Archive for June, 2013
I have withheld my documentary evidence of certain events that took place a couple of weeks ago in the midst of Turkey’s turmoil for fear that it was not the time for transparency. I apologize for my cowardice. However, I must now add my voice to those others claiming that there are international interests trying to steal Turkey’s beauty away from it. Two Saturdays ago I witnessed an Italian man marry a Turkish woman. To my shame, I stood by and enjoyed the spectacle of two people formalizing the decision to share their love, lives and differing cultures in order to join in a union that will echo through the years, influencing generations to come.
I’m sorry if I let you down, Turkey. In addition to taking one of your great beauties as my wife, years later I stood silent witness as another foreigner did the same. Yet I was not alone. In addition to being a foreign interest at this event, there were also bankers and financiers there too. In fact there were people from all sorts of backgrounds. How could I succumb? Quite simply, these people — Turks and Italians, Spanish, East Indian, Japanese and a host of other nationalities — were just too good looking and charming. They really knew how to party, too.
What’s worse? I would take part in such a plot all over again. Not only am I guilty, I am unrepentant. Foreigners like me have a desire to see Turkish people happy and successful both at home and abroad among all the other kind people and great cultures of the world. Why? Because it makes some of us happy too. That’s why I sincerely hope that this lovely couple, Asli and Nevio, enjoy the fruits of such a joyful conspiracy for two very long, very magical lives. It was beautiful.
This week Turkey and the world were inspired by one man’s silent, six-hour protest performed in Taksim Square. Standing Man was a truly beautiful statement made by choreographer Erdem Gunduz which went viral within hours of his performance. Better yet it has since inspired thousands of others around Turkey and the world like the woman above. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this protest resonated so powerfully, and I got my answer when I visited Taksim square the other day. Politics, especially in Turkey, is dominated by middle-aged, finger-pointing bullies. It’s less and less about the content of the argument, and more about how successfully you can shout down your opponent. This afternoon the Mayor of Ankara denounced a Turkish journalist working for the BBC as a spy and is attempting to conduct a Twitter campaign against her. One TV station composed a fake interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Closer to my home things took a violent turn on Thursday night when thugs attacked a peaceful meeting, mostly of women and children. Some reports claim that the mob had been whipped up into a frenzy by an elected official who made false allegations about blasphemous actions taken against Muslims. So why are all these people shouting? Probably because if they stopped to think about what they were saying and doing, they’d understood how ridiculous they appeared.
Still Erdem Gunduz silenced them for once. How could you shout down Standing Man? How can you denounce his actions? A counter protest in the following days by six men wearing “standing against standing man” t-shirts just looked feeble. Standing Man’s point was made, without threat, intimidation or disrespect for anyone else’s person, property or identity. He didn’t wave any flags or chant any alienating slogans. He simply stood his ground. Better yet he continues to inspire other people to demonstrate their disapproval in meaningful ways that don’t involve shouting or destroying public property. Unfortunately, the powers that be can’t “stand” to be opposed and show no signs that they will refrain from brutalizing their opponents with excessive police force and petty vendettas. Too bad they can’t learn to be a bit more stoic in the face of peaceful disobedience. Maybe if they did, they’d look a lot less old and tired.
When I started this blog it was with the intention of pointing out things to appreciate, especially with regard to this city which has been my home for eight years. This city has brought me so many good things, and as a result I’ve wanted to pay it back. However, I’ve had something of a philosophical conundrum in the last week. It’s been difficult to go back to that same reality. In the space an hour these days I can find hope in some simple act of kindness from the people of this city, and lose it in the next second. I’m not usually into finger-pointing, but it’s usually in the moments when one of the city’s or country’s democratically elected leaders speaks. In the last hour there’s a man on the TV saying some very frightening things, about minorities, foreign interests, about the abuse of his head scarf-wearing sisters, about people having orgies in mosques. Unfortunately, this loud man is also the most powerful person in the country, the Prime Minister.
