Leaves From Taksim

Memory Of An Almost Lost Moment: A Post-Election Missive from Montreal to Istanbul

A few week’s ago I received a worried email from my mother. “I am so sorry to hear about the bombings in Ankara this morning. Are your friends okay?” I had been in Los Angeles for a few days. In the midst of meetings with my PhD committee members and catching up with friends I had zoned out of the news cycle. I didn’t know what my mother was talking about. I went to the homepage of a Turkish paper I often read. Photographs of people hugging each other amidst the debris of a disrupted political rally flashed across the screen. Suicide bombers had allegedly attacked a rally organized by left-wing trade unions, the People’s Democracy Party or HDP, and peace activists in protest of the continued fighting between the Turkish state and the PKK. At that moment in time no one was sure yet whom to blame for the bombing, but it was clear, as the worst terrorist attack on Turkish soil, the bombing marked a dramatic shift in the political landscape of the country.

Later that evening I took the Saturday night redeye from Los Angeles back to Montreal. In the early hours of Sunday morning the immigration hall of P.E. Treadeau International Airport was unusually quite. Only four desks were open and there were half a dozen people in line in front of me. At the height of summer a few months earlier it had taken nearly two and a half hours for me to get through the line. As I waited my turn I listened to the conversations between agents and travelers.

“Bonjour/ hi,” said the immigration officer as each passenger approached the desk. The greeting “Bonjour/ hi” has an interesting place in the official bilingual culture of Quebec. It is usually used by people providing service- civil servants, shopkeepers, waitresses- and indicates to the person seeking the service assistance can be provided in either English or French. Some of the passengers continued more easily in English others in French. Listening to people chose the language they wished to interact with the Canadian state in reminded me of a conversation I had a few years earlier with a local shopkeeper when I was living in a largely Kurdish neighborhood in Istanbul.

Tarlabasi is a neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul close to Taksim Square. At the beginning of the twentieth century mostly working class Armenians, Jews, and Greeks lived in the area. As a result of deportations, the Wealth Tax, and anti-Greek pogroms, by the middle of the century it had been largely depopulated. However, by the end of the century in the 1990s, Kurdish refugees fleeing the civil war in Southeastern Turkey started to settle in its abandoned and derelict buildings. Today it is the kind of neighborhood where women sit on their front stoops sipping tea and gossiping as they take a break from housework; children chase cats; colorful washing hangs from laundry lines between buildings, and everyone keeps a close eye on who comes and goes.

On the main street there is a police station, a bakery, and several corner stores or bakkal – places you can find everything from cat food to baby bottles to fresh produce at any hour of day or night. A Kurdish family from Dogubeyazit- an Eastern Anatolian town on the Iranian border- ran the one I frequented. The three sons usually worked long hours stocking shelves, serving customers, as well as delivering gas canisters and large containers of potable water to the neighborhood’s inhabitants. They also kept careful watch over the street. They were respectful and looked out for me. If I ever felt uncomfortable coming home late at night, all I had to do was pop in and one of them would step out onto the street and watch until the light in my apartment was on.

At the start of 2012, I was going to Canada to see my husband over winter vacation. The ruling Justice and Development Party or AKP was just about to begin peace negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK, in order to bring an end to the nearly 30-year-old civil war. This promised to be one of the great achievements of the AKP’s time in power and something no other government in the history of the Republic had managed to do. Many people, both Kurdish and Turkish, believed peace might finally be possible. In concrete ways they were beginning to imagine what a more inclusive Turkey might look like once a peace deal had been reached.

The night before I left I stopped to buy some milk and tell them I would be gone for a few weeks. All three sons were smart, kind people, but that evening the particularly curious son was working. His glasses gave his eyes an almost crystalline quality. Often he read books and newspapers behind the till and the other two frequently teased him that he didn’t pull his weight around the shop. His retort was that he would have become a doctor, if he could have gone to medical school in Kurdish. On one occasion he told me his Turkish wasn’t good enough to pass the high school exam and that was the end of his formal education. Yet he knew a lot about the world beyond Turkey, even though he had never left, and routinely asked me questions about the places I’d lived.

“Tomorrow I am going to Montreal,” I said as I handed him my money.

