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Istanbul Dispatch: Ceren Erdem on the Gezi Uprising and Beyond

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning. It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is […]

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered with banners by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning.

It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is no need to talk now; you’ll see it.” In an attempt to write about the early summer days in Istanbul, I began to draft this text admitting that I may fail, for I feel the necessity for a new vocabulary to refer to the qualities of the ongoing uprising and resistance of the people of Turkey, and I fear I will be barred with the limits of any language. It is equally hard to make judgments on such a thing as it’s happening. Hence, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, I find it useful to present the causes and a subjective summary of the resistance that stemmed from Gezi Park and spread across Turkey.

Background: Why have the people of Turkey — a favored ally of the US, a growing economic power, and a regional leader-wanna-be — demonstrated civil unrest? Behind all the glory of the international reputation, the governance of PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become more oppressive in their third go-round. Faking close friendships with the liberals and empathy with the oppressed were not strategies with longevity. New laws have been implemented that restrict a woman’s ability to choose a Caesarean section (they’re only allowed in cases where they’re necessary to save the life of the mother or child) and that govern when alcohol can be purchased and how it can be advertised. Many journalists, writers, and professors critical of the government have been arrested and silenced. And in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, profitable lands have been turned into huge construction sites where international companies, mainly from the Gulf, partnered with local ones that are affiliated with the PM or other ministers. In December 2012, the people of Roboski, a Kurdish village, were bombarded “by mistake,” killing 35. In May 2013, two bombs exploded in a Reyhanli district on Syrian border of Turkey. At least 57 people died. In both cases, no one has been held responsible. Not all, but a few reasons of our “disorder.”

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Facts: For a year and a half, Taksim Platform, a civil initiative comprised of a diverse group of people who live, work, or pass by Istanbul’s Taksim district, gathered to monitor and create awareness about the major urban planning project for Taksim Square. It goes without saying that this ugly, little square is the heart of Istanbul of modern times. The project includes building bulky tunnels on the wide avenues that lead to the square for the sake of directing the vehicle traffic underground and therefore “pedestrianizing” the square. PM Erdoğan also wants to take over the square’s Gezi Park in order to build a giant shopping mall/hotel/residence in the form of a replica of the Artillery Barrack that stood there until 1940. Further, he wants to replace the Ataturk Cultural Center with a new baroque-style opera building.

Taksim has some value as a symbol: Nearly all political demonstrations and marches end up at Taksim Square. It is packed in any given time of the day. The project, as seen on the official animation video prepared by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, shaves off the pavement for the sake of building these subterranean tunnels, a move that would limit pedestrian traffic to the square and basically butcher the prospect of any demonstrations. More importantly, Gezi Park is the only green area in Istanbul’s center, and it serves as the emergency evacuation zone for a city that has been built on an active fault line. In the light of these facts, Taksim Platform’s major task is to stop the project through legal means and create a platform to ensure that such projects should be planned in conversation with both area residents and urban planners. However, despite a court ruling suspending construction on the tunnels, the PM was determined to realize his dream project. Bulldozers went in to Gezi Park and illegally started uprooting the trees. That’s why people ran to Gezi Park to reclaim the public space, to protect their trees and their right to choose the way they want to live their lives.

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

By the time I arrived in Istanbul and got close to Taksim Square, I knew what my brother’s words on the phone meant. After searching for a way to get there, I first found myself in a hot zone. The police were constantly bombarding demonstrators with tear gas while some protestors were trying to build a high, strong barricade to stop them. Every single piece of material that could be added to the barricade was carried hand-in-hand by a human chain, the same way all the other barricades had been built. People were injured; doctors, like everyone else, were running around to bring medicine, to carry the injured into a mosque that had opened its doors to operate as infirmary. Later, Erdoğan dared to declare that people had disrespectfully walked into that mosque with their shoes on and drank alcohol, demonstrating he couldn’t understand why an imam preferred to help innocent, peaceful people over being loyal to the PM.

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

The same night, a smart group of people managed to operate a bulldozer and chased the police with it for some time. It was a heroic moment for all of us. Walking to Gezi Park, I came across the self-made barricades surrounding the area. Inside its borders was an autonomous zone. Feeling like I was moving within a movie studio, I tried to perceive every detail I saw and adapt to this new reality.

When I reached the park I thought, and I still do, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. At a time when you had been feeling most hopeless about your country, this awakening was shocking and thrilling, to say the least.

