Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Bee in My Bonnet About What is Happening in Turkey

Figen Cebe, Untitled, 2011 , 80 x 100cm
"One tree dies, a nation awakens." Nazim Hikmet
There are defining moments in history that linger in a society's memory that people use as a reference point when they are talking about the past; usually these moments are of events that shocked and devastated a nation like the shooting of JFK or 9/11. I think this past week in contrast will be remembered as one of the most exultant times in history, as the time Turks rebelled...protested... united as a force against their government displaying their solidarity, courage and passion. I am elated to see Turkish people's creativity, ingenuity and unique sense of humor coming into the forefront, reminding us of what we possess within our fold. I must apologize for going off track and writing about something like this on a blog that is supposed to be devoted to art, culture and history but this time I have to make an exception ... since as I already mentioned, these are not ordinary times.

Besiktas, Istanbul where the worst of the police attacks have taken place
Under normal circumstances, I choose to be purposefully ignorant about politics, it is one of those areas that leaves me feeling insignificant and angry but there is nothing ordinary about our circumstances. So, this past week I have become an accidental activist. Considering the photographs from Turkey of the little old ladies walking down the streets of Istanbul with flags in their hands and reports of people passing out food and water, families giving shelter to the protesters, my contribution of posting on Facebook and Twitter incessantly about the developments seems very minimal indeed.

Antalya June 2013
Bursa, June 2013

So, what has happened, why have all these individuals who would normally be considered reasonable and level-headed joined a protest against a democratically elected government? A lot has appeared in the international media this past week relating the events, causes and effects correctly, so I don't need to go into it again here. (I will share some of the links I find most credible, below) Suffice it to say, "the People" have united to protest Prime Minister's high handed methods of doing as he likes without any consideration to the people of the country, his refusal to acknowledge anyone but himself as an authority on everything and his complete disregard for the people who are not AKP followers. Just by observing how the Prime Minister is reacting to the protesters, insulting them and reducing them to rif-raf who are being provoked by some 'outside' sources, as well as his unbending stand in the continued use of excessive force to control the situation can give one an idea of the condescension and abhorrence with which he has treated half of the country who will not vote for him.  In short, the past ten years 'we' have not had a prime minister; the figure at the head of the government has always made sure we knew our place and we had become 'the other' in our own country. Mr. Erdogan split the country and alienated half of its people.

The brutality seen in the police is devastating because of the amount of hatred to be sensed there. Those police officers have mothers and families too, they live in homes next to ours, they try to make ends meet and send their kids to the same schools and go shopping in the same supermarkets, they are one of us, at least we thought they were... Randomly, in some photographs, one can get a glimpse of the humanity I know existing behind their uniforms, but then  another photograph or a video of the unspeakable violence they are capable of chills me to the core. When have we become so alienated from one another that they can unleash such fury onto peaceful protesters?  I can only tell my side of the story and hope that in time we will find out what theirs was as well.

One of the greatest and most unique things about the #OccupyGezi movement, as we have begun to think of it, is the unity of the divergent populations. People seem to have set aside any former disagreements and grievances with one another and have become "One" a single source, to combat oppression. It brings tears to my eyes to see the photographs of members of rival football teams, who are usually at each other's throats, working side by side, the old couple holding hands and carrying a little Turkish flag making their way to Taksim square, Turks, Kurds, Alevis all mingled together, helping each other, the middle aged woman wearing a Turkish flag as a headscarf passing out stuffed peppers to the protesters - all of the acts of kindness and unity that always existed just below the surface waiting for the right time to come out.

Photo by Daniel Etter

One can almost hear Rumi's words ring out while looking at the group of protesters:
Come, come, whoever you are, still come, wanderer, worshipper, or unbeliever, still come. Ours is not a caravan of despair, still come even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. 

But I wonder how many around the world really know these people that live in a country that is out there somewhere between Iran and Greece, Europe and Asia, with a 99% Muslim population. Does anyone outside of Turkey really understand who we are or the reasons for our grievances?  I read a funny tweet today that sums up this sentiment perfectly:
"The whole world finally saw that we do not wear fezes and ride camels. Although now they think we are maniacs who wash their faces with indigestion medication* but still."
* The protesters have been washing their faces with diluted indigestion medicine to dull the effects of tear gas.