“That is in Quebec,” he ventured. “They speak English and French there, right?”

“That’s right,” I replied a little taken a back.

He carefully counted the change from my 5-lira note, handed me the coins, and then sat back on his stool. From the look on his face I could tell he was thinking and that our conversation wasn’t over yet. The steam from his freshly poured tea swirled into the cool evening air of the shop. He took a sip and started to ask me questions about how bilingualism actually worked on a daily basis. I began by telling him what it was like to clear customs and immigration at the Montreal airport and how the immigration officers ask you if you want service in English or French.

“Really?” he asked. “That is incredible. I can’t imagine the Turkish police speaking Kurdish. Let alone asking me if I wanted them to!” He chuckled, delighted at the thought, the possibility.

I proceeded to tell him about how my husband’s students at McGill had the right to write their papers and exams in either English or French. I also talked about some of the linguistic divisions in the city and the tensions that exist over speaking the right kind of French. In spite of my qualifications about bilingualism he was still intrigued.

“I’d never thought I’d say this,” he said as a proud smile crept across his face, “but one day soon I bet Turkey will be like Canada. We’ll speak both Turkish and Kurdish.”

Today the political horizon in Turkey looks very different than it did at the start of 2012. The bombing in Ankara was only the latest and most dramatic in a long list of events that have resulted in the deterioration of the political situation. By early summer it was clear that after nearly two years of negotiations both sides had abandoned the peace process. The PKK has killed Turkish police officers and attacked army installations in the Southeast. In retaliation the Turkish military has carried out airstrikes against PKK positions. Curfews were imposed on civilian populations and people in the town of Cizre were forbidden entry or exit while so-called anti-terror operations were carried out. When local parliamentarians from the HDP marched from Ankara to the municipal border and demanded entry with television news crews, they were initially denied access. Horrific stories later emerged. For example, one family had to keep their daughter’s dead body in their freezer for days because the curfew made it impossible to conduct funeral rights. Weeks later an image of a state security vehicle pulling the body of a dead Kurdish man on social media provoked a national outcry and led many to question what other horrors weren’t being seen.

The advance of ISIL and the ongoing civil war in Syria further complicates the situation between the Kurds and Turkey. With the Kurds in Northern Syria and Iraq effectively fighting ISIL and Turkey fighting both the Kurds and ISIL, some Turkish commentators have asked whether the alleged-ISIL attack in Ankara was a sign of the Syrian civil war spreading further into Turkey and whether Turkey’s inability to settle its own Kurdish question is drawing it further into the Syrian conflict.

As I have read the dire headlines about the situation in Syria and the grim outcome of the Turkish election that happened yesterday, I’ve returned repeatedly to this exchange with the shopkeeper. For me, it captures a certain hope that existed for a window of time in 2012. Today that moment couldn’t seem further away, yet I think it is important to remember not so very long ago the horizon of possibility in Turkey was much brighter than it is today and people were imagining what a peaceful, pluralistic future would look like.

Montreal, November 2, 2015


Censoring the City

When I finished school on Friday afternoon, June 14, I took the school shuttle service to Kabatas and proceeded to walk up the steep hill toward Taksim. As I neared Siraselviler Avenue, one of the main roads that connects Taksim Square to the surrounding neighborhoods, the smell of spray paint made it difficult to breathe. Two municipal employees in bright green jumpsuits were spraying a wall with grey paint. They were erasing the protestors’ signature from the city.


Two days after heavy clashes between protestors and the police, the police had recolonized the space of Taksim Square. In front of the Ataturk Cultural Center, they had erected large red umbrellas and were sitting on plastic stools while drinking tea and eating sunflower seeds. The asphalt beneath them had turned white with shells. On the opposite side of the square, where Roma women usually sell fresh flowers, there sat a dozen city busses that had been used to transport the cops. Near the park entrance, dozens of riot police sat on the Starbucks and Kitchenette patios. Helmets, shields, and body armor lay in piles on the pavement. Open areas in the center of the square had been cordoned off with yellow tape. In each corner of the square there were at least two TOMAs. Every inch of the space was now in the vehicles’ line of fire.

