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Of Protests and Fruit: A Report and Update From Istanbul

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By Joy Stocke, cross-posted from Wild River Review

"They say I am the prime minister of only 50 percent. It's not true. We have served the whole of the 76 million from the east to the west..." -Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Editor's Note: Of Protests and Fruit was first published on May 31. Since then we've received responses from our friends in Turkey with varying faiths and viewpoints. Updated comments appear at the end of this piece.

Two years ago, on October 29, after finishing final interviews that would appear in my memoir Anatolian Days & Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, I stood among the crowds in Taksim Square, Istanbul, near the park known as Gezi. Many people carried red flags embossed with a white waxing moon, a star and an image of the blue-eyed hero, Kemal Ataturk, who on that day, in 1923, from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, became the first prime minister of the Republic of Turkey.

Taksim Square is the hub and meeting point for seven streets including busy Istiklal, and the neighborhoods that fan out across the European side of the Bosporus. According to my Turkish-American friend, concert pianist Meral Guneyman, the plan to demolish Gezi Park and Taksim Square and to rebuild a long-demolished Ottoman barracks ­-- adding a shopping mall with underground roads and parking -- would cut off one of the city's most vibrant meeting spaces.

In the nearly thirty years since I've been traveling to Turkey, I've seen the country emerge from a military dictatorship and a harsh penal system into an economic and cultural success vying for entry into the European Union.

I have also traveled in Turkey with an equal measure of wariness and wonder. I was there during the 1999 earthquake and saw something I never would have believed, Greeks helping their Turkish neighbors dig out from the rubble. I returned shortly after September 11, and the outpouring of support -- from the Mediterranean Sea to villages throughout the southeast near the Syrian border -- was surprising and comforting.

In Istanbul, when I crossed the Galata Bridge (gala means milk) over the Bosporus strait (meaning cow ford or crossing), and thought of the myth of Europa, the maiden who was carried by the great white bull across the sea from Asia Minor, I saw Turkey coming into its own as a literal bridge between the Near East, Middle East and Europe.

As the years passed, I saw subtle and not so subtle changes, many of them positive, others not so. In 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected Turkey's 25th prime minister having served as Istanbul's mayor from 1994-98. (In 2011, with just under 50 percent of the vote, Erdogan was elected to a third term.)

I watched Turkish friends return home to Istanbul and American friends settle in Turkey to become part of an economic boom that continues to this day. Tourism has blossomed; and friends in the southeast have welcomed much-needed investment in infrastructure. But, I've also seen my fellow writers and journalists imprisoned for their work. In 2012, Turkey imprisoned more journalists than Iran or China.

A friend who owns a business in Istanbul says, "We have had enough of the prime minister scolding people a few times every day and telling us the number of kids we should have (three per family), forbidding kissing in public, banning alcohol between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. except in tourist areas... building a third bridge over the Bosporus (and naming it for Sultan Selim the Grim who in the 16th century after annexing Egypt made the Ottomans the dominant power in the Islamic world)... Erdogan's style has been so unkind and arrogant that the people said that is enough and took to the streets."

Last May, when I sat with friends in a working class neighborhood, the Sea of Marmara (marble) shimmered in the spring air. In spite of misgivings, I reveled in the superb cuisine, warmth and deliciously ironic humor of my Turkish friends.

This May, when news came of Gezi Park via those very same friends through social media, I wasn't surprised. Friends in my generation, in our fifties and early sixties, remember the violence in Turkey leading up to the 1980 coup, and are reluctant to protest laws they feel are unjust. At last, my friends sigh, watching the younger generation act.

"I am proud of these young people protesting the prime minister and his ministers (mainly the prime minister) out there in Taksim Square and then cleaning up the place," says another friend.

Inspired by the bravado of youth, grandmothers, grandfathers and children have taken to the streets to bang pots and pans (a tradition dating back to the Ottoman Empire) in support of the protesters.