Although this is true, I realize how difficult it is to really know a country or its people just by reading about them or seeing them on the news. Now I will share a bit of my own history and hopefully clarify why I feel so passionately about all that is happening.

A very brief bit of history first...

Fausto Zonaro, Women Boarding a Caique, late 1890's
(Dolmabahce Palace Museum, Istanbul) 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took the crumbling remains of a great empire, lead the people of this country in a war of independence, then formed the Republic of Turkey (T.C.) According to our constitution men and women are equal; as a matter of fact women got the right to vote in 1934, well ahead of many western countries. Turkey of Ataturk was a young nation full of hope and modernity. Overnight Turks went from being the last remnants of the Muslim Ottoman empire to the members of a secular state with a distinct national identity. That was ninety years ago. Ataturk's ideals and edicts were used to educate and raise a whole nation. I am proud to say that I grew up in a secular environment with these ideals.

Ibrahim Calli, Ball in Istanbul, 1930
(Private Collection)

To get back to the issue at hand, what exactly did Mr Erdogan and his party do to enrage us so?

First, he took away our religion...

As soon as they came to power, with his speeches and actions the Prime Minister and his party, AKP, took ownership of Islam and labeled us secular Turks as "unbelievers." The Turkish Republic is in a singularly unique position as the only secular Muslim country where the constitution very clearly separates state and religion.  Turks have their own kind of Islam where the women don't cover their heads, they use the Gregorian calender and  consume alcohol, all the while fasting through the month of Ramadan, some praying five times a day while others going only to Friday prayer and going to Haj if they choose to. I grew up in a family where none of my female relatives covered their heads except for a few elderly ladies, questioning who wore what never crossing our minds. Our culture embraces the females in miniskirts and bikinis as well as the ladies wearing headscarves, hospitality and tolerance being the most important of Turkish virtues. There was nothing to suggest that the ones wearing the bikinis were anything but good Muslims. My 101 year old great aunt who passed away last year had a photograph of herself with her two sisters taken in their hometown Kilis, a small border town in Southeastern Turkey. They have sleeveless flapper dresses on. This was in the 1930's.
As far as the rituals of Islam, Ramadan was one of my favorite times of the year when I was growing up.  The adults fasted and at sunset we would sit around the table as a family waiting for 'iftar' to break our fast.  When I tried to recreate the same rituals for my own children as they were growing up, fasting during Ramadan was considered to be "cute" by my friends and lead those of the Prime Minister's ilk to think I was one of them. Unfortunately we had all started to conform to Mr. Erdogan's way of thinking. Some of my friends had even started drinking during Ramadan (something Turks usually avoid for that month) as a form of protest.

Melek Celal Sofu, Women in the Turkish National Assembly, 1936
(Women's Museum Istanbul)
Then, he tried to take away our right to celebrate our national holidays.

Since Turkish Republic had been formed by Atatürk, who himself was a military man, the military was the founder as well as the protector of our democracy. I realize how difficult a concept this is for westerners to understand but it is the way of things in Turkey. Every young man who attended the military academy would burn with the ambition to one day walk in Ataturk's footsteps and hopefully be elected president. So our national holidays marking the start of the war of independence, declaration of independence and the day parliament was formed, all were celebrated with big military processions that ended with laying a wreath at Atatürk's mausoleum or statue in the city center. Plus all schools all over the country held ceremonies honoring the country and Ataturk. During May 19th, the day commemorating the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence, a day Ataturk had bestowed upon the youth of the nation, there would be ceremonies in stadiums featuring high schools students putting on athletic demonstrations. My mother has pictures from the ceremonies of her highschool years where she is in shorts. This was in the 1960's. Over the years, this government came up with excuses to discourage and finally this year ban the ceremonies all together, the prime minister proclaiming "no one wanted to see our girls in shorts." They conveniently found excuses to cancel the ceremonies and then when the people took the matter into their own hands and wanted to have a ceremony to commemorate these momentous occasions or walk to Ataturk's mausoleum to pay their respects, they were met with riot police. Just this past October 29th, peaceful protestors trying to go to the original parliament building were stopped, buses carrying those coming into Ankara for the purpose of attending the ceremonies banned from entering the city and then when the people tried to walk to Anitkabir (Ataturk's mausoleum) the police used teargas and water cannons  to stop them. One of the injured was a seventy-five year old woman who was hospitalized with broken bones and severe injuries.

