national I can make out, need the visas -- Israelis inexplicably sweep right through. I am thrilled, march up to the clerk on the shorter line and smile brightly.
"We don't need to buy visas?" I ask. "How wonderful!"
"For now, No," he replies, slowly, even for a clerk, and looks me over. "But next time we wont even let you folks in."
And so begins my trip to Istanbul in the aftermath of the Israeli raid on the humanitarian flotilla organized by the Turks.
Popular here, we are not.
My first port of call is the Israeli consulate in the Levent neighborhood. It is shut and locked, and the square leading to it is barricaded off -- but there is no lack of activity. "God is Great," yell the bearded demonstrators, climbing on the barricades and waving Palestinians flags. "We are ready to fight," they chant. "Israel is a terrorist state," they sing.
The signs, of course, are all in Turkish, a language I find completely incomprehensible, and so I ask a young woman in an abaya to translate for me. "Die Jews," she explains, and then squints her eyes, closes one, and reconsiders. "No, no, it's 'Die Israelis.'" Her friend pipes in to help. "I think it's 'Kill Israel,' or maybe 'Die Killers.'" They debate. I understand the principal. They are from Bursa, they tell me, and have taken a bus here to join in the demonstration. Each has bought a green headbands -- two Turkish Lira each -- which they now wrap, lopsided, over their head coverings. "We are all Palestinians," they read. "How do I look?" they ask each other.
I head to the heart of town, Taksim Square, to observe a larger demonstration, organized by the Communist party. "What do your signs say?" I ask some protestors, students from Italy, as it turns out. They are not exactly sure. Turns out they don't read Turkish either. "Israel is an Apartheid State," a fellow protestor explains to us, and, pointing to another: "Die Jews." Oh, so, that's what is says. I must revert back to the Bursa girls later.
By 10 P.M. I have filed a story and am exhausted and rather depressed by the situation, on various levels. I remember coming to Turkey with my family in far better times. "Hello Israeli cowboy," the merchants would yell out, back then, to my mom, who has a penchant for Panama hats. "We love Israel!," "Shalom."
My friends, the girls from Bursa, text me: Another demonstration is taking place at the consulate, much bigger, they say. I should probably go check it out. But to schlep all the way back there? Oh, how I would like to sit and have a shishkabab or watch TV. I flick it on in my room -- it's all in Turkish, and it's all about Israel and while, again, I cannot understand the words, the images are clear enough. I push myself out the door and decide to head to the demonstration by metro, which is cheaper (take note Haaretz finance department) and faster.
But not, however, more pleasant. The metro tunnels are echoing with the screams of thousands of youngsters, mainly young men, chanting and pushing their way into the trains. With kafiyyas draped over their heads and shoulders and Palestinian flags in their hands they call back and forth to each other. "Takrir, Allah." "Takrir Allah." God is Great. I feel slightly uncomfortable for the first time, as I get swept up in the throng.
"Where are you from? Where are you from?" the youngsters ask me. This might not be the time to discuss the nuances, be they what they may, of the Israeli-Palestinian, or the Israeli-Turkish, relationship, I figure. "I am a journalist," I suggest by way of diversion and mime some writing and photo snapping actions with my hands. "Ahhh!" they say, satisfied. "America." "The Celtics. Good." So be it.
Emerging from the metro near the consulate with my latest pals, I find myself in the midst of tens of thousands of people. It's a carnival atmosphere. Kids are sitting on their parents' shoulders, and cotton candy and corn on the cob is being sold along with Palestinian flags and headbands. The chants and the signs are all familiar, but here there is a new energy in the air. The traffic is completely blocked in both directions but drivers don't even seem to mind. They blare their horns in solidarity with the marchers and wave out their windows.
As the night goes on, the crowds only seem to swell. Not being the tallest person around, I can't see a thing, and somehow find myself climbing over a few fences and being hoisted up on top of a bus hired by the Islamic movement for VIPs. "Takrir" comes a voice from a loudspeaker right beside me. "Allah," respond the masses. An Israeli flag is burnt directly beneath. My mother, ringing my mobile from Jerusalem, is whispering to me as if the Islamic militants could hear her on Shamryahu Levin street. I now can see, but can barely hear a thing. "Don't go out on the streets alone," she suggests to her journalist child. "And don't drink anything anyone gives you," she adds. "What? I cant hear a thing!" I yell. "Takrir" "Allah" Just then someone in offers me some water.
