Photo Gallery: In Turkey, Family Across Fault Lines
Generation Gap Turkish Family Split Between Gezi and Old Way
I'm sitting in an Ottoman corner booth in Istanbul, drinking tea. I've been listening to Sahmi for hours. "Erdogan won," he keeps saying, sometimes raising his hand for emphasis and sometimes pounding it on the table. Sahmi is a 64-year-old retiree living in Istanbul. He is also my uncle.
In recent weeks, Sahmi often prayed for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a small mosque on his street, asking God to protect him and give him strength to fend off the attackers. Erdogan has never disappointed Sahmi and, even now, my uncle sees him as a victor. Erdogan won the battle over Taksim Square, he says, and now it's time to punish those responsible. Only then, Sahmi says, will he be satisfied.
He argues that the demonstrators destroyed everything, the beautiful lawns and flowers. They lit city buses on fire and stole police cars. Even worse, says Sahmi, they insulted his prime minister and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Sahmi supports and believes is best equipped to run the country.
My uncle didn't go to see the protesters' camp in Gezi Park, even though it's less than 15 kilometers (9 miles) from his apartment. But he did hear what Erdogan had to say about the tent city, and it was enough for him: that it stank of urine, that condoms were being kept there, and that the protesters were all terrorists. Sahmi believes that dark forces, from both Turkey and abroad, were behind the protests.
Terrorists or Peaceful Protesters?
Is he talking about a different place? I spent a lot of time with the people in Gezi Park in recent weeks, talking to them for days on end. We were attacked, I inhaled tear gas, I fled from the police and I was almost arrested. And now my uncle is saying that these people are all terrorists?
Sahmi, of all people -- married to my mother's sister, my father's childhood friend, the person who took me to the zoo for the first time -- is more of a stranger to me than ever before.
I was in Berlin when the protests began in Istanbul. I sat at my computer and watched the live stream of a Norwegian broadcaster reporting from Taksim Square. There were teargas grenades flying through the air, and it looked like a battlefield. I tried to understand what was happening in this city, where I spent every summer as a child. So I called my father, who said: "It's a revolution against the Sultan, finally." My mother shouted into the telephone, saying it was provocateurs who were trying to divide the country.
Then I called my best friend Ümit in Istanbul. He had just fled from Taksim into a side street, had inhaled teargas, and the water laced with chemicals used by the police was burning his skin. He said: "There's a war going on here. And the press is asleep." I booked a flight to Istanbul.
Since then, everyone in my family has been trying to explain to me what is currently happening in Turkey.
Photo Gallery: A Divided Turkey
Erdogan the Hero
My uncle says that I shouldn't let the protesters influence me. They are the "loud ones," he says, but they don't represent Turkey. The "quiet ones," he and the majority of Turks, he says, stand behind Erdogan. They are the 50 percent, the loyal voters of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). For Sahmi, there is no alternative to Erdogan. He is charismatic and good-looking, he says, and he was the one who made the country strong, both economically and on the world stage. Sahmi says that Erdogan is someone who is even prepared to tangle with the European Union, as he did a few days ago, when officials in Brussels criticized his treatment of the protesters and Erdogan said: "You'd be better off paying attention to Greece. We're not part of the EU yet. Who are you to judge us?"
My uncle likes that sort of language. It makes him proud to be alive. For him, Erdogan is the man who is developing Turkey into a superpower, building highways in Anatolia, the country's first nuclear power plant, another bridge across the Bosphorus, another airport for Istanbul and a new canal to the Sea of Marmara. Progress! Prosperity! Can't I see how the economy is booming, he asks?
And, he adds, Erdogan isn't forgetting ordinary citizens, either: support for families who care for the sick and the elderly, free schoolbooks, no more tuition at state universities, no more standing in line for hours for an X-ray, inflation under 10 percent for the first time. For my uncle, who only discovered his inner devout Muslim at 50, it is even more important that he can finally be proud of his religion. "Erdogan is a prime minister who goes to the mosque and spends time with his people," he says. For decades, the Kemalists subtly repressed religious Muslims in Turkey. Under Erdogan, says Sahmi, that's finally over, and being religious is in again. "Why don't the people in Gezi Park understand that?" he asks. I feel like I'm stuck in an endless promo loop for Erdogan.
When Erdogan was cheered by his supporters in Istanbul on the weekend before last, my uncle pushed his way through the crowds to get a glimpse of his premier. "The people there were filled with love," he says. Why didn't anyone report on the rally? Why wasn't I, his niece, there instead of constantly spending time on Taksim?