Friday was the first time that I noticed mainstream media broadcasters in the area. Reporters and cameramen from major Turkish and international networks stood in pairs around the square ready to capture the approaching spectacle of repression. A Turkish reporter in a navy suit, with red lipstick and matching hair, adjusted her bra before she went live. A Fox News reporter had opted for a more rugged look that suggested he might be in a combat zone. He wore a blue Patagonia shirt and cargo pants. “What will you do if the police enter the park again?” he asked a protestor. “ We will stay, yani,” the protestor replied. “And what if they use tear gas and force again?” the reporter inquired. “Yani, we will stay,” the protestor said shrugging his shoulders. It seemed the reporter was after a more dramatic reply, one that expressed fear of the impending confrontation.


The events of the past week have been, in part, a battle over who and what can be seen in the square. The founders of the Turkish Republic first constructed Taksim as it exists today in the early 1930s. They wanted to give their new republic a modern, totalitarian face in the style of Mussolini’s Italy. When the protestors first conquered the square on June 1, they claimed prominent structures as their own by decking them in symbols of resistance. On Sunday evening, June 2, a large white and red banner suddenly appeared on the façade of the Ataturk Cultural Center. “DON’T SURRENDER” it read. No one knew who had put it there. Over the course of the next few days, more banners belonging to trade unions, opposition parties, and student groups appeared on the front of the building. One banner of a left wing political organization read, “THAT IS ENOUGH NOISE, TAYYIP.” An Alevi religious charity hung a long yellow banner with a red silhouette of a dervish holding a musical instrument over his head. It was a patchwork of symbols and slogans to fortify the resistance.

On the monument to the Turkish Republic in the middle of Taksim Square, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Ismet Iononu, Ataturk’s successor, and other major figures of the Turkish War of Independence now held anti-fascist flags. Graffiti slogans satirizing the brutality of the police and calling for Erdogan’s resignation masked the marble surfaces of the monument. The protestors had declared their sovereignty over the square.


For the first time in 10 days the police entered the area on Tuesday in order to remove these images. The security forces ripped the banners from the Ataturk Cultural Center and replaced them with a large image of Ataturk flanked by two enormous Turkish flags. They cleared the standards from Republic Monument and covered the graffiti slogans with bands of grey paint. The raid erased signs of the protests. A huge battle had taken place to constrict the protestors to the less visible area of the park. Many press photographs and TV aerials of the area from Wednesday, June 12, onward showed the square virtually empty and made it look as though the protests were ending, disappearing the thousands of protestors still camped out in the park. The government and mainstream media were trying to make it look as though things were returning to normal.


As I left the square early Friday evening, I noticed that the graffiti mural on the wall of the French Consulate had been painted over with bright yellow paint. The graffiti on the Ottoman fountain just opposite it had likewise been covered in white paint. An innocuous looking older man sat casually on the fountain smoking a cigarette. He had a leathery complexion and wore a black , trilby hat. He threw his cigarette butt on the ground and subtly touched the wall of the fountain with his palm. The paint was dry. He stood up, took a marker from his pocket, and proceeded to write “FINISH TAYYIP COMPLETELY” in large black letters. He slipped the pen back in his pocket and sat down. As he lit up another cigarette, a group of young men from the park approached him. “Uncle, you did it again!” they exclaimed. The man just shrugged and continued puffing away on his cigarette. “Did you see this, uncle?” It was a magazine some of the park protestors had printed and it featured an article about this man and his graffiti. For over thirty years he has been covering the walls of Beyoglu with subversive political slogans. One of them read “IF SPEAKING IS FORBIDDEN, SILENCE IS IMPOSSIBLE.”

Saturday afternoon state security forces cleared Gezi Park, the central site of spectacle. Journalists, photographers, and live broadcasts were forbidden at the site. Police relentlessly pursued protestors who had fled. They threw tear gas into hotel lobbies where health workers treated injured people and young children waited to be reunited with their parents. TOMAs attacked the front of overcrowded hospitals. The Turkish EU Minister declared anyone entering the area a terrorist. Neighborhoods across Istanbul exploded in rage. Tens of thousands of people from every corner of the city began marching toward Taksim Square and the Gezi Park. A large group gathered on the Asian side and attempted to cross the first Bosphorus Bridge on foot. They carried a banner that read “WE ARE NOT MARAUDERS, WE ARE THE PEOPLE.” Throughout the night city crews worked to replant flowers to make it look as though nothing had ever happened in the park. Yet the protests have spread to the city and the city will not be silent.