I’d already grown disheartened when I saw the Gezi Park protestors last Wednesday when these photos were taken. One minute there was sunshine, then cloud and thunder rumbling overhead. Different people seemed to be arguing within the camp. The previous 24 hours had been especially rough for the protestors when the police cleared Taksim Square and clouds of tear gas kept wafting into the camp which was supposed to be off limits. However, according To Amnesty International, at least 30 teargas canisters were fired into the camp. Support and supplies was still rolling in from around the city Wenesday, but the camp looked severely battered. Then I saw the police encamped around the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi which had been patched over with hundreds of banners a couple of days earlier and now had two large Turkish flags and a portrait of Atatürk draped over its facade. There was however, the assurance by public officials and the governor of Istanbul that Gezi Park’s peaceful encampment of protestors would remain untouched. Still, the exhausted looking police, kept inching closer and closer as a ragged and thin line of protestors looked on from their barricades above.
Last night the stalemate ended. Described as an “evacuation” by Istanbul’s governor, the Gezi Park camp was forcibly cleared with teargas and a mass action of police. Over a hundred people have been arrested and many are still unaccounted for. You can read Amnesty International’s press release for more on this. Hotels were gassed, hospitals hosed and today it seem that even volunteer doctors were being arrested. It would be easy to demonize the police’s excessive force, but several reports have now come out about the appalling working conditions the non-unionized riot police (and the police in general) are forced to serve under. Elif Batuman, who writes for the New Yorker, drew my attention to this when I read her piece, Lost In Taksim. There’s also a piece in The Guardian worth a look.
The question remains, though, about why the Prime Minister, the man ultimately responsible for the tough actions is so adamant and angry about widespread pot-banging and a largely peaceful protest, and why he would spew all this strange rhetoric against foreign media and interests, espousing the idea that there are shadowy circles and envious groups out there not wanting Turkey to succeed. Well for one, it’s often been an effective (not to mention incredibly ugly) tool in Turkey to blame minorities and stir up conspiracy theories when feeling threatened. In addition to the police, somebody else might need a time-out, as he’s demonstrating an inability to think clearly. It might be that he’s too used to hearing, “Yes, sir.” That’s the central premise of Professor Ian Robertson’s compelling theory: Ten Year Illness, a syndrome where the prolonged wielding of great power for a decade or more simply undermines one’s ability to think critically and make good decisions, thanks to a damaging neuro-chemical addiction. There’s also the possibility that Mr Erdogan hasn’t really caught up with the era he’s in, and despite claiming that he’s a servant and not a sultan, he’s still fighting an old battle in his mind. — that of secular elites attacking the Islamic establishment from which he draws his power base. For a compelling read, drop by Hugh Pope’s blog, and read Some old battles never die background on the Ottoman Barracks Mr Erdogan was so inspired to replicate at the expense of one of the city centre’s last green refuges.
Still, there’s hope. All around the city including in Yeniköy, where I now sit many locals, including a woman with a headscarf, are banging pots and pans to show their disapproval about last night’s attack. Everywhere is Taksim, they chant. When a police car rolled by, the officers simply smiled and waved. We may all be a minority, but eventually that minority will make enough noise, and someone in charge could choose to really listen and not react with violence. It’s time.
One of the many things that has been remarkable about this uprising is its ability to unite people from different backgrounds, interests and needs. The aspect that seems to run across the board and unite them too is the humour and creativity that they use in order to rise up and fight back. It’s probably not what’s said about the Prime Minister that really gets to him, but the fact that despite being tear-gassed and water-cannoned, many still won’t take him seriously. His victims find new ways to celebrate and laugh, to take the sting out of his vindictive anger and then share it across the internet. True creativity depends upon finding new ways to express a universal truth. While the story presented may or may not be factually accurate, a successful joke or story gives us a new way to connect with people by allowing us to feel the storyteller in a way that seems genuine. While Mr. Erdogan and his camp get very ‘creative’ with the facts of this uprising, he spouts such obvious untruths — involving Jewish conspiracies and foreign agents, for starters — that he simply makes himself look all the more ridiculous. Everything from his descriptions of the people involved in the uprising, that they are çapulcu (bums/louts/pillagers) to the number of trees he’s planted while in office, and his ideas on democracy, creates more weapons that backfire on him and further damage his credibility. Everyday dozens of new songs, new pop-culture references (in Turkish, English and a variety of other languages) as well as performances and jokes are staged at the Prime Minister’s expense. The only person who certainly can’t be laughing or getting in on the fun is the Prime Minister. While he remains angry and defiant, the protestors stay good natured and friendly. While Erdogan insults them and their aims with stern warnings and grave disdain, they roll about on the grass laughing, finding new ways to channel the facts of their oppression into different forms of expression that resonate with the one thing he lacks: truth. Perhaps if Mr Erdogan understood the importance of creativity and fun, especially among the young, he wouldn’t have lost so many hearts in the first place.
