June 14, 2013

Gezi Park in the words of five writers


In the rush of news from Taksim Square and Gezi Park, a few writers have come forward to share their experiences on the ground. The story is ongoing, but here are five essays that give a sense of what’s going on in Gezi Park and on the streets in Turkey.

Claire Berlinski, American journalist and author of Loose Lips, wrote a rich firsthand account of the last couple of weeks, from a peaceful night with protestors to the injuries they sustained in the days that followed, for The Spectator:

On Friday night, I strolled through Taksim and Gezi Park, and for the first time in the decade I’ve lived in Istanbul, I found myself in the City of Evet. It felt like a free country….

And it was glorious — a huge innocent carnival, filled with improbable (I would have hitherto thought impossible) scenes of nationalist Turks mingling amiably with nationalist Kurds, the latter dancing to some strange ghastly species of techno-Halay, the former pumping their fists in the air and chanting their eternal allegiance to something very nationalist, I’m sure. Balloons lit with candles sailed over the sky; hawkers sold every species of Gezi souvenir, and the only smell of pepper in the air came from the grilled meatballs served in hunks of fresh bread and sprinkled with chilli powder….

Perhaps the most painful part of the whole thing so far was the glimpse of peace we enjoyed for several days in Taksim Square and Gezi Park in the lull between the attacks. That was when we saw, all too briefly, what this city could be.

Elif Shafak, Turkish author of Honour, wrote about the messages protesters were sending through social media and graffiti in The Daily Beast:

On a wall in hasty letters: “The rich kids have better gas masks, we are jealous.” Nearby in an alley is writing that says: “Revolutionary Gays Everywhere.” One graffiti complains: “I could not find a slogan yet” while another one says cheerfully, “Welcome to the first traditional gas festival.”

Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish-American Princeton/UNC sociologist, posted a blog entry about the concerns she’s hearing from protesters in Gezi Park:

Protesters say that they are worried about Erdoğan’s growing authoritarian style of governance. “He thinks we don’t count.” “He never listens to anyone else.” “Why are they trying to pass laws about how I live? What’s it to him?” Erdoğan’s AKP party won the last election (its third) and is admittedly popular with many sectors of society, including some who are now in the Park have voted for him. It has accomplished many good things for the country through a program of reform and development. Any comparisons with Mubarak and pre-Tahrir 2011 Egypt are misplaced and ignorant. The country is polarized; it is not ruled by an unelected autocrat who has alienated everyone.

She also shared before and after photos of the communal library in Gezi Park:

The same library after June 11:

Elif Batuman, American academic and author of The Possessed, wrote a piece on the protest for the New Yorker on June 1, and it can’t be long before we hear an update from her:

Thinking the demonstration was winding down, I went back home and tried to work on my novel. The demonstration wasn’t winding down. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were flooding the streets….

On my street, spirits seem to be high. Someone is playing “Bella, Ciao” on a boom-box, and I can hear cheering and clapping. But every now and then the spring breeze carries a high, whistling, screaming sound, and the faint smell of pepper gas.

Finally, Nobel Prize winner and longtime Istanbul resident Orhan Pamuk recounted the changes in Taksim Square over the last few decades for the New Yorker:

I’ve been living in Istanbul for sixty years, and I cannot imagine that there is a single inhabitant of this city who does not have at least one memory connected to Taksim Square.

In the nineteen-thirties, the old artillery barracks, which the government now wants to convert into a shopping mall, contained a small football stadium that hosted official matches. The famous club Taksim Gazino, which was the center of Istanbul night life in the nineteen-forties and fifties, stood on a corner of Gezi Park. Later, buildings were demolished, trees were cut down, new trees were planted, and a row of shops and Istanbul’s most famous art gallery were set up along one side of the park. In the nineteen-sixties, I used to dream of becoming a painter and displaying my work at this gallery. In the seventies, the square was home to enthusiastic celebrations of Labor Day, led by leftist trade unions and N.G.O.s; for a time, I took part in these gatherings. (In 1977, forty-two people were killed in an outburst of provoked violence and the chaos that followed.) In my youth, I watched with curiosity and pleasure as all manner of political parties—right wing and left wing, nationalists, conservatives, socialists, and social democrats—held rallies in Taksim.

…It fills me with hope and confidence to see that the people of Istanbul will not relinquish their right to hold political demonstrations in Taksim Square—or relinquish their memories—without a fight.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.