Istanbul Rising

AP Images/ Kaan Saganak

ISTANBUL—As I finished checking into my hotel Sunday in Istanbul’s Sisli neighborhood, a few miles from the Taksim area that has been the epicenter of recent protests rocking Turkey, the hotel clerk, without being asked, pulled out and opened a city map. I expected the usual ritual: He would point out the key points of tourist interest, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar, and so on, and I would thank him.

But he didn’t. Instead, he drew a circle around Taksim. “This is where the protests are,” he said, looking at me conspiratorially.

“You going later?” I asked.

“Yes,” he nodded. “We go every day.”

The night before I arrived, in what many acknowledged was the worst night of violence yet, the police had descended on Gezi Park—the small green space next to Taksim Square whose imminent bulldozing sparked the protests initially—with water cannon and tear gas in an attempt to clear out protesters. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently gave protesters 24 hours to vacate the park, declaring that the government has “reached the end of its patience” with the demonstrations.

I had the taxi driver drop me in Karakoy, and began the trudge up the steep hill leading to Istiklal Avenue, the historic promenade that terminates at Taksim Square. Activists were distributing protest gear: plastic hard hats, swimming goggles, and the now-ubiquitous-at-protests Guy Fawkes masks.

As I got a few steps past Galata Tower, I heard shouting up ahead, and got my first whiff of tear gas. A few people panicked and started running down the hill, but most continued on.

Holding a handkerchief to my face, I stopped for a moment to gaze at American-made Fender and Gibson guitars in a favorite music shop. When I was here with my family in March, this is where we stood and watched an old Turkish gentleman tear off a roaring blues on a sweet butterscotch Telecaster. It was amazing to see these streets that I walked with my wife and daughters only weeks ago now transformed, with many of the shops closed behind steel shutters.

Near the Tunel, the entrance to old underground rail line connecting Karakoy with Beyoglu (the world’s oldest after London’s Underground), protesters began constructing a barricade out of pieces of scaffold, garbage cans, and boards they tore off of buildings. One protester gently placed a potted flower atop the pile.

I continued up Istiklal and met an enormous wall of tear gas. I turned onto one of the narrow little side streets, which turned out to funnel and concentrate the gas quite effectively. Some younger protesters stood around an old man who was vomiting.

The police began pushing protesters back down the hill to Karakoy. I found refuge, and wifi, in a café next to Galata Tower, where I ordered a beer. On television, Erdogan, clad in a flannel shirt that seemed intended to evoke fatherliness, addressed an enormous rally of AK Party supporters. As a crowd fled past the café, the owners began closing the steel shutters so the cops wouldn’t charge in and start arresting people, as they had done elsewhere. Soon the tear gas began seeping in, so all of us adjourned upstairs to finish our beers and cry together.

One of my new comrades raised his glass to me, I returned his toast and asked him if he spoke English. He did. I asked him what he thought about all this. He answered by asking what I thought was going on.

“Seems to me like a lot of people are fed up with the way Erdogan’s been governing the country, and it finally boiled over,” I said.

He nodded. “Yes. Erdogan wants to be a dictator.”

“The government’s strategy is to keep the protesters divided, so that no one can see how big the crowds are,” he told me. “They don’t want anyone to be able to compare it to the size of the pro-government rally going on, which the government is providing buses for people to go to.” 

Later, a friend told me that even in his mother’s well-to-do suburb, the banging of the pots and pans in solidarity with the protests took place every night without fail. At dinner with other friends on the Asian side of Istanbul, the banging began right at 9 P.M, the lady of the house clanging a fork on the side of a steel bowl bearing salad greens from her garden.  

But how broad-based is this thing, really? Does it augur a new era of liberal opposition to the AK Party, or is it, as many of its critics claim, simply the complaining of secular liberals who are frustrated that modern Turkey doesn’t reflect their particular preferences?

My question while I was there was whether the demonstrations, which everyone I spoke to seemed to recognize as historical, would produce any real leaders who would then make a move into formal politics, as, for example, Stav Shaffir, a leader of the 2011 J-14 “tent protests” in Israel who went on to become the youngest member of the Knesset in Israel’s history.

One Turkish friend told me that he doubted that many of the protesters would even vote in the promised referendum on Gezi Park.

As for Erdogan, his approval ratings may have taken a slight ding, but still remain over 50 percent. And he’s making sure people, especially his own people, understand that.

According to one Turkish journalist I spoke to, a key audience for the series of rallies that Erdogan had held since returning from North Africa the previous week was his own AK Party leadership. “Erdogan was showing them who’s in charge,” he said, just in case any other AK Party leaders had any ideas about exploiting the unrest and challenging him.

Late Monday night as I headed back to my hotel after a meeting, I told the driver to take me to Gezi Park. At first he tried to warn me off, but I persisted.

The park was eerily quite when we pulled up, surrounded by hundreds of police sitting around at its entrances looking quite un-thrilled to be pulling overtime at 1:30 A.M. In adjacent Taksim Square, a crowd was milling about, quietly talking. A small group stood motionless and silent, facing the enormous portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, which adorns the Cultural Center facing the square.

At around 2 A.M., the police moved in, arresting about ten people who refused to move on. I learned later that the “standing protest” began with a performance artist named Erdem Gunduz, who had begun his vigil at around 6 P.M. that day.

By Tuesday, hundreds more had followed his lead, an army of stock-still dissenters in the center of the city, as if waiting for the next move.

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