Once there was a man named Huseyin Cetinel, who lived in the place where time began. Its name is Beyoğlu Province now, but it has had many names over the centuries, and many rulers, both wise and foolish.
In the middle ages Beyoğlu was called Pera, the Greek word for “across”. It was called Pera because it is the spot on the globe where East meets West – where Europe bleeds into Asia.
Beyoğlu lies to the east of the city of Istanbul, separated from the old city by the Golden Horn, a bay shaped like a scimitar, where the ships of the Greeks the Romans, the Ottomans and Byzantines have all sailed. It is said the province of Beyoğlu was once thick with green forests, a favorite place for the son of Suleiman the Magnificent himself, to come to hunt deer. Now it is the place that a kind man named Huseyin Cetinel calls home. The place where his heart is.
The neighborhood of Fındıklı, where Huseyin lives, and nearby Cihangir, are known for their artists and cafes, and for their nightlife, which attract tourists on holiday from all over Europe. The two areas are connected by a staircase, and everyday, hundreds of people climb the 145 gray stone steps between the two districts.
Huseyin is also a regular traveler of those 145 steps, but he is now a man advancing in years, so as he climbs, he has much time to contemplate the stairway and the people on it. There is no color, he observes. It is too dull. Too depressing. It should be bright and alive, like the people who live here.
Huseyin looked at the faces of the younger people as they brushed by him, their eyes on their feet as they climbed. No one exchanged smiles. No one traded greetings. It was as if the gray color of the stairs sucked any instinct toward friendliness right out of the air. So Huseyin decided to do something about that.
Huseyin Cetinel bought some bright blue paint, and brought it to the foot of the staircase. His intention was just to paint a few steps. The blue stairs would serve as a send off to those making the long climb, and as a welcome to those who had made the descent. But to his surprise, as he painted, people began to greet Huseyin. They smiled as they passed. They stopped to tell him how beautiful his steps were. The spirits of those passing by seemed uplifted by the splash of color.
Huseyin (right) was so delighted by the reaction to his blue steps, that the next day he brought his friend Volkan Tecimeroğlu to witness it as well. This day the friends brought bright paint of many colors. Every group of three steps the friends painted a color of the rainbow. As the sun set on their day, Volkan discovered everything Huseyin had told him was true: the bright colors caused those climbing the steps to lift their heads from their shoe tops. They now smiled and greeted those they passed. And very often they stopped to tell the painters how much they liked the bright colors, like a poem for the eyes.
The next day, intrigued by his reports, two more of Huseyin’s friends joined in his project. It took four days to paint the entire staircase, but when it was finished, it transformed the area. Word began to spread. Tourists, and couples in love, and members of the gay community, all came to pose for pictures on Huseyin Cetinel’s rainbow staircase. Huseyin’s work of community art soon became the talk of Istanbul.
You will remember I told you that Beyoğlu has been ruled by men both wise and foolish?
The mayor of Beyoğlu, Ahmet Misbah Demircan, is not a ruler of the wise variety. When he heard reports about events in Cihangir, he did not care that the rainbow steps were welcomed by the citizens. He did not care that the rainbow steps brought tourists to the cafes and shops. He did not even care that the rainbow steps made his citizens feel happy. The mayor concluded if it was a rainbow, it must be the work of the gays, and Mayor Demircan did not like the gays. So the mayor decided to put an end to the art of Huseyin and his (probably homosexual) friends.
A week after Huseyin finished the last bright stair, workers came in the dead of night, and painted over the happy colors, turning everything back to dull, listless gray. In the morning, there was an outcry of anger at the deed. People seethed. They cursed whomever had ordered the steps returned to gray. They promised they would repaint the staircase. They started a Twitter protest, where the hashtag #resiststeps became a trending topic. A Facebook page inviting people to come help repaint the steps was launched.
Mayor Demircan was so fearful of the people’s anger, he at first would not admit he had ordered the painting. Like a coward, he told reporters he would look into it and get back to them after his investigation. But people had seen the municipal trucks the painters had traveled in, and journalists forced him to admit what he did.
Huseyin Cetinel was devastated.
“It was the seven colors of the rainbow and shining. Now look at it, it’s ashes now.” He lamented.
There was such anger at the government in Beyoğlu that it spread like wildfire. A day was chosen for the people to bring their brushes and come repaint the steps, but before it arrived, workmen again came in the dead of night – and painted the steps back to their rainbow colors. Some say it was the mayor, afraid for his own skin who gave the order. Others think it was Prime Minister Erdoğan himself who ordered the steps restored.
The people in Beyoğlu were joyful in their victory, but their anger did not disappear with the gray paint on the staircase, as the mayor might have hoped. The citizens knew why the rainbow had been destroyed, it was a punishment to the gays, even though the gays had done nothing to attract the mayor’s ire, and Huseyin Cetinel said many times that the reason he painted the rainbow stairs was just to “make people smile”.
The citizens of Beyoğlu were already angry at the mayor for turning Gezi Park, the last remaining green space where the son of Suleiman the Magnificent once liked to hunt, into a shopping mall. They were angry that the mayor allowed police to use tear gas on crowds of families with young children who came to Gezi Park to protest. Now the mayor had ordered the destruction of Huseyin Cetinel’s wonderful community art project, simply because the symbol of the gay community is a rainbow.
The wave of protest that was born in Beyoğlu swelled like a tsunami of dissent. It swept over the entire country of Turkiye. People from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean began painting their own community gray spaces in the colors of the rainbow. You can see for yourself, there are dozens of examples here.
Huseyin has said his rainbow stairs were not meant as a gay protest, so we will take him at his word. But what followed certainly was a referendum on how the Turkish government treats its gay citizens. With every rainbow they painted, the people of Turkiye told those in power to “knock it off”.
That’s why today, Huseyin Cetinel and his rainbow stairs, are On Our Radar.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.
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