Analysis News

A voice calling in the wilderness: A journey to the 'Castle of the Jews'

Five hundred words and three photos from one place. This time: a church in the middle of a minefield, water you can walk on, an international border with no soldiers and a legal limbo that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else.

What is the strangest place in the world? Depends how you define “strange.” In English, one must differentiate between strange, weird, bizarre and my personal favorite: eerie.

If there ever was an “eerie” place in this delusional country between the river and the sea, it can be found close to the Jordan River. In the following photo one can see tourists waving hello at a site called “Qasr el Yahud” (“Castle of the Jews” in Arabic). These women are sitting in the Kingdom of Jordan, but the photograph was taken from the West Bank of the river, under Israeli control.

Photos from Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Two years ago, Israel began granting access to the river east of Jericho, once it realized that many tourists could visit the place Jesus was baptized by simply going through Jordan. There is already a road leading to the river between minefields, and once a year the Greek patriarch leads a procession through it. All that’s left to do is grant access to anyone who wants it, build a parking lot for buses and place a soldier to ensure that nobody walks across the river to the other side.

Yes, I wrote “walks.” There is no need to swim. The depth of the “river” at this point is approximately a meter and is, on average, only five meters wide. It is surrounded on both banks by one of the less predictable views this world has to offer. John the Baptist was, in the words of the Gospel, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The desert remains, flat and rocky, full of churches removed from any city, town or village. One is made of fortified concrete, while three others have sparkling, golden domes. An onion-shaped Russian dome decorates a large building as if it were uprooted from St. Petersburg and gently placed here.

Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Another church, near where the buses park, is entirely surrounded by mines. The small, destroyed chapel is surrounded by a rosy, stone wall. Near it are signs that read “beware of mines.” Not...

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Between elegance and desolation: A short journey to Qalqilya

Eight hundred words and three photos from one place. This time, the city from which the muezzins sing over the rooftops of the settlements of Kochav Yair and Nir David.

Here is the closest thing that I will have to a Passover vacation: a hop for one morning to a city that is not especially attractive, though pleasant, smiley and delicious. The separation wall, hated by me as it is, split me from my obligations. So I submitted to sweet tea and pastries (sinning with hametz), to the atmosphere in the street, and to the interaction with this close, yet far away place.

Actually, it’s inaccurate to say that Qalqilya is unattractive. It may not feature many fine buildings but it does have, for instance, wonderful greenery: both banana trees and large patches of grass – two things one won’t find in the better known, mountainous Palestinian urban sprawl. It’s fascinating to peek into the small orchards in each home’s courtyard.

A courtyard in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

A courtyard in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

The city boasts an elegant topography: it possesses patience atop a moderate hillside, and its slope fans the densely populated urban cluster. The streets intertwine interestingly, the market is cute, and the similarity of several of the neighborhoods to parts of Jaffa and south Tel Aviv makes one wonder. “Yesha” [the Hebrew acronym for the biblical names of the occupied territories, Judea, Samaria and Gaza, also meaning “salvation”] – is truly here, for better and for worse.

>Read Yuval Ben-Ami’s ‘Round Trip’ travel series through Israel and Palestine

The depth of the tranquility found in the side streets, contrasted with the commotion found in the minds, also generates a form of beauty. I was reminded of Ocosingo, a sweet and unique city I visited in Mexico. Both cities are graceful – Qalqilya even more so. Like Ocosingo, Qalqilya is poor. It was once slightly less poor. Residents of the Israeli city of Kfar Saba and other towns in the Sharon region, along with settlers from the area, used to come here to do their shopping. The signs in Hebrew remain; the customers have disappeared. The Second Intifada created a total disconnect; the separation laws and the ensuing threatening red signs, stating, “they will kill you here,” completed it.

Qalqilya became a place...

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The world's only ethnic time zone

For the past month, the Holy Land was the only place in the world where time zones are delineated not by geography but by ethnicity. 