"Do you want three kids like us?"
Mr Erdogan then decided to tackle women's rights over their bodies and reproductive rights.

Abortion being legal since 1938, was not a big issue in Turkey. On May of 2012, during a speech the prime minister declared each abortion as murder referring to it as Uludere, a massacre where 34 civilians were killed. He also mentioned that he was against c-sections and each woman was responsible for having at least three kids. He not only decided how many children we had to have but also he felt he had the power to dictate how we were to have those children. They went as far as to state that in cases of rape, the woman would have to have the child and then the state would take care of it. One of the funniest posters from the protests addressed this statement by asking Erdogan if he wanted three defiant children just like themselves?

"Arab Capulcu, Roman Capulcu, Kurdish Capulcu, Greek Capulcu and Turkish Capulcu"

He tried to come between the memory of Ataturk and his people.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a pater familias in the true sense of the word. We look upon him as the visionary who pulled us out of the dark ages into the light. Our obsession with Ataturk is at the point that we still cry on the anniversary of his death. I don't know of any other nation who still mourns any of their leaders seventy years after their death. We live by his ideologies and try to live upto the standards he had set. Ataturk set the ideal for the people of Turkey where you would have to be equally comfortable waltzing as well as dancing the zeybek like he was. He adopted several children, the most famous of which is Sabiha Gokcen, who became the first female fighter pilot in the world. Ataturk entrusted the future of the nation to its youth, saying "Your first duty is to preserve and defend the National Independence, the Turkish Republic."  This speech (link) encouraged, moved and riveted a whole generation of youth, the effects of which can be seen in these protests today.

Just taking away our national holidays or constantly discrediting and insulting someone the whole nation had almost deified wasn't enough for Mr. Erdogan so he tried to do away with the whole idea of the Turkish Republic (T.C.) by first removing the initials from the signs of institutions under the directory of the health department.

Those of you who have Turkish friends might have noticed that everyone has added TC before their names on Facebook or Twitter, this was their only outlet for displaying their displeasure with the government. This act also went hand in hand with arguments about declaring oneself  a 'Turk' being considered racist; we were told we should instead be saying we are from Turkey, as if we had no language or identity of our own. All of a sudden Turks were relegated to the margins of society as those trying to impose their national identity over minorities. Strange as it may seem, the minorities living in Turkey have always been the staunchest supporters of Turkey and consider themselves more Turkish than myself.  When I was growing up the only difference that I can recall was that my non-Muslims friends did not have to take religion class with the rest of us. Mr Erdogan and his government have been trying to separate us into more and more segregated parts, raising a certain paranoia, recalling a "divide and conquer" system of politics.

"You are beautiful when you are angry Turkey!"

He tried to take away our right to enjoy a glass of wine or raki if we chose to.

Alcohol was also never a big issue in Turkey either, even people who fasted for the month of Ramadan would enjoy their raki the rest of the year. We have a whole culture surrounding drinking raki and the foods that go with it afterall. Till about a month ago, raki was accepted to be the national drink of Turks; then one day  the prime minister decreed that from this day forthwith ayran would be the national drink. They also passed a law banning the sale of alcohol from 10pm-6 am in stores. Now, some might say this is a law in affect in some western countries as well but when taken with the prime minister's statement that "All those who consume any amount of alcohol are alcoholics!" it begins to wreak of ulterior motives.

Photo by Nar Photos

Turks are a friendly, easygoing lot who would much rather sit in the shade of a tree with friends, drinking tea than get involved in controversies. Prime Minister Erdogan managed to get every other man, woman and child, may they be leftist, rightist, Islamist, feminist, LGBT or football fanatics out of their homes and into the streets...  because he tried to take away the shade of those trees. To borrow from the famous Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, one tree died, a whole nation awakened. Now everyone has flocked to Taksim to contribute any which way they can, to protest or to just 'be there' for this momentous occasion.

