Hard Times for Istanbul’s big man

Hard Times for Istanbul’s big man

‘You arrive on Friday afternoon? Good luck.’

Damn right: Friday afternoon, Istanbul traffic-jams make Rome look like Switzerland. It takes me two bloody hours on a stinky bus to get from the airport to the city center. As the bus approaches Taksim Square, I get a good look at the modern, flashy, new center of Turkey’s largest city: Dubai-style skyscrapers, more than a hundred floors high, looking down at the old town as stubborn ladies. I guess this is how all of the country should look like in the next few years, if everything goes according to the plan.

I step off the bus and jump into a taxi, that soon leaves the jittering traffic jam and drifts into a narrow side-street. The contrast could not be more severe: little shops and cafes, plastic chairs scattered on pending sidewalks. A group of men drink tea, while a Bollywood-like dandy gets his hair cut in a barbershop nearby and an old lady buys some carrots, a piece of lamb and a pack of Camel in the grocery next door. Camel –€・and Marlboro, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike –€・but no tobacco, since Erdoğan’s government has forbidden tobacco sales in all of Turkey, for reasons nobody really knows. Looking at these people, I can’t help but ask myself, what will happen to the hairy-back barbers in the new Turkey that is growing just around the corner? Judging from the 3D renderings that cover the construction sites, there will be no space for them. For sure there’ll be barbershops in those new buildings, but they will be top-of-the-game beauty salons, with minimal furniture and a hipster hair dresser with a pair of scissors flashing from the back pocket of his design jeans. But who wants hairy barbers anyway? They’re not the ones running the country economy, for fuck’s sake.

Erdoğan’s plan seems pretty obvious: first, kill the nightlife. Easy job, once you make both drinking booze and smoking tobacco illegal, and you start arguing that women should better stay home during pregnancy, adding that’s not safe for them to roam after dark, only to conclude that –・ fuck it! –・ everything would be much easier if women just STAY THE FUCK HOME! So kill the nightlife, push little shops out of business –・opening something eighty new malls around city, for example –・and in a few years you will have nothing but junkies and hustlers roaming at night, and this will make it easier to buy low and sell high, which is exactly what you need for a new Dubai-style Istanbul to replace the old-fashion, messy neighborhoods. After all, it’s not a mystery Erdoğan sees the construction sector as Turkey’s economy driving element.

In the end, he’s doing nothing but playing the same trick Chinese have been getting away with for decades now: he waves ideology with his right hand –・in this case some fake religious shit –・while luring old-style turbo-capitalists from all around the world with his left one. Little shops are just caught up in the middle, same way Gezi Park was.

But you can’t blame the boy for trying: be the man in charge is a very stressful job. When your duty is to keep order in a chaotic world, it’s only a matter of time before you end up hating the messy, loud people you grew up with. Any President or Prime Minister, everywhere in the world, will always prefer one gigantic mall to a thousand little shops; one nuclear power station to a thousand solar ones. Are you kidding? Do you really want endless flocks of citizens protesting all day long about the reflection on those solar panels burning their carefully tended plants? Do you really need the mind-fucking stream of bureaucracy that comes with that?

I wonder when exactly Erdoğan first recognized those little shops as the agents of chaos they really are. Because cities are supposed to be chaotic, smelly and sometimes dangerous, but none of these adjectives sounds good to the ears of the man in charge. They’re instantly translated into headaches and the amount of aspirins needed to keep them from blowing your head off.

Only that Erdoğan didn’t get away with Gezi Park, not yet.

It’s now middle September, winter is kicking in and the Occupy movement is fading away, the same way its namesakes in States and Canada did, but this doesn’t mean the protests are over. The killing of Ahmet Atakan in Antakya has just fueled up the beefs again, and the tension is rising. Down in Taksim square, platoons of heavy armed cops are all over the place. Even the doorman at the Hilton –€・said to have given refuge to some demonstrators during the hot days in June –€・is armed with a cattle prod. Suit-dressed men are at every corner, with portable metal detectors to scan people’s backpacks as they pass by and not a day goes by without at least some minor confrontation between the police and the member of what’s left of the Occupy Gezi movement.

‘Be careful in Istanbul,’ everybody keeps telling me, even if for the international media system everything is now over, done and finished.

‘Bullshit. We’re not going to stop. The protest is now stronger than ever,’ says Yasin, a twenty-nine-year-old medical engineer, on a nondescript evening, after spending the entire afternoon cutting the left foot of a seven-year-old girl off.
‘Her heel was missing. We fixed it two months ago, but then her foot was not keeping its position, so we had to cut it down and rebuild it. And we had to do this not using any drug, because we needed to be sure we were not damaging her nerves in the process.’

The little girl is fine, but her carvery is far from finished, since all of the lower part of her body is severely messed up. ‘It’s because of  inbreeding. Unfortunately, it’s quite common, especially in the eastern part of Turkey, with all of its enclosed communities.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Cansu, Yasin’s housemate, replies. ‘My parents were relatives before marriage and my feet are completely OK.’

‘Yeah, but you’re crazy.’

These two look nothing like enemies of the state: they’re not Black Bloc, not even punks or squatters. I know that kind of people and these folks are just not the type. They live in a fancy apartment and their cats are named Obi and Anakin: they are the system, for fuck’s sake. For sure they’re more into it than I ever was. But still they’re out in the streets every night, taking the risk of being beaten, stabbed, arrested, raped or killed. And they’ve been out there since the beginning.
‘They were shooting gas cans from helicopters,’ Yasin recalls. ‘This was after Istanbul’s mayor asked us to remove the barricades, after he promised the police would not attack us if we did so. We couldn’t breath, so we fled Taksim, but got surrounded. I thought we were done. Then we heard click, click, click and all the doors around us opened. We ended up in an old lady’s living room. She offered us milk to wash our eyes. And a cup of coffee.’

