I am not able, and do not attempt, to tell the full story of recent events in Istanbul. My impression is that mainstream foreign media (in English) do a reasonable job at this. It might be emphasized that the first protesters were yoga practitioners and tree huggers. It was police brutalization of them that drew out more violent protesters—as well as people who had never demonstrated in their lives. If the government had allowed May Day demonstrations this year, as last year, then radicals might have blown off some steam then, and the rest might not have happened. But this is just speculation, not meant to belittle the serious grievances that people have with the government. What follows is just a personal account of a walking tour in the vicinity of Taksim Square, June 1, 2013. I made a Google map of the route. The most interesting experience was seeing plain-clothes police officers retreating from Taksim. The second-most interesting was encountering a wedding of friends of the ruling party, taking place in the gardens of an Ottoman pleasure palace, while police battled protesters about 600 meters away.
We were awakened in the night by a strange persistant sound. Was it the creaking of our building in the Next Big Earthquake? No, it was our neighbors beating on pots and pans.
Our Istanbul flat overlooks a valley. Through this valley, there once flowed waters that would pass Ihlamur Kasırları, the Linden Pavilions. Presumably waters still do this, through the sewers. The Pavilions were constructed, 1849–1855, by architect Nikoğos Balyan, on the order of Sultan Abdülmecid, who reigned 1839–1860. The area that would contain the Pavilions had been popular for picnicking in the early 18th century, and there were vineyards belonging to the superintendent of the Ottoman Naval Arsenal. My source for this information is a bilingual booklet, Milli Saraylar // National Palaces, published in 1995 by the Director of the Department of National Palaces. I assume those vineyards were for the making of wine, and not just table grapes or raisins, but I suppose I could be wrong.
In 1846, before the Linden Pavilions were built, the French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine described a visit to the area. Abdülmecid received him in somewhat humble facilities. One can speculate on whether it was such visits that inspired the Sultan to order the construction of the baroque Pavilions that can be visited today. The gardens of the Pavilions are an oasis of green in a land now covered by asphalt, concrete, and brick.
In the early hours of Saturday, June 1, 2013, our neighbors in a valley so covered were banging on pots and pans, and turning their lights on and off, in protest of the Prime Minister of the Turkish Republic. In the eyes of some, the aim of that Prime Minister would seem to be to create a new Sultanate, with himself as Padishah. “İstifa Tayyip!” our neighbors chanted: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, resign!
Evidently the catalyst for this midnight protest was the previous day’s police invasion of Gezi Park, adjacent to Taksim Square, a forty-minute walk from our flat. Months before, plans had been announced to replace that park with a supposed copy of military barracks that had once stood there. This reconstruction “might” house a shopping mall. The project was part of the pedestrianization of Taksim Square. The roads passing Taksim would all be buried underground.
In fact the work of burying the roads has been proceeding for some time. The many busses that use Taksim have been rerouted.
When the destruction of Gezi Park seemed imminent, activists started occupying it. Police would drive them out of their tents at dawn with tear gas. On May 31, police erected barricades around the park.
Whether the pan-banging protest that night spread from neighborhood to neighborhood by imitation, or whether people were reading about it on Twitter, I do not know. But I myself started reading Twitter then. It appeared that many people had plans to converge at Taksim on Saturday. Some of them walked from the Asian side of the city across the Bosphorus Bridge.
Well, maybe they walked. There were photos on Twitter of people doing this. But false information could be spread this way too, such as claims that the police were spraying Agent Orange on resisters, or that somebody had tread marks on his back from being run over by a panzer.
Though I was also excited, I was frankly annoyed to be awakened by the pan protest. The police had been raiding the Gezi Park encampment at dawn, because they expected people to be at their groggiest and most compliant then. The police can organize to act around the clock. Effective resisters should do the same. I usually wake up before dawn myself; but I cannot do much then, if I have already been awakened earlier in the night.
