“Tayyip, Tayyip, burning bright, in the forests of the night, ” grimly joked my private student at our morning elocution lesson last Friday in his luxury flat on the nineteenth floor of one of a pair of blocks towering over the sprawling classy shopping mall below, ant-sized workers constructing more massive towers in a field nearby. We were working on the rhythm and stress in William Blakes’s poem ‘The Tyger’, but our minds were more occupied by the news we’d just heard via a call from his friend that police had made an early morning invasion on the camp of demonstrators protesting against the decision of the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to demolish Istanbul’s pleasant Gezi Park in central Taksim Square to make way for an Ottoman-style shopping mall. Police had beaten the protestors and sprayed them with tear gas and then erected fences around the park, preventing access.
My student had been in the park with the protestors the night before, and was worried about friends that might have been wounded. I had visited during the daytime and had been impressed by the courage of the few hundred congregated there under the threatened trees.
“This is going to cause trouble,” he said.
After changing metal coins into a plastic disk from a dispensing machine to gain access to the soulless metro, I got off at Taksim (I live in the ‘slums’ of Tarlabaşı nearby), and had a look at the park, which was indeed completely surrounded by tall metal grill barriers. I noticed a couple of cops sipping glasses of tea under a tree, birds singing. As I walked round searching vainly for a way in, I noticed more and more people arriving, the curious like me, and some with a determination to support the protestors who had been attacked by the police.
When I got home I decided to make a collage. I didn’t know what it would be – something to protest about the PM and his plan for the Park. I had to leaf through my flatmate’s old newspapers to get a suitable Erdogan face. I haven’t made any collages of Erdoğan since I was found guilty of insulting him with a caricature in 2010 and threatened with jail if I made another, but this brash bullying deserved an artistic comment. While sifting through my library of photographic material I occasionally went out onto my little balcony due to the echo of rapid gunfire and watched the clouds of tear gas floating up and hovering over nearby Taksim. The acrid smell began to reach and burn my eyes, so I closed the door to continue my work. I came up with this image of a threatened tree eking revenge on the ecologically-unsound President. I took the body from an old collage featuring Pope Benedick being hanged by a nun.
I took the image to a photocopy shop in nearby Istiklal Caddessi and had some small copies made. When I came out the air was full of gas, smoking cannisters rolling down the street, police firing at running chanting crowds. I decided to go home, but when I went out later after dark, I found Istiklal Street jam-packed with people all facing in the direction of Taksim Square where a battle seemed to be raging. The angry roar of the front ranks mingled with the chants of the thousands behind demanding the resignation of the government. The constant firing of the tear gas guns sounded from the Square where the police were trying to prevent access, clouds hanging in the air. Many were wearing surgical masks, and people were handing out slices of lemon, which can surprisingly alleviate the sting in the eyes from the gas. I had dinner in a cheap lokanta in a quiet little back street before returning home through the excited defiant crowd, surprised and elated.
On Saturday, realising that I probably wouldn’t be able to tell fortunes with my runestones in the lower part of Istiklal Street as usual that day, (it’s how I make my living), what with the protests, I decided to go to a ‘Garden Fair’ I’d seen advertised in a park in another district, a kind of car-boot sale, and I thought it might be nice to sit on the grass in a park to rune instead of a closed shop doorway in a street.
Sure enough, when I got to Istiklal Street there was commotion going on, the haze of gas hanging in the sunny air, people,not many, standing around and watching as police chased a crowd down the street to my usual runing place. I actually asked a cop, in his black uniform and round white helmet, which was the best way to get to Maçka Park, my destination. He pointed his heavy rubber truncheon in the direction of Taksim Square, saying it was clear in that direction at the moment. Surprised, I advanced towards Taksim and viewed the results of the previous night.
Graffitti calling for Erdogan’s resignation and condeming the government and the police was sprayed everywhere, along with signs for revolution, peace and brotherhood. Bank windows were broken and cash machines smashed. All the shops were shut, many with defiant slogans sprayed on their windows. In the square a couple of police cars had been overturned and graffittied. People were beginning to arrive for a rally, but as yet the area was quite empty as I walked through it. As I made my way downhill I passed a platoon of black uniformed policemen hurrying to the square. I looked at their faces as they passed, a mixture of confusion, ignorance, fear and sadism, but all young. Some looked away when our eyes met, ashamed?