But old ladies are not always this friendly with young gapulcu in Istanbul. Flee away the wrong direction –€・like the old block of Tophane, for example –€・and you’ll find yourself into some serious trouble.

‘They’re radical in there, they hate us,’ a college student named Banu tells me. ‘There were a few occasions where people from there hunted protesters with knives and sticks.’

But Tophane and Karagumruk are the exceptions among Istanbul blocks and, in perspective, among all Turkey. As a matter of fact, finding someone who’s not involved with the demonstrations is a tough job.

‘Even the hooligans, of both Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, are part of the movement.’

A part great enough, that when police started using TOMA –€・Toplumsai Olaylara Mudahale Araci: Intervention Vehicle to Social Event –€・they stole a construction vehicle and made their own POMA –€・Intervention Vehicle to Police Event –€・to rip police’s water-cannons off. Not bad for a bunch of brainless soccer schmucks, ready to jump at each other throat on any given Sunday.

‘Shit happens’ Erdoğan probably thought, eating seeds in front of the telly, when he first saw young hipsters gathering with nationalists, hooligans, Kurds and radical Muslims, in the most unlikely protest movement of recent memory. The poor bastard probably called someone to check the video and confirm that yes, it was really happening.

This protest is more than just mixed: the different parts of Turkey’s society protesting side to side would normally try to kill one another –€・something literally true when it comes to Kurds and nationalists –€・ but somehow Erdoğan has managed to push them together. To complicate the matter a little more, this all movement is about spontaneous coordination: no leaders, no structure (I wonder who had the lovely job of explaining that to Erdoğan), no speakers. It works, down in the streets. Away from water-cannons and cops, not so much.

‘Once we were having a meeting,’ Cansu recalls. ‘It was getting late, so we decided to quit and meet again the day after. Someone proposed to bring some food the next day, so we started a discussion about what kind of food and the discussion eventually turned into an argument. It went on for more than two hours. Two fucking hours just about food!’
How long can all of this endure? In 1969, Hunter S. Thompson described the implosion of the peace and love movement of the Sixties, a movement that had more than one similes to what’s happening in Turkey right now. As these guys, protesters in the Sixties were detached by traditional politics and dreamed of a peaceful, mixed new society. But it didn’t last: violence took over, leading to a brutal repression that eventually crashed the entire movement to pieces. Who can say this is not going to happen again? That this protest –€・that so far have consciously chose not to respond to violence with violence –€・would not degenerate in a plain old-school revolt to be crushed by bullets? How many have to die before hooligans choose to use their POMA to rip cops and not water cannons? For sure, a lot of people is waiting for this to happen, not only in Turkey.

These guys have little political consciousness: they care about what’s going on in front of them, not halfway around the world. They protest here and now, and care little or nothing about the “€greater picture”€・ In a way, it’s the triumph of local intelligence and maybe here lies the problem: without a system to collect and coordinate local intelligence and protests, you’re left with nothing but sparks, and sparks are easy to extinguish. Maybe what everybody is saying is right and these guys need a structure.

‘More than that,’ Yasin sighs, ‘we need a leader.’

A statement Cansu is not ready to subscribe to.

‘Fuck leaders. We need a program.’

As they start to argue –€・and eventually agree that the entire discussion is “€premature”€・–€・all I can think about is a a discussion I once had with Paula, a twenty-four-year-old bioengineering technician, forced to work as a low-cost-company stewardess by the economic crisis. ‘In the beginning, the 15M was great: it had no leader, no program, there were no political bullshit in it, so everybody was able to fit in. But then they turned it into an extreme-left party and a lot of people jumped off.’

So, on one side you have a guy with a plan. On the other, a legion of different identities, needs and voices, tottering on a very thin ridge, with nothing but general requests.

‘They have to listen to us. We want freedom to be who we are,’ is the best you can get if you ask them what they want. And there’s no way they’re going to turn to politics for answers, not even to Erdoğan’s political opposers.

‘They’re not that bad, you know? But they’re stupid as shit.’ A statement that, as an Italian, I fully understand.
‘They don’t respect women wearing burka,’ Banu goes on. ‘I mean, I don’t believe in God or anything –€・I would never wear a burka –€・but still I respect them. I don’t care about them taking their burkas off, I just don’t want to be forced to wear one myself.’

When one thinks about sentences like this, the core of what’s new in these revolts that are being sparked all over the globe become painfully obvious. Somehow, Banu, Yasin, Cansu and everybody else are trying to strip down democracy to the very core of the concept, bringing it back to something too complicated, too messy and too alive for a single man to handle it. No surprise they’re having a hard time keeping it together. But still, inside their unspoken vision there’s something of capital importance for all of us. After all, if democracy is not able to create positive energy out of contrasts, then of what use is it?

I leave on a Saturday afternoon. The crowd in İstiklal Avenue erupts from Taksim Square like a sudden nose bleed: tourists and Turks drift Armani’s and Prada’s shops, eat fried sardines or enjoy a ride on the old tram, but in every alley are regiments of cops in full-body armors and, on the opposite side of the street, the violent confrontation between Occupy and the police has already begun. Lots of options in Istanbul, today: you can shop for some fine Italian buff, or you can get smashed by cops.

I guess it’s the free market.


Luca Rubinato


Featured image: CC BY Azirlazarus 

This article has some minor format changes made post publication