Sunday, June 16, 2013

Istanbul uprising: Beyoğlu after a grim night

When police cleared Istanbul's Gezi Park last night and pushed back demonstrators in surrounding streets with the toughest force seen in the last two weeks of protests, I was an hour outside of the city center, watching on TV and the Internet as my neighborhood burned with tear gas, fury, and, in some cases, actual flames.

Friends and colleagues at Reuters, The New York Times, and other news outlets braved the melee until late into the night to bring to light the latest developments in a country where much of the local media has been cowed into silence. Police water cannons chased fleeing protesters into the courtyard of the German Hospital in Cihangir and fired tear gas after them into the Divan Hotel, which has been widely praised for keeping its doors open to gassed and wounded demonstrators.

I returned this morning to eerie quiet. With special buses and boats being put into service to ferry people to a large pro-government rally in the Kazlıçeşme area of Zeytinburnu, metro service has been suspended three stops out from the Taksim Square area, which has been an epicenter of Istanbul unrest. Other transport services have also been stopped to keep protesters from succeeding in their plans to march on Taksim once again at 4 p.m. local time today. Yesterday, Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bağış said anyone who enters the Taksim area -- one of the city's main commercial and tourism hubs -- will be considered a "supporter or member of a terror organization."

Reports are flying of doctors being detained for treated wounded protesters, homes of demonstrators being raided, and investigations underway of people who used protest-related hashtags on Twitter to spread news. Last week, some 50 lawyers were detained for protesting the treatment of demonstrators, prompting thousands of their colleagues to walk out of court the next day in support. Accredited foreign journalists are being kept out of the Taksim Square/Gezi Park area and Amnesty International has called for the whereabouts of people detained in last night's unrest to be released.

It's hard to believe that three weeks ago none of this had happened yet, and that just a week ago, Gezi Park was still "occupied" by peaceful protesters of an incredibly wide range of political and social stripes -- Turkish nationalists, Kurdish groups, environmentalists, artists, teachers, women's rights and LGBT activists, students, leftists, anti-capitalist Muslims, supporters of Istanbul's typically warring football teams, and many, many more. Despite the massive throngs every night during the week-plus when the park and Taksim Square had been abandoned by police forces, the area had never felt safer -- far more welcoming than on a typical Saturday night when it was often throbbing with macho aggression.

On the stroke of 3 p.m., as protesters gather in adjacent neighborhoods to attempt to return to Taksim Square, my neighborhood has erupted its the pots-and-pans-banging symphony of support heard throughout Istanbul at least once a day since widespread demonstrations began May 31. The city will not remain quiet for long.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Istanbul uprising: DIY urban planning

A year ago, Taksim Square was a traffic-clogged mess, with idling buses spewing exhaust on one side, cabs jostling for position on the other, and throngs of people bumping around in between, surrounded by mostly graceless architecture. Six months ago, those same throngs had been funneled into narrow walkways by even uglier temporary walls fencing off huge construction pits.

People walk across the re-opened square
Despite the square's previous lack of appeal, the government's plan to move surrounding roads underground and pedestrianize the area was not greeted with much applause. An animated rendering released by the municipality showing vast expanses of concrete did little to quell fears that the space would be left lifeless and inaccessible -- worse off than before.

But during the course of the protests that erupted last weekend, demonstrators tore down the construction walls, converting them into makeshift barricades to keep police out of the square. With the walls down and the barricades up, thousands upon thousands of people are flowing through Taksim Square and its surrounding area every day, and few motorized vehicles have been able to enter. Hardly what the government had in mind, but this unplanned pedestrianization has created a new feeling of openness in the square, despite the massive crowds.

A makeshift barricade blocks car traffic
A strange mix of collectivism and commercialization rules the day. While street vendors hawk food, water, beer, tea, Atatürk paraphernalia, Turkish flags, "V for Vendetta" masks, and a myriad of other accessories, protesters have been busily creating the services they need and the public amenities they envision for the area in and around adjacent Gezi Park. Volunteer lawyers and barbers have hung out their shingles, first-aid stations and soup kitchens have been set up, bus stops have been redecorated, community libraries and vegetable gardens are being established. Beyond the square, once-banned tables and chairs are back on the streets of the Beyoğlu neighborhood.

The people have firmly shown they have some ideas for how Istanbul's public space can and should be used. The question is, will anyone listen?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Istanbul uprising: Turkish vocabulary lesson

Still wondering what all those people in the street have been chanting since mass protests broke out on Friday or what all that new graffiti around the city says? Here's a handy guide to what they probably didn't teach you in Turkish class:

AVM > shopping mall
The Turkish acronym stands for "alışveriş merkezi" (shopping center). Since the initial protests were sparked in part by plans to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park, you'll see lots of mall-related slogans around, such as this one written on the Demirören AVM on İstiklal Caddesi: "AVM yıkılsın yerine park yapılsın" -- Let the mall be torn down and a park built in its place.

boyunu eğme > literally, "don't bow your neck"
This one's been popping up on signs all over lately, calling for people not to be subservient.

"Stay calm and don't attack police, continue resistance"
cephe > front/side
Often combined with "halk" (people), as in "halk cephesi" (people's front).

çapulcu > looter/riff-raff
Used by Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan to describe the (overwhelmingly peaceful) demonstrators and subsequently sardonically adopted by many protest supporters as part of their Facebook names.