Could this be the most civil of civil uprisings? Not that I have a great deal of experience with such happenings, but indulge me if I’m inclined to think so. With the exception of insults hurled at Turkey’s Prime Minister, everyone behind the Occupy Gezi Park movement is being remarkably kind and relaxed. Before entering the AKM Building (Atatürk Cultural Centre) through a break in the hoarding, a dangling cardboard sign warns that the structure is not strong and you might think twice about entering. Incidentally, this building was once used as a vantage point for snipers in the 1970s to target left-wing protestors and is now being used for this generation’s resistance to hang banners and host jazz performances aimed at uplifting today’s protestors — a nice bit of irony. Not that there’s much need. Nothing seems able to stop this jubilant crowd. All around Taksim their are people of every political stripe and ideology, along with the apolitical and simply fed-up, doing something remarkable. They’re sharing a space, and not grudgingly, but willingly.
Istanbul’s graffiti-splattered centre of Taksim is something to behold. Beside the insults aimed at Turkey’s Prime Minister, there is some praise. One message is a heartfelt thanks to the Prime Minister for giving the unsigned the time of her life. It’s entirely un-ironic, too, because this protest movement really has energized Turkey’s disparate and “wasted” youth like nothing before. Armed with smartphones and Twitter, which Turkey’s Prime Minister has denounced as a menace to society, 20-something hip-chicks stand tank-topped and bare-shoulder to shoulder with working class men with wife-beaters gleaming beneath their short sleeved dress shirts. People from all strata of society are celebrating, or participating somehow in the celebrations. A woman in an a-la-Turca headscarf vends Guy Fawkes masks while she sports one strapped to the back of her headdress. Hard hats are being sold for 10TL (approx. $6US). Fortunately last night the air was thick with köfte smoke, and not tear gas, until about 8:30PM when the troubles seemed to resume. From below the hillside of Gezi Park a great billowing of smoke issued and the assembled lounging on the grass suddenly leapt to their feet. However it was a false alarm and only a well timed prank by the only serious hooligans of this movement, Çarsı, the Beşiktaş football fan club, who have served as the front line soldiers of the real civil insurrection. Once it became clear that the cloud billowing toward the park was nothing more than smoke from their fireworks, they were greeted like victorious war heroes, and by many people with affiliations to rival football clubs such as Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. I have never heard or seen anything like it. The mood was palpable. Perhaps in an unjust society, it’s only the outlaws who feel free to come to the rescue. In fact, one of the reasons for last night’s relative calm on the streets, one of the Gezi Park protest organizers told me, was that Çarsı and the police had made a gentleman’s agreement not to encroach on one another’s positions near the Prime Minister’s office.
At Gezi Park there’s a broad base of different people with widely varying ideals who are well organized and equipped. They are anything but a rag-tag group of looters as Mr Erdogan would have his voters believe. There are first-aid centres and people on megaphones keeping routes clear in the event of injuries. No rock concert was ever so well planned or so civil. People who bump into one another apologize and clap each other on the back. People clean up their own trash —even cigarette butts. People pass around savoury cookies. When I ask an exhausted looking man sitting in a chair by the makeshift Gümüşsuyu barricades if he minds me taking a picture which includes him, he says “No, no more, please.” When I respond, “Cover your eyes then,” he replies, “Okay.”
You could say that Mr Erdogan has made a lot of people’s day. He’s turned hundreds of thousands of people from the petty everyday grievances and the stresses of city living, and given them something they might not have felt they had in a long time, if ever: purpose. And with it, even better, perhaps, is the accompanying sense of hope, unity and kindness that’s made this movement so successful so far. So perhaps everyone should thank Mr Erdogan. He’s given a broad group of disenfranchised people their opportunity to earn something they didn’t feel before, from within and without. That’s respect.
Yesterday people of all sorts gathered to continue the celebration of a victory in Taksim Square and Gezi Park. Left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative, nationalist, socialist … you name them. There was a constant flow of Turkish citizens of every age, ethnicity and subculture. There are banners with socialist slogans, nationalist slogans flying next to the rainbow GLBT flags everywhere. People pose to have their pictures taken on burned-out police cars and buses, while some diligent protestors sweep up the rubble and debris nearby. Some of it is theirs, some of it the police’s. However, this feels like a major victory for peaceful protestors who were violently abused by their police force and government (see previous post). It’s a strange victory, though, because it’s not being acknowledged as a defeat by the man and he government they took on. What started as a minor protest for a small park has rolled across the city and now the Republic. The defeated, however, aren’t acknowledging their first major blow in years. Why? Is it a case of denial? Or a strange case of not needing to? Perhaps it’s both.
