Taksim Square Protest: Watching History Unfold

For the past week Istanbul has been embroiled in a bitter struggle between civilians disenchanted and angry over an increasingly conservative and repressive government, and the established power holders, particularly Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.  Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul and the elected Turkish head of state and member of the right of center AKP party, has been in power since 2002, and while his government is credited with somewhat stabilizing the nation, he is also known for toeing the line with respect to personal freedoms.

From September of 2012 until this January, I lived in Istanbul as a student, and I was heartbroken when I boarded a plane bound for LAX. This past week has been emotional to say the least. I watched my newsfeed and could feel a swell of panic and pride for the people I knew still living in the city, Turkish and foreigners alike. Istanbul is not my city and Turkey is not my country, but for a little over five months it was my home. It is a place that knows how to ensnare you and never let you go. In photos and videos from the protests I saw streets I knew, the squares I had drunkenly stumbled through, the bakeries I grabbed late-night sandwiches in, the blue and yellow lights that hang over Iskitlal Caddesi that enamored us all on our first evening stroll — Taksim alone held so much for me personally, that an onslaught against the place and the people I grew to know over my brief stay was incredibly, overwhelmingly personal.

So, when I saw people my age — some of whom I knew individually — rising up, I was compelled to join in. I’m 7,000 miles away but I know I can write and I can repost and I can talk to people who are willing to listen.

But then I was forced to reevaluate what my role was in a revolution that did not belong to me.

Earlier this week I mass messaged people I knew on the ground in Istanbul because I wanted to better understand why they were fighting. A Turkish friend of mine, who was living in the mega-metropolis and studying to be an engineer, told me he did not want to talk to an outsider about the politics behind the riots because people who were not Turkish would never truly understand. And even more importantly, he was uncomfortable talking to me about the situation because I am an American and my government has blindly remained allied with a repressive megalomaniac for years. I was on one hand apologetic and on the other offended: I sure as hell didn’t subscribe to the foreign policies of this administration nor those of the ones before it, but here I was being told, essentially, to back off and own up.

I was left uneasy and oddly shaken the rest of the day. This man was shuttling around Istanbul collecting medical supplies and taxiing people to safety. His cousin had been sprayed in the face with a smoke gun and now his friends were lying in a mosque with broken limbs, the result of a brutal police beating. And here I was overloading Facebook and sending out tweets that read, “Bir düseriz, bin kalkaiz,” one falls, a thousand march, as if it were my fight too. I wasn’t trying to usurp their revolution but I had come uninvited to the digital front lines.

But when it comes down to it, I disagree with my friend. I respect what he is doing and I took his criticism to heart, but he is imagining a world of isolated nation-states and that’s just not the world we live in. Yes, we have borders and nationalities but our society is ever increasingly pushing and reevaluating such definitions. I care about what happens in Turkey because I care about people and I refuse to stomach brutality, government-sanctioned violence, and the violation of human rights. It may be a cliché, but I firmly believe that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. What’s happening in Turkey is important to everyone because it’s happening in a supposedly democratic nation, at the hands of a democratically elected official. Turkey is not that far from us, and the way Americans and Turks address their community and the rest of the world may be different, but the political and economic concerns of most Turks are not that difficult for a millennial in the U.S. to understand and empathize with. Many young Americans fight for separation of church and state. The young Turks who are filling the streets are equally, if not more ardently, concerned with Erdogan’s increasing Islamism.

The people within Turkey have lived through three coups, anarchy, extreme economic downturns and inflation, social unrest, and the repression of minority groups —and that’s just the beginning of what has occurred in just the last century. It is a nation with a great deal of potential. It is a nation that can lead the Middle East and bridge “Western” Europe to the rest of the “East.” I have faith that it is a place and a people that are capable of maintaining a secular democracy despite living in a region characterized by domineering, religiously inclined governments. It is a country creeping into the global purview as a nation that could make an immense difference in the future. But first, people need to be heard. Erdogan needs to take his own advice. He once told President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, “Hear the cry of the people and their extremely humane demands. Meet the people’s desire for change without hesitation. No government can stand against the people.” 

My friends still in Turkey are probably waking at the hour I am writing this—that is, assuming they were able to get a good night’s rest. They are being attacked indiscriminately by security forces, and they have told me about the sting of tear gas and seeing the streets of their home city defiled by violence and filth. The same man who is driving back and forth across the city tells me he has seen innocent passersby, women sitting on benches, shot with water cannons for no apparent reason. He tells me that the people of Istanbul take time out when the violence dies down to clean the streets. Overwhelmingly people are helpful; the police, he bemoans, are brainwashed and the prime minister is intentionally provoking violence with inflammatory rhetoric and blatantly false information.

My friend ended our conversation so he could return to his work before once more getting in his car to drive to the mosque where his friends recuperate.

I see these videos of Istanbul in shambles, I hear the clank of pots and the screams in the background of grainy online feeds, and I hear the stories of the people I’ve shared a beer with, and I am moved. I have faith Turkey will come out alive, if not severely bruised. I have faith the people there know how to push on even in the worst of conditions. Resilient is really the only way to describe the people of Turkey.

Someone told me, “Heryer Taksim, heryer direnis,” It is in Taksim, it is everywhere.

I agree, it is everywhere, and it’s here in the U.S. My friend may not want my help — and honestly, what can I truly do? — but I remain behind the people who are filling the streets of Ankara and Gaziantep and Izmir. I remain steadfastly invested in the city and its people, because as an American who cares about the international community and who condemns violence perpetrated by my government and others, the fight that continues in Istanbul is a lot closer to home than we realize. 

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