World time zones (By

As of this morning, for the first time in a month, all the residents of the Holy Land are living in the same time zone. In late September, the Palestinian Authority switched to winter time, but the West Bank’s Israeli settlers continued living in line with Israel’s clock, which only made the switch today. Thus, for one month, the West Bank became the only place in the world where time is not delineated by geography but rather by ethnicity: different people went about their lives on different clocks, despite the fact that they live in such close proximity to each other within the same territory.

In other words (For the sake of clarifying such strange reality, I add here with thanks a point used in the comments by reader Haifawi) a visitor to the West Bank would be in a different time zone, depending on whether he or she was with Jews or non-Jews.

Settlers today make up over 15 percent of the West Bank population. This means that about every sixth West Bank resident thought an hour ahead of the other five. Drivers passing each other on Route 60 drove in different time zones, depending on to the color of their license plates. Meanwhile, while Israelis on both sides of the Green Line shared the same clock, the Palestinian people was divided in, and by, the dimension of time. Palestinians in Israel and East Jerusalem continued to live according to Israeli time, while Gaza went with Ramallah, switching off daylight savings on September 26.

The lives of West Bank Palestinians who work in settlements or with Israelis, or who have any connection at all with Palestinian citizens of Israel or East Jerusalem residents, became highly complicated. Some of them moved between time zones a few times a day. Many had to wake up at unthinkable hours in order to travel to work across the wrinkle of time. Palestinians who live on one side of the separation barrier and work on the other must anyway calculate the travel time to the checkpoint and the wait at it; this month they were forced to add...

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Scenes from a guided tour


Hotel manager in Tiberias: Two members of the group you’re guiding had to move to another room last night. It’s because of all the noise the cousins made in the pool.

Me: Why do you find it necessary to point out that those were “cousins” [Hebrew code word for Palestinians]?

Manager: What do you want me to say? “Arabs?”

Me: Why don’t you just say “some people”?

Manager: But they’re Arabs; it’s their identity.

Me: Being human is also part of their identity.

Manager: To you they’re human. Anyway, the couple that moved will either have to move back to their room before you leave this morning, or to a larger room on this floor.

Me: They’re Jewish.

Manager: What?

Me: They’re Jewish, you forgot to mention that, it’s part of their indentity.

Manager (smiling): Forget Jewish, just say “human.”

Me: To you they’re human.


On a break in the tour, I am walking down Queen Helene Street in West Jerusalem. Ahead of me walks an elderly Palestinian woman in a long, traditional, embroidered dress. She holds a heavy sack in her hands, while balancing on her head, without any manual support, an equally large parcel.

It’s been a long time since I witnessed such a balancing feat. As a child growing up in Jerusalem, the sight was more common. We kindergarten kids would stand by the fence surrounding the playground, looking out to a path that led to the Palestinian neighborhood of Shu’afat. Whenever such a lady passed, we sang to her:

Arabi’a kushkushi’a
Yesh la tachat
Shel gavi’a

Which can be loosely translated from the Hebrew as:

Silly Arab woman
She’s got an ass
Like a wine glass.

I remember singing this at home one day. My parents became extremely angry. I didn’t understand. Why would they be angry? At kindergarten everyone sang this and it was fine. Later in life, I forgot the song. It only came back me when reading Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” a well-known memoir of growing up African-American in the American south. At one point,Wright tells of how he and his friends used to harass the town’s only Jewish resident with an anti-Semitic ditty.

At first I was in shock. How, I thought, could I continue reading a book by someone who did...

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Israel as a public embarrassment

Are the embarrassments Israel’s diplomats produce truly unintentional? They appear to be part of a deliberate policy, intended to promote our sense of isolation.

Facepalm at the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In an episode of the brilliant Danish television series “Borgen” (“The Castle”), Denmark’s fictitious Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg travels to the imaginary African country of Kharun. Hoping to broker a peace accord between warring factions in that land, she rushes from the airport to a meeting with the local prime minister. He, however, fails to attend.

