Officially organised only 3 days before the event, Improve Everywhere’s first Istanbul No Pants Subway Ride was always going to be an interesting! (Read the history of the event and why we do it)
Istanbul a city of 15 million in Turkey is the most cosmopolitan city in a proudly secular nation, still with 99.8% of the population being Muslim and some hard liners out there we knew it might not go as smoothly as events staged in New York, London or Sydney.
After a flurry of invites on facebook and and couchsurfing.org we had 28 attendees which on the wet, cold and raining day turned into 16 adventurous people that actually showed up. Our spilt was about 1/3 Turkish locals, 1/3 expats and 1/3 travellers.
Myself, the organiser, and my right hand girl, local and translator Isha turned up first with our ‘No Pants’ sign and immediately were approached by about 6 men who asked if this was the ‘No Pants’ Event.
“Yes are you joining in?”
“No we are civilian police. We know about your ‘event’."
*Flashes gun and walkie talkie*
After a long conversation with the undercover police, they said we were allowed to proceed but they would be watching and filming us. They also said they were there for our ‘protection’. Unfortunately some of the undercover police also made inappropriate remarks in Turkish about some of our participants, negative remarks about the event and generally put everyone on edge.
After a short briefing on why we were there, what we were doing and a long safety briefing we headed off down into the subway to start our journey. While we waited for the train, there were 3 plain clothed police following us and taking video, which made most of our participants very uncomfortable and they decided to not to take part but instead just watch and support.
We all walked onto the last car and as soon as it pulled away my pants came off and I walked down to the far side of the carriage. After some hesitation, our number 2, Ayse took her pants off, slowly followed by 4 others giving us a total of 6 ‘agents’ who took part.
As we all took our places among the carriage and took out our books, iphones, etc, people on the train started pointing and talking. It’s odd enough to see people without pants in New York City but in a conservative Islamic country this was ‘crazy’.
We took the train 4 stops, there was some great reactions from passengers entering the subway car on their normal journey seeing 6 people in the underwear standing around (must have been a great shock!). At our final stop, we all got off the train and spread out through the subway station, always keeping in eye sight of each other.
While the reactions of people on the subway were good, the people who felt the ‘safety’ of being inside a subway car and seeing us on the platform were great! The entire subway train was staring out the windows pointing, talking, laughing or just with very puzzled expressions
The first sign of things going wrong occurred when the first train heading back to our start point arrived and 2 of our agents boarded the train, the plan was to go on the 3rd train to go past the station!
Fortunately I managed to pull them off in time. A minute later one of our multi-lingual participants informed that they overheard the station security asking for police assistance.
So we decided it was time to get out of the station and I went around letting everyone know we were going on the next train. 10 minutes later and the next train arrived, so I go check the station to make sure everyone is onboard. Unfortunately Isha, and 2 other translator/photographers were following me. I jump onto the subway car at the last second, the doors close and I see them on the other side and waving goodbye as we pull away.
On the train I quickly put in charge one of the other agents, told them to go to our planned station. Wait for one train, if I we weren’t on the next train then ‘pants on’ and we will meet at the after party.
This is where the story diverges. So let’s call the two groups Team Boxers and Team Undies. Team boxers headed to the planned station, and I went to find Team Undies.
Ro (The organiser) jumped off the train to play hero.
Team Undies story:
After a quick call, I found we were missing three people, Isha who was no-pants and two clothed participants. No problem, they will jump on the last car of the next subway train and I would meet them in the subway.
Although now I was alone, without pants, standing on the subway platform and it wasn’t long until I saw security lurking around the corner with their eyes on me and talking into their radios. But they stayed back and the next train was only a couple minutes away.
The train arrived and our two clothed participants walk out but Isha the lone no-pants agent, was missing. They tell me that they all got on the train together, then a bunch of police suddenly held open the doors and demanded Isha get out of the train and come with them while forcing the others to stay on the train.
So we move to the other platform to catch the subway back and try and find our missing agent. At this point, I decided things are serious and maybe I should put pants back on so I can be taken a bit more seriously!