The wall on which people were
leaving food for the protestors
People doing Yoga in Gezi Park
after it was 'saved'
Taksim has become a utopic paradise with a free library, a museum and a stage for all kinds of performances. There are workshops on a bevy of subjects all the way from learning about homosexuality to arts and crafts. Street musicians, balet performances, whirling dervishes, as well as students passed out on the streets from pure exhaustion with notes attached asking to be woken up at a certain time. People bring medical supplies, food, books, trees... There are those who have set up camp there, or just to spend the day.

Meanwhile, support for the protests continue to pour in from all over Turkey and the world. From big cities to little villages everyone is ready to take out their flag, make a sign and pose for a photograph if they can't go out to protest themselves. It is such an encouraging picture of pure unadulterated HOPE and UNITY!  The protests have brought out the best in Turkish people, their generosity, creativity, sense of humor and ingenuity.

"This is how we protest in Turkey" from Facebook
Unfortunately, the violence has not stopped but only shifted. The police have left the incredibly visible Taksim area alone to continue their attack in other cities, Ankara and Izmir have especially have been hit hard. Mr. Erdogan is taking every opportunity to come out and give hateful, insulting and provocative speeches to his 'followers' he had threatened to unleash upon us. Thanks to the internet we are all aware of how they are getting people out to meet the prime minister, the latest one coming from the Ankara municipality, making it mandatory to show up to meet the prime minister with at least two other people when he returns to Ankara later today. The note states very clearly that those who are not present will be reprimanded.

"Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere is Direnis." Arik Village
It all started with saving the trees but now it is the biggest public movement Turkey has ever witnessed.  People are constantly reminded to proceed with caution and not get provoked to violence. There was a religious day last week where people deliberately did not consume alcohol and visited the imam of mosques with pastries that are made especially on these days. On Friday, as some protestors prayed at Gezi park, others formed a circle around the vicinity to make sure no one bothered them.  The whole movement is beautiful in its apolitical, ideological and peaceful stand against all the provocations. I guess we should thank Mr Erdogan that he has brought us together, a sentiment I think I will reserve to the day we may be rid of him for good.
 "To live like a tree, lone and free, and like a forest in brotherly love" Nazim Hikmet

Claire Berlisnki's article "Erdogan over the Edge" (link) in City Journal

Tim Arango's article "Protests in Turkey Reveal a Larger Fight Over Identity" (link) in the New York Times

Andrew Finkel's  article "Seeing the Trees and the Forest" (link) in the Global Opinion section of the New York Times

Ahmet Hakan's article "Kimse anlatamiyor bari ben anlatayim" (link) in Hurriyet - Turkish

Article by the Editors "Erdogan Shows Why Turkey Shouldn't Give Him More Power" (link) in Bloomberg

Article by Luke Harding "Turkey's protestors proclaimed as true heirs of nation's founding father" (link) in the Guardian

Safak Pavey's article "Why the Turkish protests matter to the West" (link) in the Guardian

Marc Champion's article "Twitter is really a Menace to Erdogan" (link) in Bloomberg

Emre Kizilkaya's article "Behind Turkey's Viral Revolution, There Are Mad Men (Actually Women) (link) on Huffington Post

Short Documentary "Istanbul Rising"  (link) on Vice reported from Istanbul.

25 examples of the Best Street Humor from Istanbul Gezi Park protests (link)

Gezi Park


  1. This is a wonderful article. It is hard for me, as a Turkish American with a 6th graders command of the language (if that), to understand all the headlines (aka Tweets.) The "Bring two with you to meet the Prime Minister" for example, was hard for me to understand. It does smack of a fake counterrevolution to combat the organically grown revolution and the "punishment"for not showing up really reeks of fascism, something I abhor. However, I do think it would benefit Turks if they could occasionally allow for a teensy chink in the Ataturk-Worship armor--if they could perhaps empathize with those who feel alienated by that fetishism of Western life--if they could understand why some accuse the Nationalists of racism. I do think there is a very strong racist/elitist bias in Turkey, I noticed it growing up, and I feel like all the folks who gave Erdogan his power were of that disenfranchised ilk. How do we solve such a problem in the world? "Globalism" itself seeks to whitewash traditionalism across the world. And sometimes the most "folksy" expression of the non-Western looking, uninvited-to-the-party masses, is religion. Particularly the religion of Islam, which BEGAN as an alternative to the inner sanctum of the other Judeo-Christian religions. It was the religion of nomads, of people who owned no land and didn't stake a claim in the marketplace. It is a religion for the Wallflowers of the Holy World, and still has that martyr-like appeal today (Justice Party, anyone?). I sort of feel like if Turks, as a whole, were more cognizant of this, there could be even greater unity.