Angered, Nyborg demands to be taken back to the airport. One of her ministers, the Arabic speaking Amir, turns to a Kharunian dignitary and says: “Hadi fadiha.” This is when my girlfriend Ruthie and I burst out laughing in front of the screen. Fadiha! A familiar word! The Arabic expression for “embarrassment” or a “faux pas” was borrowed by Hebrew and is used incessantly in our culture. “Hadi fadiha” – “this is an embarrassment.” Indeed.

Not only do we know the word, we are also amply familiar with the situation, from a Kharunian, rather than a Danish perspective. Fadihas committed by the state have become habit around here, particularly since Avigdor Liberman was instated as foreign minister in the previous government. Liberman brought with him an anti-diplomatic approach that has since turned Israel into a state-sized fadiha. A famous example was the 2010 summoning of the Turkish ambassador to the Foreign Ministry, where he was offered a low chair. The low chair was meant as a public punishment, since the Turkish government allowed a certain television channel to air a drama series critical of Israel. Then-Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon soared above the ambassador on a taller chair and the media was invited to photograph his triumph.

Meanwhile, around the world, anti-diplomats were given prime posts. Among them are Israel’s ambassador to Ireland Boaz Modai, and his activist wife Nurit Tinari Modai, formerly of the Foreign Ministry herself. Last Christmas, the two sent the world a Christmas message of hate. On a Facebook page managed by the embassy, they posted an image of Jesus and Mary with the caption: “A thought for Christmas… If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in...

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Bringing the Green Line to Sir Paul McCartney

The bathroom at the Glozman family home in the settlement of Givon Hahadasha. (Image from the book “The Round Trip”)

The sea is vast, which is probably why I seldom meet people I know when I go in to take a swim. Another reason is that the sea wets people’s hair and I don’t recognize them quite as easily.

A few days ago two wet-haired people called my name. It happened among the Hawaiian-sized waves of Alma Beach, north of Jaffa’s promenade. They turned out to be my two friends Orna and Loren. We chatted about what’s new and I told them I have a new baby: “The Round Trip,” my new book, and the first ebook to be published by +972 Magazine.

“I feel a little detached from it,” I confessed, “the proper version is available on iTunes for viewing on iPads. I don’t own an iPad and the iTunes bookstore isn’t active in Israel/Palestine, so I haven’t actually seen my own book. To me, it’s a bit like having it released on Mars, via some form of futuristic technology not yet known on earth.”

We all ducked under a huge wave.

“And I don’t know anyone on Mars, either!” I kept on complaining, “I have five free copies to send for promotion. I sent three to friends who sometimes write for the media, but I have two more, and my list of American and European media people is waning.”

“Forget promotion. It’s your first book in English? Send one to your English teacher,” Loren suggested.

“I did have English teachers in elementary school, but the truth is I learned my English from the Beatles.”

“So send it to Paul McCartney,” Loren said.

Buy The Round Trip here>>

Under the gush of the next wave I gave it some thought, and realized it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Of course Ringo is still with us as well, but he composed much fewer lyrics, and would thus count as a beloved teacher’s aid. Here, then, is the letter I wrote Sir McCartney upon returning to land.

Dear Sir Paul.

This is a letter of thanks. Attached to it is a book I’ve written about borders. I grew up in the strange land of Israel/Palestine, surrounded by countless borders: real borders, imaginary borders, international borders, unrecognized...

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'Not born for happiness': Israel as a Russian opera

The ultimate tale of a missed opportunity, now staged by the Bolshoi on Tel Aviv’s opera stage, resonates strongly in an Israeli heart that still recalls an old hope.

The scene at the opening of the the first act, in the Bolshoi’s traveling production of Tchaikowsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Photo by Yossi Zwekcer, Courtasy of the Israeli Opera

It does not end like an opera. No diva is sprawled on the stage, a dagger in her heart and a high D♭emerging emerging from her throat. I remember stepping out of “Eugene Onegin” stunned. Could there really be an opera that dealt with real life, rather then the melodramatic opera universe? Did Pushkin and Tchaikovsky both just send me off with the message: “life sucks, deal with it?”

