Istanbul journal: Three days of Erdogan

Istanbul journal: Three days of Erdogan

The official version of events is that the protests in Taksim Square are over and peace is restored to Turkey. But on the streets, a different story is being told, and the struggle for power rages on. By OLIVIA WALTON.

Friday evening and I am on a ferry, again, to Taksim. The city is itself: orange and blue, distracting. Elif, sitting next to me, tells me she had not seen Istanbul’s beauty until the protests began.

Now I see the city, the people, and they are so beautiful,” she says. “We don’t trust the mainstream media anymore. We want to know what really happens with the Kurds. I have hope.”

The square was busy, the park was crowded: all of it was bright and loud, as it had been in the days before the police came back on Tuesday. The protestors had dealt with that round of gas, and were back. Braced. An old man with a beard to his waist sat on an upside down burned out car holding a toy penguin. Penguins have been the symbol of the protestors since CNN Turkey screened a penguin documentary while police attacked Gezi Park on the first weekend of violence. Meanwhile, that other symbol – the riot policemen in white helmets – stood in loose groups near their TOMAs.

Saturday, and I am in the living room of an opposition journalist and her husband. She tells me of her newspaper’s attempts to warn people of the gradual changes the AKP had been making for ten years or more.

Are you aware, we asked people. Are you aware your liberties are being restricted? They laughed at us, they said, What are you talking about?”

She tells me of imprisoned generals, Kurdish dissenters , and journalists – including her editor – and of court cases against artists. The composer Fazil Say faces a potential eighteen months in prison for quoting Omar Khayyám, an eleventh-century Persian poet, on Twitter.

Photo: Anti-government protesters collect stones from hand to hand to strengthen a barricade in Istanbul June 16, 2013. REUTERS/Serkan Senturk

You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you? You say two huris [companions] await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?”

To say such a thing is to degrade the religion, according to Turkish law. Doesn’t Turkey’s constitution protect the secularism of the state? I ask. The AKP, says this woman whose tea I am drinking and whose outrage fills her every quiet word, want to change that.

So I ask her – a journalist here for more than forty years – where this is all going.

I do not know,” she says. She looks at me. “But do not go to Taksim tomorrow. Bad things are going to happen there.”

Some hours later we are in Topkapi’s shade, watching the light fade across the Bosphorous. Dogs sleep on lawns patrolled by men with automatic rifles. At the tables around us are well-dressed men and women – linen, pearls – eating dinner; we are about to go into the St Irene basilica, to watch a German chamber orchestra and a Russian violinist. It is delicious and absurd and I have to laugh; slowly, slowly, Istanbul has made me believe that this is just the way things are.

Photo: Anti-government protesters hold a Turkish flag which bears a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in central Istanbul June 15, 2013. Turkish riot police stormed an Istanbul park at the heart of two weeks of protest against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday, firing tear gas and water cannon and sending hundreds scurrying into surrounding streets. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

In between passing around roast aubergine and complaining of stale bread, the talk is of Erdogan’s rally in Ankara. My friend leans over to a man at the next table, another journalist. He shakes his head as he talks to her. She turns back to us.

He says it was very bad, very bad. Erdogan said the park must be cleared, and if it is not then he takes no responsibility for what happens.”

A lie so blatant and so familiar – a prime minister not responsible for his police force – is a political trick, a piece of bombastic machismo. It was an attempt to deny the reality of Taksim Sqaure and Gezi Park as they stood on Saturday, camping protestors and police in riot gear both waiting to know what their government would do. Erdogan was giving those police free rein; and he was, again, dismissing the possibility of dissent. Bums and marginals, as he calls them, are not a part of his scheme of Turkish democracy. Democracy is a once-every-three years affair.

Photo: Supporters of Tayyip Erdogan rise hands during a rally of ruling AK party in Istanbul June 16, 2013. Tens of thousands of Erdogan’s supporters massed at a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, as riot police fired tear gas to break up pockets of anti-government protesters in the city center several kilometers away. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

We go into the concert. The basilica is Byzantine, older than the Bible. Mehmet the Conqueror – he who changed the Hagia Sofia into a mosque and made Constantinople Istanbul – kept this place a church so that his Greek mother had somewhere to pray. Rings of yellow and blue painted by an unsteady hand circle the apex of the dome above my head. Pigeons search for footholds as the orchestra plays.

At the interval I walk to the gates of the Sultan’s courtyard and look for the moon. There are explosions somewhere half-distant; fireworks, I think. Not gas, not yet.

In the second half, the Russian soloist dissolves all thought from my mind and I can see nothing but the red bricks and the violin and his face.

It is half past nine when we walk out. My friend comes up to me. She is almost in tears. In the hour we had been inside, the police – who we all thought would wait until Sunday, even Monday – had cleared Gezi Park with gas and water cannon. Everybody was out.

