An uneasy peace: pictures from Istanbul

Tuesday, June 4

Today things were a little bit different. The morning began with a trip to the poğaça shop and the purchase of a couple of newspapers.

The first thing I noticed was that the media censorship seems to be lifting. The newspapers had more coverage of events in cities outside of Istanbul, as did the television news later in the day. The fact that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has left the country for a meeting in Morocco has helped a lot, I think. Erdoğan's absence leaves the handling of the crisis largely in the hands of two other AKP politicians--president Abdullah Gül and vice-PM Bülent Arınç--who have a decidedly different approach to dealing with confrontation than Erdoğan. Whereas Erdoğan has seemingly gone out of his way to invite confrontation with protesters, Gül and Arınç (as well as Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbaş, who is also AKP) have gone out of their way to try to defuse the present crisis. Gül's two major soundbites were that "democracy is not just about elections" and that "well-intentioned messages" have been received.

Arınç, meanwhile, has already apologized to the country for the excessive use of force. It's all that was necessary, frankly, from the start. Whereas Erdoğan just kept throwing gasoline on the fire this weekend, practically begging protesters to keep fighting by announcing on Sunday that he planned to tear down the Ataturk Cultural Center, yet another symbol of Kemalism that he seem hell-bent on erasing from the public sphere, finally some adult politicians--folks who don't seem to have a perpetual chip on their shoulders--had entered the room. And not a minute too soon.

And indeed, the message that you can't just treat people like shit and expect them to just take it does seem to have been received, at least as far as some AKP politicians are concerned.

It's such a completely different feeling here with Erdoğan out of the country. Everything seems more relaxed. In the evening there was a bit of pot-and-pan-banging and some horn honking but much, much less than was the case yesterday or the earlier days. The police are out of Taksim. Things seem calm.

Today I went to Beşiktaş and Taksim. I couldn't put it off any longer.

Ever since these events began last Friday I had made a point of staying away from these places. This country has a history of experiencing sudden, violent provocations during moments of political crisis, and since my arrival last week I'd generally made a point of staying away from crowded places, aware that even a comfortable situation could shift rather quickly. I'd been hanging out mainly in upscale neighborhoods like Arnavutkoy, Bebek, and Etiler, where I felt confident the cops would never dare to mess with local residents.

But with the situation lightening, at least temporarily, I had to go and see what things were like.
First I went to Taksim. My taxi went through Beşiktaş en route, and I could see that it had largely been cleared up. The barricades had been removed, and with the exception of some smashed windows and new graffiti here and there, things looked pretty good. Istiklal Caddesi, the main drag leading from Beyoglu to Taksim in the city center, were also looking relatively spiffy, thanks to a volunteer-led cleanup that took place on Sunday morning of this week. 
At first, things seemed great. A friend and I visited the "Museum of Innocence," after Orhan Pamuk's latest novel, then hung out a little bit on the Tünel side of Istiklal Caddesi. We had lunch, browsed bookstores. 

We were supposed to go to a cocktail and concert at the Lütfi Kırdar center tonight. I'd even bought some eye-catching blue suede shoes for the event the night before in Etiler. But the concert ended up being canceled. Still--what difference did this make? All appeared right with the world.

But then, we started walking up towards Taksim Square, and things started changing. There was all sorts of graffiti sprayed on the street, no cops anywhere to be seen, and lots of people circulating.
 Ataturk statue in Taksim
Then I saw the burnt out cars and buses. This wasn't random vandalism. They had been placed in the middle of the streets to prevent the police from launching another assault upon the protesters, at least from cars (the cops lobbed canister after canister of tear gas upon the protesters from helicopters this weekend, according to HalkTV and others). Frankly, I just felt sick to my stomach.

I found the whole scene appalling. Yes, I know, we're supposed to be celebrating. In the absence of this man who seems to only want confrontation with his political opponents, finally it seemed that responsible politicians had stepped forward and managed to defuse the situation to a large extent. I know a lot of readers of this blog don't like AKP types like Gül
, Arınç, and Topbaş, but the difference between these individuals and a street-fighter like Erdoğan is really like night and day. 
Maybe the system turned Erdogan into this sort of person. The man spent time in jail for reading a poem by Ziya Gokalp in the wake of the military intervention of 1997. He's been hardened, embittered, sometimes to the extent of losing control of his better judgment. That's obviously the case now. At this point, I just don't see how there's any going forward with this talented, but deeply flawed, figure. 
And stepping into Taksim Square, I could see the results of Erdoğan's transformation from an opposition figure who bravely took on a system that was rigged against him into someone who seems willing and eager to turn any disagreement with his fellow countrymen into confrontation, which has now turned violent. Where his career goes from here is anybody's guess. 
The place was totally trashed. I don't care what other people think of the modernist-brutalist architecture in Taksim Square, I loved that place. Maybe the Ataturk Cultural Center is ugly, but I didn't care. Entering Taksim Square meant entering one of the most exciting areas of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. For a kid from SE Michigan who moved here right after college, Taksim Square was the center of a lot of what mattered to me for some of the most important and beloved years of my life. 
And this is what it looks like now:

People were milling around inside the cultural center's rotting shell, neglected for years and exposed to the elements thanks to a deliberate policy of destruction of this symbol, to certain folks in the AKP, of degenerate 'western' culture.
I guess I'm supposed to feel overjoyed or something. This is, after all, a sign of Turkish citizens standing up for themselves against someone who has intimidated, jailed, or bought off almost all of his most credible opponents. But I'm so sorry that it has come to this. I feel devastated, frankly. I'm sure the journo types descending upon Istanbul this week are thrilled, but personally I find seeing Taksim Square in this condition  just depressing.

Burnt out news van


Bus used as roadblock 

Then I entered Gezi Park, where things were really quite different. It's an occupy atmosphere. The cops have been away since the weekend, and there's a really festive feeling there amid the squalor of Taksim.
Feelin' the love in Gezi Park

A Türkü concert in the Park

"Get on your feet!"  

Selling goggles and masks

I'm not trying to harsh anyone's mellow here, and by no means am I blaming the demonstrators for the damage that's been done. In fact, there isn't even that much damage, especially when you consider the fact that the area has been basically empty of police officers for days.

But I wonder how long this is going to last, and feel empty and kind of sad seeing Taksim in this condition. 

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.