Istanbul, June 16, 2013


There has been a pause in my writings this week. The festive mood in Istanbul has shifted to one of fear. Yesterday the state security forces cleared Gezi Park and ruthlessly attacked peaceful demonstrators, including elderly people and children. Even though the protests have been physically removed from the park, they continue throughout the city and in the relationships, language, slogans, and images that the park produced. As an outsider, I will keep chronicling the nuances and brutality of what is happening in the city and to many of my closest friends, yet I must note I now write in the midst of truly awful repression.

Istanbul, June 16, 2013

Istanbul Has Never Been Like This

The call came from a friend today, June 11, at two o’clock as I was leaving my apartment to get some lunch. “Kate?” she asked in a worried tone. “Are you at home?” “I was just popping out for a minute. Why?” I asked. “The police have just entered the park. They are firing tear gas and water cannons at the protestors. Please be careful today. Things could get bad.”

Instead of crossing Tarlabasi Boulevard to get some lunch at a restaurant, I decided to go to my local supermarket to pick up some provisions for the next few days. My neighborhood grocery is about half a block away from the main Beyoglu district police station. In order to exit or enter my neighborhood via the main road, I have to pass through two police barricades. The last few days the police have seemed bored and relaxed, sipping tea, playing with their phones, or sleeping in the parked city busses that have been commandeered to transport them. However, today they had morphed into human-sized insects. They wore white helmets, black body armor, and carried clear plexi-glass shields. Something was happening.

On the way home from the store I stopped to chat with an old woman who lives at the top of my street. She was sitting on the front steps of her apartment building enjoying the afternoon sunshine. When I greeted her, she invited me to sit and chat. After my friend’s phone call I was feeling anxious and thought chatting with her might calm me down some. “Take a piece of cardboard from inside the door, my dear,” she instructed, “I am afraid there is only an egg carton left.” I took the cardboard, placed it on the top step and then gently pulled the door closed, so we wouldn’t feel the building’s damp breath on our backs.

“Oh my dear,” she sighed, “I have never seen Istanbul like this before.” She says she is ninety years old, which makes her as old as the Turkish Republic. The first time we met she told me that she has two names a Turkish one, Birsen, and an Armenian one, but she has lived her life as Birsen. During WWI her family migrated to Istanbul from a small town on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Her parents had survived 1914 and wanted to make a new life for themselves in Istanbul. Birsen has lived her entire life in Tarlabasi. She was born in a house somewhere along the street the Sunday market happens on and lived there until she was in her early 50s. Once their children had grown, she and her husband moved to the smaller apartment she lives in now with her eldest daughter. Her husband died a long time ago and today she told me about him for the first time.

They had married when she was 15 years old. Her father was a shoemaker and owned a small workshop near the fish market. Her parents didn’t have any sons and her father wanted the shop to stay in the family, so when she was old enough to marry he arranged for her to marry his apprentice. She confessed she wasn’t all that keen on her marriage partner at first, but he had green eyes like emeralds, a dark complexion, and was very handsome. Despite their modest means, she always had beautiful shoes he made for her. “He was such a good shoemaker that he made Ataturk’s shoes. I had the same shoemaker as Ataturk!” she chuckled.

We sat in silence for a while watching a pair of grey kittens play with a bug on the other side of the street. “I don’t understand what has happened to Istanbul,” she exhaled loudly as she tucked a few stray hairs under the fine muslin scarf with a crocheted edge she always wears wrapped around her head. “When I was young we thanked God everyday we had enough food to eat and our bellies were full. When I was a young wife I felt rich because I could make tripe stew with meat and chickpeas. But now people walk around with their eyes wide taking whatever they want whenever they want for themselves. Is that right?” she asked rhetorically. “They never stop to thank God for their health or the food they eat.” She paused for moment before throwing her hands in the air and declaring “Istanbul is broken.”