I sent out a query through social media and got dissertations, the latest from a 34-year-old protestor. "There couldn't have been more than 100 in Gezi Park at the beginning," she writes. "What changed everything was the police intervention at 5 a.m. when most of the protesters were sleeping. The police attacked with tear gas and burned down their tents. People from all over Istanbul came to support them and immediately received the same treatment. The more the police used tear gas, the more people came."

"One of the things that shocked and angered many people was the indifference of the media to the protests," she adds. "Apart from two very small channels (One of the major news channels featured a documentary about penguins.) the media was silent. So, in the beginning, the information came mainly through social media, especially Twitter and Facebook."

Yet, one of my dearest friends, a supporter of Erdogan who lives in Mardin near the Syrian border, exemplifies how complex the protests are, "But," he says, "I can surely say that these protests are not like the events in Egypt, Syria etc. This is a temporary situation. The government and Erdogan will be able to overcome them..."

How will the protests ultimately make a difference?" I asked another friend.

No one knows yet, but the protesters aren't backing down," she wrote back.

Another friend, also in her thirties, responded with typical Turkish humor, "When the police used pepper spray and orange gas, the crowd tossed back peppers and oranges," she wrote. "May the protests continue peacefully and may they bear fruit."

Update from Gezi Park, June 11, 2013

Really big things are again taking place in Taksim. Tear gas bombs and water cannons once more. They had promised earlier that they wouldn't do anything to the peaceful protesters in Gezi Parki. However, the prime minister announced that he doesn't have any patience and the protests are illegal. During the day, police entered the court house in Caglayan (the main court house on the European side of Istanbul) and took lawyers into custody. It's heating up again." Thirty-four-year-old protestor.

From another observer:

So, let us not kid ourselves that all this is about a park. Also, let us not kid ourselves that we didn't see or deserve what is coming... We have been oppressing a considerable amount of people who think women should stay home, cook, and have children, and pray, and fast, and be good Muslims. These people have seized some political power and they are now using this political power, as others have in the past, to do what they believe is right. Who can really blame them?

So in the end, the only thing I can really argue is that a PARK is much better than a shopping mall and fake Ottoman barracks... That Istanbul needs more green spaces. The lack of green spaces will affect even tourism.

And I can argue that civil liberties are being restricted, that the police should not use excessive force, etc. But these things we remained silent about when they were happening to other people, and now we are complaining because it happened to us...

We hated France when their president shook hands with Kurdish leaders. We hated France for denouncing the headscarf ban. Now, France is nodding sadly, and saying that we were right. Now they have banned the scarf, they are wondering what they will do with their unruly, poor immigrants. To prevent more mosques from being built, European countries passed silly laws about the way city outlines must look (no minarets!) But in the end, the prosperous ones have to learn that once you oppress others, they will rise up, and they will use their power against you to get what they can. Why was it OK to oppress Islamists in Turkey for years? Isn't it a free country?

One can argue that it was done to prevent extremism, but I will argue that all it did was to support extremism. What you do not see, what is hidden underground is always more dangerous than what you know, what is out in the open... We pushed them underground, and now they are back, they are stronger, they are smarter. We must pay the price. No?
From the Asian side of the Bosporus - June 14

Yesterday, the European Parliament discussed the current events in Turkey during their session in Strasbourg. I don't think the final resolution is out yet, so I can't send a link. And today the Minister of EU Affairs issued a press release regarding the Parliament's discussions about Turkey. Again, there is no official translation yet (and I don't know if there ever will be, because it is very aggressive, accusatory and lacks the diplomatic attitude), so I'll wait 1-2 days to see if there will be an official translation before writing about it.

Today the police took various people into custody just because they had helmets and gas masks. Most of these people were released afterwards. I'm guessing all of them will be released eventually.

A very emotional event also took place tonight. As I mentioned before, the governor of Istanbul had called to the families of the protesters to take their children home as they were not safe. So tonight, the mothers of many protesters went to Gezi Parki and joined their children. Most of them are still there, protesting with their kids.

