Occupy Gezi: The Cultural Impact

Gezi final banner 2

I am sitting drinking tea with friends in the Cafe Grand Boulevard in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. It is evening and the place is busier than usual. We are sat so close together all our knees are touching.

Cafe Grand Boulevard is located in a courtyard of the Hazzopulo Pasajı. In the Nineteenth-century this area had been the domain of Ottoman Greeks, Armenians and Jews, and had been known since the middle-ages as Pera (‘Across’ in Greek) until the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Hazzopulo Pasajı (literally ‘Passage Hazzopulo’) is a testament to its former Greek denizens. Built in 1871 by the Istanbul Greek Hacopulo Family and restored in 2002, Hazzopulo is one of many Pasajı’s to flank the indomitable İstiklal Avenue. A humble entrance belies an elegant Ottoman-era structure which along with the teahouse and charming cobbled courtyard is comprised of second-hand bookshops, jewellery and handbag stores, tattoo and piercing studios. In the daytime, sunlight cut by the grape leaves that adorn its inner sanctum lend it an enchanted quality. At night people sit on the tiny Turkish stools they call “tabure”, huddled together like penguins, talking until the early hours.

Following the local municipality’s seemingly abrupt decision in July 2011 – under a directive named ‘table operations’ (‘masa operasyonları’ in Turkish) – to remove all outdoor furniture from outside of street cafes and restaurants, Cafe Grand Boulevard is one of the very few places in Beyoğlu where you can sit outside to eat and drink.

One of our group, Kaan, works as an architect for a local firm and lists the ‘table operations’ on the finger of his hand as one of the several decisions that has fuelled public resentment towards Turkey’s ruling AK Parti, particularly its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

However, it was the events of the Friday before, 31 May, that have motivated him and thousands others to involve themselves in the movement that has become known as Occupy Gezi.

Kaan tells us about watching the events unfold at home via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and from friends texting him pictures and video footage of police entering the park, setting fire to the tents of protesters camped there, using their batons to beat them and then indiscriminately spraying and firing canisters into mounting crowds aghast at their unmerited brutality. Another of our group, an archaeologist named Ayça, describes the demolition of the historic Emek Cinema Theater in order to build a shopping mall (the theatre and its original reliefs are to be restored and refitted on the fourth floor).

For me, this is the one that stands out. If the Occupy Gezi movement had a most obvious predecessor, a close warning of what was to come, the demonstration held in April to save Turkey’s oldest theatre was it.

Among the Emek protesters and those signing a petition against its demolition were the guests of this year’s İstanbul International Film Festival, namely, directors Costa-Gavras, Mike Newell, Marco Becchis and Jan Ole Gerster. Taking this into account it seemed incredible that police would exercise indiscriminate force against a peaceful protest, including the use of pepper spray and water cannons.

While I’d heard about the demolition, I knew nothing about the Emek Cinema Theater’s considerable history; its design and interior, the lives it had cultivated, its role in the personal histories of countless people; and when I looked at photographs of the Emek, it fostered in me that strange nostalgia a person feels when encountering something that you’ve never known – a letter in Akkadian written on a clay tablet or a restored film of London in 1927 – a sensation akin to déjà vu; a feeling that emanates from our innate collective memory, the psychic residue of our ancestors. This why culture, and heritage, matters: they connect us to the past and future.

Opening its doors in 1924, the Angel Cinema (‘Melek Sineması’ in Turkish), as it was then known, was frequently regarded as one of the most beautiful cinemas in Europe. It formed part of the Cercle d’Orient, a listed art deco building designed by Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury in 1884. The theatre’s interior was a mix of baroque and rococo artistic styles; two Art Nouveau angels on either side of the screen inspired its name.

