Inspired by a paragraph in Sean Singer’s fine article in the American Interest on the historical background of Turkey’s current unrest, I started looking for more reasons for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on rebuilding an Ottoman-era barracks on Taksim Square. Yes, it was partly intended to reverse an outrage against the fabric of the city by one of Istanbul’s many destructive modernisers, who leveled the barracks in 1940 to make Gezi Park. And surely the prime minister feels that he would lose face and a patronage opportunity by giving up the project. But is restoring it worth the high current domestic and international damage to his image? Perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye. As Singer wrote:
Erdogan had addressed the protestors directly earlier in the day. “Do whatever you like”, he told them. “We’ve made the decision, and we will implement it accordingly. If you have respect for history, research and take a look at what the history of that place called Gezi Park is. We are going to revive history there.”
Erdogan was not referring to the Armenian cemetery that once stood nearby, but the Halil Pasha Armory Barracks, built in 1803–06. In 1909 the barracks were the site of a mutiny against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ideological predecessors of the nationalists who founded the Republic of Turkey. The CUP had come to power in the name of constitutionalism in 1908 but eventually succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. It used the mutiny to justify the deposition and exile of Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman Sultan to wield total power.
In other words, the barracks was the site of a pro-Islamic, anti-CUP Turkish nationalist revolt – and even today, Erdogan’s ruling party remembers Sultan Abdulhamid with fondness. I hadn’t realized that the ideological struggle over this barracks went back this far! One of the Turkish Wikipedia article on the barracks – and the “31 March Events” of 1909 – even tells how the “Action Army” that marched in support of the CUP nationalists and crushed the uprising in the barracks was accompanied by Bulgarian “çapulcus”, irregular looters/marauders, the same name that Erdogan gave to the mostly secularist, nationalist demonstrators that occupied Gezi Park in June 2013.
Most of these photos come from a May 1909 copy of the Ottoman “Resimli Kitab” (‘Picture Book’) magazine, a random volume I inherited from the late French writer Jean-Pierre Thieck, who must have found it in a flea market and realised that the events described in it would one day be relevant again. The big photo below shows how even back then, the international media was in the thick of things. This reporter certainly conducted himself with some style, and was no doubt also accused of being behind all the trouble. And yes, as on the left, there was an environmental angle too, with a picture of a tree that got damaged by the shelling.
[This post written on 10 June, the day before the 7am police intervention that took control of Taksim Square, the Atatürk monument and the Atatürk Culture Centre. On 16 June, the police took control of Gezi Park as well. For the aftermath, see below].
I still couldn’t believe my eyes as I wandered this weekend round Taksim Square, along with thousands other visitors who thronged there this weekend to take in this extraordinary moment in Turkey’s political life. Even a few days ago there were just a few people camping out in what was once the small, unfrequented park, from where Turkey’s protests over the uprooting of a few trees blossomed into a national protest movement. A carnival atmosphere has now spread out from the park to include most of the square itself, a fair in which an alphabet soup of often little-known Turkish organizations have set up shop. There are revolutionaries, Marxists, Kurdish insurgents, anti-capitalist Muslims, environmentalists and many, many more.
Like all new-borns, a rush is on to name and define the wave of protests. Are they “a few looters”, in the inimitably dismissive comment of Prime Minister Erdogan? But if not that, then what? A Turkish Spring, a poll tax turning point, an “occupy” movement, Piraten or indignados? A political earthquake, sure, but on which of Turkey’s many fault-lines: secular-Islamist, rich-poor, new urban vs old urban, left-vs-right, Kurdish nationalist vs Turkish nationalist, Sunni Muslim vs Alevi, authoritarian vs anarchist, environmentalist vs shopping mall builder? Of course, the answer is all of the above and all of no one of them. As some leading lights of the small old leftist opposition parties put it, the demonstrators themselves probably have as little idea as the government about what exactly the protests are about. Whatever the final judgment of history, there is already a “revolution museum” in a commandeered hut from the now suspended roadworks around Taksim. And while they wait, protestors take time out at “The Looters’ Cafe and Reading Room”, stock up on supplies at the “Brigand Market”, and get their souvenir stickers from the “Taksim Commune”.
A “Taksim Solidarity Platform” has built a stage in the heart of the park for hosting groups like the “Looters’ Chorus” and is trying to rally its disparate members to agree reasonable demands – 35 groups mid-week, 80 groups now – and its officials rush about in union-style printed overshirts. Merchandising is putting its mark on proceedings: Turkish flags with secular republican founder Ataturk superimposed are popular; a T-shirt saying “don’t bow down” is everywhere; there is also a a scarf demonstrating unity in protest between all three of Istanbul’s main rival football clubs. There are many references to the “looters”, or çapulcu, including a T-shirt with the Turklish phrase “Everyday I’m chapuling”.
This is a rare time in which international media are interested in Turkey as Turkey, not as part of the usual effort to pigeon-hole the country as part of the Middle East, Europe, or the Islamic World. The only other time I can remember this happening is during the massive 1999 earthquake around Istanbul, when more than 40,000 Turks were probably killed and the outside world forgot its prejudices about the country and real empathy was on offer. Similarly, visitors from Europe say the “Occupy” atmosphere is suddenly making Turkey looking very European. Unfortunately, the muzzled way Turkey’s national media initially covered the events was a reminder of the non-European limits Turkey’s places on freedom of expression.
