Alexandra Ivanoff, Istanbul

Writing or talking about what’s going on in Turkey is like turning a kaleidoscope one small iota every time you pick it up: all the patterns shift. Things change here like that.

At the end of May, a small park (Gezi Park) in the center of Taksim Square, the nerve center of the city, was a scene of massive non-violent civil protest and resulting police attacks with tear gas, water hoses, brickbats and rubber bullets. This civil revolution created a kind of tent-city akin to Occupy Wall Street’s encampment for more than two weeks before the police gas-bombed everyone out. The Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, appeared on television (state controlled) and the print media (state controlled) to rant and rave about how the protesters were “looters” and “foreign agents.” As a result of his paranoia and inability to hear the protesters’ message, he has effectively reversed his international image as a heroic leader of a secular Muslim country to that of a demented dictator.

Because of the tight control of the media, the general population never saw the police brutality, the arrests and tear-gassing and beating of medical personnel at triage areas (this, by the way, breaks the rules of the Geneva Convention), and the message that the protesters tried to make known.

And what was the protesters’ message? We refuse to let you chop down the trees in our only park in this part of town in order to build yet another shopping mall. As of May 2103, Istanbul has over 100 luxury shopping malls, most of which have been built in the last 11 years - the length that PM Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power. All these malls are cookie-cutter look-alikes, as they rent space to all of the same global brands. Thanks to these malls, shopping “festivals” held every few months, and constant western-style advertising blitzes on television, this city has become a shopping carnival for consumers who all want to wear the same clothes, the same shoes, buy the same home furnishings, eat the same food, and more or less become clones of each other.

But the tipping point for the protesters was less about trees and more about the economic symbols involved: the land that these malls are on, and the construction companies that built the malls are all cronies or relatives of the PM. The AKP team have become real estate billionaires and most of their projects are designed to appeal to foreign investment -- primarily Arab investors and Arab tourists, a huge cash cow for the city’s coffers.

The Istanbul protests sparked protests in many other cities in Turkey, too. Many of those were more violent than Istanbul’s and suffered from lack of reportage in the international media. According to the Turkish Medical Association, there have been 5 deaths and approximately 5,000 injuries, many of them severe -- usually badly cracked skulls and bullets in the eyes. These casualty figures obviously pale in comparison to those currently in Syria, India, and African countries where near-genocidal acts are taking place. But Turkey, because of its unique geographic position (it straddles Europe and Asia), its reputation as a shiny economic success with a predominantly under-35 population, a tourist magnet with a high cultural and historical profile, and poised to join the EU and host the 2020 Olympics, is a now a spokesland and model for fighting for democracy’s promises. Within the last the last week, Brazil’s population took to the streets in four major cities to protest corruption and poor city services.

The way in which the Istanbul protesters have evolved their strategy now is to take a silent stand. Literally. A lone “Standing Man” stood in Taksim Square overnight, positioned in front of the flag of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic with a constitution with democratic principles in 1923. Standing Man caught on immediately, and every night crowds of people meet at 10pm to stand in public spaces. The police are still intimidated, if not confused, by this tactic. They are arresting some of the standers (although releasing them later), as well as people they have ferreted out of public records as original protesters.

As I write this on June 22, much of the center of the city remains tense about what could happen next, as I read on Facebook the plan to meet tonight in Taksim Square with only a carnation in hand. Of course everyone has theories about what lies in the future, from a police state, to an absolute dictatorship, to civil war, to Erdogan’s resignation, to AKP’s renouncing him and taking over with a new leader, to military control, to total utopian peace and love forever.

Those of us who have lived here for more than five years know that this eruption has been brewing for decades because of the way that the pro-Islamic faction was suppressed during the Ataturk years and his legacy of absolute secularism in government and public life. The pro-Islamic AKP got their chance at revenge for the first time when they took over in 2002 by starting the slow process of stamping out certain liberties, jailing journalists who spoke out politically, and introducing Sharia law into parliament. Simultaneously, consumer prices rose too high too fast, large chunks of the city were sold to foreign investors, plans were made to construct a third airport and a third bridge across the Bosphorus Strait (which divides the city) at a steep sacrifice of the surrounding environment. None of the many massive changes to the city’s infrastructure had any populist input. People are feeling disenfranchised, especially the youth element which has grown up in a westernized society since 1980. Turkey, which many people in the world think of as a third-world country, is one of the most “connected.” Wi-fi is ubiquitous, even in the hinterlands.

I must conclude with a statement that I am not a political journalist, but a cultural journalist who primarily writes about art and music. These days, however, art and politics in Istanbul are intertwined. Amazing art is coming out of the Gezi Park movement, and musicians of all genres are participating. Despots hate the arts because they are threatened by the invisible power of inspiration and creation. Despots may break our skulls, but they can’t stop genius.

Tonight, Taksim Square was packed solid with thousands of peaceful standing protesters. The red carnations are to remember those who died. The police came with their tear-gas and water cannons, as usual, to chase the crowds out. All that was left in Taksim after midnight was thousands of red flowers on the pavement.


“An East-West Arts Life”