Tonight, as I write this post in my apartment, I can hear tear gas canisters exploding. Protesters are taking refuge in the street beneath my window. The people of Istanbul are once again being choked.

Istanbul, June 11, 2013

Tables on the Street!

Life in Istanbul happens on the street. In the mornings, people sit in improvised tea gardens sipping small, tulip shaped glasses of tea and smoking the day’s first cigarette. In the afternoons, women-particularly in the city’s poor, working class neighborhoods- sit on the steps of their apartment buildings exchanging gossip and commiserating about life’s troubles as their young children chase cats and play ball with each other. On summer evenings groups of friends sit at street-side tables with large bottles of raki and a selection of mezzes telling stories and laughing about life. The Istanbul street is never a lonely or a boring place. There is always someone to talk to, somewhere to go, something to do.

Tables on the Street in Asmalimescit, 2010

Tables on the Street in Asmalimescit, 2010

During the summer of 2011 the tables disappeared from Beyoglu. Apparently, the prime minister’s motorcade was unable to pass through the narrow streets of Asmalimescit and he ordered the district council, which is controlled by the ruling AKP, to remove all the street tables. Over the course of a few days in early July, large flatbed trucks drove around the district confiscating outdoor tables and chairs from cafes, restaurants, and bars. It was a few weeks before the start of Ramadan and many people suspected that removing the tables was an attempt to curb public alcohol consumption and police behavior according to the AKP’s vision of Islamic morality. The AKP’s attempt to redefine the nature of urban space in Beyoglu predates the Taksim Barracks Restoration Project.

After the tables were gone, people devised a number of ways to sit on the streets. Some restaurants built small platforms with tables. Others opened their fronts and provided customers with cushions so they could perch along low windowsills. Still it wasn’t the same. Without the business street-side tables attracted, many establishments were forced to close their doors.

In districts of the city controlled by the CHP, the main opposition party, like Besiktas and Kadikoy, there are still tables in the street. In fact, after the tables were banned in Beyoglu, the Besiktas district council strung banners across the small side streets lined with cafes and bars that read, “Besiktas, there is life in the street.”

On the evening of Wednesday, June 5, as I walked down the street where I spend much of my time in Istanbul, something felt different. After a walking a few paces, I exclaimed to myself, “The tables are back!” People sat with bottles of raki and mezzes smoking cigarettes and laughing. Others sat in front of bars with glasses of beer and small bowls of nuts conversing with friends. This everyday act, which had once been a regular facet of life in the district, had returned as a deliberate jesture of resistance against the planning policies of the AKP and its neoliberal, Islamist vision.

The festive mood continued on Sunday, June 9, and the tables were still out. Cafes and bars that are usually closed on Sundays were open. The streets were so crowded that people were smoking inside despite the ban on indoor smoking that has been in place for nearly five years. The protests had overflowed into the small “finger” streets that surround Taksim Square and the Gezi Park.

As soon as I saw the tables, I took my camera out to take a few photographs. I wanted to document this beautiful sight. FLASH! I hadn’t meant for my camera to flash, but the light was already lower than I thought it was. Instantly, a portly gentleman dressed in a freshly pressed shirt and pleated black trousers appeared in front of me. “Miss, what are you doing?” he inquired in a polite, yet firm voice. “This is forbidden. There could be a punishment.”

At first, I thought he was telling me that taking pictures was forbidden. I was momentarily confused. “For what purpose are you taking pictures?” he asked. “I wanted to put a picture of this on my blog,” I said as I gestured to a group of diners. He seemed a little relived, but still anxious. “You know it is forbidden for tables to be on the street. I could get a 3,000 YTL fine.” I showed him the picture I had taken. “The name of your establishment is not in my picture,” I said. “That may be so, miss, but this is forbidden and I could be seriously fined.” “No, no, of course, I wouldn’t want anything like that to happen,” I insisted.

As I walked away, I erased the photograph. No, of course, I wouldn’t want anything like that to happen.

