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At Ground Zero, Istanbul's Gezi Park
By Pamela Philipose
Istanbul, strewn with the architectural marvels of the centuries, mesmerises you with its beauty as it straddles the simmering deep azure of the Bosphorus under the umbrella of the sky. Here is a city that stands at the cusp of continents. Like a lenticular sheet, a particular location here could yield a glimpse of an archetypal Asian city just as a neighbourhood away another point will radiate distinctively European features.

If its geography is variegated, so is its history. The region had witnessed centuries of Byzantine rule dominated by a Christian religious order and then came under the writ of Ottoman rulers who venerated the Prophet of Islam. In the 1920s, it also saw the emergence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who advocated the complete separation of state and religious affairs. The changing times have put their impress on Istanbul in their different ways, whether through a cavernous cathedral of yore or the monumental mosques of the Middle Ages or through a rather more recent structure - Taksim Square - where a multi-dimensional statue of the founders of the Turkish Republic by an Italian sculptor is centred.

When protesting crowds descended on Taksim Square in late May, it marked yet another twist in the long saga of Istanbul. In demanding that the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government withdraw its plans to pour more concrete into this neck of Istanbul by erecting another mall complex, they were attempting to keep alive a vision of the city they believed has been bequeathed to them by history.

Of course, not every resident supported the protestors. On a recent visit to Istanbul, I found many shopkeepers at the Grand Bazar, a warren of stalls and shops that occupies 60-odd covered streets, willing to testify to Erdogan's virtues as a democrat and wealth multiplier. Standing outside his shop full of kilms and carpets, K. Erdem voiced his disapproval, "These young people know nothing. I would have also gone to Taksim Square if there was a reason for protests. But there is none. This country is doing well so what do they want? Do they want to drive away the tourists who feed us?"

Sadik, who ran a ceramic business in the shadow of the Blue Mosque, was proud of Turkey's financial clout. Said he, "Today, we have doing better economically than the European Union. Earlier I thought it would be good to be part of the EU, but now I don't think we should join even if we are offered membership." He was also apprehensive about the impact the protests would have on the economy.

When people in Istanbul were asked about support for Erdogan, they would invariably spread their fingers, move them left and right and state, "Fifty-fifty." Erdem and Sadik clearly belonged to the 50 per cent that passionately supported the Turkish prime minister.

On the other side of the divide was a rainbow coalition of people who were disquieted over Erdogan's attempts to unleash both religious conservatism and unbridled market forces. They wanted Turkey's democratic legacy to revive itself and were particularly angry about the growing clout of the construction lobby that has changed the city's skyline and clawed out its green spaces. It is for this reason that Gezi Park - a small spread of about 600 trees, including stately Chinars and verdant Magnolias, amidst the concrete behemoths that ring it - has proved to be a flashpoint.

Asiya (name changed), who sat in protest in a tent in Gezi Park, almost since the first protests began in late May, put it this way, "As women and as residents of Istanbul, we want access to our streets and parks. We want our city to be protected against vested interests. The Gezi Park struggle symbolises this desire." She smiled as she said this. When I asked whether she feared for her life, she smiled again, "We have been here for two weeks and have been able to keep the police out of Gezi Park for over a fortnight. That in itself is a big accomplishment. Despite Erdogan's threats, I feel very safe here."

A member of the Istanbul Feminist Association echoed Asiya, "We are against patriarchy and capitalism. This government represents both." She did not see the struggle as a repeat of Cairo's Tahrir Square demonstrations of 2011, preferring to compare it with the popular uprisings in Greece after the imposition of austerity measures. As for the prime minister, she was dismissive, "Many of his famous '50 per cent' supporters were with us. He kept threatening us, but this movement cannot die because it is about every person's right to the city. Already our resistance has dented Erdogan's authority; exposed his repressive, anti-democratic character."

She estimated that at least 50,000 people were present at some point or other in the Gezi Park during the stand-off. They comprised a loose coalition of 150-odd groups, ranging from professional bodies and commercial associations to feminists, LBGT activists, trade unions and left-wing intellectuals. A collective, the Takshim Solidarity Platform, generated regular bulletins on events. Women were conspicuous - not just by their presence but their activism. Some more elderly made it a point to visit every day, bearing small gifts of food or quilts to make life a bit easier for "these youngsters who are suffering for all of us", as one woman put it.

While their critics termed them as "picknickers", the protestors showed their resilience in facing up to pepper gas, water canons, tear gas, sound grenades, and bullets - both live and plastic. Some among them were killed, many more wounded, yet they continued their essentially non-violent protest against the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government's bulldozers and bullets, inspiring those in other Turkish cities to rally around in support.

To keep their spirits going and motivate themselves, they adopted creative practices. Gezi Park, despite the numbers there, was free of litter and every corner of it was enlivened by buntings, posters and flags, as well as impromptu photo exhibitions reliving each day of the uprising. An overturned and wrecked, grafitti-marked police vehicle stood at the entrance to the park, as if to mock the armed might of the state.

There was also a lot of dancing, clapping and singing - mostly in Turkish. But a widely circulating video clip showed a choir of protestors singing the signature score, 'Do you hear the people singing…' from Tom Hooper's award-winning 'Les Miserables'. Then there was a German who drove a massive piano down to the venue in solidarity and played through the night in one famous instance.

As in much of the world, including India, social media proved to be a thorn in the flesh of the authorities by expediting the projection of images and words from ground zero with quicksilver speed. The Erdogan government cracked down hard on the mainstream media, imposing fines on private television companies daring to show protest footage and arresting foreign journalists. But countering Twitter and Facebook proved more daunting.

While Erdogan may pride himself on having successfully quelled the uprising through a mixture of ugly repression and faint attempts at conciliation, the Taksim Square-Gezi Park struggle will go down in Turkish history as an important marker. It will be a reminder that the suzerainty of the Ottamans may have ended, but there are many who aspire for the total control they once exercised; that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk may feature on currency notes but the democratic project he espoused is still unfinished and has, over the years, only assumed more dimensions, including environmental ones. As for the term 'Young Turks', it has gained a whole new meaning. Many of the young Turks who participated in this uprising will certainly go on to preside over the country's future.

(© Women's Feature Service)

News Updated at : Saturday, July 6, 2013
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