I understood as best I could the frustrations of the protesters, actors, filmmakers, but also the Emek’s place in the collective memory of Istanbul, not only as a monument to Turkish culture, but as a emblem of Ataturk’s transformation of the old Ottoman-Turkish state into a European-styled secular republic, thus cultivating a more cosmopolitan outlook. The Guardian was one of the few international newspapers to report on its demolition, noting that:

Since 1958, the cinema has been publicly owned and has provided the backdrop for small, courageous revolts: the first big public 1 May celebrations after the military coup of 1980 took place there, it housed left-wing concerts and did not shy away from screening Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ while religious groups protested outside.

The Emek demonstration turned violent. Pepper gas and water cannons were used. By its end four people had been detained, including distinguished film critic, Berke Göl, while Atila Dorsay, Turkey’s most respected film scholar, later announced he was to retire. In an article entitled, ‘Time to say farewell’, Dorsay wrote:

This theatre had a value for the cultural structure it carried and the historic reservoir and lifestyle it represented. Today there is nothing called Emek. We could not manage to explain its symbolic and real value.

The overzealous reaction of the police and the demolition were criticised further by director Costa-Gavras in a  letter to PM Erdoğan:

The violence that followed the peaceful [protest] should not cast a shadow over the main cause of this gathering […] A major cinema, a cultural centre, should not be destroyed. It’s like eradicating the memory of the past, and an important place for the future. It would be a mistake; politically, socially and artistically. With all due respect, I’m asking the prime minister, the guarantor of İstanbul’s cultural integrity, to intervene to save the theatre and not let commerce outweigh culture.

It is difficult to build a culture without a heritage. And these two events taken together – the ‘table operations’ and the demolition of the Emek Cinema Theater – can be seen as prime examples of the AK Parti’s ‘wrecking ball’ effect on the public sphere, what the latter sees as a prioritising of commerce over culture. With the proposed redevelopment of Gezi Park and Taksim being seen as another hijacking of another civic domain in the interests of private capitalism, people are asking where is this path leading to?


Kaan receives a phonecall, and from his face we could tell it was bad news. His friend’s house – used on the previous weekend to escape being tear-gassed – had been burgled. The television, cigarettes and alcohol had been taken. In many ways it is a relief to discover that it wasn’t some altercation with the police.

Since Sunday their presence around Taksim, Istiklal and Gezi Park had abated, so much so that I would not see a single officer for the next five days, highly unusual in Istanbul. Whether this had anything to do with Kaan’s friend being burgled or not I don’t know, but the demonstration against perceived state oppression and Erdoğan’s drift towards autocratism had also provided an opportunity for unnecessary vandalism.

We all leave the cafe together and separate on Istiklal. The opportunity to cash in on the spirit of Occupy Gezi is in full swing. Bottles and cans of Efes in wooden boxes filled with crushed ice, hawkers line up fake pairs of trainers outside Adidas and Nike stores – heavily vandalised during the weekend; swimming goggles, snorkling and surgical masks along with lemons and anticids are being sold in case of another gas attack. Above all though is the Turkish flag and the image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Occupy Gezi is a tactile movement, people are scratching their protest on the skin of the city. The protest is everywhere. Not only in the cafes, streets and bars. It’s written on the walls, paint-sprayed on the roads and pavements, in the metro stations; leaflets have been printed and are being handed out, stencils of penguins have been designed and are sprayed on walls – during the worst of police violence CNN Turk instead chose to air a documentary on penguins – all kinds of flags are being flown, pots and pans hit by woman hanging out of apartment blocks, lights flashing on and off against their windows, endless whistling; and the chanting – ‘Tayyip Istifa’ (‘Resign Tayyip [Erdoğan]’) and ‘Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş!’ (‘Everywhere is Taksim, the resistance is everywhere!’) – all this amid the aroma of roasted chestnuts and a faint whiff of teargas.

For several days we had all been awake until the early hours, some of us until the sun came up, keeping a close eye on the Twitter accounts and hashtags we had, through a process of trial and error, come to rely upon. Needless to say our bullshit detectors have been fine-tuned over the past twelve days.