Istanbul, June 9, 2013

Revolutionary Paraphernalia

The street vendors of Istanbul have a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions in the city. It only takes a few drops of rain for men to appear on every street corner with trash pails full of plastic, pastel colored umbrellas. A few snowflakes fall and folding tables full of acrylic hats, scarves, and gloves appear intermittently along Istiklal Avenue as if by magic. One can always tell when a football match is happening and which teams are playing by the jerseys, scarves, and flags the street vendors sell at metro entrances and bus stops. When the weather is hot, people sell ice-cold water. When the weather is cold, men go around with large, aluminum thermoses peddling tea and instant coffee to pedestrians. In the fin de siècle passages of Beyoglu where people gather for an evening out, women sell red roses and young boys walk around with hats, flower chains, and various plastic creations that light up. These people lead precarious lives on the edges of the informal economy that has been created by the neoliberal economic policies at the center of the protests.


On Tuesday, June 4, every single street vendor I saw along Istiklal Avenue was selling equipment to protect one’s self from tear gas. A man I often see in Nevizade selling funny glasses and headbands was selling facemasks and protective plastic eyewear. He had strung facemasks along his right arm and goggles along his left arm. Three lira each or five lira for a mask and a pair of goggles. Along the city’s main pedestrian street, every 100 meters there were vendors with large cardboard boxes full of surgical masks and various kinds of eye protection. In Taksim Square and the Gezi Park, vendors had carefully arranged yellow construction hats and primary colored swimming goggles on checkered picnic blankets.


“It doesn’t seem like all of this is necessary anymore,” remarked an older friend of mine who writes about merchants and laborers in Ottoman Istanbul and has lived through even rougher periods of Turkish history. We were strolling along Istiklal enjoying one of the first ice cream cones of the summer. “Maybe on Friday or Saturday afternoon people needed all this stuff, but there hasn’t been any tear gas for a few days now in Taksim. Usually the street vendors are so quick to sell useful things,” she continued, “but this time they are a couple of days too late.”

Despite the truth of her comments, people continued to purchase the items the street vendors were selling. But they weren’t buying masks, goggles, and hard hats because they needed them per se. They were purchasing them as souvenirs of the spectacle, paraphernalia of the revolution. The abundance of the items and the ease with which people could purchase them served to mock the violence police had unleashed against the protestors. They spectacularized the cracks in the regime’s authority.


Istanbul, June 7, 2013

Tactics of Vision in the Taksim Gezi Protests

As I approached Taksim Square from Gumussuyu early Sunday evening, June 2, I first noticed people posing for pictures in front of a large barricade protestors had erected to protect themselves from police. Friends snapped photographs of each other on their smart phones and tablets. A young man wearing a Turkish flag with a picture of Ataturk as though it were a superhero cape had climbed on top of the barricade and punched the air with his fist. A teenage girl with blonde hair in a Besiktas soccer jersey stood in front of it and made a V sign with her fingers. Her two friends giggled as they took her picture. At the other end of the barricade an elderly man took pictures of his wife who was dressed in a mid-length skirt, a short sleeve sweater, and low platform sling backs. Both wore somber expressions as though they were taking photographs in front of an important national monument.

The protests in Taksim are likely the most photographed events in Turkish history given the number of people in Istanbul who carry smart phones and tablets. The ability to quickly relay visual information via social networking sites was critical to the victory protestors scored against the police last weekend in Taksim. They were aided by staff at surrounding hotels, who reportedly unlocked the hotels’ wireless networks making them useable to people gathered in the Square.

The presence the event had on the internet stands in contrast to the lack of coverage it received on Turkish television stations over the weekend. Last Friday when people turned their televisions on, they found cooking shows with middle class Turkish house wives giving instructions on how to make borek and kebab. Even on Sunday evening there was a notable absence of white broadcast trucks or television news correspondents in the square. The government had tried to make the protestors invisible, but in turn the protestors made themselves invisible to the state. By spray painting over the CCTV cameras that watch Taksim Square from high metal perches, the protestors successfully inverted the dynamics of state surveillance. Instead of being watched they used their wireless devices to watch the state and record nearly every action taken by the police.

A friend who had participated in some of the heaviest fighting against police on Friday and Saturday told me he had been in a group of protestors who all had proper gas masks. Some members of the group casually walked up to the riot police, took out their spray paint, and in the midst of thick clouds of tear gas, spray painted polices’ gas masks making it impossible for them to see. Some riot police then took off their gas masks to see only to be choked by their own tear gas. It was, in part, a battle to control who sees, what they see, and how they see it.

