Love in a Time of Tear Gas

Gezi Park

Gezi Park (Photo credit: gregg.carlstrom)

A strange way to spend my 38th birthday, holed up in a small hotel round the corner from Taksim Square, waiting to see what comes next in the struggle for Turkey’s soul. But then these are heady days to be alive in Istanbul.

Last night I went to one of the city’s parks where protestors had gathered to discuss their next move. Hundreds sat packed together, listening to a succession of speakers, while others sat in groups under the trees as night fell, drinking beer, laughing, sharing the sense of joy that has begun to pervade the city despite Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brutal efforts to suppress the protests.

And then, in the middle of the park, a man decided to propose to his girlfriend. The news spread quickly, people were standing up and cheering, grinning happily at each other, while the couple looked into each other’s eyes. What a moment to choose to get married. The future was wide open.

Then there was the story of the newly wed couple in Ankara. The first thing they did as husband and wife was to go straight from their wedding and stand in silence together on the spot where the protestor Ethem Sairsuluk was shot dead three weeks ago by a police officer with a 9mm bullet to the head. It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent rebuke to Mr Erdogan and his thug police.

Then there was the graffiti that appeared in Istanbul: “Tayyip, we just got married, so shut up so we can go home and make love”.

This has been the protestors’ response to Mr Erdogan’s disgraceful slanders that they had “group sex” in a mosque, and that a protestor was photographed drinking beer in a mosque–on closer inspection, it turned out to be a can of Coke

This is their time, and it is a time of love, not a time for Mr Erdogan’s prurient accusations–which sound for all the world like the envious gossip of a sex-starved middle-aged housewife.

No, it’s a time of the young in Istanbul, and they are fearless. They’ve been tear-gassed, shot at, hosed with water cannons laced with chemicals, beaten with clubs. They’ve been chased into the emergency departements of hospitals where they’ve been tear gassed again, and the doctors who treated their injuries have been arrested. And still they haven’t given up. They keep coming onto the streets, smiling, their heads held high, walking the path of truth.

The police wouldn’t let them demonstrate, so along came Erdem Gunduz, and stood perfectly still and silent in Taksim Square for eight hours, ignoring the plain clothes police thugs who tried to intimidate him, until they just stood there looking confused and helpless, all their power taken from them by the silence of one man standing.

And now they’re all at it, all over Turkey, people standing still and silent while the police look on.

After the park, I went for dinner in Besiktas, one of the most pro-protestor neighbourhoods in Istanbul, in the famous Carsi market which the Besiktas football club supporters are named after. Those same Besiktas fans have been at the forefront of the protests: one of whom famously stole a JCB digger and drove it through the police lines early on.

Nobody seemed remotely cowed by the tear gas, or by the continuing threats that seem to emerge daily from Mr Erdogan.

Every so often, a table at one of the restaurants would break out singing “Cheers Tayyip, here’s to you”, raising their beer glasses high in the air, an ironic toast to his new law restricting alcohol sales and advertising.

And every time they did, the whole market would break out in a roar of laughter and support, people raising their glasses, clapping their hands, hammering on the tables.

Round the corner they had made a shrine at the fountain, an empty pair of shoes for each of the six people who have died in the protests, candles, a Turkish flag. Back in the park, I remember, some one had draped a gas mask over the statue of Ataturk, the secular founder of the country whose memory is enjoying a renaissance as a hero to the protestors.

At times it feels like a dream in Istanbul. The protestors are so fearless, the vast majority of them so committed to remaining peaceful and non-violent. And the police are so brutal, they’re pantomime villains. They even sprayed a man in a wheelchair with a water cannon. A wheel chair, for pity’s sake.

But then you remember, it’s not a dream, it’s an awakening. That’s what this is, not a Turkish Spring, but a Turkish Awakening.


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