çevik kuvvet > riot police
Literally, "nimble force," or something along those lines.

defol > piss off/go to hell
Don't use this one unless you mean it!

devrim > revolution
Also a man's name.

direniş > resistance/opposition
A form of the same root word appears in the Twitter hashtag #direngeziparki that's being used to spread news about the demonstrations sparked by police violence against a sit-in to protect Istanbul's Gezi Park.

eylem > action
Part of the phrases used for sit-ins, labor actions, police actions, etc.

gaza geldik
This play on words literally translates as "We came to the [tear] gas," but also carries the slang meaning "We got pumped up."

istifa > resignation
Generally heard/seen in the slogans "Tayyip istifa!" or "Hükümet istifa!" calling on the prime minister (Tayyip is his middle, and most commonly used, name) or the government to resign.

isyan > rebellion/revolt
Cleverly incorporated into "İsyanbul" to describe the current situation in the city.

katil > murderer

kimyasal > chemical
As in "Kimyasal Tayyip," referring to the copious use of tear gas to break up protests. The nickname apparently goes back to May Day protests in 2008.

kurtarmak > to save/rescue
You might see this verb conjugated as "kurtaralım," meaning "let's save."

küfür > cuss/curse

milli içki > national drink
A reference to Erdoğan's statement in late April -- before pushing through tighter restrictions on alcohol advertising and sales -- that Turkey's national drink was the non-alcoholic yogurt-based beverage ayran, not beer or the popular local liquor rakı. "Milli içkimiz gaz" is a common current usage, meaning "Our national drink is [tear] gas."

mücadele > struggle

muhalefet > opposition

Shorthand for the Turkish slang for "son of a b*tch/whore." Usually appears before "Tayyip."

saldırı > assault/aggression
Usually combined with "polis" (police).

yaşasın > long live/hurray
Common recent usages include "Yaşaşın Gezi Parkı," "Yaşasın özgürlük" (Long live freedom), and "Yaşasın sosyal medya" (referring to the mainstream Turkish media's initial silence on the protests and police reaction, and/or the prime minster's scapegoating of social media as "the worst menace to society" for its role in spreading the news).

zıpla > jump
The imperative form of "zıplamak" (to jump) has become part of a chant that goes "Zıpla! Zıpla! Zıplamayan Tayyiptir!" -- or "Jump! Jump! Whoever doesn't jump is (a) Tayyip!" Thanks to @barisp for the full explanation of what all those jumping crowds are chanting.

What else is must-know Turkish vocabulary these days? Send me your additions and amendments and I'll update the list.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Istanbul uprising: The shifting moods of Taksim Square

Taksim Square was eerily quiet at around 3 p.m. on Saturday. I had just walked up through Cihangir with a large, loud group of protesters and seen the wall of tear gas that awaited them on Siraselviler Caddesi, and heard reports of packed crowds (and more tear gas) in nearby Harbiye. But Istanbul's central transit hub was nearly empty. A lone taxi or two drove past the Garanti Bank, where policemen sat on the curb with their helmets off and riot shields stacked up, elbow-to-elbow with people with makeshift gas masks hung around their necks. Both sides looked weary. Everyone seemed to be waiting to see what would happen next.

Half an hour or so later, police buses and armored vehicles began to roll up, filling the street. The resting police slowly picked up their shields and headed across the square, where a phalanx of officers had formed in front of Gezi Park, the initial flashpoint of the protests. The growing crowd got to their feet and began to chant again: "Faşizme karşı omuz omuza!" (Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!) More people continued to stream into the square. Suddenly, the sky was full of white trails shooting into the sky and then falling toward the earth again, exploding in clouds of smoke. Tear gas.

The crowd around me surged through the doorway of a hotel, whose lobby quickly filled with gas and people suffering its effects -- crying, coughing, in some cases vomiting. Through the window, I could see the protesters who had just been gassed moving en masse back toward the square. Undeterred, unafraid.

An hour or so later, the police were gone. As word of their apparent retreat spread on social media, Taksim began to fill with people milling about, aimlessly compared to their previous purposefulness. Had they won? Or were the police off somewhere, regrouping? Turkish parties and unions with their banners held aloft joined what had until this point seemed -- for once -- like an uprising of individuals rather than interest groups. Something seemed to have disappeared from the air along with the tear gas.

Much later, reports began to circulate that the battle had moved down the hill to Beşiktaş. Past midnight, as I walked from Osmanbey back to Taksim, the air was again hazy with tear gas billowing up from those clashes. With the streetlights out, people passed each other in the dark, mouths covered by surgical-style masks, dabbing at their eyes. Around Taksim, the detritus of the uprising -- police barriers, ripped-up pavement, even burned-out vehicles -- had been commandeered by protesters into crude but effective blockades. Broken glass crunched under our feet and rowdy shouts rang out through the night. The square itself was a surreal landscape of overturned cars, smoldering fires, graffiti, garbage, and clusters of people drinking beer. I went to bed disheartened. Had getting back into Taksim Square had become the sole endgame, as if it was May Day all over again? And did the protests, which had started so peacefully and with such great community spirit, have to devolve into something that would make it easier for the prime minister to continue to paint his critics as "marginal" elements within society?

Sunday morning restored my faith. Protesters had gone to Taksim Square and Gezi Park early to clean up, even replanting trees that had been uprooted in the park during the unrest. Donated garbage bags, wet wipes, cleaning gloves, packages of food, and bottles of water had been arrayed neatly along a wall for anyone to take and use. Police barriers had been re-re-purposed into booths where volunteers dished out food, supplies, even fresh clothes. People wandered through the jubilant crowd passing out snacks and rain ponchos in case the sky clouded over again. Pulled-up paving stones were arranged to spell out "Taksim halkındır" (Taksim belongs to the people) as bystanders cheered. The spirit of community was back in spades, but still I wondered, was this end? Would everyone go back to work Monday, with only the vaguest of aims accomplished? Or was it the beginning of something real?