It was a typically mild winter day in Eilat. The Marinski Opera House, from Saint Petersburg, visits the city yearly. Back in the 90s, its legendary director Gregeiev dreamed up a tri-national music festival. He hoped that borders would open up, following the Oslo Accords, allowing a flow of spectators into the resort city. That never materialized, but Eilat remains pleasant in winter, so the Russians keep coming.

I remember sitting in the port hangar where a concert performance of the piece was given. At first I didn’t care much. There was an old lady lamenting her lost youth, then a choir of the harvesters returning from the fields… I sank into my notepad and doodled. Then something caught my ears, the most strikingly beautiful theme I have ever heard. Tania, the village girl, was composing a letter to Eugene Onegin, a visiting city lad with whom she had fallen in love. Her letter was over the top – the kind of thing for which the “undo” function on Gmail was invented. She had just met Onegin, and was clearly making a mistake.

Still, we must be swept with her, and so Tchaikovsky composed Tania’s very emotion. He made love into music, a phrase (first appearing in this clip, taken out a production at the Met, at 4:48) that repeats in different intensities, until Tania stops singing and only the orchestra expresses her burst of infatuation (8:36). It was so gorgeous I nearly dropped the notepad.

An aloof Onegin rejects Tania’s words of...

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The fall of the house of Herzl: Israel as a horror flick

Horror films are often centered around a house: a safe haven. But they are also a place of danger and sometimes a monster in and of themselves. To Israelis, the Jewish state can play all three roles.  

An Israeli poster for “The Grudge 2,” which conveys with mysterious accuracy Minister Naftali Bennet’s horror at the idea of two states. (Courtesy of Ghost House Pictures)

Last week my girlfriend Ruthie came up with a scary idea: “Why don’t we start watching classic horror films together?” she asked.

This would of course be a perfect remedy for a couple suffering from a decline in intimacy: a lack of clinging to one another. I assure you that we have no need for that. We simply love cinema. Ruthie asked online for suggestions, and soon we headed on our roller coaster of chills. The first film we watched was Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the second: Italian cult classic “Supriria.”

Through all the screams and slashing scenes, I found myself thinking a lot about politics. Here’s the true curse of living in this haunted land: we can’t get politics out of our heads even when the zombies break into the house and reach directly to the throat of the pretty blonde. Why would we? We are made to believe that we live in this house. Ehud Barak called Israel “a villa in the jungle,” aka, an outpost of humanity besieged by wild beasts. Horror cinema is all about stirring anxieties, and this exactly what our politicians do for a living. Israeli society is suffering en-masse from a state of PTSD, a state which our leaders preserve rather than heal, keeping us dependant on their promise of military protection. Last week I heard Netanyahu say on the radio: “The Palestinians don’t only want the West Bank, they want Jaffa, Ashdod and Haifa.” His tone was taken straight out of the radio and television broadcasts in “Night of the Living Dead.”

American horror cinema is indeed borne of political anxieties. The plot of “Night of the Living Dead” incorporates many of the fears experienced by Cold War American society: the fear of nuclear holocaust, the fear of “red” society, in which individuals lose their identity, even the uncertainty of where racial politics...

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Israel's control over movement, reflected by a local artist

May Castelnuovo presents a visual representation of 101 things, at which we would rather not look.  

Photo by Meitar Moran

As the crow flies, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design is situated less than one kilometer from the separation wall. Indeed, the crow need not even fly from Israel’s most prestigious art school to the questionable concrete barrier; it can mosey there at ease.

Within Bezalel, one finds the typical Israeli mix of art that concerns itself with local realities and that which stubbornly ignores them. This post is dedicated to one work of the first category, presented only last week by a student at Bezalel’s photography department. I am sharing it for two reasons. First, it is the work of a dear friend, who is also a recent creative partner and +972 contributor. May Castelnuovo is responsible for the photography and film footage of “Last Metro to Taksim,” a five part exploration of protest-Istanbul.