Much has been said of the instant gratification impulse Twenty-first century society and culture has seemingly fostered – next day delivery services, television programmes and films can be streamed within a few seconds (that is, if you have a fast internet connection, in which case most people won’t bother), likewise for the music we download; instant credit and tanned skin, ‘wait a minute I’ll Google it.’

Speculation in situations such Gezi is natural of course, as is the mix of scepticism and hyperbole feeding it. Walking home that night I realised that we’d all been guilty of over-thinking, trying to explain away Occupy Gezi, reduce it to a series of symbols, when the fact remained that we were still too close to the events to make sense of them. Focus on the here and now, keep the protesters uppermost in your mind, communicate what is happening here without hope or despair. This is the conclusion I came to. We had spent much of the day in contact with various protesters, through acquaintances, social media and by texting. Eventually the requests came through, what kinds of items they required and we took a bag of supplies with us, mostly personal hygiene products.

It is not my intent to portray the protesters camped at Gezi Park itself as saints – I don’t believe that is how they see themselves or how they wish to be seen. However, I have nothing but admiration for their courage in the face of police brutality, pacifist commitment in protecting the park for themselves and future generations, and creative approach to organising and arranging the park into cooperative. Their altruism has been overwhelming. It’s fair to say I have never witnessed anything like Occupy Gezi; the same goes for the many Turks I have spoken to. I feel privileged. Of the many examples I could give of the protesters’ energy and inventiveness, I think the Gezi Park Library and the ‘Museum of the Revolution’ (where they continue to collect pieces which embody the first weekend of violence following the gung-ho offensive by the police) stand out as examples of their long-term goals and the ideas feeding into them.

Each time I have visited Gezi there has been some new addition to the culture and spirit of the park produced by a kind of electromagnetivity between the people – predominately young, but supported by professional creative types, the middle classes, and a massive female presence (most of those I have spoken to have been women). Gezi has brought together men and women of all ages, Muslims and non-believers, Kurds and Alevis, and people of all classes. The park has a childrens workshop area, the paintings made there are strewn from tree to tree on lines of twine (one of them of a police Panzer using its water cannon against stickmen protesters). There are yoga classes, Gezi Park TV station – a reaction no doubt to Turkey’s news channels ignoring the plight of the protesters in the face of the excessive force used by the police – and an Activist Cinema Club.

If this sounds ideal it’s because it really is – for now. As mentioned, there are many different ideologies at work, especially at Taksim Square. You could easily create a glossary in book form based on the amount of slogans communicated by members from almost every sphere of Turkish politics – there are secularists, nationalists, leftists, and anarchists.

It would be incredibly difficult to establish a political party that would encapsulate Occupy Gezi. Not only that, but the spread of protests to a reported seventy cities around Turkey whose concerns would differ to varying degrees. In short, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ ideology.

Nonetheless, we should not dismiss the solidarity the mix of groups have demonstrated in what is surely a goal that unites all at Taksim Square and Gezi Park – ensuring that both remain an autonomous space where the public can express themselves both singularly and collectively.

Diversity as opposed to homogeneity, democracy as opposed to autocracy, culture as opposed to consumption – this is a message a majority of those protesting can agree on.


Incompatibility defines Istanbul, especially in terms of culture. The city has in the last decade, since Erdoğan came to power, become increasingly internationalised. This has had repercussions both good and bad. Istanbul ’74, an arts and culture organisation founded in 2009 by Demet Müftüoglu-Eseli and Alphan Eseli, initiated the Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival and international fashion and cultural celebration, Istancool, which has attracted attendees such as the late Gore Vidal, Zoe Cassavetes and Zaha Hadid; there is the Istanbul Modern and Sultan Selim III’s Tophane-i Amire (Tophane Amoury) has been converted into an exhibition centre for the arts. But what has been described as ‘bloodless internationalism’, that is, of emulating the west, has resulted in the unchecked construction projects that have resulted in the destruction of historic buildings and turned parts of the Istanbul into a nondescript conurbation of behemoth shopping malls and unimaginative glass skyscrapers. While Erdoğan rightly dismisses a small minority of the protesters as vandals – I witnessed some teenagers wearing Guy Fawkes masks being reprimanded by a large party of Occupy Gezi protesters for damaging a public bus – it can be said that in spite of the various restoration projects he and his party have instigated (albeit somewhat negligently) the largescale vandalism enacted on Istanbul as a result of his party’s neo-liberal policies are of far greater consequence.

