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Culture, Reality

Two Days in Istanbul

by Olivia Walton / 15.06.2013

Tuesday, 11th June.

There is a lot of smoke over Taksim as I write this. Yes, again. The woman in the cafe says she will close early because she is going to join the protestors.

“Gezi is very crowded,” she says.

And the black smoke? “I don’t know, maybe burning plastic.”

It is evening and people are walking home, or sitting with tea and friends in cafes. The gas masks and the heavy cameras are back. For the last few days I have seen less of them, even in the park.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he will not tolerate the protestors. He had offered to talk to representatives of the protest – and a day before the meeting, sent the police back in. Now, who knows what will happen? A prime minister that offers an olive branch and then sends the police in with tear gas and water cannon has made his intention clear: this is not a dialogue.

And now, as images of protestors throwing Molotov cocktails circulate, protestors are denouncing these people as agent provocateurs – police dressed as civilians attacking “real” police in order to damage the image of the protestors. The evidence is anecdotal but, if true, is damning: in the pictures, some of the “protestors” are holding walkie-talkies. One looks as though he has a gun at his hip. The organisation – the Socialist Democracy Party (SDP) – whose flag they were waving has said they were not involved in any way. And, no protestors have thrown Molotov cocktails until today’s attack.

These are, for now, only allegations. I am in no position to judge them. It’s obvious, though, that while the mainstream media has been slow and silent, social media has to be used with caution. It is vital, but its primary function is immediate communication: not fact, not measured assessment. But it is still the quickest way of telling people what is happening, and – even in its immediacy – of holding the government accountable. As the state grows increasingly intolerant these things are vital.

Gas in Taksim

Nothing can explain away the violence that has been meted out with such ferocity against protestors. The images of the protests are more powerful than anything anybody says. But because of those images, for weeks I have been getting worried emails from family and friends asking me: are you okay? Is it safe? Can you get out if you need to? Some even offered me a ticket to London – a few short weeks after a soldier in civvies was murdered in the middle of the day on a busy street – so that I could escape “those parts.” These parts are the Middle East, aren’t they? The volatile, fundamentalist, fractured, vague Middle East.

Well, no. Here are some other things that have happened this week, in Istanbul.

In an organic fruit and vegetable shop, a man with a white moustache gave me pieces of rocket to taste, and pieces of some other spicy leafy thing. Then he pointed to a picture of some sheep, then to his own ear, and then back at the plant: koyun kulaklari, he said. I laughed and he laughed and he pointed to all three things again and I got it. Sheep’s ears. After that he gave me an apricot.

In an old soccer field on an island in the heat of midday, a group of couch surfers did yoga while crows circled overhead. Horse carts went past, and bicycles: there are no cars allowed on the islands, unless they are government cars. After yoga, we ate beneath some old trees and then swam in the bay, with its dark hills and water full of light. Boats pulled at their ropes and a boy threw half a watermelon at his friend. On the beach loud and terrible music played as someone rehearsed their wedding, but nothing touched the stillness of the water and quiet of the heat.

In the evening in Gezi Park, I sat in a circle with new friends, people I had met only that morning, and watched the crowd – the occupiers – move around us. We found the kitchen in amongst the tents, just beyond the library and the twenty-four hour vet stand. A queue of people stood waiting to be handed plates of fruit, bread, salad, stews, rice. Beyond them were boxes and boxes of donated food. We were too hungry to wait and so bought boiled mielies that were too hot to eat.

Books in Taksim

I slept in a tent and woke up at four in the morning, to people singing Turkish folk songs and playing drums. Sleep would not come back to me and so I left, saying thank you to the guy sitting outside the tent on guard duty. These people are not going to let the police ambush them in the still-dark morning again. In Taksim Square, even though sunrise was an hour or so away, the cafes were full and the mücver vendors were still cooking. All around the statue in the middle lay groups of people talking and drinking. Beer cans were squashed into the pavements.

These are the people Erdogan has described as çapulcu: bergies.

So, no, I will not be flying to London anytime soon.

Thursday, 13th June.

The police came back. The gas was so strong on Tuesday evening that I felt it as I walked home, in the quiet Cihangir streets. The explosions went on until late in the night. “It was like a war”, says Ayse, who works at a literary agency and who has been in Gezi since the start.

Wednesday was quiet. So, today, Thursday, I walk to Gezi at lunch time.

Taksim square has the feeling of a ghost town not yet emptied of people. Riot police – more than a hundred of them – do not fill the absence of groups of people sitting on blankets spread out on the road. A woman arranges her two little girls, in identical dresses, in front of some officers while another woman – an aunt, I guess – takes a photo of them. The police, handsome and very young, smile.

The Atatürk Cultural Centre has been cleared of banners: all that remains is Atatürk’s face and two Turkish flags. They almost cover the building. Starbucks has had its B replaced. Men wash graffiti off the Garanti bank next door. The barricades and the burned out vans are gone; scorch marks remain.

In the park, though, things have not changed much. It is cool and the wind is strong; it feels like rain. Like every other morning of the occupation, the protestors have cleared rubbish from the ground. The library is full, and busy. Below makeshift rain shelters students and teenagers are lying in sleeping bags.

I ask Ayse if she had been to Gezi there since Tuesday.

“Yes I was there. We waited sleepless, and hopefully they didn’t attack.” So far, they have not.

But Erdogan’s Wednesday meeting with “representatives” of the protests was not recognized by Taksim Solidarity, the loose coalition that speaks for the occupiers. The people Erdogan spoke to had been chosen not by the protestors but by the government.

“They undermined the protests,” said Sevgi Çiçek, a member of the Socialist Feminist Collective. “They said the park is dirty, that an evil eye has come over Turkey.”

Statue in Taksim

Erdogan has given the protestors a time limit; he even asked mothers and fathers to come and collect their children. The response? The mothers came. They formed a human chain around Gezi Park.

As I walked tonight, Thursday evening, I knew it was nine o clock: the streets of Kadiköy are cacophonous. Every night at the same time, women lean from windows and bang pots, taxis hoot, cats prowl and men stand on street corners and shout for Erdogan’s resignation, the people filling the restaurants and cafes bang teaspoons against glasses, dogs bark, children beat upside down mixing bowls. It goes on for half an hour or more.

Erdogan has made it very clear that he is unwilling to engage with the protestors as if their grievances are legitimate. But with each police attack, and with reports of police brutality accumulating, and with even Turkish lawyers being detained for protesting police brutality, the people in Gezi Park grow more determined.

Maybe, if Erdogan had left them alone, they would have gone home. Now, though, this is what everyone says when I ask them what will happen now: we don’t know, but it is not going to stop.

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* All images © Olivia Walton

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