Sunday afternoon I was sitting in a flat near Taksim watching Erdogan speak. In the sun, wearing white caps and waving the flag, stood thousands of his supporters. His soldiers, as he calls them. “Speak” is an ill-fitting word. In some moments he was almost chanting, so rhythmic was his tone and so fixed the expression on his face. He would hit a groove, let himself get louder, strike the air with his hand as he delivered some punchline to great cheers – and then stop, and in a quiet voice ask his people a question. Sometimes, they would laugh. The only way to see the whole crowd was from cameras mounted on helicopters.

As in Ankara on Saturday, the AKP had organised free transport. It had sent out text messages and phone calls to the people. Your Prime Minister is calling upon you. I had tried to get home to Kadiköy, but the trams were closed – at six in the evening. So were most of the ferries. Police were even blocking the bridge, stopping people trying to get to Taksim from the Asian side. There is no need to spell it out. Some people’s voices count; others’ do not.

Photo: Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally organized by his Justice and Development Party in Ankara June 15, 2013. Erdogan warned protesters occupying a central Istanbul park that they should leave before a ruling party rally on Sunday or face eviction by the security forces. REUTERS/Stringer

So, stranded, I went back to that room full of people, some painting their nails, others reading, some eating – but all watching Erdogan. The scenes on the television were an anomaly; I tried not to think of Hitler. Too extreme. Calm down. Occasionally someone would laugh or tut. I asked for translations.

Look at him, how he is dressed like the people,” says one girl as the camera zooms onto Erdogan’s sweaty face and his blue plaid shirt.

He is calling the protestors terrorists.”

It’s just bullshit. Stupid things. It means nothing.”

He says the police have given Gezi Park back to the people.”

Later we closed the windows as the gas came rolling down from Taksim.

Even before this rally – this display of force, or of paranoia, take your pick – people had told me Erdogan was insane. Sick, even. I thought, at first, that they were exaggerating. Illustrating a point. Now, I am not so sure. His is not the language of democracy. It is the language of a strongman, a man seemingly unafraid to escalate what started off as a peaceful demonstration to the level of a street war.

The protests “were nothing more than the minority’s attempt to dominate the majority,” Reuters quoted him as saying. Last week’s talks between government and Taksim Solidarity, then, seem like a farce. A red herring.

And note the easy slip into past tense. The protests, he implies, are over.

Strange, then, that I can hear the nine o’ clock ruckus of pots and spoons and cars and whistles start up as I write this. Daily the housewives and taxi drivers register their discontent. Strange too, that two of Turkey’s biggest unions, KESK and DISK, called a strike today, in reaction to what happened this weekend. That minority he spoke of – which, according to the last election, is about fifty percent of voters – does not agree with Tayyip.


Because as we sat there watching Erdogan try to calm his own fears the police were gassing hotels were protestors hid. They gassed hospitals, and arrested doctors. There are photographs of children in gas masks being carried to relative safety. And those are just the clearest signifiers of brutality, the ones that get our attention. Behind them are scores of young men, some in civilian clothes carrying batons. Who do they support? Who are they fighting? Who will look for them if they are detained, and where will they be taken? Chaos lurks and the state is cultivating it. The movement, and its spirit of inclusivity and dialogue, risks being drowned in it. That would suit Mr Erdogan very nicely.

I sit now in a hot room and think of this and think about yesterday, in South Africa. Yesterday in 1976 the Apartheid government crossed a line; it was no longer afraid to spill the blood of children and students. To think that this is what the AKP is now willing to allow should turn us all cold. I am not comparing Turkey to Apartheid South Africa. The AKP is not using live ammunition, and can claim the support of a large portion of the population.

What I am saying is that this government has – like the Nats – underestimated its own people. In Gezi Park young people who had never had a political conscience found a shared space to talk and to think and to protest. That space is something they are willing to fight for, something journalists, women, Kurds and all the other groups Erdogan has dismissed as “marginals” have spent decades fighting for.

And so it is not about Erdogan. It is about how we organise our societies. Listen to the language of Erdogan and the AKP, read the accounts of protestors, and you are forced to reconsider what “democracy” means for the actual mechanics of running a city, or a country. Noam Chomsky describes anarchism as the belief that all systems of leadership and domination must be regarded with skepticism, and must be justified. If they cannot justify themselves, they must be replaced with a system or a leader that can. That’s all it is: dialogue and flexibility.

The pyrotechnics of the last few weeks is, then, a kind of anarchy: not chaos, not skinheads with Molotov cocktails, but a naked and increasingly desperate question to the leaders of Turkey. What is this power you are so convinced is yours, and why are you using it against us? DM

Photo: A demonstrator is surrounded by riot police during an anti-government protest in central Istanbul late June 15, 2013. Turkish riot police stormed an Istanbul park at the heart of two weeks of protest against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday, firing tear gas and water cannon and sending hundreds scurrying into surrounding streets. Picture taken June 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer


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