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Notes From Istanbul

Terrible Tuesday in Taksim Square

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

Istanbul.

PAT!  PAT!  PAT!  PAT!  PAT!

The first sound of volleys of teargas cannisters being fired by police at the protestors in nearby Taksim Square came in through my open balcony door as I knelt on the floor at the start of my morning yoga routine on Tuesday.  It was just after 8 am.

“Cunts!” I cursed.  I had been visiting the protest camp in Gezi Park in since it started at the end of May, and watched in growing admiration as it rapidly transformed from a small group objecting to the proposed destruction of some trees to a huge fairground of free speech and democracy, brothers and sisters arm in arm against the  despotism of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and the fascist police, whom they had successfuly driven from the park and the square, and indeed Istanbul’s main pedestrian shopping street,  Istiklal Avenue.  The whole area had been delightfully cop-free for ten days, and it never felt safer.  But now, from the sound of things, they were back.

The sound of shots resounded intermittently throughout the morning.  Checking for news on the internet, I learned that the police had been sent in to remove the barricades erected by protestors which were blocking the roads into Taksim Square and clear away the tents and flags there, as well as to remove the revolutionary banners and posters put up on the front of the Atatuk Cultural Centre building.  It was promised that the park was not to be touched.  Police were spraying crowds with water cannon and firing at small groups of people throwing stones and molotov cocktails at them.  Thanks to the cops, my plans for the morning would have to be shelved.

A couple of days before I had discovered a tented area in the park set up as an open school/university and had intended to give elementary  English oral tests there, and maybe teach some protest songs such as ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’.  Somehow, with all that shooting going on, it didn’t seem quite the right time for school.

At midday I went out for lunch at a cheap lokanta in town.  As I ate, I occasionally glanced at the large tv screen on the wall where Prime Minister Erdoğan was talking in Parliament about the situation in Taksim and Gezi Park.

“Our determinacy with regard to Taksim Square and the Gezi Park will continue.” he said.  “I am sorry, but Gezi Park is a park not a place to occupy.  I tell these youngsters to leave this place and to end this protest as I believe their sincerity and I kiss their eyes.  But I tell those who terrorize and continue these things – “This came to an end. There will be no tolerance afterwards. I call on you for restraint.”

He said that activists occupying Gezi Park were part of an orchestrated plot against his AKP government by internal and external lobby groups that joined forces to stop the economic and political rise of Turkey, but said that he would show them on Friday when two rallies have been called for his supporters to show up in huge numbers.

“We are taking to the streets to show that the people are here and defending their popularly elected prime minister and his team. We are coming to take the squares to demonstrate the response of my people who have been watching all of these developments in their houses with gritted teeth.” He also called on his electorate not to feel like losers against what he called illegal groups as these would be obliterated.

“There is a very powerful government at work,” he said. “We have never pushed the 50 percent to take the streets. We do not let the people pour into streets.”

 

After lunch I decided to see if it would be possible to take my recently customary walk to Gezi Park.  Everything seemed normal as I joined the flow of tourists, locals, workers and shoppers heading up Istiklal Avenue towards Taksim Square.  The people walking away from it seemed calm enough, until suddenly PAT!  PAT! PAT! EVERYBODY was running away from it in panic as smoking gas cannisters bounced down the road, fired from Taksim.  I ducked into a shop doorway and they let down the shutter, but enough of the acrid vapour crept in to burn our nostrils and throats.  After a couple of minutes they pulled up the shutter and I continued towards Taksim, the air incensed lightly with the vile gas.  I came across a street seller flogging surgical masks for 3 tl each.  I bought one and put it on.  I notice that practically everybody had one around their necks, some with actual gas masks.

I got to the entrance of the square and stood with a crowd of onlookers and newsmen on the pavement in front of the Divan Hotel surveying the scene.  The statue of Ataturk in the centre had been stripped of the flags festooning it before and was surrounded by riot police in their black uniforms and white helmets with their riot shields, sturdy batons and tear gas guns.  Two big white tanks were wheeling around the square spraying playfully or very forcefully at groups of demonstrators.

“Everybody throw stones!  Everybody throw stones!” said a thuggish man who arrived with a red kerchief covering his lower face.

“No!  No violence!” cried a couple of young women onlookers, but the guy laughed and ignored them, picking up a couple of rocks from the road and pelting them in the direction of the cops.  I saw other stones flying, and then firework rockets flying out from the park and exploding in red flashes with loud cracking bangs.  Then PAT!  PAT!  A couple of smoke bombs were aimed at us and we were engulfed in a suffocating cloud.  We all fled as quickly as possible, literally blinded with burning tears, gasping for air, almost suffocating.

On my way down some back streets to try to find another way to get to the park, while passing a group sheltering in a doorway, I heard a woman say in English “Where are all the protestors?”

