Occupy Gezi: The Cultural Impact Part II

Gezi Part 2 Final

A man wearing a white hard hat is making sporadic announcements using a megaphone. Despite this his amplified voice sounds weak. Bags under his eyes, clothes mottled with dry mud, there are many here at Gezi Park who look the same. He is asking people camped here to refrain from using expletives as they form a lunchtime queue some fifty metres long. Despite his broadcast the atmosphere is not at all rowdy or aggressive. It never has been, except for when the police turn up. Nonetheless the dynamic driving the protests has been somewhat stunted after another night of conflict; it’s the most hushed I’ve seen it since coming here.

Spices hang in the air and the stalls that run along the north end of Gezi Park are as impressive as the food being served, all of which is provided free of charge. More than anything my guess is that the man’s announcement is another strand of the largely open-minded culture evolving from the protests at Gezi and Taksim. Flyers were handed out last week, imploring people to think hard about the kind of language they use to express their criticisms, not only of the police and AK Parti, but more broadly, to include the mix of groups involved in the protests – a reminder of the wider issues at stake.

The derogatory language aimed towards PM Erdogan should not encourage the use of words that discriminate against sex workers, gay pride movement, feminists – we’re all in this together is the real message. Some of the expletives that have become entrenched in the Turkish language are, like anywhere else, masculine-orientated, misogynistic and defamatory of perceived minority groups. In many ways a correlation can be made to the bellicose rhetoric that Turkey’s PM has himself been accused of employing in his responses to the protesters; but ‘we can continue down our road without using such language’ says the leaflet.

In On the Way to Language, Martin Heidegger famously wrote that, ‘Language is the house of being, which is propriated by being and pervaded by being.’ In other words, its centrality to our ‘Being-in-the-world’. While the analogy is unpolished, it nonetheless fits when considering the genuine attempts by certain groups at Gezi in making full use of this opportunity to promote more progressive attitudes, to instigate a change in thinking; a kind of language analysis has emerged, one that resonates with the intellectual movements associated with the ‘linguistic turn’.

It has been widely documented how the protesters appropriated a term PM Erdogan used to describe them – çapulcu (pronounced cha – PUL – ju in Turkish, meaning ‘looters’ or ‘marauders’ among other corresponding terms) – reinventing and verbifying its meaning to connote ‘a person who is willing to act towards the extension of their democratic rights in a peaceful and humourless manner’, hence the anglicised version ‘chapuller’. This was made all the more significant when American linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky advocated the Gezi Park protest by identifying himself as a chapuller in a picture posted to social media.

Indicative of this awakening of an ostensibly latent political and cultural consciousness are the people’s dissatisfaction not only with the AK Parti, but also the Kemalist Republican People’s Party, CHU. Given the ebb and flow of perspectives there is an appetite for something greater. As Cem Boyner, Chairman of Turkey’s Boyner Holding, stated in his support the Gezi movement, ‘I’m neither rightist nor leftist, I am a chapuller.’

In the swell of competing voices sounding across Turkey is the growing realisation that the protests have cleared a space that can be defined in terms of culture and sociology, and even psychology, as terra-incognita. I am alluding to the protesters chant, ‘Taksim is everywhere, everywhere is Taksim’; in other words, the protest is now-here and no-where, occupying spaces both inward and outward.



I had walked from Taksim to Gezi Park, entering from a south east entrance on Mete Caddesi. A large barricade that had been removed by bulldozers had been replaced by two smaller barricades facing the hefty police presence situated outside the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM). Two men in their early twenties were sat on chairs in front of the first bigger barricade with blankets wrapped around them. When I would go back that way later they would be asleep, eyelids flickering.

The police had cordoned off the Ataturk Cultural Centre. Banners draped on the façade of the building and representing the various parties involved in the protests had been removed, as had all protesters. There were several TOMAs, police officers in uniform and civilian dress, three or four of the former were armed and standing guard. Taksim Square itself maintained a hearty yet diminished contingent of definable protesters as well as those with a casual interest and many curious tourists.

Inside the park, in front of another TV station that has sprung up, VideOccupy, are three young teenagers on their BMX bikes, eating simit and drinking ayran – for those unfamiliar with Turkish eating habits, the former is a kind of Turkish bagel covered in sesame seeds and the latter a salted yoghurt drink, which Erdogan recently declared was the national drink of Turkey and not, as considered by many, Rakı. Aside from this scene, this is the oldest crowd I have witnessed at Gezi and many of them are stretched out and fast asleep on benches and under sycamore trees. A recent proposal from the government has suggested holding a referendum in Istanbul regarding their plans for the park. Since the AK Parti won their third term in 2011, the increasingly authoritarian and divisive nature of its policies amid rumours of vote rigging at the aforementioned election means the announcement has been met with scepticism. A crowd of about a hundred or so are listening to a rallying call by a woman stood on stage beneath a grass bank. Her speech about the need to maintain their occupation of the park is met well. The Gezi Park Library, its shelves supported by concrete blocks, remains busy. They have IKEA bookcases now, some of the books are tied to trees in plastic bags.

