A fortuitous set of circumstances in mid-May gave me the chance to spend a week in Istanbul at the end of June. As soon as I made my arrangements, though, Istanbul erupted in demonstrations against the government. I considered not going. For about 2.3 seconds. I remembered Madagascar, where I visited in the middle of a full-scale (but quiet) uprising against the then-dictator. It was absolutely the most interesting moment to go there, and I knew I'd feel the same about Istanbul. And while I wanted to explore the city and its sights, I wanted most of all to drink in all I could of this intriguing new Turkish flavour.
What's it called, though? Protest? Democracy? #occupygezi?
And so: Saturday, June 29, about 4:45 pm. I had been wandering through Istanbul all day, mostly on foot (what a great city to explore on foot). There was to be a demonstration at Taksim at five that evening. I leaped off the ferry from the Asian side at the Kabataş dock and raced for the Metro station. A contorted two-car funicular train goes steeply up the hill, all underground, from there to Taksim. It was strangely silent as I emerged from below, and I wondered briefly: Did I get the time wrong? Are they finished? Have the police cleared the square?
Then I looked around. Long lines of evenly spaced men, most in sneakers, jeans, tees and tunics with "POLIS" on them. These are Istanbul's finest? I mean, really, these fellows who look like your average layabouts on the street with nothing to do? Where are the cops I saw in innumerable photographs, the Darth Vader look-alikes?
Meanwhile, these POLIS fellows turn away folks who try to walk into some parts of the square. Not me, though, for reasons unknown. I walk past them and they pay me no mind.
And then I see the guys from the photographs. They are massed on the street corner in the distance. They are streaming around the nondescript grey building at one end of Taksim that has an enormous Kemal banner and the Turkish flag draped over it – like something out of Cuba. They are massed at the other end too, along a wall, with their misshapen water-cannon vehicles on either side. They are here in numbers, the Darth Vader types, these Istanbul cops, carrying shields, helmets, gas masks, batons and – some of them – even a frightening gun, and if I meant a revolver I'd have said so. No, this is a tear-gas gun.
And roiling all around them and across the square, a crowd of Turks – oh, how I'm tempted to say 'Young Turks', since most of them are just that, young – chanting, chatting, cheering, smiling, shouting, singing.
It was not always like this, of course, and it will not always be. Earlier demonstrations in Taksim square, as later ones, too, have been met with water cannons and tear gas, and I imagine those may not have been as cheerful. But while those measures got demonstrators to stock up on gas masks, goggles, whistles and helmets, they also brought the Turkish PM, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a whole lot of criticism. Maybe that didn't bother him, I don't know. But it also pushed the opposition to him into a positively unwieldy coalition of groups. Hard to see them sticking together, I'll admit, and most Turks I chatted with had the same worry.
But what if they did?
I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of Turkish politics and history. A few things, however, I do know.
One, Kemal Atatürk rode his war successes (the brutal Gallipoli campaign and elsewhere) to become leader of his country. He used that bully pulpit to bodily drag Turkey from the shadow of a fading Ottoman Empire and into his idea of modernity: secular, scientific and European in outlook. Two, this in part meant Kemal's notion of one Turkey, subsuming all other identities and nationalities. Three, also partly, that meant a secularism that Turkey has lived with for most of a century now, if imperfectly (as several Turks told me; for example, the Alevi sect has always been oppressed). Four, there came pushbacks to these impositions. Turkey's thorny tangle with its Kurd minority is rooted in a refusal to acknowledge their distinct identity and rights. Turkey's genocide of the Armenians – over a million killed during and after World War I, also unacknowledged – festers even today (as it rightly should).
Five, Erdoğan became Prime Minister in 2002 and has spent two terms in office trying to reshape Turkey again with what are often described as 'sweeping reforms'. In the 40 previous years, the army had staged coups four times. Erdoğan managed to water down the power of the army. This brought him a degree of support from a wide cross-section of his country. But as the years passed, certain things he did, remarks he made, set off alarms. Writing for Reuters, Humeyra Pamuk and Ece Toksabay observed: "Critics, outside the party and some within, had grown increasingly uneasy at what they felt to be [his] authoritarian style."