I did not in fact intend to fight the police on Saturday. Many other people would be doing that: people who grew up in this country and could not be deported. I also did not fancy myself even as a neutral observer at the center of the action. I did want to observe from the fringe. To what extent would normal city life continue, away from Taksim?
Ayşe and I ate lunch at home and went out afterwards. We live near the Cevahir shopping mall, two subway stops north of Taksim. Another piece of probably false information from Twitter was that Cevahir was open overnight, and medics there were treating people wounded by the police. In fact the falseness of this claim was also asserted on Twitter.
Our university building lies between Cevahir and Taksim, and our students go to both places to hang out. On Saturday, the usual crowds were out in front of Cevahir. But there were also clusters of people walking determinedly in the direction of Taksim.
After walking in that direction ourselves, we noticed that no car traffic was coming north. People had used sidewalk planters to barricade the northbound lane of Halaskargazi Caddesi, where it passed Rumeli Caddesi. This intersection happens to be near where Hrant Dink was assassinated.
In the middle of a crowd of people, we spotted Mustafa Sarıgül, the mayor of our borough, Şişli. This is one of the few boroughs of Istanbul still held by the CHP, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party), the party founded by Atatürk. Some people around us waved Turkish flags. Some of these flags bore also the superimposed image of Atatürk in a calpac. This was Mustafa Kemal as Gazi or indeed Halaskargazi, the Victorious Warrior-Savior. A house that he had lived in still stood nearby. I suppose it was Tayyip Erdoğan’s general lack of respect for Atatürk that had riled people up.
We decided to continue further by back streets, as we usually do on the way to Taksim. We turned left on Rumeli Caddesi. Thus we approached the elite neighborhood of Nişantaşı, where Orhan Pamuk grew up and where his novel Museum of Innocence is set. We encountered a couple of tourists, studying their guide book. They did not know anything about the day’s protests. We explained the Prime Minister’s intention to replace a park with a shopping mall.
These tourists had come to Nişantaşı to shop. Their guide book, in German, had suggestions of where to shop. However, the particular store that they were looking for did not exist at the address indicated.
We turned right and made our way roughly parallel to Halaskargazi Caddesi. Our way was nearly empty, until we came to Vali Konağı (“Governor’s Mansion”) Caddesi, which would join with Halaskargazi to become Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) Caddesi, which led to Taksim. Vali Konağı was barricaded by park benches. Many people were milling about, some with surgical masks or bandannas around their necks.
A group came marching under the banner of ÇARŞI, the anarchist supporters of the Beşiktaş football team. The letter A in their name is written with a circle around it.
A young man sitting nearby had red eyes from tear gas. A young woman was methodically pouring vinegar on a scarf, presumably as a prophylactic against the gas. We had thought we felt a slight tingling in the eyes from gas ourselves.
It appears that tear gas is not really a gas, but a powder that can be dispersed as white clouds. Perhaps some of the powder came wafting up to us from other people’s clothing.
When there was a break in the parade along Vali Konağı, we crossed the road and entered a park. In this park, there is a circle of busts of Turkish leaders of the last two thousand years or so. Atilla is one of them. Atatürk is the last.
We can make almost half our walk from home to Taksim through parkland. And yet it is said that Gezi Park is one of the city’s last few green spaces. This is true, but in any case it hardly matters. Gezi Park is in fact a place where children play. It is not really big enough for them to run around kicking a football; but they climb on the jungle gym. What does the Prime Minister propose that these children should do, if the park is destroyed as he wishes? Probably the children should learn to go shopping with their parents.
We passed into what seems to be called both Democracy Park and Maçka Park. It is a stream valley park, although Kadırgalar (“Galleys”) Caddesi runs where the stream once flowed. The park was practically empty. Where were the people who would normally be enjoying the grass and trees on a sunny Saturday afternoon? They were probably protesting at Taksim.
Over Kadırgalar Caddesi, there is a footbridge that one may cross, in order to climb up towards Taksim. Some young people were sitting near the bridge, resting up from their encounters with the police and the tear gas. Two girls preceded us over the bridge, wearing short dresses and surgical masks.