Something in the scene reminds me of the liberated atmosphere in 1996, when the UN’s Habitat Conference was held in Istanbul and Turkey’s non-governmental organisations were allowed to gather in an Ottoman barracks opposite the Hyatt Hotel . The idea of anything being allowed to organise legally outside direct state supervision was then very new (Turkey is still digging its way out from being so long the West’s own East bloc government). It was the first time many of the NGOs were really aware of the existence of other such groups, and all derived a great sense of solidarity as they met and talked. Another comparison would be with the first political chat shows in the early 1990s, when Turkey stayed up until dawn to watch people debating their way out of the country’s old black-and-white, enemy-or-friend view of life.
Today, the whole country is now talking about the protests, the new generation of students who are its leading element, and the way there is a sense of happy, humorous liberation in the air. If only for this reason, I hope the authorities take a European view of this and continue to let this outpouring of democratisation run its natural course in Taksim Square – and that the protestors do find a consensus to take down the barricades, open the square up to traffic and allow all normal municipal functions to resume.
Still, nobody knows how this will end, only that how it ends will define much of the next decade. There are hardline revolutionaries among the protestors’ groups who do want to smash the Turkish establishment in the name of various ideologies. Still, they are far from the mainstream of the protestors, and it seems inconceivable that the security forces should launch sudden violent action against the currently large group of people in the square; yet everyone knows that one day the other foot will fall, perhaps not directly, but indirectly through the ongoing arrest-and-release campaign against social media ‘provocateurs’ or leaders’ public threats and intimidation of domestic and (openly now) foreign media.
The problem for the authorities is that now the protests are not just about Taksim, nor one small social class in Istanbul, nor even Istanbul itself. This movement has taken root all over the country. I was passed on the Istiklal Street pedestrian boulevard leading to Taksim by a band of young men who’d travelled all the way from the southern Taurus Mountains to march to Taksim to protest a dam being near them. And in the working-class dock district of Hasköy, I watched a squad of forty schoolchildren set off for the miles-long march to Taksim with matching blue flags and outfits.
So here are some more photos of the big party, even as we all wonder what form the hangover will take.
The day after these photos were taken, on June 11, the police pushed the protestors off Taksim Square. The protestors responded with stone throwing, fireworks and in the case of one small group, Molotov cocktail throwing. The police then used high-pressure hoses and tear gas and tore down flags and banners. The police said they wouldn’t intervene in Gezi Park itself, but eventually, on the evening of June 16, they pushed them out of there too. Both sides accused each other of bad faith – the government saying protestors gave into radicals who only wanted a fight and refused to leave the square, and protestors who said they needed more time and commitments from the government. Once again, the police used force and tear gas in overwhelming measure. Protestors tried to win back the square on June 17, when the photos below were taken, but the police took strong measures to prevent that happening.
At dawn of the morning after the night before, a flock of pigeons was picking on the debris from an amazing 48 hours outside my home on Istiklal St, the pedestrian boulevard through the heart of Istanbul. It was littered with trash, broken beer bottles and the odd ornamental tree yesterday’s protestors dragged into the middle of the road to act as a barricade against police forces. A few stragglers were still drifting away from a boisterous all-night celebration in Taksim Square of what they see as their victory over the police and government. Protestors and police apparently have clashed again briefly in at least one place elsewhere in the city, Beşiktaş, but for now things are quiet here, although a tang of tear gas lingers in the air.
By 10am this 2 June, municipality cleaning trucks had got most of the street clean. Vans are coming to restock shops – or perhaps to see if the shops survived. Every few minutes in the blue sky above us, as they did even when clouds of tear gas billowed down the street during the battles yesterday, passenger planes make their final approach to Istanbul airport. But absorbing what happened on 1 June – and getting back to business as usual – is going to take a while longer than that.
What are the long-term implications of having the heart of Turkey’s touristic, commercial and cultural capital captured by young people walking up and down most of the night shouting to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “Tayyip, Resign!”? How impressive is it that these demonstrations spread to half of Turkey’s 81 provinces? Is this the beginning of a new democratic era of brave youth confronting an inflexible authority, or should we focus on an early taste of some frightening anarchy and looting? How much real political water is there behind this dam burst of secular sentiment in Istanbul, a flood which swept the flags of innumerable marginal and not-so-marginal left-wing groups to the heart of Taksim Square? How did a polls-obsessed government misjudge the mood so much? Does an ideology that consists in part of turning Turkey into a country in shopping malls linked by dual-carriageway highways not satisfy the people?
I’m not yet sure about all these big questions, except to note once again that the government still won power in 2011 with 50 per cent of the vote, that it did not order its own probably far more numerous supporters out onto the streets of this city of more than 10 million people, that its cementing over of green spaces is nothing new in Turkish urban planning, and that under this administration, the parks and roadside flowers have looked better than anything previously. And for once in the first three days of the demonstrations themselves, the security forces and police, however excessive their use of tear gas and despite more than 100 people injured, miraculously killed nobody.
So while thinking about those big unknowns, I think I’ll just share some pictures from the Istiklal St scene at about 11pm last night.