It is also the creeping Islamisation instigated by Erdoğan that have made people suspicious of his long term aims. These have of course informed the protest. However, Occupy Gezi is not a campaign against Islam regardless of the gulf that remains between religious and secular parties in Turkey. Neither can Erdoğan’s reshaping of Turkish society and culture restrict freedom of speech and pass laws without public consultation (or even that of his own party). The producers of Behzat Ç, a TV crime and detective series set in Ankara, and featuring a ‘morally ambiguous police officer,’ were put under pressure to stop production as the show contained material considered contradictory to traditional Turkish family values. When fans of the series complained the government backed down and instead imposed a series of huge fines through the state-controlled Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK). Scriptwriters were forced to make the eponymous protagonist of the show marry his live-in girlfriend, conversations between characters were heavily censored as were scenes that involved alcohol. Speaking of which, the proposed alcohol restrictions have now been ratified and the sale of alcohol between 10pm – 6am is prohibited (the ban does not extend to cafes, bars and restaurants, but will also apply to the open sale and consumption of alcohol in parks, gardens, open spaces, highways, picnic areas, historical ruins and the interior of all vehicles). When you consider alcohol restrictions in the UK or Sweden, the Turkish ban seems compliant. However, critics argue that there was no real call for the ban as Turkey has the lowest alcohol consumption in Europe at 1.5 litres per capita.

Last year, when Erdoğan’s youngest daughter walked out of Young Osman, a play based on the youthful, reforming sultan, Osman II, at the Ankara State Theatre, claiming she had been insulted by an actor, the PM threatened to withdraw state support from Turkey’s theatres. Among several others, Erdoğan has also looked to introduce restrictions to the timing of abortions and public displays of affection. However, these moral and cultural intrusions by the state cannot be said to not impinge on the lifestyles of an excusively secular contingent. Edorgan’s decision to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus, naming it after Sultan Selim I – nicknamed ‘Selim the Grim’ following a massacre of Turkey’s Alevi population (a sect of Shi’a Islam with aspects of Sufism who espouse mystic poetry, music and dance) in the Fifteen-century – is seen as a provocation to Turkey’s existing largest minority. Liberal and Anticapitalist Muslims (Antikapitalist Müslümanlar) advocating pluralism are also affected by government policies, hence their involvement (albeit to a lesser extent than the main body of secular protesters) in Occupy Gezi.

At Gezi Park I saw a banner held aloft by two head-scarfed women which read, ‘the trees bow down before God.’ A quote from the Qur’an. Another banner displays a line from My Name is Red  by Turkey’s Nobel Prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, ‘I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.’

While there are pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono along with messages of non-violence, it’s encouraging to the see that a majority of the content used to symbolise the multifarious concerns of the protesters are mostly Turkish or of their own heritage and culture. In other words, they are not relying on western counter-cultural figures.

Close to a group of practising musicians sat on the edge of a flower bed, I stop by a ‘wishing tree’ from which post-it notes of different colours loll from its branches, a ‘wish’ scribbled on each one. I recognise a name written on a pink note, Nâzım Hikmet, a Turkish poet and revolutionary. I cannot translate the rest and ask my someone to help. It reads, ‘To live! Like a tree, alone and free, and like a forest in brotherhood / this is our longing.’


