“Harbiye is a warzone right now, that's all I know”
Harbiye - an area just north of Taksim, takes its name from the old Ottoman word ‘military affairs', containing, as it does, a rather large military academy on the main road leading up to the square. The name now evokes something considerably more appropriate.
I’d been speaking on the phone to an American friend living on the Asian side - one of those foreigners running around with the rioters, updating their social media one gas grenade at a time. Getting to my new home in Taksim had been a hell of a feat - dodging anarchists throwing insults at thousands jamming the roads on AK Party buses, comandeered to turn out a crowd for the Prime Minister. The journey also involved various turns down narrow side streets to avoid make-shift road blocks where there lingered the inescapable, sliced onion effects of the pepper gas in the air.
Three days ago, I was sitting in a café near the square considering writing an article on a number of students and professionals I know, who had supported the AKP and some of whom, had family in the party. I wanted to show how nuanced the views were of those joining and supporting the protests; a kind of well-needed study of - rather than the hardcore enthusiasts marching through water cannon at the front - the crucial mass and thousands, clapping and chanting further behind.
However, the situation is changing rapidly and, in the midst of moving house and doing all that mundane, day-to-day stuff (which one always fails to consider of poor foreigners enduring news-worthy upheavals) I have been forced to tap out a somewhat more analysis-free account of events.
“From what I’ve heard they are targeting foreigners” my foreign friend continued, speaking from the Asian side where things were a little calmer. Of course, I had heard about the seven foreigners, including a tourist and a couple of Erasmus students, who most probably got caught up in the infectious adrenalin rush of it all, had a brush with the law and were forced to flee the country within days of Erdoğan stating that old Turkish cliche of wanting to investigate foreign powers' meddlings.
‘But I have been rather supportive, if not overly optimistic, about the AKP from the beginning – what should I worry about?’ I thought to myself. My inner-voice sounds somewhat shakey these days.
Given that amongst the offences those students in Izmir were rounded-up for included tweeting the locations of make-shift clinics for wounded protestors, I'd say none of our fates are as certain as they used to be. Have I not seen the same photographs of the injured? Have I not seen the inflammatory speeches of the government? Have I not passed on this information through various hyperlinks and online feeds? Am I too, despite everything, a target?
Dare I say 'AKP militia'?
Leaving the square to avoid the protestors' roadblocks, our taxi-bus was passed by a group of 50 men in their 30s, carrying sticks and climbing the hill from Yusufpaşa - the area just a fifteen minute walk away, where Tayyip Erdoğan was born and raised. The banners above the local counil house we passed there, were emblazoned with the message, 'born in Yusufpaşa, to become a word leader'. It turns out that these men were going to help the police beat protestors back. This a worrying development. I sincerely hope the phrase 'AKP militiamen' does not become inbedded in the vocabulary of the conflict.
A new assessment
This morning, during my English class in Bakırköy, I taught the phase “I’m conflicted”. The closest equivalent in Turkish usage, equates to “I’m confused/muddled-up”. This doesn’t do the phrase – so adequate for my current sensibilities – any good at all. For as much as I see the good in the downfall of the military, the establishment of equal rights for hijabed women and, for softer, more culturally-sensitive policy on minorities, which the AKP have delivered, the nay-sayers were quite right on the character of Erdoğan himself. I know many who have had to completely reassess their opinions in the last two weeks.
True, many of those nay-sayers who are protesting and being arrested tonight, would not have gone out marching in the defence of arrested Kurdish MPs. Similarly, many of those out tonight would have jeered a few years ago, as women were made to change their choice of dress to enter a university or go home and have babies. Many of those out tonight would have only skim-read newspaper articles about Kurdish children being arrested as terrorists and thrown into adult jails. But so many of those people seen the light. One ‘chapulju’ (a derogative term used by Erdoğan to describe the protestors – meaning ‘looter’) I spoke to confessed that she was one of those supporting laws against religious dress, and mass firings of military officiers caught praying. She told me ‘there is no difference between us telling them what to wear, and the president telling us not to drink’.
Indeed, unbeknownst to Tayyip or his supporters, today’s protestors are not the old enemy they once knew: These protesters are a gathering of bodies who have been divided by themselves or by others for the last eighty years, and who have developed and evolved in their own ways during that time. I have spoken to Kemalists, socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, Muslim anti-capitalists (who I have a particular crush on) and LGBT groups. I have seen Turkish nationalists and Kurdish protestors applauding each-other.