In a centuries-old neighbourhood in the centre of Istanbul, retired forestry engineer Hüseyin Çetinel spent four days painting almost 200 steps of a public thoroughfare linking the Findikli and Cihangir districts.
This was in August 2013. As a result, Hüseyin Çetinel became an overnight sensation. Not because he transformed a drab set of concrete steps into a magnificent rainbow-coloured staircase, but because of the local government’s response. The municipality presumably saw it as a rebellious act driven by a social and political agenda, and returned the steps to their original grey colour.
Public outrage was swift and effective. In the wake of the Gezi Park protests, the covering of the rainbow colours was seen as yet another sign of intolerance and lack of respect for citizens’ right to claim public spaces. With the rallying cry of #DirenMerdiven (#ResistStairs), before-and-after pictures and calls to action went viral on social media. After people across the country painted steps in rich rainbow colours, the municipality relented and returned the “rainbow stairs” to the resplendent colours of Hüseyin Çetinel’s vision.
In October 2015, my travel mates and I found the steps under reconstruction. The paint had been replaced with colourful tiles across the rise of each new step. An inquiry at Café Nove next door led to the discovery of Hüseyin Çetinel’s daughter Nazli who has operated the café with her husband for the last eight years.
It turns out the steps were in serious need of repair. The Beyoğlu Municipality responded positively to requests from neighbourhood residents to demolish and rebuild the stairs after incorporating infrastructure improvements to electricity, natural gas and sewage. Nazli seemed sad to see her father’s vision transformed in this way, describing his original masterpiece as “perfect.” It had been a perfect gift from a father to a daughter who lives and works close to the stairs.
At the height of the controversy, Hüseyin Çetinel’s status as an unwitting hero of a social and political movement generated requests for interviews. “I didn’t do it for a group or as a form of activism. I did it to make people smile,” he told the Turkish media. As he laboured for four days spreading forty kilograms of paint on a crumbling concrete staircase, I can imagine one smile, in particular, he had in mind.
Istanbul’s rainbow stairs stand as a symbol of public protests during a turbulent period in Turkey’s recent political history. The Gezi Park protests in the spring of 2013 were marked by excessive use of force by police and an overall absence of government dialogue with protesters. During the same period, the government opposed an extension of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights in Turkey and the Istanbul Pride parade at Taksim Square was the biggest ever held in the country. In fact, it was the biggest ever seen in Eastern Europe.
The story of Hüseyin Çetinel’s generosity, and the quiet yet effective rainbow stairs protest was so compelling, it demanded our very own Turkish Pride picture.
Istanbul’s rainbow stairs are easy to find. They’re located on Salı Pazarı Yokuşu with Café Nove at one corner and T.C. Ziraat Bankası A.Ş. at the other. Take the T1 Tramway in the direction of Kabataş on the European side of the Bosphorus. Or, walk the three kilometres or so from the Galata Bridge. The stairs are between the stops of Findikli and Tophane. In fact, between both stops are three sets of painted steps. Drop into Café Nove for a drink, a bite to eat and a conversation about this colourful little piece of recent Istanbul history.
Hüseyin Çetinel Photo Credit: Jebiga