A Letter to Matt from Istanbul
As I am not an expert on Turkish politics, the following will have to suffice to explain what is going on: the current leader of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, is a pious technocrat who seems to nurture ambitions after sultanhood. Conveniently, I think the most ready analogy for the political situation in Turkey as a whole is the United States under Bush: Erdogan is the pious head of a secular republic whose civic culture, on the whole, tends to be both conservative and religious. He won landslide victories in elections three years ago.
Everyone in Istanbul hates him. Not to sound like Joan Didion here, but I have yet to meet a single Turk who has had a good thing to say about the man. Granted, my experience is not that broad, and Istanbul is a very liberal place. But everyone despises him. He’s not instituting sharia or anything crazy like that, but he has been incrementally nudging the country towards a vision of the good life that is line with a Islam, i.e., more religious education and less booze. It’s a big shift from the capital-S Secular order instituted by Ataturk, which actually banned headscarves in public institutions for a long time.
To be honest, I think his tenure has been a pretty positive era for Turkey overall: overseeing this level of economic growth and making peace with the Kurds are major achievements. But he’s used heavyhanded press censorship and political patronage and gardenvariety corruption to achieve these goals. He seems to have a Putinesque scheme in the works to rule the country after his term limits are up, and he’s also been trying to cement his legacy with all of these grandiose and possibly-destructive development projects in Istanbul — a ludicrous new canal, a complete overhaul of Taksim, a titanic mosque on the Asian side of the Bosphorous.
At work on Friday I had read on Twitter (natch) about how protests over the destruction of an (admittedly, super-dodgy) public park in Taksim square had escalated into a general strike against Erdogan and the governing party. The metro to Taskim was cut off a stop early, so a coworker and I decided to walk home from the nearest stop. We stopped by this store I had heard about that sells cheap nice bath towels, which are bizarrely difficult to find here. As we got close to the square we neared a crowd of protesters coming out from Taksim, and the crowd around us (middle-class Turks and businessmen) broke into cheers and applause, chanting antifascist slogans.
As the inbound and outbound crowds merged, suddenly everyone started yelling and rushed for a sidestreet containing the ritzy Istanbul Hilton and a convention hall housing the Elidor Miss Turkey 2013 pageant. The police from the main road fired a tear gas canister down our street, and so I had the novel experience of being teargassed directly in front of the Elidor Miss Turkey 2013 pageant. The newly-acquired bath towel came in handy, because holding it over my face helped with the gas. Getting teargassed is pretty unpleasant.
One source of my newfound respect for the Turks: they really know what they are doing when it comes to protesting. Everyone had surgical masks at the ready. Everyone had swim goggles or scuba masks with them. They were prepared. As we walked home around Taksim, there were tons of folks on the streets with lemons (used to counter teargas) and homemade anti-teargas spray. Everyone was helping each other out, with the old ladies in the upper floors of the buildings chanting support and throwing lemons to the crowds below. People sat around and drank beers on the side of the street during the lulls in the action (I joined them). Everyone is extremely good at chanting. Until 3 at night you could hear people banging pots and pans from their apartments as a sign of solidarity.
I went back out on Saturday afternoon. To be honest, I am just a looky-loo in all this. I love Turkey and I support what these people are doing, but this is their fight.
The scene in Cihangir, a posh neighborhood full of boutiques and nice cafes, was kind of surreal. Just imagine that, like, all of Park Slope had decided to riot instead of go to brunch, wearing the same clothes. Actually, there was a pretty wide mix of people out, all taking photos of each other with their cell phones: middle-aged Kemalist dudes, teenage riffraff, hipster babes, anarchists, old communist diehards. On the main street, men supporting rival football clubs (who are customarily disposed to murder each other) proudly posed with their soccer scarves,which they had taken to the protest.
By mid-afternoon on Saturday the police (who had spent the last night teargassing everyone in sight) had vacated Taksim Square, and a huge jubilant crowd funneled in. A festive atmosphere set on a perfect spring day. People stood around, cheering and waving various party flags. They lay around in the sun and took photos and recharged their phones.
What now? I don’t know, I don’t think anyone does. Nobody I’ve talked to thinks this is a Tahrir-style moment leading to the fall of the government. Everyone chanted for Erdogan to resign, but that is not what is going to happen — at least not now. There is no credible political opposition. What we saw was a loose assemblage of people and ideologies who all hate what the prime minister is trying to do to Istanbul and to the country at large. So far they’ve succeeded in getting everyone’s attention.