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Last Metro to Taksim, part 5: The siege of Constantinople

A night that is almost too calm turns violent, then calm again, and then comes the day to make conclusions. Photography by May Castelnuovo.

Click here for the full series. 

It’s 2 a.m. when we arrive back to Istanbul from Bursa. Istiklal Avenue is busier than at noon. Street musicians are everywhere, many playing “Bella Ciao,” the struggle’s adopted anthem. On our first day here, hearing it played in the square was a thrill. It took three days for it to become a chewed-up hit.

Even here, with all these people about, the spirit of the struggle seems less than invincible. Young folk have their photo taken by a graffiti potrait of Erdoğan, as though this were Disneyland and he Mickey Mouse. We are standing across from the now-repaired Pizza Hut restaurant’s windows, at the very spot where carnage caught us off guard the morning we arrived. Now it’s a different sort of damage that shakes us.

Just as cynicism takes over, there comes the burning sensation and Disneyland is forgotten. The barricades in Beşiktaş were again so badly gas-bombed that the entire Taksim district is in agony. Once more, things seem “real.” In more than one way, it is the police that keep the movement’s momentum alive.

Once the pollution recedes, we descend toward Beşiktaş, to the barricade where we were pepper-gassed the night before. Instead of a battle, we find an argument. Some of the activists favor descending down the dark street — the no-man’s land where I got burned by the gas canister — and “provoking” the police again. Others prefer to maintain a peaceful hold of the high ground. A girl interrupts excitedly, saying something about a camera and photos. It takes us a while to figure the camera in question is ours. She wants the keepers of the barricade to stand together for a group photo.

This may be the most wonderful, and at the same time most discouraging photo of the entire journey. They are here, so many of them. They control of the very heart of the city of 18 million souls. They are young and proud, and they are posing. They weren’t posing the day before.

The following day is to be our last on Turkish soil. May has her studies at the Bezalel Arts Academy, and I must present my weekly radio program, which will be dedicated this week to Istanbul.

After days of tears and dance, this is my one chance to touch down in the rest of the city ahead of the program, to again experience its bipolar disorder, to walk the stunning corridors of Kanyon shopping mall where Yuppies enjoy a salad of endives at “Le Pain Quotidian,” a Belgian café chain.

And the even more stunning alleyway of Fatih, in which Syrian refugee children play.

Looking at the two, I realize that what is happening here these days is nothing new. This is the city that connects Asia and Europe, the very point where eastern and western attitudes have always clashed: from the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD, to the establishment of modern Turkey via a rejection of the Fez and Arabic script.

Turkey does not suffer from an identity crisis, Turkey is an identity crisis. This is the curse and blessing of its bridge-like existence. The demonstrators may not be clear about the raison d’etre of their struggle or precisely of how to conduct it, but they are clear on one thing: the aspiration that their country take on one specific identity over another. While respecting the traditions and aesthetics of their country, they are fighting for a progressive, European Turkey. This is reflected by their attire, by “Bella Ciao,” by everything they told us. “Tayyip,” on the other hand, represents religion and conservatism — the politics of the Middle East.

In my understanding, this is what it all boils down to, from the religious issue to the environmental issue to economic ones. As much as I despise this term, what we are seeing appears to be another episode in the War of Civilizations. That war did not begin in 2001, and it is not only fought between “Christian” and “Muslim” societies (the Taksim protesters are not predominantly Christian). It is a deep rooted conflict that predates modern colonialism, that does not easily yield to contrived categories, and in Turkey, this is the sub-context of struggle.

This is what sets the Taksim story apart from other popular movements currently or recently active. In Spain and Greece the issue was the handling of an economic crisis. Here such crisis is absent. In Tunisia and Egypt, and at least at the onset in Lybia and Syria, the battle was against tyranny. Erdoğan is not a tyrant. If anything, his coming into power represents a democratic break from the army-supported Kemalist regimes of the past. What he is, instead, is a side of the Turkish story, which is the epitome of the entire eastern Mediterranean’s drama. Whether the action in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey dies down in coming days, magnifies or combusts, this will go on. It will go on for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. All we did was witness and describe four days out of history in all its endlessness.

A text message arrives from Anshel: Antakya is peaceful in the afternoon, but the issues voiced by protesters there are different and interesting. He is heading to Şanliurfa, another place where police purportedly used live ammunition and where the Kurdish issue may be part of the package. We are heading to Taksim Square, to bid it farewell, and we find that Gezi Park has been “Rothschildized” with tents.

Just as we wander into the square, thousands of members of various labor unions march into it in a stunning, very loud parade. Each union is joined by a van blaring festive music. Members of the public servants’ association are accompanied by what is unmistakably a Hassidic melody.

No need for the clarinet to highlight similarities. We are returning tonight to our own identity crisis pretending to be a country, where struggles will come and go, always being mere pieces of a grander picture and where the sense of harmony is always elusive. Our bags are full of cevizli sucuk sweets and Kashkaval cheese, our hearts full of love for this place and our heads full of questions as huge as the world.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Piotr Berman

      “Erdoğan is not a tyrant.”

      He is an arrogant populist, and presides over a disturbing number of detentions of journalists, some trials for “blasphemy” etc. His economic policies so far work, but the country may experience a major economic contraction soon.

