A Letter to Matt from Beirut
Greetings from Beirut! I have been in Lebanon for three days, in order to take a standardized test. It is a positively lovely country. A pair of young men on the street helped me when I was wandering lost on the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood at midnight, allowing me to use the wifi on the balcony of their sleeping family’s apartment so that I could locate the flat I had rented. I encourage all human beings come here as a gesture of gratitude. (To Andreas and Gabriel: may the winds be ever at your back. May you make it to Las Vegas again.)
You are probably wondering what is happening in my hometown of Istanbul, Turkey. Let’s start here: about two weeks ago, the police vacated Taksim square and everyone decided to have a party.
I’m only exaggerating slightly; after several days of sustained, teargas-intensive streetfights over the town’s central square (described earlier), the protestors took over the place. So what do you do if your ragtag coalition of communists, middle-class secular liberals, youths, Kemalist diehards, and soccer fans successfully faced down the might of the Turkish state? Apparently, you kick back and crack open some beers.
A small collection of tents in Gezi Park, the destruction of which was the impetus for the protests in the first place, ballooned into an autonomous tent republic: its denizens set up a free lending library, pooled food and distributed it freely, and arranged for garbage collection. In the park in the surrounding square, the entrepreneurs swarmed in, selling watermelon, tea, Ataturk swag, kofte, beers, and Guy Fawkes masks. Various political constituencies (the commies, the political parties, the environmentalists, the gays) set up booths and distributed literature and held massive rallies. There was a lot of guitar music and dancing. A friend of mine told me that the whole scene reminded him of a Widespread Panic concert.
Which is all to say: while the headlines over the past week and a half were still documenting the violence of the preceding weekend, a pretty lovely scene was taking shape in the center of Taksim. Every day and night it was packed with throngs of wellwishers, activists, and partiers. I incline towards skepticism when it comes to hippie-led social endeavours, but even I was cheered and impressed by the air of good cheer, solidarity, and civic pride you felt in the park and around Taksim. I don’t want to oversell the level of social unity on display here: there were very few women in headscarves, and there were very few Kurds. I heard of clashes between various constituencies in the park. But the park was kept clean. Beer sales were cut off last Wednesday to honour the muslim holiday. For a decentralized affair involving thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, it was remarkably well-run and peacful.
Nevertheless, a palpable air of dread hung over the whole affair, because Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seems to have lost his mind.
Erdogan has shown himself to be a much less impressive leader than I took him for. I think that he could have come back from his tour of North Africa and said the following: “Dear rabble, I have a broad popular mandate to carry out environmentally destructive, ludicrous infrastructure projects and nudge the country towards an Islamist lifestyle. I know you don’t like it, but this is representative democracy. Them’s the breaks.” I think this an inadequate response, stemming from an inadequate conception of democracy, but it’s something we could debate over. This would have been a credible response.
Instead, Erdogan has made liberal use of the deluded-autocrat-in-extremis handbook. He has variously blamed the uprising on Twitter, foreign media, “interest-rate cartels”, and bums. (This last contention is most conclusively refuted by a spontaneous demonstration last week at Kanyon, an upscale mall housing the lunchspots of the city’s upper-middle-class) He has imprisoned journalists, lawyers, and twitterers. Ominously, he has tried to cast the protests as a war on the religious: he has repeated lies about the protestors, accusing them of impiety in a bid to shore up his support amongst conservative muslims. He seems to bank on the hope that Turks who receive their news exclusively from the print and television outlets that are under state control will buy this line. That is, he’s betting that his decade-long effort to achieve a stranglehold on the national media will bear fruit when the chips are down. This remains to be seen.
In the 3 days I’ve been out of town, the scene has reached a new equilibrium, the exact nature of which I cannot suss out. On Tuesday the government started cracking skulls and throwing teargas again. On the following day, there were overtures towards compromise. Last night the protestors hosted a piano concert while a ring of riot police and watercannons encircled the square.
I cannot imagine this will end well.