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

Having suffered from military coups and oppressive regimes, our parents raised us to be as apolitical as possible. I am sorry — no, actually, pleased — to say that it didn’t work. However, people are politicized in a new way now, beyond the mainstream definitions of left, right, religion, etc. Based on demands for freedom and human rights, the uprisings managed to bring many diverse groups together in the park, groups that might otherwise feel uncomfortable standing side by side. Women have always been in the forefront. Many LGBTQ people were not there only for the resistance, but also to face their prejudices 1. Anti-capitalist Muslims revealed the difference between being religious and utilizing religion for political ends, while environmentalists brought in their knowledge and injected their awareness. Nationalist Turkish groups could not stand but set up their tents close to Kurdish groups. Football ultras2 brought in their endurance and joy, and the hacker group Redhack (@TheRedHack) has built up the virtual castle of the resistance. Everyone but everyone brought in endless love.

A restauran's daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

A restauran’s daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

We shared our food, built up our library, and seeded our new garden. We slept, cooked, and cleaned together. We were tear-gassed together. Local media, with only a few exceptions, either avoided the protest or preferred to show it as a menace to society. However, while Erdoğan turned the police into his own army, their disproportionate violence was met with disproportionate intelligence. Resistance took different forms, from reading books to the police to playing guitar in front of water cannons. Stencils and spraypainted texts of humorous political satire filled the walls. As people insisted on being peaceful and unarmed, facing with this unknown format of protests, the police, acting on Erdoğan’s behalf, got more violent. The stronger they attacked, the stronger our connections became.

Yet, in the end, we are all flesh and bone. While nearly 7,500 people have been hospitalized due to plastic bullets, pressurized water, tear gas, and aimed tear gas canisters, five protestors lost their lives.3 The policeman who killed Ethem Sarisülük with a bullet in his head was released with claims of self-defense. The final attack to the park on June 15 ferociously evacuated everyone, including children and the elderly. Immediately after that, public assemblies started to gather every night in parks across Istanbul and in other cities. Until July 7, Gezi Park was closed to the public but occupied by the police. Meanwhile, a court released its final decision on the Gezi park project — in favor of stopping it. Finally, when the mayor decided to open the public park to public, it only lasted for a few hours and resulted with 37 protestors being taken in police custody, including the members of Taksim Solidarity4. Was this a trap? We don’t know. Since May 27, approximately 4,000 people have been taken into custody (official numbers by human rights organizations and the Ministry of Internal Affairs vary from 3,366 to 4,900), some randomly on the streets, some from their homes. Seventy-eight have been arrested. Gezi Park is open to public use, for now, and public assemblies continue with hot discussions on democracy, new strategies, tolerance, and coexistence.

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Where does art stand in this picture?

To my mind, there is no need to attain a special role or expect one from the art community in the matter of emergencies. Artists, curators, writers, and overall producers of the contemporary art scene have been actively involved in the process from the very beginning. We have taken the advantage of one our strengths and our international networks, to spread our voice around the world. We have also observed that we are surrounded with highly creative people. In the most depressing moments, a massive collection of humor was produced. They gave us moments of laughter. When the police took over the park in mid-June, we all learned to simply stand up against injustice from The Standing Man (duran adam), Erdem Gunduz, a performance artist who stood still on sealed-off Taksim Square for hours and initiated a new form of passive resistance. Yet, I believe it is extremely hard for any art project to beat the “earth fast-breaking” organized by anti-capitalist Muslims on the pedestrianized Istiklal Avenue leading to Taksim Square, where people of Gezi Park, regardless of their beliefs, set up a 700-meter-long communal dinner to celebrate the first meal of Ramadan.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

On the other hand, the Istanbul Biennial will take place around the corner beginning September 14. Fulya Erdemci, the curator of the coming up edition, had announced her focus will be the notion of public space as a political forum. Who would have guessed that Turkey would witness the biggest civil uprising in its history, and public space would extensively be politically engaged in an unprecedented way? If art is to trigger questions, feelings, or social change, Gezi Park has certainly achieved it all and challenged our past and future experiences.

We are thinking anew. And it is only the beginning, our struggle continues.

Two views of the "earth fast-breaking" meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Two views of the “earth fast-breaking” meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Ceren Erdem is a curator and writer based in New York and Istanbul. Born in Gaziantep, Turkey, she has lived in New York since 2010. For more images from Gezi Park, visit #occupygezi


1 Gay Pride Istanbul has been taking place each year since 2003 on the last week of June. As a part of the resistance, this year’s march was supported largely by Gezi protestors and attended by around 100,000 people.

2 The fans of three major football teams of Istanbul, Besitas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, have united under the name “Istanbul United.” Istanbul United, the movie, is seeking donations for its completion.

3 Medeni Yıldırım (18), Ali İsmail Korkmaz (19), Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20), Abdullah Cömert (22),  Ethem Sarısülük (26) lost their lives during the protests.

4 Taksim Solidarity is comprised of 124 NGOs, chambers, and other civil initiatives.