Jay Weissberg, a film critic with Variety, wrote in her LRB blog that, ‘Several people I spoke to at the [Istanbul Film] festival said the programme of demolition is part of the Erdoğan government’s long-term goal of eliminating Turkey’s multiethnic Ottoman identity.’ I had wondered if Erdoğan’s policies were in some way a resurfacing of the Islamic building blocks that made Istanbul the capital of the Ottoman Empire following the ruthless secularisation of Turkey by Ataturk. When Atila Dorsay wrote of the “historic reservoir and lifestyle” the Emek Cinema Theatre represented, of its ‘symbolic and real value’, and moreover when director Costas-Gravas wrote that it was ‘like eradicating the memory of the past,’ they were right, but couldn’t the same be said for the cultural amnesia Turkey suffered as a result of Ataturk’s own single-mindedness?

In establishing the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk expurgated the country’s Islamic elements by eradicating Arabic script and adopting a new Turkish alphabet (modified Latin form). He introduced European dress codes, laws and calender, including the controversial ban of women wearing head-scarves if working in the public sector. Such a bouleversement resulted, according to Esma Kurklu, a screenwriter for the satirical TV show Heberler, in a kind of schizophrenia. In an article for the Wall Street Journal by novelist Lawrence Osborne, she says, ‘The country is moving back to its Ottoman subconscious.’ This in no way means a return to a theocracy based on rigid notions of hierarchy and order, with a sultan exercising absolute power. As Zeynep Fadillioglu – the first woman in history to design a mosque: the Sakirin in Istanbul – says in Osborne’s article:

Urban elitism was always the problem in this country. Istanbul is not a bridge between East and West—it’s a bridge between two versions of the East. The secular Kemalist elite lorded it over everyone else, and that could not go on. So the Islamic element had to be admitted into the picture eventually. It’s an inevitable process […] But we have evolved too far to become some kind of Islamic state now. It’s too late. Look around you…What we are seeing, really, is the inevitable converging of two Turkish societies: rural, Muslim Anatolia and elite, intellectual, secular Istanbul…It’ll be a bit tense for a while.

The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mahmud II had understood the need to modernise. He heeded the technological superiority of Europe and instigated the various reforms that resulted in the burfication of Ottoman education and ultimately the Decree of Tanzimat (1839).

Before now the two Turkish societies were kept separate. One had been stunted in its need to modernise by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the second relegated it to museums in London and other cities and imposed, as mentioned, a kind of cultural amnesia on the people of Turkey.

Critics say Ataturk went too far with his reforms, that they are outdated and overly nationalistic. After ten years in power perhaps the same might be said of Erdoğan, only from the opposite end of the spectrum. The PM has said that the redevelopment of Taksim and Gezi Park will include a rebuilding of the Ottoman-replica Barracks that once stood there, and that this is a matter of having ‘a respect for history.’ Nonetheless, it is a misreading reading of history he claims to respect – it is guided by the greedy development of commercial capitalism.


In 1544, two Syrian merchants introduced coffee to Istanbul and thereafter coffee houses became very popular around commercial areas of the city. They were frequented first of all by men who advocated a love of high culture, enjoyed chess, read books and wrote poetry. Coffeehouse culture become more popular and widespread, and 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. Clubs and associations were formed, information, ideas, gossip and rumours exchanged, which posed a  threat to established social and political order. As vehicles for political debate and mobilization, attempts were madeto shut coffeehouses down all over the Ottoman Empire. This top down approach failed as ruling order failed to modernise and provide an adequate space for the public sphere.

Can the same parallel be made with Erdoğan and his ‘table operations’?

In his attempts to restrict people from expressing themselves both singular and collectively in the public space, to engage sufficiently in the public sphere, and by limiting the information made available to them by state-influenced newspapers and television, it would seem then that culture has moved into the virtual domain of Twitter.

 Banner illustration by Dean Lewis