There were other reports that protestors had filled light bulbs and balloons with paint and thrown them at cameras and windshields of the TOMA vehicles making it impossible for the vehicles to record protestors or aim streams of water at them. When I walked by the Beyoglu police station on Tuesday afternoon there were two TOMAs parked on Tarlabasi Avenue. The vehicles usually look intimidating, but on Tuesday they looked humiliated. The front of the vehicles were covered in splattered white paint, which resembled the droppings of an extremely large sea gull.

On Sunday evening Taksim and the Gezi Park were free of overt state surveillance and visible police presence. The only sign of government authority were the traffic lights at the southern end of the square that continued to cycle, from green, to yellow, to red. No one was paying any attention.

Istanbul, June 5, 2013

A Few Observations on Accumulated Knowledge and Collective Resistance

On Friday evening I finished work after the school shuttle service stopped running, so I took a cab from the end of the Golden Horn to my home near Taksim. As we passed the Kasimpasha exit and headed toward Dolapdere I could see a fog rising from the hotels at the top of the hill in Talimhane. “I can’t take you into Tarlabasi,” the cab driver told me after a muffled conversation with a fellow taxi driver on his phone. “There is a code 005.” I tried to argue with him, but he insisted it was something official and he could only take me as far as the bottom Kalyoncu Kullugu Avenue. “Fine,” I agreed in an annoyed tone. As I trudged up the hill, the quality of the air changed.  It smelled sulfuric, like rotting eggs, and my nose and eyes became irritated.  When I got home, the irritation continued the entire night. Even my cat seemed bothered by it.  A friend later told me that he had taken the ferry from Besiktas to Kadikoy on Friday evening and the clouds of tear gas were so thick that it was not comfortable for the ferry passengers to sit outside in the middle of the Bosphorus. Tear gas had enveloped the city.

This was not the first time most inhabitants of Istanbul had experienced the effects of tear gas.  State repression has a long history in Turkey. Over the years people from diverse backgrounds and of different political views have been the target of it for one reason or another: marching in banned May Day parades, protesting the right to wear a headscarf to school, participating in an illegal strike, speaking out against the ruling party, going to the concert of a banned music group. Police violence is a shared experience of living in Istanbul and many residents have developed tactics to deal with it.

Saturday morning I was having trouble breathing, so I decided to do some internet research on how to combat the effects of tear gas. On English language websites there was little information about how to deal with tear gas.  With the exception of a few anarchist websites, most carried the incredibly useful advice to simply stay way from situations where tear gas was present. Seeing as I was wheezing in my apartment with the windows closed this was obviously not an option I could pursue. Turkish language websites provided ample information on what to do in the event you are tear-gassed. Some suggested covering your face with a bandanna or scarf soaked in vinegar and biting into lemons. Others provided detailed instructions for making your own gas mask using plastic bottles and a surgical mask. One offered information about the chemical composition of tear gas and advice on over the counter remedies to counter its effects. The site even suggested mixing the antidote and keeping it at your side in a clean spray bottle for faster relief.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the square and met up with an old friend and his girl friend who had ventured to Taksim from the Asian neighborhood of Kadikoy on Thursday. He told me that before they left Kadikoy they stopped by their neighborhood pharmacy to buy some first aid supplies.  Every neighborhood in Istanbul has at least one pharmacy.  They are local establishments usually run by people from the neighborhood and staffed by members of the person’s family.  Many people go to their neighborhood pharmacist with minor health complaints and it is common for pharmacists to know not only the names of their customers, but also their medical histories by heart. My friend described this pharmacy as a classic Istanbul pharmacy with dark wooden fixtures, glass bottles filled with substances to cure every aliment, and staffed by an urbane gentleman wearing a clean white smock in his early 70s.  It sounded like the kind of place that smelled like my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and hadn’t seen much change since the early 1960s.  “That should be enough supplies,” my friend said as the pharmacist continued to gather gloves, surgical masks, bandages, medicines, as well as tear gas antidotes.  The pharmacist only stopped when it seemed he had put everything thing he had that could be of use on the counter.  When my friend asked how much money they owed, the pharmacist said, “I am old and can’t go to the other side, but since you all are young, I will give you what I have, so you can fight in my place and help others that might get injured.” He proceeded to then give them a lesson on how to administer the tear gas antidote he had provided them.

