A game of giant backgammon in Taksim Square last week. Istanbul’s protests have spurred an extraordinary outpouring of fun, irreverence and creativity.
I have been pecking away at a keyboard over the past two weeks about the Taksim protests, though nothing I’ve written holds a candle to the work of my colleague Claire Berlinski, whose two pieces on the protests are, for my money, the best of the many good articles written on so far. Read them here and here.
Her second piece captures very well my own feelings about the demonstrations: the deeply moving and heartening creativity and humour of a generation of hitherto silent Turks, coupled with the brutal and senseless suppression of this movement by the government. I’m working on a piece on that at the moment.
I’m also reprinting here the story I did for this Monday’s Times, a weekly first person reportage called ‘From Our Correspondent’, as well as another piece I did on the unlikely alliance of Turkish football fans. Links to my other stories (most paywalled, some not), are also included below:
On Saturday evening in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, standing next to a makeshift barricade, was a man dressed as a penguin with a sign around his neck that read: “Antarctica is fighting back.”
Penguins have become an unlikely motif in the upheaval that has erupted in Turkey. Its origin? While a miasma of teargas hung over central Istanbul the previous week, CNN Türk showed a documentary about penguins. As scenes of chaos were beamed around the world, other Turkish news channels ran features about radiation on Mars and liposuction.
Never has it been so absurdly obvious to Turks that their supposedly independent media is in thrall to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Government.
When I moved to Turkey three years ago, the media seemed vibrant, varied and often critical. Last Friday, however, a swath of Turkish newspapers ran identical headlines, a quote from the Prime Minister: “We lay down our lives for democratic demands.” These days, divining what’s going on in Turkey from the domestic press can be almost as opaque a business as reading fortunes in Turkish coffee grounds. Media organisations, owned by huge companies whose main interests lie in other sectors, rely on Ankara for contracts. This creates a powerful incentive to make sure they don’t upset the Government. It is no wonder that Twitter has emerged as a “scourge” for a Prime Minister battling for control of the narrative surrounding the most serious crisis in his ten-year rule.
The mainly young, tech-savvy demonstrators who have flooded into Taksim have turned to it with alacrity. Even after midnight on the Friday when they started, 3,000 tweets a minute were being sent with hashtags related to the protests, one early study found.
The Government is trying to hit back. It has arrested 38 Twitter users and has also focused on foreign journalists, whom it accuses of fanning the flames of unrest.
On Monday, when Turkey’s stock market posted its biggest one-day loss in a decade, the Finance Minister, Mehmet Simsek, accused me, falsely, of “lying” in one tweet.
A contributing factor to the tension preceding the riots were incendiary tweets by local governing party functionaries. One read: “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.”
This young, globalised generation of students, architects, doctors, engineers and the like who make up a huge proportion of the Taksim protesters are not typical agent provocateurs, and feel little connection to Turkey’s nationalist, xenophobic, old-school secularists. But they have been pushed over the brink by the creeping authoritarianism of an ever more overtly Islamist government.
“You know how I normally keep silent, but this time it’s different,” one friend of mine, an engineer and social media junkie, wrote to me. “I have an incredible fear and anger inside.” Over ten days this Twitter generation has burst from the web into the real world. In Taksim, a kaleidoscope of groups united in their opposition to Mr Erdogan coalesced around them, and they have injected energy, humour and irreverence into the style of protest.
Musicians play traditional music at the Ataturk monument, which was wreathed in the flags of fringe political parties.
Here’s my piece on the football fans, from last Saturday’s paper.
They say war makes strange bedfellows, and while the clashes between police and anti-government protesters that rocked Istanbul last week may not quite be war, they have created an unlikely alliance between the city’s notoriously militant football fans.
In a country where soccer vendettas regularly stray beyond the stadium, the sight of supporters from the city’s “Big Three’ clubs standing shoulder to shoulder against riot police was almost unprecedented in the Turkish game’s sometimes bloody history.
Now, after playing a prominent role in clashes around the city’s Taksim Square, fans of Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray, and Besiktas are trying to thaw relations pitch-side.
A prominent Fenerbahçe fan group this week announced it will petition Turkey’s Football Federation to allow mixed stalls in an upcoming cup final against Galatasaray at Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium on August 11.
“We want to transport the picture of union and togetherness that has become stronger since 31 May to the stands of the Olympic Stadium,” read a statement by the supporters’ group 12 Numara, calling for police to be absent.
“We want to end the bad image of Turkish football by, if needed, also inviting the Besiktas fans to the Super Cup.” The idea may be a wishful one, and other supporters’ groups have so far remained aloof, although fans from all three clubs have taken to Twitter in support of the proposal.
“These clubs hate each other, and literally want to kill each other – and I mean literally,” said one Besiktas fan, Kaan, 43, who sat with a group of fellow supporters in Taksim Square in the early hours of yesterday morning.
Only last month a Fenerbahçe fan, 19-year-old Burak Yildirim, was stabbed to death, allegedly by a group of Galatasaray supporters, while walking to a metro stop after a derby match between the teams.
“But last weekend, everyone came together and fought against the police,” said Kaan.
Besiktas’ famed “ultra’ group, Çarşı, has played a particularly big role in some of the fiercest clashes with police in the neighbourhood from which the club takes its name.
“We weren’t fighting with police, the police were attacking us,” said Cem Yakiskan, a key member of the group.
Çarşı, founded in 1982, has pronounced left-wing leanings, and regularly attends May Day demonstrations. “We see it as our duty to support the oppressed,” said Mr Yakiskan.
Every evening, after mass protests began in Taksim Square, Besiktas fans and residents rallied at the statue of an eagle – the club’s emblem – that lies in the middle of the neighbourhood.
Yakiskan believes police attacked them because of their proximity to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s private offices at the nearby Dolmabahce Palace. On Thursday, to avoid further clashes, they moved their rallying point to Taksim Square.
From experiences at football matches, Yakiskan and other fans are no strangers to the kind of strong-handed police tactics witnessed last week. “We are used to tear gas,” he said, “it’s our perfume.” Okan Altiparmak, son of the legendary Fenerbahçe player Ogün Altiparmak, said enmity between the teams was heightened by a match-fixing trial last year in which Fenerbahçe were threatened with relegation from Turkey’s Süper Lig.
In the last few days, however, the atmosphere between the fans has been better than ever before. In Taksim, groups of opposing suporters have gathered to chant each other’s club slogans together.
“We’ve never embraced each other like this before because there was never a common goal,” he said. The main factor driving fans – many of whom describe themselves as “apolitical’, he said, was the sight of police attacking demonstrators.
“The police are the biggest factor for us, because we feel under pressure from them at every match. The common goal is working against oppression.”
You can see links to all my Times reporting on the protests here. Also, I have written stories for the Christian Science Monitor on 1) What’s driving Erdoğan’s tough stance? and 2) Why is everyone so worked up about a park? My first reflections on the protests were published in the new and exciting publication, Bülent Journal.
Protesters throw tear gas canisters back at police on Cumhüriyet Avenue on Tuesday night.