Last night there had been a thunderstorm, the biggest of four in consecutive days. Blankets are hung on lines between trees, paintings from the children’s workshop have run. On a whiteboard there is a list of things the protesters require, largely tarpaulin. I am asked frequently for cigarettes.

I have enjoyed Gezi Park best at night. People appear both nourished and protected by the dark (ridiculous given the spate of police offensives that have occurred at night). But I am reminded of one particular night last week, an occasion that I contrive to explain languid atmosphere of Gezi Park, which, with the increasing police presence around Taksim, and given their clearance of the AKM the night previous, seems to embody the feelings of the people.

I had been talking to a Turkish man selling water, close to where the food stalls I described earlier are located. The queue had been much bigger then and with the stalls all lit up, people dancing and singing, it had felt especially festive. After telling me how overjoyed the Gezi Park experience has made him, how he didn’t think people had it in them to manage the situation in such a way, a middle-aged lady joined in the discussion, she backed him up by saying that she and her friends were always criticising young people today for not being like them when they were younger. Recalling the violence in Turkey during the early-Sixties and how active she had been, how politicised, she and her friends had berated the young people for being passive, slothful and spoiled, when now, she’d said, eyes shining, ‘they have put us all to shame.’

Then they tell me that they are afraid, scared that the police will come into Gezi Park and end the activities taking place here. Indeed, this is the concern everyone seems to have, because no one I have spoken to seems to know what is going to happen next, except for one perhaps. Erdogan has provided a ‘last warning’ to protesters to clear Taksim and threatening to ‘strengthen police powers’ if they did not.

It seems incredible that anyone, nevermind members of a democratically elected government, should want to put an end to a community whose gifts have proved so fruitful for people from all walks of life. But they did anyway. Though the protesters remained and continue to remain steadfast in the gaze of their tormentors, the residents of Gezi Park, as I came to know it, through the generosity of spirit and proclivity towards symbiosis, as a world within a world, a Borgesian daydream, were cleared from the park.

I think my one abiding image of that Saturday night was a policeman setting alight the squares of multi-coloured paper onto which people had scribbled their hopes for the future of the movement and attached to the branches of a ‘wishing tree’.

Of course, the protests were never exclusively about Gezi Park. Yet it is worth mentioning that Istanbul is only 1.5 per cent public green space – nine acres of this space is located in Gezi Park – in comparison to London (38 per cent) and New York (14 per cent). When you consider that Istanbul already has around 87 shopping malls and that 11 have had to close down due to their failure to attract customers, it is quite clear that the city does not need another mall, especially not at Gezi Park.

Three years ago, Istanbul was designated European Capital of Culture by the European Union. One of the main objectives of the programme for Istanbul was to implement long-term projects that would become self-sustainable once the yearlong schedule came to end.

Reflecting on the legacy of Istanbul’s Capital of Culture programme, renowned Turkish photographer, Murat Germen, said:

No obvious changes that I could observe have taken place…Some historical buildings were renovated, but they didn’t have to wait for İstanbul to become the European Capital of Culture for this. Such projects should have certain continuity. I don’t think that İstanbul has lost anything in any sense; however, I don’t think that we can mention any forward-looking projects either. But I do hope that I am mistaken. After all, I did not expect too many forward-looking projects from a society inclined to plan for the short-term, that is in the pursuit of individual richness instead of a common richness and that has no future plans for the decades to come.

Among the criticisms were allegations of corruption on behalf of bureaucrats in Ankara and their espousal of careless commercial developments in addition to awarding contracts for the restoration of historic buildings to unqualified bidders. The result has left many academics, art historians and cultural commentators, such as Ayhan Sicimoglu, in dismay. For instance, the restorations carried out on the city’s Constantinople Walls drew comparisons to the kitschy simulacrums of Egypt in Las Vegas. Once again these have been ephemeral projects executed on the back of euphemisms such as ‘gentrification’ and ‘urban regeneration’. Instead of using the Capital of Culture programme to establish long term projects, such as a restoration institute, it has been used as a marketing tool to make short term profits for the construction industry, where corruption is rife according to Transparency International.

Mustafa Sönmez, a columnist on the daily Cumhuriyet, describes Istanbul as a ‘chaotic city’ and ‘ungovernable’ because of the magnitude and pace of its expansion. ‘It [Istanbul] has turned into a commodity. Cultural values have been sacrificed for the sake of financial profit,’ says Sönmez.