The governor also announced that as of midnight, he would be at a cafe in Dolmabahce, expecting the young people from Gezi Parki to join him, have some tea and talk about their requests (no, it's not some parallel universe, he actually invited the protesters to a cafe to have tea at midnight). Right now, I can see from the TV that he's in Dolmabahce, we'll see what happens later on.

The CEO of one of the mainstream news channels (NTV) resigned today.
Finally, the prime minister said that he doesn't recognize the European Parliament's resolutions about Turkey. And KESK, one of the largest unions in Turkey, announced that in case of any more police interventions to Gezi Parki, they will call their members to down tools and go to the center square of their city to support the protests.

From the Taksim Square Neighborhood - June 16

Hi guys, here's what happened in the last 24 hours (today I couldn't keep up with everything, I was out for a while and I seriously needed to get my mind out of these matters for a couple of hours, as they're incredibly overwhelming.

Last night was a very long night. I was up until morning. The police kept attacking. As I said, Gezi Parki was cleared, but people from all around Istanbul got out and wanted to go to Taksim. All roads were blocked, even one of the bridges from the Asian to the European side was blocked for hours. The police attacked infirmaries, took some doctors and medical students into custody. They threw gas bombs into hotels and other buildings. Claudia Roth, a German politician was also in one of the hotels gassed by the police. They entered in at least two hotels and collected the helmets, protective masks and solutions (which were applied to mitigate the effects of tear gas) from the people inside. Yes, they took the masks and solutions and threw gas bombs. Very humane, isn't it? And the gas bombs were not the star of last night. Some chemical substance was added to the water in the vehicles and the people who were subjected to the pressurized water suffered severe pain, irritation and burns, some even had visibility loss for a while. They had to take their clothes off to decrease the effects. I still don't know what was the substance that was added to the water. According to the statements of today, a "substance" was added, but it was not a "chemical."

Still, the statements from the government are not conciliatory. Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara (he's not a part of the government, but he's from AKP) said that if people were old enough to commit crimes, then they were old enough to be punished (regarding the young people who participated in the protests). Egemen Bagis, the Minister for EU Affairs, said that whoever goes to Taksim will be treated as a terrorist. The President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul did not make any statements during these very dark hours (and he's yet to say anything). The Governor of Istanbul said that they had cleared Taksim without any big incidents, that there were only 29 wounded, and with minor wounds. I can't even comment on this, I'm speechless.

Today, the prime minister held his meeting in Istanbul. They allege that there were millions of people but after reading some calculations and statements, I'm guessing there were about 300,000 people (but I can't be sure about the number, this is still just a guess). The roads to Taksim were blocked, however, public buses, boats etc. carried people to the meeting for free. (Yes, that's where our taxes go). Although the slogans were not pleasant, at least nothing violent took place there. Unfortunately, I didn't listen to the prime minister's speech, because 1) I was outside 2) I'm really tired of listening to how "democratic" our country is and how "nice and powerful" our prime minister is. From what I read later, I understand that it was the same old story.

As I guessed before, news about the things found in tents began to emerge. But, in a manner that is borderline pathetic. The first allegation is that they found large numbers of used condoms inside the tents. I mean, please, let's assume that everybody was sleeping with everbody (under tear gas, gas bombs etc.and while we're at it, let's ignore the facts that it was an incredibly crowded area and that the people were tense and waiting for an attack any moment), who would leave their used condoms inside the tents. Are they unable to throw them in a waste bin? Or is it some new trend that I haven't heard of, "let's keep our used condoms as a souvenir from Gezi Parki"? The very sad thing is, some people in my country (and by some, I don't mean a few, I mean at least 20% of the people) may actually believe this.

