Opinionista Olivia Walton 4 June 2013

Taksim Square: A protest that became part of me

There are thousands of protestors in Taksim Square right now. Erdogan and his government have decided to build a mall - in the guise of a recreated Ottoman barracks - in Gezi Park, one of central Istanbul’s only green spaces. Locals have made it clear: they do not want a mall. They want their park. Erdogan has also made his position clear: Hurriyet quotes him saying, “Do whatever you want, but we’ve made our decision.” Not quite the voice of reason.

It is a stand-off. At least twelve people have been injured. More than sixty have been arrested. Now, headlines are saying dozens have been killed. No one seems to know. There are photographs of water stained red with blood, of stray dogs running at police, of an old man with a bloodied head.

For South Africans, these things make a sick kind of sense. We understand this language, this tallying of the power of the state.

I was sitting in a cafe in Çihangir all afternoon. During the day I had been crisscrossing the city, from Moda to Sultanahmet to Çihangir, from cafe table to cafe table. I was working, so did not go online. In Çihangir, though, I sat down to read the South African newspapers. And I got a message from a Turkish friend: blood has been spilled in Taksim, and #deringeziparki is now the second-most followed tag on Twitter. So I opened a Twitter account. I followed the hashtag. As I read what people had written, I started noticing the timing: twenty-eight minutes ago, eleven minutes ago, two minutes ago. It was happening, now.

Outside, the guy who makes the coffee and the fresh juices shared a cigarette with some German backpackers. A girl slouched on the couch told someone else how to spell a certain DJ’s name. A boy and a girl in school uniform came in, and kissed each other – briefly, secretly – over the girl’s hot chocolate.

Tents were being burned, and a girl in denim shorts lay with her head bloodied. I read the stories, looked at the photographs. I arranged to meet my friend at Taksim tomorrow. Then I left.

There are not many sirens in Istanbul. In New York they are background noise, muffled by their own ubiquity. Here, I noticed their absence. But as I walked from Tophane to the Galata Bridge to catch the ferry, ambulances screamed by. Yellow taxis clogged the roads and an ambulance driver drummed his fingers on his door. The sirens went on, around and around. A pneumatic drill started next to me and my heart began to pound. I walked on, fast, to the water. The photograph of the girl lying in the ambulance, bloodied by the police, stayed with me as I passed the kebab shops and the tourists. I pictured her. Denim shorts, sandals.

Earlier I had read a Guardian column reminding us what we can learn from the protests of the past. Be brave, be extreme, mix humour with your anger. All are necessary things. But when is a protest your protest? I walked away from Taksim thinking, I don’t speak Turkish, I am not wearing shoes good for running away in, I have my iPad, my wallet, my journal. I should not go to Taksim Square. But the world works today in such a way that the imagery of protest – the girl in the denim shorts, the protestors chased out by police at dawn – comes to us before we know the details. And imagery works. The response is not rational, it is visceral: this is wrong, and if you ignore it you are complicit. There is a hypocrisy inherent in traveling to places and expecting them to be beautiful, interesting, chaotic, intoxicating – but also expecting that your political conscience stays at home.

My mother said to me, Don’t go. It is not your struggle.

But if it is not my struggle, then whose is it? Who am I if I do not see this struggle – against a government that at best ignores and at worst oppresses and attacks its own people – as my own? It’s a struggle that does not end – it continues today in South Africa, and on a far more brutal scale in Syria. It is being fought at home by organisations like Equal Education, Abahlali baseMjondolo, and the Right2Know campaign. It never seems to be over.

Until yesterday Istanbul was an imaginary place. I walked in it, watched it, but it was a mirage and I was drunk on it. Last night, the sun was setting at the end of the Golden Horn. A Turkish flag hung from one of the mosques in Sultanahmet. I wondered who had hung it there. People were fishing and walking hand-in-hand. On the ferry I found a seat along the side facing the water with my feet on the rails. The sun and the water were golden. Smoke hung above Taksim Square. And, right then, I saw it was no longer an imagined place but a real one.

Later, I was with Dilek watching the news. Istanbul’s mayor was fumbling. We just wanted to expand the sidewalk, he said. Later still they screened a beauty pageant. No reports from Taksim. But online it was everywhere: three dead, dozens arrested, four dead, maybe five. From Facebook: The gas they are using is not normal gas, it is making us dizzy, confused, we can’t control our limbs. The hotels are opening their doors to protestors in need of help, the people of Taksim are letting strangers into their homes, throwing lemons down to the crowds to soothe the burn of the gas.

A friend: It is dangerous here. Find another way to resist!

Dilek paced the house, dogs and cats scattering around her. Amy, her partner, was at Taksim. I am so worried, she said. So worried. She has been shot with a rubber bullet.

We sat up past midnight, watching and reading as news came in. Eventually I slept.

Then, at two in the morning, there was knocking on my door. I had been asleep maybe an hour.

Olivia, come, come – see the street!

I got up and we went outside onto the streets of Kadiköy. Everywhere people were walking with pots and spoons, banging on them and shouting: Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is a protest! They shouted, and cheered, and we started to follow. The crowd built. It was like a fiesta: flags tied over shoulders, people had their dogs with them, their children. Car horns blared. Two teenage girls in their pajamas stood with their mother, hitting out a rhythm on pot lids. A man posed for a photograph, his beer raised up in his fist. Alcohol – something Erdogan has been restricting – has become a small symbol of civil liberty. The crowd was maybe five hundred people strong, and they began to chant: Erdogan must resign! Erdogan must resign! Someone lit a flare and held it high. The faces around me were lit red, hazy in the smoke.

Was this what it felt like in South Africa in the 1970s, the 80s? All these old struggles that I was not part of but that are part of me – and then here I am, now, in a protest that is but is not mine, in a language I do not speak, against grievances I have only heard and never felt. What I can feel is a great energy, a positive surge of hope and excitement. Maybe this will be the day.

I think he will not sleep tonight, old Erdogan, says Dilek. DM


Watch Pauli van Wyk’s Cat Play The Piano Here!

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