The rift that currently divides Turkey also runs straight through the middle of my family. At the moment, a bridge between the two sides doesn't seem to exist.
My cousin Murat, Sahmi's son, is studying in Eskiehir, 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Istanbul, where he has been camped out in front of a shopping center for days. At night, Murat attends protests against Erdogan, his father's hero, in front of the city's AKP headquarters. He wears a scarf to protect against teargas and a rain jacket against water cannon. With his guitar, he plays the hymn of the Çapulcular, the looters, as Erdogan called the demonstrators.
Murat is part of the Gezi generation. They grew up during Erdogan's term and are now protesting for the first time in their life. They are protesting against a premier and a party who say that homosexuals are "sick." Against a leader who punctuates his political decisions with the words "if God wills it." "And what if I don't believe in God?" says Murat. "Does that mean that Erdogan's decisions don't apply to me?" Then he says: "I already have a father. I don't need another one."
Murat was furious when he saw on television how police officers were beating protesters in Izmir. He called his father and shouted into the phone: "This is your Erdogan!" Sahmi shouted back: "Maybe they had no other choice!"
My uncle shows me a video on the Internet, in which a police officer shouts into the camera: "Stop filming us! Film the demonstrators instead." The policeman points to broken roadblocks and ripped-out bricks, and then he furiously throws his water bottle onto the ground. "What else should I do but spray tear gas. Should I fart on them?" he shouts. The police are just people, my uncle explains to me.
I encounter these young police officers every day in the hotel where I'm staying, directly on Gezi Park. Erdogan has had them flown in from all over the country. They sit on plastic chairs and drink tea, paint over the protesters' slogans on the asphalt and even on cars along the side of the road. Otherwise, they wait for their orders, posing with their tear gas weapons and taking pictures of each other with their smartphones.
Maybe it wasn't right to build barricades on Taksim and to cover banks with slogans. But does that make it right to shoot at the demonstrators with gas grenades? In the last few weeks, I've seen a young woman with blood streaming from her head being carried past me to an emergency field hospital. I've seen injured children running around screaming.
I haven't told Uncle Sahmi any of this. I sense that he doesn't want to know. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I no longer have the strength to argue.
Taksim in Hamburg
Erdogan is now having 150,000 flowers planted in Gezi Park, and new trees are being delivered. But how do a few flowers measure up against that new and beautiful Turkey I experienced in the protest camp? "Don't be sad," my father says on the telephone. "This is only the beginning. The resistance will continue."
I hadn't spoken with my parents in days. They sit in their apartment in a high-rise building in Hamburg's St. Pauli district, talking about nothing but the Gezi uprising. Germany has also been affected: My brother Özgür says that a branch of the Gezi movement has been established in a park at the St. Pauli Piers.
Then he surprises me by saying that he hadn't been all that horrified by the police violence. After all, he says, they use water cannons and tear gas here in Germany, too, such as during the protests against the Stuttgart 21 train station redevelopment project. But what he really finds shocking, he says, is how the Turkish government is treating attorneys, having them arrested merely for stating their opinions. And that they are arresting people who use Twitter, investigating doctors who helped the injured, and even investigating journalists who reported on the protests. "What kind of a country is this?" my brother asks.
I imagine what it would be like if German Chancellor Angela Merkel would stand in front of the cameras and say: "The Stuttgart 21 site stinks of piss." Or: "If God wills it, we will soon open the new airport." It would be simply absurd.
Meanwhile, my parents are arguing on the telephone. My father berates Erdogan, until my mother interrupts him, saying: "Stop. Don't you realize you are harming Turkey's image?"
My mother is from a leftist blue-collar family, and my father was a union leader with the Turkish railroad. A portrait of the founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk, still hangs in our living room in Hamburg. She is torn between sympathy for the protesters and fear for her country. She is afraid that the economy could suffer and that tourists will avoid Turkey. At the same time, it bothers her that she finds herself constantly having to defend her beloved Turkey. My mother is a cleaning woman in a hospital, where the doctors ask questions daily. Have the Islamists terrorized you like that? You won't be getting into the EU anymore, they say.
My father, on the other hand, is proud of the Gezi youth, and proud of Turkey, which has finally awakened. He talks about nothing else with the passengers in his taxi and with his fellow taxi drivers.
He is looking forward to his next encounter with Uncle Sahmi, so that he can tell him personally that Erdogan, his Erdogan, has lost. He has just booked his flight. He will travel to Istanbul in late July -- to the new Turkey.