Second, while professedly a rudimentary experiment, it is an enormously educational piece of art. It is made up of permits – permits necessary for movement, permits for crossing the wall. The crow may fly right over it, but it traps men and women. Many Palestinians never get a permit to cross the separation barrier and go into Israel. For those who do, Israel issues 101 kinds of permits: only for Jerusalem, only for a specific hospital in Jerusalem, only for daylight hours, for all hours, for a few hours, etc., etc.

The permit policy can be described as a form of bureaucratic violence, or at least a tool of intimidation. Palestinians receive no information about how to qualify for a permit. One permit expires, and the next offers entirely different liberties, for no apparent reason. The printers at Kafka’s castle work overtime.

Like the wall itself, the policy is presented as a security measure. It is, however, a dubious one. On one fine day last August, Israel experimented with relaxing this policy and lavishly issued nearly 300,000 permits, drawing multitudes of Palestinians to Mediterranean beaches. No violent incidents were recorded that day. The meager value of this gross infringement on human rights was clearly displayed, and yet the experiment has not yet been repeated.

Castelnuovo sought to obtain...

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Yoram Kaniuk - the last great Zionist

“I know that a Jewish state can only be a dream,” Yoram Kaniuk once told me, “but I want to have my dream.” This literary giant and eternal dreamer passed away last night (Saturday) at the age of 83, and an important critical and humanist voice fell silent in this land.

The dream of Israel is one for which Tel Aviv-born Kaniuk nearly gave his life at the age of 17. He lied about his age in order to join the Palmach Brigades and was shot in the leg on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. Six decades later, having finally reached his renown as one of Hebrew literature’s most powerful voices, he told the tale of that war. His book, 1948, is not only a stray from the typical Zionist narrative, it is honest, irreverent and eye opening.

Kaniuk was a quintessential Israeli “sabra.” He was certainly a Zionist, in that he felt the Jewish nation would have no future without a home. Still, he was concerned for the wellbeing of every soul on this soil and frowned at the Israeli Right’s abduction of Zionism. His understanding of the term was miles apart from that which is common in contemporary Israel. “Our Zionism was on the coast,” he told me in another conversation. “When we dreamed of a state here, Jerusalem was not meant to be a part of it, never mind the West Bank and Gaza.”

The Kaniukian middle way may seem contrived to some, but in today’s Israel it is revolutionary. Kaniuk rejected the world view of Messianic religious Zionism, which combines Zionism as an existential solution — a life-saving project — with biblical context and extreme nationalism, a mix that permits inequality and atrocities. He was active in the struggle to secure the right of return for the refugees of Iqrit and Bir’im and cooperated with Palestinian intellectuals long before it was considered “acceptable” behavior. His disdain for mixing synagogue and state played out most powerfully in 2012, when he successfully appealed to remove “Jewish” from the “religion” clause in his Israeli ID card. To this day, he is the only Israeli to have achieved that feat.

He who molds reality with his own hands knows it can be formed into anything. Kaniuk’s reading of Jewish history — and particularly...

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 5: The siege of Constantinople

A night that is almost too calm turns violent, then calm again, and then comes the day to make conclusions. Photography by May Castelnuovo.

Click here for the full series. 

It’s 2 a.m. when we arrive back to Istanbul from Bursa. Istiklal Avenue is busier than at noon. Street musicians are everywhere, many playing “Bella Ciao,” the struggle’s adopted anthem. On our first day here, hearing it played in the square was a thrill. It took three days for it to become a chewed-up hit.

Even here, with all these people about, the spirit of the struggle seems less than invincible. Young folk have their photo taken by a graffiti potrait of Erdoğan, as though this were Disneyland and he Mickey Mouse. We are standing across from the now-repaired Pizza Hut restaurant’s windows, at the very spot where carnage caught us off guard the morning we arrived. Now it’s a different sort of damage that shakes us.

Just as cynicism takes over, there comes the burning sensation and Disneyland is forgotten. The barricades in Beşiktaş were again so badly gas-bombed that the entire Taksim district is in agony. Once more, things seem “real.” In more than one way, it is the police that keep the movement’s momentum alive.