    1. Funda, thanks for your comments.
      Ataturk was a genius and he brought the country into the 20th century, the main problem with all of the things you mention is that we have not been able to build up very successfully on top of what he had started. Plus he just 'gave' us democracy so we never had to fight for it. This is the first time I am seeing this kind of initiative in the general public, and there are a lot of those 'disenfranchised ilk' as you refer to them among the protestors. There is still a lot to be done, we still have to come to terms with our past and process it judiciously. Turkey was always home to the conservative Muslims as well as the secular population. I feel very strongly about a party or an elected official imposing their religious beliefs and morals onto a whole population whether it be here in the States or in Turkey. Can you imagine the president of the US coming out and telling his people that they had to have three children or they could not kiss in public? We are in 2013 and I cannot look upon having civil liberties as a western phenomenon and I honestly can't even comprehend anyone wanting to live in a nation where your morality, alcohol consumption or mode of dress is being controlled by the government. There are countries where this is possible and they can go and live there if they chose to.

      A big part of the positive energy emanating from this movement is the solidarity of the masses against oppression. Everyone in that group has a different agenda but they have united to let Erdogan know that they do not want autocracy in Turkey.

      I added a couple of new articles to the list above. Thanks again.

  2. Your insights inspire us, Sedef - and I can only hope we learn them as much as you have to teach. Turkey itself has much we can learn from, much we can admire, and now more than ever much we can and must support. I only wish I could think of some way to bring you victory in your struggle for the Republic, but your people have my utmost commendation and my undying support. You are perhaps, after all, our age's greatest hope in your unique position between worlds. Even in yourselves, your fight is noble and your words are true; your cause brings light into this world - a light that tyrants and fools cannot extinguish, only fear. I hope someday they themselves have the courage to look at you for who you are, and embrace you as I have. And as so many of us should.

    1. Thanks for your support JDH. I am glad I could shed some light on the situation for you. I hope this protest will be an example and inspiration for other populations living under oppression as well.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this, Sedef. I'm moved, and inspired, and saddened, and hopeful, all at the same time. I can't believe you included Rumi's words - that's one of my favorites, all about community and forgiveness. Lovers of leaving, we still want you, come back.

    So much of what you describe about the protesters reminds me of our struggles here in Madison with our governor a few years ago, and continuing to this day. With his actions, our governor awakened a mighty force that had been lying dormant, just as Erdogan has done. I hesitate to say that, because what's going on in Turkey right now is quite different. We weren't facing tear gas, police brutality, or death. Not at all. But that feeling of solidarity, people of all walks of life united for a common cause - I know that feeling. It's good.

    I hope that you'll write an update here at some point - your passion is clear, and I'm so glad that you shared your perspective with us.

    Take care -

  4. Thank you for posting this, Sedef - I love your personal perspective on this - all of the images fit in beautifully, and thanks for the links - there's so much out there in Turkish (of course) that I really appreciate the English language info.

    I can't believe you included the Rumi - that's one of my favorites. Come back, come with us, lover of leaving - we'll still welcome you every time - all about community. When we were protesting the actions of our governor here in Madison a few years ago, that's how it felt, too - he awoke a force to reckoned with, as it seems Erdogan has done. The solidarity and unity among those who were opposed to the governor were inspiring and exhilarating. We didn't have the violence that is happening in Turkey right now, so I compare the two hesitantly, but I do know the feeling to some degree.

    Your post has made me feel hopeful, sad, inspired, agitated - all at the same time. Thank you again for sharing - sending positive thoughts!


    1. Thanks Karen for your empathy. Trying to lead in spite of the people seems to be a trap most leaders are falling into these days. The people are much more aware and powerful than politicians give them credit for.

      Turkish people have united in an unprecedented way, so far they have been able to keep tempers cool and not be victims of provocation and I just read this morning that Taksim Coalition have formed a security force to keep an eye out for the provocateurs; they find them, take them to the police and will testify against them.

      We all want to exist as free individuals in our own society where our rights are being respected and our voices are being heard. Is that too much to ask for?


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