Just as the subway pulls up, the security guards come up and block our entry and tell us to stay here. After we refused and said we need to find our friend, they told us she would be brought here.
The next subway pulls up and one of the funniest sights you could see appears in front of our eyes. Little, five foot four inch, Ayse in her Simpsons boxers comes out of the subway car with 2 serious looking officials in suits, 2 police in front of her and 2 next to her and 2 police standing behind. and these guys weren’t your ‘subway security’ either they were fully armed police officers, 9mm in holsters and everything. (Unfortunately security deleted our photo of this!)
They release Isha to us, and then tell us to stay where we are and proceed to discuss what to do next. When I ask if we can leave, we are told no. When I ask if we have broken the law, they said they haven’t figured that out yet!
Team boxers being taken by security
Team Boxers Story:
Team boxers arrive at the final train station with the undercover police in tow and wait for us to arrive. Quickly they notice that another 3 undercover police have joined them.
They eventually receive a message from me to meet Team Undies at the after party; however when they tried to leave, the plain cloth police refused to let them and wouldn’t say why.
After about 10 minutes, a group of youths appeared on the train station and called some things out in Turkish. Suddenly the plain cloth police confronted them and there is a heated arguments before the youths yelled at the no-pants participants in Turkish and are forced onto a leaving train by the plain clothed police.
The police then told the group this is why there were being held at the train station, because they had heard there was gang of hardline youths looking to make trouble with the no pants group.
The group then spilt up between those who decided to stay in the station a bit longer as they are worried and those who decided to go to the meeting point (a local pub).
The 4 who stayed decided to take a couple of photos and then are pounced on by the station security. There was some arguing between the plain clothed police and station security but eventually the 4 are taken to a waiting room were there photos are deleted. They are also made to give all their identification and told that if they ever did something similar again they would be arrested. After 30 minutes they were released and went to meet point.
At the same time, those who went to the pub had the plain clothed police suddenly reappear (who had followed them all the way to the pub) and told to delete their photos as well. Fortunately our semi-pro photographer has gone home early and didn’t have her photos deleted.
Team Boxers had a drink, discussed the days events and headed off.
After standing around for 20 minutes, while the police made calls and tried to figure out what to do (and ask for autographs from one of our participants who had a few weeks earlier been on Turkey X-Factor!) The police and guys in suits took us to a holding room hidden in the back of the station, while they waited for a higher ranking officer to come.
In the mean time we were constantly questioned. Unfortunately we did not have the plain clothed police who knew what was happening with us. While one officer protected us, saying he knew about flash mobs and no pants events and that is was a ‘normal thing in western countries’. Another officer was a lot more interrogative continually asking what our political motivation was and hinting that this was a cover for us to takes photos of the subway to be used by terrorist political groups (such as the Kurdish PKK rebels).
After an hour of being held by the police, someone in charge finally appeared (and someone who could speak some English) and asked us to tell him the whole story from the beginning. Half way through the story he realised only two of us had no pants and that I was the organiser. He agreed to release our TV star and another local who had not taken any clothes off.
When we finished our story he asked us a couple questions, asked us to show him the underwear we were wearing (both of us had conservative underwear) and asked to see our photos and then deleted them. He then went outside for a few minutes and we over heard some unhappy words about why on earth they thought we were danger to people or part of the PKK. The senior officer then came back in and told us that “You are not allowed to take photos in the subway; this is why we have deleted your photos. But you have done nothing illegal and are allowed to take the subway in ‘socially appropriate’ underwear. You are free to go.”
One of the officers and the man in the suit apologised for what happened and said maybe next time they can join in. After being detained for an hour and half we were free to go and find out what happened to everyone else!
If you enjoyed this post, you make like to read about my greatest prank, placing my own art work on display with Andy Warhol, Picasso and Monet at the Tate Modern in London.
Or you might enjoy Improv Everywhere's amazing stunts or you can help fund a documentary on Improv Everywhere!
I apologise for any inaccuracies, I could not understand Turkish and was split from the some of the group. I have done my best to piece together what happened.
*** TO MEDIA ***:
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