Once the pollution recedes, we descend toward Beşiktaş, to the barricade where we were pepper-gassed the night before. Instead of a battle, we find an argument. Some of the activists favor descending down the dark street — the no-man’s land where I got burned by the gas canister — and “provoking” the police again. Others prefer to maintain a peaceful hold of the high ground. A girl interrupts excitedly, saying something about a camera and photos. It takes us a while to figure the camera in question is ours. She wants the keepers of the barricade to stand together for a group photo.

This may be the most wonderful, and at the same time most discouraging photo of the entire journey. They are here, so many of them. They control of the very heart of the city of 18 million souls. They are young and proud, and they are posing. They...

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 4: The expedition

It’s time to take a look around and see what’s happening off the square, way off the square. Photography by May Castelnuovo.

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL/BURSA, Turkey — On the day we arrived, the metro station at Taksim Square was closed. The following day was a Monday. We took the train into town expecting to alight at least one station north of the square. To our surprise, the train went all the way to Taksim. The station was open and we emerged from it with our first sense of normality.

It wasn’t the normal kind of normality. For one, there was a car burning right outside the station, in broad daylight.

But the street-food stalls returned to the square following their weekend break and an overall sense of routine could be felt. Order had been established: The protest movement was in Taksim. The police were in Beşiktaş, and the rest of the city went about its normal business. Daytime is about dancing, nighttime about crying; stuffed clams are yummy, and so is köfte.

Down on Istiklal, we did witness something unique: a march of Istanbul’s lawyers protesting the use of gas.

This was indeed moving. But by now, on the dawn of our third day, the situation began to seem a bit stagnant. Meanwhile, we are told that other cities are not nearly as relaxed. Last night Ebu Zer showed us a clip filmed in Ankara. In it, a woman is heard begging the police not to gas her residential neighborhood where children are sleeping and older residents suffer from lung ailments. Her plea is not respected. Izmir is said to be the scene of much turmoil, and in Antakya one demonstrator was shot dead.

It’s time to leave Istanbul and we choose the city of Bursa as our destination. It has been the setting of several demonstrations in previous days and is located only three hours away, which would allow us to return swiftly should the police enter Taksim. In the hot afternoon, we board a ferry and head out across the mavi (blue) Marmara Sea.

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Last Metro to Taksim, part 3: Enter night

The Istanbul team heads into the clouds of gas. It starts off pretty well. Photography by May Castelnuovo

Click here for the full series. 

ISTANBUL — On Sunday night, newly reunited after the lost kidney scare, May and I went to dine with two compatriots. One was Or Heller, Channel 10′s man, whom we tried to reach earlier, and Anshel Pfeffer, who reports here for Haaretz. I bit into the delicious Adana köfte and thought of Ruthie, who loves Istanbul so much, and would have come here if not for her work. What should I bring her when I return? Adana doesn’t travel well, and anyway she’s a vegetarian except for when she travels.

Thank Goodness for Anshel, who came up with an idea that may provide a nice solid memento: a tear gas canister. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’m headed for Beşiktaş. Here everything is so sweet, there – the police are present. There are clashes.”

I did know about me. I wasn’t coming. Ebu Zer and Soner are hosting us and I promised them we would arrive before 10:30, but May’s eyes were agleam. She wanted those shots. How to argue with a creative spirit? I conceded, but warned that we would only stay for half an hour.

The street outside the restaurant was full of relaxed tourists and the buzz of restaurant hosts trying to lure them in. Nothing at all betrayed that two blocks away was a graveyard of overturned police vehicles. We emerged out of the hotel district, skirted the overturned cars and continued downhill, towards the Bosphorus shores and the Dolmabahçe Palace, a grand piece of Ottoman waterfront property, in which Erdoğan has an office.

On the hillside rising above the palace is the famous football stadium of Beşiktaş. As we approached, eyes already teary, we saw that stadium being taken apart before our eyes. Demonstrators were tearing off fences and other elements of its exterior.

A cloud of teargas loomed past them at the foot of the hill. We descended as far as we could amongst the hordes of young, masked rebels but were chased back again and again by the torturous sensation.


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