Later as we sat on a side street stoop drinking a beer, my friend showed me pictures on his phone of the pharmacies around Taksim that opened their doors to injured protesters and bystanders.  Many of the pharmacists, according to my friend, had refused payment for the treatment and medicine they provided.  My friend also showed me pictures he had taken on his phone of some of the people he had given first aid too.  One of the most graphic photographs was of an elderly shoe shiner who had been sitting in his usual spot on Istiklal Avenue when he was hit on the head by a tear gas canister. When my friend saw the injured man, he stopped the bleeding, cleaned the man’s wound, and put a bandage around his head. “Where did you learn first aid?” I asked.  “During my military service.” he casually replied.

The knowledge and strategies not only protestors, but also people in the surrounding areas, like shopkeepers, residents, and hotel staff, have used to organize themselves and defend themselves from police brutality over the past week have been accumulated overtime through a range of experiences. For some people their knowledge has come through years of direct political struggle against the state.  For others their experiences have come from running shops or businesses along popular protest routes and keeping lemons and vinegar on hand to aid affected protestors. For some Turkish men their experiences come from having served the state directly during the course of their mandatory military service. For others their experience in collective organizing comes from running football fan clubs or managing busy offices, everyday skills creatively deployed in a new context.

As I walked through Taksim and sat in the Gezi Park on Sunday evening it was amazing to see how this accumulated knowledge was being put to work in the course of the current struggle. A friend told me in the early hours of Sunday morning as he and some friends were resting in a Cihangir home word came across Tweeter and Facebook that vandals were beginning to attack shops and businesses along the stretch of Istiklal Avenue they had been fighting on Saturday night. They rushed to protect the spot, confronted the vandals, and stood guard until the proprietors returned later Sunday morning. “We weren’t going to let some thugs ruin this amazing thing we were creating,” my friend said.

Never before have I witnessed that kind of collective being or responsibility for shared urban spaces. Along the streets leading up to the square protestors had secured light blue garbage bags to lampposts, railings, and fences every 50 meters. In the square occupants were taking turns collecting garbage and picking up cigarette butts. This part of Istanbul has never been so clean! In the park people had placed fresh mounds of food for the resident cats and dogs and left containers of water for them to drink. It is common in Istanbul for people to feed the street animals and put water out for them, but I was touched that amidst protests and violent confrontation with the police the human inhabitants of the city were still caring for its animal inhabitants.

As I approached Taksim Square on Sunday evening I encountered a barricade protestors had erected across Iononu Avenue.  It looked as though every heavy object in the vicinity had been used in its construction: old sofas, steel filing cabinets, bus tires, wooden tables, and sheets of corrugated metal.  Crowd control gates originally belonging to the police had been placed on top of the heap like icing on a cake. The navy POLIS lettering had been covered by spray paint.  On some of the gates POLIS had been blacked out and on others people had crossed out POLIS and written “The people” or “The people’s police.” A friend of mine who is an artist and has been involved in some of the demonstrations against the upcoming Biennale remarked as we walked past one of the barricades “ Now that is public art, that is something people made.”

One piece of graffiti was “Partizan” written in black or red ink on a few concrete walls around the Ataturk Cultural Center. Another protestor had taken gold spray paint and written “Disko disko” invoking the Shantel song “Disko disko partizani.” Angry militancy meets wry humor. Graffiti becomes a collectively authored mosaic.

On Sunday morning another friend took her young daughter to pick up trash on the street they live in near the Gezi Park.  As they picked up garbage her daughter found several pairs of cracked swimming goggles and a snorkel mask some protestors had used to protect their eyes from the tear gas police had sprayed.  “Mommy,” she said, “this isn’t like the garbage we normally pick up. We are not at the beach!” We may not be at the beach, but as summer begins in Istanbul, it seems there is, in fact, a beach beneath the street.

Istanbul, June 3, 2013

An abbreviated version of this post was published by Bulent Journal: http://bulentjournal.com/i-hear-istanbul-saying/