      Ironically, the protesters of Taksim may have a very good economic case. A well loved park is to be replaced (partially) with a shopping mall (of which there may be too many already) or a mosque (of which there may be too many already).

      The old political parties that were wiped out by the rise of AKP are not to be lamented, and Erdogan inherited quite undemocratic election laws. The protests may spur the opposition to reorganize in a credible manner.

      Reply to Comment
    2. NIZ

      Yuval, honestly, you are talking in terms of binaries of East and West. You are essentializing about Turkey being cursed with a bridge like state. History does not move like that. You are loading the moment with that which is not there. I was just in the square few minutes ago. In fact, many acknowledge what Tayyip has done to the country and he has done a lot. The demonstrations are very healthy for Turkey and they are consolidating democracy. The fact that you see them interms of East vs. West is probably your own projection and is a telling of how you think rather than how the situation is. You are constructing two opposites that negate each other. Taking your remarks, we cannot really think of what is happening because it’s part of ‘thousand of years’ story. That is just incorrect. The demonstrations might be complex and Turkey itself is a complex place, but that does not mean we cannot deconstruct it. By the by, Israeli despotism, where does it come? Is it an integral cultural element of Jewish culture?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Dear Niz, I take your point, absolutely, and I am neither an expert on Turkish politics nor history. What I did was describe my honest thoughts at the end of the journey. I was looking at Istanbul and tried not to think of this moment in history as disconnected from the rest of its history. Things clicked for me, and if this is not the full story, I am certain enough that it is at least a part of it, to make this remark.

      I guide tours of Jerusalem, and often start by telling the groups that Jerusalem is a city without any history, not if history is something that is past. When you have a ruin in Jerusalem, even if it is an archaeological site which tourists pay to enter, people are still fighting about it, or worshiping in it, or weeping over it. Wars that were fought 4000 years ago are still being fought, in a modern manner, and within contemporary context. The issues are the same: water, control of holy places, the religiously justified control of one group over another, etc.

      Turkey of course is different, and yet the relationship between these events, its past and its spirit seem clear to me. A trip through town, from Kanyon to Fatih, makes them all the clearer. In any case, please don’t take offense at my observations, they belong to a mere visitor who is looking forward to returning and deepening his understanding.

      Reply to Comment
    4. NIZ

      Yuval, I am not offended. I like your coverage there. However, when of the biggest problems of racism is that it constructs essences- frameworks which we have to fight for. By creating status, or divisions, we create violence and hate. I do not believe in the existence of a ‘West’…Italy or Bulgaria are so different than Austria or Germany or United States. There is a myth called west, in the same way, there is a myth called East. Istanbul is as diverse as the region it’s in. Influences from the Balkans, Middle East, Black Sea and Russia are all mixing here. What I did not like is that by saying this is part of war of civilization you elevate the conflict to an absolutist level- something that we cannot understand or even dissect. It’s the same mind set that sets violence in the region in motion, rather than interest we are speaking of essences or labels (Jews are like this, Arabs are like that). I think a good approach to this would be to think of the conflict in terms of class, economy, individual rights and oppression vs. freedom. Hitler was western as well…he was not ‘eastern’. I am also a visitor from the levant here and like you, I do not claim to understand it either.

      Reply to Comment
    5. NIZ

      Not to be a critical asshole that does not add to the debate: What is happening in Turkey could be explained as follows.

      1- AKP hegemony- a system halt: When AKP made a coalition with Ocalan – or what is called the peace process. He wanted to a majority in the country to implement his reforms and to silence opposition especially regarding Syria. This gave him a free hand to pass controversial conservative laws. These demonstrations are letting frustrations out- AKP cannot rule without consensus.

      2- Rising Middle Class: Ardogan was successful in creating an expanding middle class. This class is defending its right to common space and wants more to say in local politics.

      3- Neo-liberalsim of AKP is changing Turkish cities, particularly Tarlapasi neighborhood (which I hope you had the chance to visit since it has a great market- reminds me of Tyre in South Lebanon). This neo-liberalism, many times excessive- is attracting disenfranchised. Also, Turkey still has high inequality if you compare it to the rest of OECD.
      4- These demonstrations are saying that Turkey is slowly moving towards liberal democracy. I am very optimistic.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Piotr Berman

      The weakness of Erdogan is that he is an arrogant hothead. This gave him many admirers, as he is decisive, speaks his mind etc., but over time he may accumulate offended constituencies. “Speaks his mind” may be viewed as “unable to correct mistakes, hysterical”. Right now he is railing against hooligans, infiltrators, speculators (bond and stock prices went down) and so on.

      To list offended constituencies, it started with defense of a park that seems serve a very large neighborhood — this part of central Istambul has no other parks, and parks seem important in Istambul culture. Unions have their grievances, and restrictions on sales and marketing of alcohol have some ridiculous aspects.

      The opening toward ethnic rights of Kurds stalled,and engagement in Syria may alienate Shia minority. Syrian civil war started to spill over. These developments may seriously dent AKP vote in the next elections.

      Right now, AKP may rule without other parties, and it can muzzle commercial media to some extend. But the protests may create new, improved opposition.

      Reply to Comment