And then Gezi Park, a green area bordering Taksim square: Protesting plans to demolish the park – earthmovers were nibbling noisily at it even when I visited – several people camped there in May. The standoff might conceivably have ended quietly – as protests by easily-labeled 'environmentalists' sometimes do – if Erdoğan had tackled it with some tact and sensitivity. Instead, he saw fit to call the protesters names and unleash the police on them with water guns and teargas. The effect was quite the opposite of what was intended: the protests widened, the coalition deepened.
A professor at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul (nameless, here, at her request), explained the unease Erdoğan stimulates when I met her in her office. In his first term, she said, his government acknowledged the Kurd identity, adopting what she called a "soft approach" towards them. At election time, though, he switched back to the old "hard approach". Besides, he has pushed through new laws that limit the use of alcohol and reproductive rights. For example, abortions after the fourth week of pregnancy are no longer permitted. "At the height of the protests," wrote Pamuk and Toksabay, "he appeared to appeal increasingly to the Islamist and nationalist core of his party, further alienating secularists and other groups."
"This is crazy!" the professor exclaimed to me, of Erdoğan's response to the protests. The real threat to Turkey, she said, is not the Kurds, not the threat of breaking up. Instead, it is and always has been a creeping authoritarian tendency. "This prime minister", she said, "is like an embodiment of this fear."
Yet despite this fear, the protesters' most visible weapon against Erdoğan, at least to this outsider, seemed to be their quick wit. The best-known example of this is the suddenly famous word that I first saw that evening on a passing woman’s T-shirt: "Everyday I am a çapulcu".
Several vendors were selling T-shirts with variations on that theme. I invested in one: "Original Çapulcu", it said, with an arrow pointing to the head.
"Çapulcu" ("cha-pul-ju"), a Turkish word meaning ‘vandal’, ‘looter’ or ‘riffraff’, shot to fame when Erdoğan tried to insult the protesters thus on June 2nd: "We cannot just watch some çapulcu inciting our people.” It backfired: the protestors swiftly embraced the word and now wear it proudly. They have even produced a Wikipedia page on the endeavour of Chapulling.
There was more. Another T-shirt said, "Repeat after me: I am free!", making fun of every demagogue's desire to pronounce how their particular regime is really a democracy. A man leaned ostentatiously out of a first floor hotel window to wave to the cops and take photographs; he wore only a hardly-there pair of briefs. Another man, somewhat fleshy and sweaty, held up a sign announcing "FREE HUGS"; I didn't see anyone availing of the offer. One large poster had a muzzled cartoon penguin on it, and everyone who saw it and laughed knew just what it referred to. Instead of covering the events of the first day of the Gezi Park protests, the TV channel CNN-Turk famously chose to broadcast a documentary about penguins instead.
Two young women had been on the Metro with me and then melted into the crowd in Taksim. Later, I saw two young men spraying each other with water from large Sprite bottles with holes in their caps. Within minutes, the same two women popped up and joined in, equipped with brightly-coloured water-pistols, the ones familiar to Indians as Holi-time pichkaris. A few minutes more, and a middle-aged couple was in the mix. Then a short wrinkled woman with white hair. A twenty-something man in shorts and a red shirt charged repeatedly into the fray, roaring, growling and firing his pichkari off his hip. Also a man who wore a Turkish flag like a cape, for all the world like an urban toreador.
Yes: to my amazement, a full-fledged water fight had broken out and everybody was having a fabulous, if very moist, time. In short order, an enterprising vendor turned up with a large bag full of pichkaris and bottles of water, selling them at 5 lira each to folks who promptly paid up and plunged into the battle. When they finally tired, the warriors posed for a horde of photographers, panting, drenched but very happy – all this only metres from the serried ranks of stern cops.
It was an unmistakably in-your-face mocking of their trigger-happy tendencies from earlier in the protests.
As I watched, an old man came up to me, super-friendly. He said, "Turkish-Indian braathers sorry! I love Bombay. I like Indian sorry. My braather there, engineering!" Of where I was staying, he said: "Ahh, Sultanahmet no good! Here sorry much better! I coooking chef at Hilton, you come stay!" Fine, I said, but what about these people all around us? "Ah nothing!" – waving his hand in derision – "Erdoğan good man, these people finished sorry!"
But if he is a good man, why are they against him? He changed the subject. "You come with me, I show you Hilton!" He set off, beckoning as he went. I called after him politely, "No, I want to see what's happening here." At which point he pulled out his clincher: "I give you woman!"
