Raising the roof: more on the Gezi protests

Monday, June 3

The Ataturk Cultural Center (known as the AKM) used to be one of my favorite places in Istanbul. As a cheapo foreigner, I liked taking dates to the inexpensive ballet and (usually western) classical music performances that were held there. Cheap 'n classy, that's the way I used to roll in those days.

Mostly, the fare at the AKM consisted of a few very frequently presented shows like Swan Lake or Carmen. One time, I went to a performance of Kazakh music performers with a girl I was seeing at the time when the concert was halted suddenly, like at the beginning of Madonna's Eva Peron film. They announced that the great Turk Sanat Muzigi performer Zeki Muren had passed away, and a palpable groan came from the audience. The concert ended and we all left.

Anyway, these are the sorts of memories I have of the AKM, which also used to be the main meeting place for people in Taksim during the years before the cellular phone. It's located right next to Gezi Park.

The AKM has always seemed to be a bit of a bee in the bonnet of Erdogan. Back when he was my mayor in the 1990s and crusading to have a mosque installed over Gezi Park, a lot of people thought that his real plan was to tear down the AKM and build a mosque there, instead.

Well, over the past several years the "western" cultural fare that the AKP usually showed (the Kazakhs were a bit of an exception, usually they had stuff like Swan Lake or Carmen) has become, apparently, a target of local politics. The AKM has been sitting, neglected, closed for 'renovations' that have not yet begun. The state theaters, which were located across Taksim Square, were likewise dispersed to areas across the city.

The complete renovation of Taksim Square, of which the shopping mall on Gezi Park was just one part, has been interpreted by a lot of people in Turkey as an assault on the secular nature of the area, which has been an entertainment district since at least the nineteenth century.

Anyway, now that the police have withdrawn from Gezi Park and the area is large under the control of the occupy folks, apparently someone found a way to get inside the AKM. Hundreds of people ended up on the roof. What an amazing, wonderful view it must have been. 

Protesters standing atop the Ataturk Cultural Center


In other news, Beşiktaş has emerged as the main battleground area, perhaps in part because the PM's Istanbul office is located there. Saturday and Sunday nights both saw clashes between protesters and cops there, and apparently more was going on this morning. I've been told that the Akaretler hill leading up from Beşiktaş to Macka is closed off by barricades.
Here is some video that seems to show people manning the barricades there at night. You can see the cobblestones of Spor Caddesi in the clip.

The battle of Beşiktaş is still raging 
This is supposed to be a week for taking final exams for Turkey's university students. A very large proportion of the protesters are college-aged. Not only did they spend the weekend before finals week getting their heads cracked by the cops, but now....it's summertime. Some college students will no doubt go to the south to work or relax over the summer, but what about the others? Something tells me that the timing of these events right before summer break adds to the possibility that the protests will be ongoing.

So: the cops have left Gezi Park. How long is that going to last? Are they going to let people hang out there until the winter? Seems unlikely. Will they leave on there own? I doubt it. So what then? 

One of the most chilling aspects of all of this is how silent the media has been, especially the television media. It's really a disgrace, and a real (if indirect) condemnation of AKP rule in Turkey.  When I lived in Turkey in the 1990s, there were certain taboo subjects that the mainstream press did not want to deal with. These included any non-standard opinion regard the Kurdish issue, Ataturk, the Armenian genocide, etc. The press was often censoring itself with regard to these issues, but seemed completely unafraid when it came to attacking all and any political party leaders in Turkey.

Now, the situation is very different. The media in this country, or at least most of it, has been either intimidated into silence or bought off. A political system that was largely under the influence of an authoritarian military has been replaced by one dominated by an authoritarian political party that fears no one and nothing.

This evening I went out to dinner with a friend in Etiler, an upscale neighborhood up the hill from my Bosporus retreat. I'd been in that restaurant before--they've got about fifty tables, at least thirty of which have been packed at any time I've been in the place. Tonight, about four of the tables were occupied. People don't want to go out. Waiters, some of whom had certainly traveled over an hour by bus to get to their job in this fancy neighborhood, were standing around with no customers to serve. They passed the time watching the crowds walking through the streets, banging pots and pans, and honking horns.

Etiler was filled with demonstrators, but it's a rich neighborhood. Nothing is going to happen there. Beşiktaş, my old neighborhood, is another story. It's already been trashed, and this evening police reportedly launched an assault on it (but who knows really). Beşiktaş--connected by sea and bus--is a transportation hub and not so glamorous. But it's a key piece of real estate that both sides want to hold onto.

Beşiktaş is mainly working class, and is great for buying anything you could want at a good price. They've got a great bazaar, and lots of funky little shops and restaurants. Some of the happiest moments of my life have been spent there, so tonight I'm thinking about that place and what it must be like right now for the people who live there.

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