They also allege that they collected plans of some illegal groups and (I'm not sure they said this) guns from the tents. In that case, we have to assume that the people are so dumb that they decide to keep their illegal documents in Gezi Parki, right in the middle of the events and the police. The guns, well, if there were guns, how come nobody (apart from the police shooting plastic bullets) used them? By the way, during the week, on Tuesday, the mainstream media showed the police live in Taksim square, trying to catch a group (about 4-5 people, maybe 10 at most) without using excessive use of force for about 1.5 hours (strangely the cameras were placed early in the morning and they had decided to broadcast from Taksim). The alleged violent "protesters" were throwing molotov cocktails to the police. Many protesters said that this attack was arranged and the people with molotov cocktails were not from Gezi Parki, in fact they were probably working with the police. Well, last night, even when the police attacked infirmaries and kicked the wounded, not one molotov cocktail was thrown at them. This just says it all, doesn't it?

Today, the funeral of the young man who died by a bullet shot was held. The people attending the funeral wanted to go to the place where the man died with the coffin. The police didn't let them. I don't know all the details (as I said, I was out most of the day), but I saw photos of the coffin and the people carrying it while the police used pressurized water on them.

Tonight is a bit calmer than last night, but it's more dangerous. Because some provocateurs with bats and knives ( and I also heard cleavers, but I'm not sure about this last one) in their hands got out on the streets. As I saw from live TV broadcast, a police vehicle went behind a group of them, and didn't do anything. The protesters are sending messages and tweets to each other, saying that this is a very serious provocation and also very dangerous as the police seems to do nothing to stop them. They're encouraging their friends to go to their homes for tonight to get some rest and reminding them that the most important thing to continue the protests is to be alive and these protests are not about those provocateurs. However, many people are still out on the streets in Istanbul and Ankara. Another night full of tension is ahead of us.

That's it for now. Thanks for your good wishes...

Morning of June 17

At the moment there aren't many updates. Last night was not very eventful, as I think many protesters took the advice from their friends and didn't get involved with the people who had bats and knives. That doesn't mean the protests ended, it just means people don't want violence and are sensible enough not to escalate the tension even more.

Today, five unions in Turkey went on strike for a day.

Actually, I'm writing this email to share with you the official translation of the press release of the Minister for EU Affairs. I had told you that after the resolution of the European Parliament, this press release was put on the Ministry's official web page. And now, they also have the official English version. Please take the time to read it. (The link is the official website of the Ministry for EU Affairs)

Afternoon of June 17 from an American expat friend who lives in the old city of Sultanhamet

Did you see the video of the guys in robes parading outside our home yesterday, on the way to the AKP rally? Thinking of the best way to comment on the (mis)use of religion here to divide. Like the Kurdish issue, both being brought in to divert attention from the real issue - rural traditional versus urban modern. Both valid Turkish lifestyles, both need to be at least tolerated by the other in an 'agree to disagree' way. That would be democracy here, not teargassing those who disagree with you, while busing in and paying/gifting those who do... with taxpayer money.

Or major issues like beating journalists and arresting doctors... gee, where to start?

...My Kurdish husband has been an Erdogan supporter because of economic gains for Anatolian middle and lower income levels as well as progress on the Kurdish issue. But he is angry about bringing religion (or ethnicity, less of that though) into this divide.

Erdogan has been clearly courting them for their votes only -- Kurds are a big part why he's been elected. Firsthand knowledge of them voting for AKP because they were tired of Kurdish parties never reaching the 10% threshold or being banned outright. VERY stupid of Erdogan to piss off 20% of the population.

Some are saying that Abdullah Gul has been silent (in the Black Sea region on a 'tour' I think) because he may step in and take power. That would be a fabulous outcome since he seems a more reasonable, diplomatic leader (albeit one with a weak speaking voice that can't yell like Edogan!)

Or maybe it is a religious thing -- this seems a little extreme, but may not be that farfetched. Definitely how my military/Kemalist friends feel: The Megalomania of Erdogan the Magnificent.