At the top of the hillside, near a building of Istanbul Technical University, there was a stack of paving stones for a renewed footpath in the park. Some these stones had been taken and used to block one lane of Taşkışla (“Stone Barracks”) Caddesi.
Opposite the university building was the Hyatt Regency Hotel. A lot of police officers were standing on the sidewalk in front of this.
We retreated to the park for a bit, then came back. Now there was a line of police busses on our side of the street. We continued to the next intersection anyway and turned left, onto Asker Ocağı (“Soldiers Association”) Caddesi, away from Taksim, down towards İnönü Stadium and the Bosphorus.
We came out on a road with a view of Kadırgalar Caddesi on the other side of the stadium. A parade of people were marching up Kadırgalar. In their midst was a CHP bus with loudspeakers. We turned right (south) towards where we could take İnönü Caddesi up to Taksim. But we encountered a stream of people coming down by another route.
There was something funny about these people. Scattered among them were men wearing a yellow-green police vest. Many in the crowd wore the same blue cap. Some had facial hair, some not; some had shaggy hair, some not. There were no women among them.
They were undercover police officers, retreating from Taksim. Some other observers confirmed this. “Take lots of pictures” they told me, “and show them to people in your own country! Let them see the fascism in our country!”
Some people jeered at the police, but others suggested letting them go. We joined the crowds climbing İnönü Caddesi to Taksim. There was a joyful mood. But some people just sat on the curb, probably exhausted from battling the police. Perhaps they had been up all night.
We joined the crowds in Taksim. The question arose: What does one do now?
Some people worked at demolishing an abandoned police car. But there was not much space to move around in. A couple of ambulances did manage to make their way through the crowds.
We made our own way to the steps leading to Gezi Park. But before we could enter the park itself, other people started smashing up the police facilities, which had stood there behind fences for months. Smoke began rising. Was it tear gas? People began running back towards the steps. There was no way to get down: the steps were already filled with people.
We were pressed from all sides. But the pressure was not great, and there was not a general panic. Somebody called out to the flag-waving comrades of the Turkish Communist Party: could they make a little more room for us?
We somehow made our way through the crowds to Sıraselviler (“Cypress Row”) Caddesi. Away from Taksim, this road becomes lined with tree-shaded sidewalk cafes. It runs down to Tophane, the old Ottoman cannonball factory that is now an exhibition space for our fine-arts university. But we did not walk that far. We took side streets of Cihangir over to İstiklal (“Independence”) Caddesi.
İstiklal was not all that crowded, actually. Most people there were headed towards Taksim. Among them was a former student of ours from Ankara, as well as a member of our current university’s philosophy department. The latter was one of the few people I saw that day who had more years than my 48.
We did not want to go back to Taksim. What might the crowds do? Apparently they were already burning up the police buildings in the park. The Prime Minister would love it if the trees in the park burned down. Indeed, maybe the destructive elements in the crowd were agents provocateurs. We had already seen how many ordinary-looking men the police had working for them. This was the most instructive part of the day.
We heard later that other activists fetched water to put out the flames.
Nevizade (perhaps “Newborn”) Sokağı north of İstiklal is a narrow pedestrian street lined with the tables of restaurants and bars. We saw that these tables were full of men and women drinking beer.
We continued walking, till we reached a cafe outside an exhibition hall. We used to come from Ankara to visit that hall, when the Istanbul Book Fair was still small enough to be held there.
A scene from the terrace outside the hall features in Fatih Akın’s documentary movie, Crossing the Bridge: the Sound of Istanbul. The group called Siyasiyabend sing a mournful song about how the world is owned by idiots. The words are reminiscent of “Washingtron”, by Tru Fax and the Insaniacs: “We don’t know nothing, we want to know less!”
The terrace and its cafe overlook the Golden Horn; but in the foreground is the highway called Refik Saydam Caddesi, the continuation of Tarlabaşı (“Field Head”) Caddesi. This was the route that we had taken with Hrant Dink’s funeral march, from the site of his assassination, across the Golden Horn and the Historic Peninsula to the Sea of Marmara.