The garden fair was cancelled. As I lay in the park in the cooling shade of a tree, the sound of chanting, singing, drums and pipes and whistles reached my ears and I looked up. Thousands of people were marching in the direction of Taksim with flags and banners, rivers of them, men and women, young and old, some with children. They booed and banged on a police van held up in the traffic, but a march warder calmed them from further assault. I left the park and joined the teaming throng of defiant united friendly people, going with the slow-moving but sensitive flow, no-one pushing or shoving, finally reaching the practically empty square of before, which was now overflowing with jubilant crowds. Black clouds of smoke were billowing up from the park area. I worried that the trees had been set alight, but was informed that it was merely a police bus that had been set on fire. Indeed, the police were totally absent from the area. The people were celebrating their victory. Still a week later, the streets of central Istanbul are police-free, and it feels so much safer without them.
Following a surprise email request for me to appear as a guest on RUSSIA TODAY’s CROSSTALK debate programme on the topic “Turkish Spring”, I made my way on Tuesday to find the studio where I was to be filmed, near Galata Bridge. I got lost and made it just in the nick of time.
These are the questions I was asked to answer beforehand –
Is Turkey experiencing its own version of the “Arab Spring?”
I suppose that’s a convenient label. It’s a rising of people who have had enough, together in solidarity against an increasingly fascist regime. The sowing of the seeds of revolution in Spring is exciting, but the reaping of a good harvest in the Fall is the most important goal.
· What is driving the recent surge of popular dissatisfaction?
The proposed demolition of the Taksim Park and the violent treatment of the protestors was the tipping of mountain of dissatisfactions that have been heaped up by the actions and decisions of the AKP government contrary to the wishes of the people – the destruction of beautiful natural areas by building of dams, the building of Nuclear power plants in earthquake-prone areas, the building of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, and a third Istanbul airport, the building of a huge mosque on the top of Camlica hill dominating the skyline of Istanbul, the ugly towering corporation buildings going up everywhere, the jailing of critical journalists and writers, the recent restrictions on alcohol – so many reasons. And the draft still exists in Turkey.
· Is the conflict between urban vs rural, the more religious vs secular?
It seems Erdogan would like it to be religious vs secular, but I think it is people vs the government. The biggest cry on the street is for them to resign.
· Does foreign policy play an important role among protesters?
It’s not mentioned so much, but of course it’s there. Many are angry about the American air base in Incilik, for example, which is home to over a hundred American nuclear bombs. On Turkish soil.
· Many describe Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan style of rule as authoritarian – is this a fair description?
“Dictatorial” might be another description.
· A man in a hurry: Erdogan is trying to leave his stamp on Turkey by recasting foreign policy, overhauling the constitution and even transforming the ancient Istanbul skyline. Too much, too fast?
He should be stopped now before it’s too late.
I was sat at a desk in a little dark room in front of a camera. I couldn’t see the others, only hear their voices through a little earphone. I decided to wear my Free Palestıne t shirt, and (inspired by a picture I’d seen on a street wall of President Obama manipulating Erdogan as a string puppet) at the end of the programme I held up a collage picture of Obama as an accordian-playing puppet, the strings operated by an unseen hand, but it wasn’t shown. I felt I didn’t get much of a word in on the programme, but I received an email from a mahdi saying he was grateful for what I said about Shiahs and Sunnis.
I’ve been making a daily visit to the threatened Gezi Park all week. The Square and the park, and indeed even Istiklal Street now completely belong to the people. Formally banned street-sellers display their wares on the pavement and road. Flags, whistles, gas-masks, brightly-coloured plastic crash helmets, and masses of the Guy Fawkes masks made popular by the Anonymous Movement selling like hot cakes.
Gezi Park is full of tents and beautiful people. There is a utopian feeling, with socialist, communist, anarchist, feminist and gay solidarity groups, free open buffets, debating areas, yoga sessions, and a library. Protestors go around collecting rubbish. There is dancing and singing and an overwhelming optimism.
Yesterday I came across a group digging the ground and planting saplings and flowers in the area at the end of the park where the bulldozers and cranes bit into the earth last week and removed a few trees before they were stopped.
“Why don’t you plant some marijuana?” I asked one of the team, resting in a deckchair.
“It’s forbidden,” he smiled.
“Why is it forbidden?” I asked. “It’s an innocent natural herb that’s of great benefit to mankind. It was forbidden by the government. But we’ve said to hell with the government! This is the revolution. The rules have changed.”
He agreed with me, and said he would definitely plant some seeds if I brought them.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“I promise!” he replied.
Prime Minister Erdoğan is back in Turkey after a visit to North Africa, sternly demanding that the demonstrators leave Gezi Park. The idea of their voluntary dispersal at the moment seems incomprehensible. Who knows what may happen next? But in the meantime, long live the Occupation!
Enjoy the freedom of CONSTANTI -NO-POLICE!
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website.