Despite popular uprisings and protests all across Turkey, you could be forgiven if you thought it was business as usual if you were limited to watching Turkish language, local television. On CNN International, the lead stories include the protests all across Turkey. Turn to CNN Türk, for a more local perspective, and you can watch a documentary on penguins. To some extent this media silence is understandable, if unforgivable. Not only are most of the major media outlets owned by big business, who may or may not have their hands in the government’s pockets, but right now Turkey also has the distinction of having jailed more journalists in recent years than just about any other so-called “democratic” country in the region, if not the world. In fact, even more than China and Iran. Although many newspaper columnists lambasted the ruling AKP and its leader, Mr Erdogan, yesterday, broadcast TV has been mostly silent, except to air the Prime Minister’s statements of condemnation. Those have been some pretty incredible statements too.
In addition to referring to peaceful protestors as marauders, The Prime Minister — in what has to be one of the strangest interpretations of democracy I’ve heard in years — has stated that the dissent is anti-democratic because he was elected. Apparently a peaceful protest about the total lack of public consultation regarding a public space is unacceptable to Mr Erdogan. What people are protesting is not just the destruction of the last green spaces in the city, but a bizarre project involving an Ottoman Barracks/shopping mall, which would likely be built by a contractor friendly to the government. The Guardian/Observer ran a piece on this issue yesterday.
What’s been more frightening, though, are statements like this, published in the online edition of the WSJ: ‘“Don’t compete with us…. If you gather 200,000 people, I can gather a million…. This event has been escalated beyond the park and become ideological,” Mr. Erdogan said of the protests, which intensified dramatically on Friday. “The police were there yesterday, they are there today, and will be there tomorrow…because Taksim cannot be a square where extremists run wild.”‘
I can tell you, firsthand, that there wasn’t a policeman in sight in Gezi Park or Taksim Square yesterday. It’s hard for me to remain dispassionate or clear-eyed even now that I’ve fully flushed the tear gas from my eyes with milk provided to me by a protestor on Saturday morning. This country is the birthplace of my wife, and the city of Istanbul the birthplace of my daughter. I’ve always admired the great physical courage of Turks, male or female, but what I admire most right now is the fact for the first time in eight years I’ve actually seen people from all different persuasions and ideologies, people who would not normally talk to one another, stand up to a man who appears to think democracy is a popularity contest he only has to win every five years while he divvies up public property in whatever manner he sees fit. He’s now claiming that there was no clear plan for a shopping mall, and that a mosque and possible opera house are in the works, and that he will do what he likes. You can read this in Hurriyet Daily.
This might be a canny move. Opposing a mosque, needed or not, will be far more divisive than opposing a shopping mall. The struggle is far from over. The question is: Can Mr Erdogan be stopped? He seems pretty confident that his opposition doesn’t have the votes to issue a real challenge. For now, he might be right. For an extremely well written, dispassionate analysis of the situation as it stands, I’d recommend Alexander Christie-Miller’s piece posted in the Bulent Journal. Last night protest continued to rage in Beşiktaş and across the nation. While Turkish TV, with the exception of Halk TV, remained largely quiet on the troubles. Meanwhile people honked their horns, banged on pots and shouted out their dissatisfaction. Tonight will likely be no different.
There are better pictures. There are more insightful commentaries. The reason I’m posting this is that, today, I witnessed firsthand brutality against people who did nothing more than hurl insults at their government. The following is from my small perspective — but, I saw perfectly clearly before the tear gas canisters fired down over my head — there were no Molotov cocktails, no rocks, there was no looting, danger to the general public or private property, or even to the police who were ordered to the street. Shopkeepers were mostly supportive of the protestors. The only immediate danger was to a small group of people and innocent bystanders, for sticking their necks out against a narrow-minded, secluded group of individuals who seem to think that 57% approval justifies a violent crackdown on any kind of dissent. This is not about Islam versus secularism. This is not about ideology. This is about abuse of power.