Talking Turkey Lessons from the Crucible of Taksim Square
The Taksim Square protests have been hailed as a reflection of modern Turkey. United by a common goal, a motley collection of demonstrators has united to vent their fury with Prime Minister Erdogan. They are confident their sit-in served an important purpose.
This was supposed to be Yusuf's honeymoon, but if it's a honeymoon it's an unusual one, seeing as he's holding an empty tear gas canister in his hand. Yusuf had dozens of such canisters fired at him by the Turkish police over the past few days. Sometimes he threw them back with his bare hands. But this empty canister is something he wants to keep as a memento. "This is a sign of our resistance, our victory against the provocateur," he says.
Yusuf, 29, is sitting at a worn wooden table in an Istanbul suburb, drinking tea. He's been hiding here for days, fearing arrest by the police, who are searching for the protestors from Taksim Square. Seventy people have been arrested already, and Yusuf would be one of them if he hadn't been able to save himself that evening by quickly diving into a taxi. Since then, he's been sitting here in a sparsely furnished one-and-a-half-room apartment on the city's edge, watching the uprising of which he is so proud from a distance, on TV.
It's the 17th day of the protest. Using a prepaid cell phone SIM card he bought under a neighbor's name, Yusuf calls his friends in Gezi Park hourly. The latest word from them, on Friday evening, was that they won't back down, they won't leave the square voluntarily and they don't trust anyone anymore, not the justice system and certainly not Erdogan. By this point, everyone in the camp calls the prime minister by his first name, Tayyip, because he too has always addressed them informally and patronized them.
Yusuf doesn't feel good about sitting around idly here and he worries about the others. For 10 days, he was self-appointed chief of security in the makeshift village that everyone has taken to calling "Çapulcu," -- Erdogan's word for the protestors, which translates roughly as "looters" or "bums" but has been appropriated by the resistance as a proud self-designation for their activism. That this village is still standing is partly thanks to Yusuf and his barricades of iron and stone. He made his rounds of the camp several times a day, checking for fires that might have caught amid the sea of tents. At night, he would climb to the top of the Atatürk Cultural Center to bring down the drunken people who gathered there, so they wouldn't fall off the roof. He was also responsible for keeping street vendors out of the village, where the protesters wanted to create a non-commercial zone.
The Seed of a New Movement
Yusuf grew up in Istanbul, but his parents are originally from Diyarbakr, a city in the country's southeast. As a child, Yusuf didn't tell anyone he was Kurdish. "In our street, Kurdish automatically meant PKK, enemy," he explains, referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. So he sang along to the Turkish national anthem every morning at school. When he was 16, Yusuf began searching for alternative political systems. He read Lenin, Marx and Engels. He joined a left-wing extremist party, dreamed of socialism and learned how to evade the police. This sets Yusuf apart from many of the others in Gezi Park, who have never before stood up to the authorities.
Yusuf later studied journalism, but now makes his living programming webpages. He says it was time for people to wake up. He sees Çapulcu as the seed of a new Turkish resistance movement. So much has changed over these last days, he says, in this square with its many tents, where there is even a preschool and yoga courses twice a day for the protesters, where transvestites lend anti-capitalist Muslims blankets at night. Where feminists forbid the hardcore fans of soccer club Beikta from using misogynistic insults in their chants -- and the soccer fans comply.
Whatever happens now, whether or not the police clear the village, things will never be the same again, Yusuf says. "We've destroyed people's fear. They know now that it's possible to defend ourselves, to speak up."
Last Friday evening at 6 p.m., a day before riot police cleared the area, residents of the village in Gezi Park divided into seven groups to discuss where things should go from here. Erdogan had ordered the demonstrators to leave the park. He also promised on Thursday evening not to begin any construction in Gezi Park for the time being, but no one here trusts him any longer.
The protesters talk over one another and some of the women cry. "We can't just leave here," says one of the many mothers who have moved into the park to join their children. "Our goal is for this government to resign." Then they shout their slogan: "Everywhere is Taksim."
Muslim Women Speaking Out
The same evening, Fatma Dogan, 28, stands in front of her prayer tent near the entrance to Gezi Park. The tent was burnt and torn down when police stormed the square last Tuesday. Dogan, a teacher, has been here since the first night of the protest. She belongs to a group of anti-capitalist Muslims. In her black headscarf and dark-colored robe, with prayer beads in her hand, she more closely resembles the young people for whom Erdogan has fought and for whom he has opened the doors to the country's universities. But Dogan says Erdogan only uses Islam to hold onto power. She sees him as a capitalist exploiting Islam for his own purposes.
This point of view is shared by nearly all the anti-capitalist Muslims, who explain their anger in front of the TV cameras, calling on the Turkish people to open their eyes. Ninety percent of Turks are Muslims, they say, and those Muslims should take a closer look at what is going on. The other protesters listen to them in amazement, stunned to see Muslim women in headscarves speaking out against Erdogan.
Dogan says God's Earth belongs to the people, not to capitalists. She says she is here to represent Islam and to show that this is not just some gathering of illegal fringe groups.
"We're not looters, we're the people," she says. "But we have not yet won." And so she has no plans to leave Taksim Square. Nor is she afraid. Where her tent once stood, the protesters have built a new barricade against the police. The Muslims here invite everyone to join them for Friday prayers, where they pray together for the dead demonstrators, the dead police officers and the many injured.
At some point on Friday evening, the Gezi Park community decides to provide new, bigger tents for the anti-capitalist Muslims, right in the middle of the village, with their own prayer room. The leftists and the fans of Istanbul's three rival soccer clubs all vote in favor. More tents are set up and people begin to play guitar again in front of some of them.
- Part 1: Lessons from the Crucible of Taksim Square
- Part 2: "Guardians of Democracy"