I stopped to speak to her.  She was a French journalist, Natalie, who had arrived only last night in order to cover the story, but she hadn’t found a way to the park in order to do any interviews.  I told her that I knew a way, and if she would like to come along with me I could show her.  We ran into another couple of gas attacks on the way and ended up weeping in the garden in front of a hotel, where we met a guest,an Englishman, Adrian, who had been in Istanbul for 3 days, there to see what was happening, with a ‘spiritual’ interest.  Together we made our way up the hill via the road leading into Taksim in front of the Atataturk Cultural Centre, which had been stripped of the colourful revolutionary posters and banners and replaced with a Turkish flag and a portrait of Kemal Ataturk, ‘Father of the Turks’.

There we found hundreds of riot police lying resting under the shade of some trees, or standing around chatting, having a break in their brutality.  Natalie found a Turkish girl in a crash helmet standing in front of a burnt-out car and began interviewing her.  We took her with us as we entered the park easily from this side.  It was still crowded with camped-out protestors, mostly calm, but there was an atmosphere of gloom which had not existed previously.  Adrian and I left Natalie taking notes and pictures, and walked along the paths under the trees, among the tents and sleepers and chatters on the carpets spread on the grass.  Among the revolutionary posters, banners and cartoons were those which ridiculed Erdogan and called for his resignation, to be replaced by a freer and more democratic country.

Back at the front of the park we watched one of the water cannons in the square spraying a small group of distant youths throwing stones and molotov cocktails at the police from behind a grilled barricade shield.  The police fired cannisters at them intermittently, but the confrontation seemed a staged diversion.  I passed betweed the cops and the rioters as I left the square on my way home to get ready for work, and a smoke bomb whizzed in front of me.  I saw one of the youths pick it up and throw it back, the smoke trailing up and falling in a semi-circle, a classic image.

I collected my runes and went back to Istiklal Avenue, the lower part, near the old underground station, where I sat for a couple of hours in the doorway of an empty shop telling fortunes in order to earn my daily bread and wine.  The atmosphere there was completely different from the pandemonium in Taksim, people coming and going calmly about their business, shopping or strolling, but many had surgical masks hanging around their necks, just in case.

One jovial plump man approached with a group of friends and asked if I could do a reading for the Prime Minister.  I replied that usually permission was needed by the person whose fortune was being told, but I’d give it a try.  The Rune that came up was ‘Jera’, the symbol of the harvest.  “You reap what you sow”.  We agreed that it was a pretty good answer.

Another man stopped and asked if I was a Moslem.  When I replied that I wasn’t, but I believed in one God, he asked why I was wearing a takke (skull cap).  I said I always wore it, and that I could wear what I liked.  He pointed at my runes and said they were “haram” (forbidden).  He went away with a scowl when I told him God had given me permission.

While sitting and runing I noticed a larger amount of people than usual heading in the direction of Taksim Square, and presumed that many had taken up the call to come and support the protestors after their work.  I followed suit, and after closing up shop at 7 pm, I too made my way to Taksim.

The square was full of people, chanting in groups, singing, waving flags, angry and defiant.  The police had withdrawn from around Ataturk’s statue, but they were still visible around the streets leading off.  I was surprised that nobody was graffitting the seven or eight bulky white water cannon vehicles which were lined up in front of the Cultural Centre.  You could see the drivers sitting inside behind the mesh metal and enforced plastic windshields, waiting for the signal to squirt the crowds again.  More people, young, old, male, female, friends, singles, families with children were arriving as I left, buying a bottle of cheap but palatable wine on the way home.

Relaxing with a glass and a roll-up on my little balcony, enjoying the view of the rambling dilapidated old buildings and streets of Tarlabaşı, my peace was suddenly interrupted at 8.20 pm.

PAT!  PAT!  PAT!  PAT! PAT!

The volleys had begun in Taksim Square again.  The sound of screams and cries and uproar mingled with the shots that resounded in the air, and I imagined what a chaotic scene it must be, the crowd so close together that fast fleeing from the stifling smoke would be difficult.  I thought how awful it would be for those with children, trying to get them away.  And I wondered about the mentality of the police who suddenly started to open fire.  Or were they acting under orders?  Whatever – shots and explosions loudly echoed from the square and I watched bright flashes and smoke billowing up into the night sky.  The chanted roars of people raised in defiant anger came again and again.  It sounded like a full-on war.  The shooting and shouting was still going on when I went to bed, my thoughts and sympathies with the brave protestors faced with the fascist police thugs.

In the morning I learned that although police had invaded the park during the night and terrorized the inhabitants and trashed some tents, by dawn they had withdrawn.  Later police officers played football in the square while protestors built new barricades to protect the remaining occupation area.

On May 30th, the day before the attack on the protestors in Gezi Park which sparked the extraordinary ‘Turkish Uprising’, Prime Minister Erdoğan attended the foundation laying of Istanbul’s unnecessary third suspension bridge over the Bosphorus, which will cause more ecological damage in a beautiful unspoilt area.

The new bridge is to be called Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, named after a 16th-century Ottoman ruler who conquered much of the Middle East, also known as ‘Selim the Grim’ because of his cruel persecution, oppression and tyranny.

Who knows, perhaps years from now, the next bridge to be built might be named after another famous despot – ‘Tayyip the Terrible’?

Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website.