[text] A journey through streets, squares and neighborhoods of the “occupied Istanbul”

Writing about Istanbul may be easily a confusing task. Just as confusing as it is to walk around the city, its backstreets and neighborhoods.  Endless moving…Sixteen million (many believe its twenty) people move around day and night from the Byzantine fortified Istanbul to the European part of the city…from Europe to Asia. 

Taksim square is the heart of Istanbul. This is where all events that marked the Turkification of the country, is the place where people’s political consciousness lives. Here you will find the ghosts of the past as their tombs were covered to suit the living. While the West talks about material, the East talks to the soul. In this crazy megapolis, where all coexist and everything is allowed, the East withholds time. It denies change, protects its acquired in the dark ground floors, keeps its habits, lives its own life and feed its future with fresh blood.

Ataturk downgraded Istanbul by proclaiming Ankara as the country’s capital city. A man of charm and contradiction, Ataturk wanted to create a contemporary state released from its Ottoman past. For sixteen years he kept an ongoing cultural revolution traumatizing in a sense a society that still is looking for its identity in a flag and religion.

Again it is Taksim Square that provides another landmark in the recent history of this country: the violent riots in 1977, the bloodstained May 1st as this will be stated from then on in the Turkish history. A tragic account: 34 dead and hundreds injured. These events justified the enforcement of the military dictatorship and the creation of a generation filled with fear and apathy.

At the 35th anniversary of the 1977 riots, on May 1st, 2012 Taksim square was flooded once more with demonstrators, even though up to the latest demonstrations such massive events were not allowed in the area.

Today’s events were initially based on the environmental aspect of the issue-the destruction of Gezi park to build a new shopping mall, while the events in 1977 were based on completely different ideas. Nevertheless, the revered significance of Taksim Square for the Turkish people puts these current events on a symbolic pedestal as the reconversion plans at Gezi Park could be seen as an ‘attack on civic symbolism’. What is happening now is unorganized and its Erdogan and the depression he exercises to the people was the spark that led them to the square. People view Prime Minister Erdoğan as becoming involved in too many aspects of their lives and therefore, were seeking an outlet through which to publicize their concerns. The inhabitants of Taksim Square and Gezi Park did not have strong ideological affinities. People of different political backgrounds, lifestyles, and identities co-existed, displaying a level of tolerance that is not typical of Turkey. Fans of rival football clubs, members of the LGBT community walked around with pride, and people of different political orientations were together under unlikely banners.

 

For once more, I say farewell to the beloved “city”, with a smile and many fears for the future of this country. I am leaving filled with optimism for the citizens of this country and the democracy lessons given and received. At the same time though I feel sad and ashamed because through the honest love they offered me, I realized how faint-hearted can we become and how fake and rotten the cocoon we are living in is, in our modern Western societies.

As far as the so called revolutionary aspect of Greeks, this is drained in the burning down of banks, cars (especially those we’d really wish we had) and looting of shops.

I had hours of conversations with professors, workers, unemployed, professionals, students, doctors, representatives of movements LGBT, lawyers who defend basic human rights pro-bono, with people whom identity I can’ t reveal (for protection and integrity reasons), with people wearing football team shirts, with ladies wearing the hijab, people in neighborhoods outside of Taksim square.

Nowhere I found political saviors who would try to elicit votes and consciences by offering deceptively dreams. From the beginning they did not have a right to be there and nobody wanted them to. Turk citizens want simple and tangible things that the “old guard” was never in a position or never wanted to give. This they know, and that is why they fight for true freedom.

 

It is important though to walk through these neighborhoods outside the Taksim square. In the poor neighborhoods of Istanbul, in the slums, where oppression and fascism overcomes everything (not anymore though), the battle has begun. In Ok Meydani quarter, they invite people door-to-door. People participate at a battle for freedom, for a true, contemporary and democratic society.

Kurds, Turks, Alevis, they all come together banging pots…making noise. Turkey has suffered greatly from polarization along cultural lines. The pacifier of nationalism and racial hatred that put people to sleep for all those years, have ended. United they demonstrate.

If Taksim and ‘Gezi’ park are just a great party with colors and full of optimism, at ‘Gazi Mahellesi’,   a working-class neighborhood where mostly Alevis and Kurdish minority live, the battle has begun.  The quarter is known for the events that occurred in March 1995, known as the “1995 Gazi Quarter riots”, where during the four-day lasting unrest, a total of 23 people were killed and more than 400 were injured.

Kids with their mothers, young girls, grandfathers and old ladies wearing the hijab, along with 25 year olds - born in the military dictatorship – and with no experience in revolutions, with no protective masks, with hand made protection wrapped in cling film, fight the most moving battle I have ever witnessed. United  waiting every night the water auras with chemicals and the stun grenades.

The minute they found out I am Greek - there is strict control for the prevention and avoidance of vigilantes - they hugged me and lift me up in the air!!! For the first time I was ashamed to wear a gas mask, in front of their “nakedness” and passion.

No anarchists, no political parties, nothing… just people filled with passion and no fear in front of the water, the chemicals and the stun grenades. People in the street puts fire on everything… everything but private businesses and shops. The ‘Garanti Bank’ branch on Taksim Sq has been sprayed all over and damaged, since the bank belongs to the ‘Dogus Group’ which also owns NTV Channel - the latter maintained a scandalous silence on the protests over four full days. ‘Saray Pastry Shop’, a concern which belongs to Mayor Mr. Kadir Topbas, has been gutted, incurring the wrath of the people for the repeated misdeeds of the Metropolitan Municipality and its encroachment on public space and the massive destruction of the city's heritage. People’s targets were only whatever reminded them of police or the powerful Turkish media. Their target was fascism and repression.

On Monday June 10, early in the morning, I received a call from a leader of the steering group of ‘insurgency Gazi Mahallesi’.

He reported that after ten days and nights of continuous battles with the police and since the police could not break the blockade, they offered seize of chemicals as long as the people continue to do what they are doing since day one. Not destroy private property. Since they did not give an excuse and since they lasted for all these days, at least for now they won a battle.

Nobody knows how this will apply but the message is clear and simple. The battle for freedom and dignity does not go through banks’ and shops’ burning and looting.

If the message and demand for true freedom is clear, then so is the danger for Kemalism and hard core followers of “yesterday”. They weren’t dominating but their presence was more than obvious. If we take in consideration the lack of experience of the Turks in demonstrations and “changes”, this danger is existent.

Resistance in one way or another will continue due to the intolerance shown by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The need for the people is to gather around something organized in order to have rigid results, since there is no substantial and capable opposition to the existing regime of Erdogan.  So even though Gezi park was bombarded with gas last night, the movement won’t end here. Something foundational in Turkish society has shifted. For everyone.
 

© Dimitrios Bouras/dimitriosbouras photography®