It wasn't all fun, games and offered "women". Soon after the water fight, I made my way through the crowd across Taksim to the start of Istiklal Caddesi, the long wide pedestrian-only boulevard every Istanbul tourist strolls. For as far as I could see – and on a clear day you can see straight down Istiklal for nearly a couple of kilometres – there were people carrying banners, posters, books and flags. People with gas masks and goggles, ready in case the cops got happy with their triggers; people breaking into a routine of jumping up and down together; people carrying boom-boxes playing Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier. People shouting slogans: "Hükümet Istifa!" (“Government resign!”, of course), "Faşizme karşı omuz omuza!" ("Together against fascism!") and many more.
The walls along Istiklal had been covered with graffiti during previous protests, the professor had told me, all of which the authorities scrubbed clean. Today, more graffiti appeared, some of it in real time. An old man stopped at the corner where I was stationed and, with a permanent marker, deftly sketched a man on the wall. Judging from the derision it drew, it had to be Erdoğan. Later, I asked a woman what the slogans were and what they meant. She wrote out "Faşizme karşı omuz omuza!" in my diary, then stopped. "But who are you?" she asked. When I told her I was a visiting Indian, she said, "You understand, in these times I have to be sure."
I must have stood at that corner for close to two and a half hours. Streaming past into Taksim, the crowd never thinned in all that time. Worried about how the massed police would react, I bought myself goggles and a gas "mask" – really just one of those little paper circles with elastic attached that doctors use – from, yes, another enterprising vendor who wouldn't budge from his price of 12 lira for both. Seemed extravagant. Perhaps that's why a woman nearby had a better idea: ready for use, draped around her neck, was a folded bra. Did she get a chance to put it to innovative use, and if so, did it work? I didn’t get to see.
Just beyond her stood two young women, arm-in-arm, kissing each other from time to time. I had heard from friends in Istanbul how this upsurge against the government had also drawn in gays and lesbians and given them the confidence to express themselves. And indeed, the next evening there was a colourful, flamboyant and just as huge rally in Taksim and down Istiklal, dominated by queer people.
Here, in these women in love, was a small and strangely moving sign of that new confidence.
For me, the really encouraging thing about the protests in Istanbul is the degree to which it both brings people together and encourages conversations that have not happened for far too long. The June 29th rally, for example, was prompted by the police shooting of a young Kurd protester in the eastern city of Lice. The crowd seeking justice for him was not just Kurds – which would have been the case before – but Turks of every description. Including, breathtakingly, Kemalists. After all, Ataturk's vision was of a Turkey where everyone is Turk and nothing else. For them to show solidarity with Kurds is delicious irony indeed.
In the same way, people are now discussing the Armenian genocide too. I was at a far smaller evening meeting (one of many so-called 'forums') in nearby Macka ("Mach-ka") Park, where one speaker said that this was not the time to be discussing such issues – meaning the Kurds, the Armenians. He was greeted with a chorus of groans and fists held up in a cross. "No," a man got up to reply, "This is exactly what we must discuss!"
In some ways, this was the most telling, profound thing I heard in Istanbul. The willingness to grapple with the peculiar conundrums of Turkey, some of which have defied even mention for so long, marks this as a vibrant, purposeful movement. Erdoğan might do well to worry.
And this is why it was easy, in Istanbul in late June, to believe that this is a seminal moment for modern Turkey. Maybe it is. I hope it is. For you could doubt it all only a few dozen metres off Istiklal, or further afield in the tourist hangouts of Sultanahmet and Eminönü, in the old districts of Eyüp and Üsküdar.
Wandering these areas, lunching at little outdoor cafes, quaffing fresh orange juice or munching on an ear of corn, it became hard to imagine that anything unusual, let alone a seminal moment, was underway elsewhere in the city, that I had attended those raucous rallies. There was normalcy, of a sort, everywhere. Some foreign writers were quick to assure readers that this was a minor glitch in Istanbul's overriding tourist project. It hardly affected the average visitor to the city, they said, and so was best ignored.
Maybe so. But this average visitor was affected. He's glad.
Dilip D’Souza writes to keep his cats fed. This pursuit has resulted in four books (most recently, "The Curious Case of Binayak Sen" and "Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America".) and several writing awards (the Newsweek/Daily Beast Prize and the Outlook/Picador prize, among others). The cats seem happy. Follow him at https://twitter.com/DeathEndsFun
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