Bordering the western boundary of Istanbul’s city walls lies Sulukule (‘Water Tower’). The area is known historically as a settlement for Romani communities, with roots reaching back to the Byzantium Empire. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century however, the Romanis made this particular area of the Fatih district their permanent home. Celebrated Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, has noted how significant their contribution has been to the culture of Istanbul, especially in music and dance. The Romani have a proud history of entertaining Istanbulites and tourists alike, but in the lead up to Istanbul Capital of Culture, they were allegedly coerced into leaving their homes in Sulukule as part of an urban transformation project, receiving a proportionate financial settlement from private investors. They were moved to villages and towns where there was no infrastructure, no electricity and no jobs. Some Romanis stayed, mostly those whose homes had not been earmarked for the regeneration project. However when nearly all of the buildings in the 500 year old settlement were destroyed, the anxiety, alienation and fear that followed fuelled a future expectation that they too would eventually be evicted.

A 2011 article from Today’s Zaman describes how:

Academics, artists, activists and ordinary citizens objected to the project. The papers as well as news channels extensively discussed the matter. UNESCO authorities paid a visit to Sulukule and made statements defending the integrity of the existing historical and cultural fabric. However, despite objections and criticism, hundreds of houses were demolished and replaced with modern buildings.

A majority of Romani families eventually returned to Sulukule to find that their former settlement had been enclosed by a fence housing the new Yalı or Ottoman-styled houses and where the rent was more than ten times what they used to pay. That the city’s authorities failed to recognise the Romani’s cultural significance at a time when Istanbul was meant to be celebrating its culture is baffling. But there are other examples of what has happened at Sulukule throughout Istanbul. On the evidence available the aims of government urban regeneration or restoration projects in Istanbul appear to be about making profit for private investors.

Other examples of bureaucratic negligence are Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and the renovation of the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM). Both were meant to be ready in time for the 2010 European Capital of Culture event, the AKM being the ‘jewel in the crown’. However, Pamuk’s brainchild was delayed and eventually opened in 2012, whereas the AKM has been left to deteriorate while plans for its future remain vague. What seems clear however is that traditional modes of urban living and time-honoured forms of public culture are fading out of existence and are being replaced by a sanitised version of Istanbul and its culture.

The redevelopment plans for Gezi Park and Taksim Square includes the rebuilding of the Taksim Topcu Kislasi (Taksim Artillery Barracks). Together with news of its proposed function, as a shopping mall, the plans seem like an extension of Istanbul’s burgeoning corporate culture, one underscored by a neo-Ottoman agenda and backed by private investors – no doubt suited to the ‘pious generation’ Erdogan wishes to nurture.

Taking into account the trends in Istanbul’s urban regeneration so far, if the redevelopment should go ahead, the fear is that the result will be a structure – though historically significant – better suited to Disneyland. In the aftermath, the city will have lost rare green space, resistant to the reaches of commerce and which, in a similar vein to the Ottoman coffee houses referenced in the my last piece, ‘acted as an escape from the social hierarchy of the time, with people of varying demographics coming together for the first time under the same roof,’ an intellectual arena for critical debate on the matters that interest people, a public sphere.




We have been choking on news.

While Turkey’s domestic channels remain in a state of comatose, Twitter has been and remains a highly useful platform for disseminating information regarding Occupy Gezi. Nonetheless it is equally accountable for a flourishing ventriloquism, disembodied voices; paranoid and unhinged. This is not a surprise. Multiple realities permeate people’s opinion and regardless of their legitimacy they are highly pervasive.

Now that Gezi Park is no longer occupied by the protesters it has spread to other parts of Istanbul. Along with the powerful images of the ‘Standing Man’ protests, parks in Besiktas, Fatih, Cihangir, and Yenikoy, have become archetypal democratic forums. People in their hundreds have gathered after dinner at a given location, they form a queue and then take turns on a small stage to offer their perspective and opinions on the future of Turkey. Attention is locked on the speaker and it is a particularly fertile experience. Being there in the present, you more obviously feel the intensity of togetherness, of the people. There is no information overload as each person’s opinion unfolds in time and space.

These gatherings guarantee a degree of social solidarity whereas social media (as well as other media platforms) do much to disengage and make indifferent the observations of the audience. When the plight of the protesters is reduced to 140 characters, sound bites or news headlines, when they are transformed into a spectacle, this facilitates the neglect of the human component. As we know, increased exposure does much to aid desensitisation.

Social media was highly successful in bringing the focus of the world to Occupy Gezi, similarly the solidarity shown by people towards protesters in cities across the world is not negligible. However, if Occupy Gezi is going to evolve these forums need to spread all over Turkey. As Edhem Eldem wrote in the New York Times this week of the A. K. P. and which I think is equally applicable to those organising and attending public forums:

…leaders need to understand that true secular democracy is the only viable way to guarantee the rights and freedoms of all citizens, including Muslims. And Mr. Erdogan’s opponents must grasp that true secularism, contrary to its earlier Kemalist incarnation, requires that the principles of democracy be applied to all members of society.


Banner illustration by Dean Lewis