From the cafe we walked to the Şişhane subway station, but it was closed. We made our way down to Karaköy with the thought of hailing a taxi home.
We walked via the Galata Tower, in the old Genoese colony. A few tourists were up on the observation deck, but apparently not so many as when I had been there with visiting friends a year before. On the pavement around the tower, we met up with our department’s secretary, his fiancee, and her sister. Women and men were sitting around drinking bottled beer as they used to, in the good old days, before the police prevented them. Taksim and this whole area were in the borough of Beyoğlu, which was under the control of the Prime Minister’s party, the AKP, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party).
In Karaköy, a taxi driver and a bus driver said the road along the Bosphorus was blocked at Beşiktaş. But another taxi driver agreed to try to get through.
It was foolish to try. We did speed along an empty road for a while, but then we came upon a pack of vehicles. We crept along, more slowly than the crowds of people on the sidewalk. We passed Dolmabahçe Palace on our right. On the left was the headquarters of the local military police. People turned towards the latter facility and chanted, “En büyük asker, bizim asker!”
Would you imagine that these were words of condemnation? The power that the crowds had been fighting was civilian police power, not military police power. A rumor seen on Twitter was that the military had been handing out gas masks to protesters. Perhaps many of the protesters wished the Turkish military could have staged a coup before Tayyip Erdoğan emasculated it (by imprisoning lots of generals on charges of plotting a coup).
A Greek scholar of international relations at our university in Ankara got angry at me, when I suggested that many people at the 2007 “Republic Protests” [Wikipedia’s name] wanted a military coup. There was a possibility then that the AKP-led parliament might elect Prime Minister Erdoğan as President of the Republic. Apparently some people at the protests carried signs saying “Soldiers do your duty”. Maybe only a minority of protesters actually wanted a military coup, but in any case, I thought the important question was, What did the military think people wanted?
At the Beşiktaş Military Police Headquarters, on June 1, 2013, what people were chanting was what they chant at the bus station when they are sending their son or brother off for his military service: “The greatest soldier is our soldier!” Great crowds come to the station to see their boys off: these crowds have hampered our own travels.
At the first intersection in Beşiktaş, it appeared that further motion forward would be quite difficult. A police panzer was spewing jets of water at a jeering crowd. We told our driver he could turn around; we would proceed on foot.
Somebody on the sidewalk asked me if I spoke English. “Can you tell us what is going on?” he asked. I explained, as I had to the tourists in Nişantaşı.
“Where are you staying?” I asked the man. His English was not good enough for him to know what I meant. “We are from Iran” he said. His wife wore a black chador, showing only her eyes.
Many visitors from Iran enjoy the freedom from a dress code here—a freedom that some think is threatened by the AKP. I thought later that I might have told this Iranian man, “The people are demonstrating against the government, as people in your country ought to do!” But maybe he supported the mullahs.
I should not necessarily blame the man for his wife’s dress. I think many Turkish women who wear a headscarf do so out of personal conviction. Some of our university students probably fit this description. But none of them wears the chador.
We squeezed through the crowds and turned left onto Şair Nedim (“Poet Nedim”) Caddesi. The police were in the position of defending a hotel called Shangri-La. They did not seem like much of a threat. This was only because they could be expected not to fire bullets at the crowd. However, in recent days they had injured many people, even taking out eyes, by firing tear gas bombs as if they were bullets.
We made our way home past the Linden Pavilions. The gardens were not open to the public that evening. A wedding was taking place instead. Men in dark suits were stationed around the perimeter. Guests had to pass through a metal detector. Some women wore headscarves. There were congratulatory wreaths of flowers from ministers of the AKP government. But perhaps the wedding is not exactly an instance of AKP presumption to be latter-day Ottomans. A websearch suggests that anybody can rent these old Ottoman gardens for an affair.