I start day two looking for Israelis. "Any hints on where will I find them?" I ask my editor. Try the breakfast room, she suggests. Obvious. I slowly walk around the dining room in my hotel, and then in the hotel next door, scanning the buffet bar for faces of my countrymen and women. 'Is that an Israeli or an Iraqi?" I think to myself. 'An Iranian or an Israeli?' 'Italian or Israeli?' My radar zooms in on one likely couple. I sidle alongside their table. "Do you speak Hebrew," I ask, in Hebrew, under my breath, as if on some secret Mossad mission. "Of course, Motek-Luvie- come have breakfast with us," they offer. Success.
A mother and her daughter-in-law from Ramat Hasharon on a roots trip. "That's so sweet," I say, as I dip my cucumber into their Tehini. "So nice to see an Israeli," they admit. I feel the same. "Why don't you come with us to Topkapi Palace," they offer. I'm a little busy, I say, wistfully. "Be careful," they warn me. "Don't talk in Hebrew," they insist. "Don't drink anything suspicious!" Are all Jewish mothers exactly alike? I have to wonder.
I head to the offices of IHH, the controversial Islamic charity that funded a great part of the flotilla -- chartering three of the ships and recruiting and paying the way for all of the Turkish passengers. Israel has banned the charity, claiming they are humanitarian only in name, and in fact are a militant body supporting Hamas and other terror organizations. I am not going to lie about who I am, I decide, and give the friendly secretary with blood shot eyes my Haaretz business card. "You are Israeli?" he says loudly. I feel like telling him to keep it down, but just nod. "Yes." I ask to speak to one of the senior officers and am told to wait. It takes about 15 minutes for the other Turkish reporters present, with little else to do, to train their video cameras on me. "You are Israeli?" they ask. "We would like you to explain to us the position of your government." Oh dear.
I am saved by a press conference, called by the leaders of the IHH to say that their comrades being held in Israel are being given water in prison they believe is poisoned. "We have told our people to not drink anything," they explain. I see we have more in common with these guys than might first meet the eye and wonder what is going on with the poisoned water theme. I spend the rest of the afternoon basically just hanging out at this headquarters, trying to communicate in Turkish (not easy) and trying to piece together information (harder still) about what is happening next. Families of those on the flotilla wander in and out of the offices, worried, wanting to know who is injured, who is dead. Some are crying.
Finally, I get my interview. "Sorry to keep you waiting, says senior IHH board member Umar Farooq, "...but because of you Israelis we are very busy these days." I feel the organization has made an effort to talk to me because, and not despite of where I am from. "Provocation?" he shrugs his shoulders. "Metal bars?" "We did not start this fight, he says, "...but we have won it." It seems he is keen to express himself to an Israeli paper. The interview is sobering. I am increasingly tired. "Let's not talk again until Israel changes her ways," he suggests in parting, ever courteous.
On my last night in Istanbul, yet another demonstration is raging, now back in Taksim square. I wander the streets. It feels like Miami Beach meets Nablus. One street filled with Karaoke bars teeming with women in high heels and tank tops flirting with muscle men, the next street filled with thousands women in abbayas yelling for the destruction of Israel and radical looking types shaking their fists in the air. I notice a new style of black headband reading "Hail to Hamas." Music praising Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is piped over the loud speakers. The police - in full riot gear - seem to be enjoying the balmy night out on the town, and some have popped into Jimmy's Chicken for some fast food. Tourists, meanwhile, a street or two away, go about their business, bargaining for fake leather wallets and evil eye key chains.
On my flight back to London I am sitting, lo and behold, near one of the flotilla passengers, who, released to Turkey, is now going home to give a press conference, and, she explains, start planning her next flotilla mission. "Israelis are animals," she tells me. "Everyone now knows this." I tune out. It has been a long three days.