People’s Republic of Taksim

Since the #occupygezi demonstrations began on May 31st, I’ve been spending some of my evenings around Taksim Square strolling among the demonstrators in the police-free People’s Republic of Taksim in the centre of Istanbul.

Taksim is the summit of a hill on the newer part of the European side of Istanbul. Arguably, it’s the centre of the modern city linking Istiklal, the pedestrianised shopping, culture, and nightlife street to the rest of the city as a transport hub. It also happens to be the main square for demonstrations and protests both legal and illegal.

Three years before the coup of 1980, the square was the location of an infamous Mayday demonstration where 36 leftist protestors were shot dead by still unidentified gunmen from the water distribution (Taksim in dated Turkish) building and the towering Marmara Hotel. Ever since, it’s been the symbolic centre of Mayday demonstrations which were first praised and institutionalised, later inexplicably scolded and banned by the ruling AK Party and the current Prime Minister, Mr Tayyip Erdogan.

Taksim Barracks Plans

This Is How It Would Look Like If Ever Built

The location was originally an Armenian Christian graveyard which was grazed 1806 to build the eclectic Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks. These barracks were the location of an Islamist uprising in 1909 when the soldiers rebelled against the officers to impose sharia law on the government. The uprising was only stopped by the army which had to come from Salonica (modern Thessaloniki in Northern Greece) to intervene. The secularist government brought down the barracks in 1940 to build the current Gezi Park which happens to be one of the rare green spaces left around Taksim.

The park itself is pretty ugly but nevertheless is home to 606 trees as Elif Batuman writes in her lovely article in the New Yorker.  I have to confess I have only passed through the park on my way to Taksim a few times and never bothered to sit on one of the benches prior to the protests.  Nowadays accessing the square with a vehicle is impossible because all the roads leading up to the square have been barricaded by burnt and overturned cars, buses and trucks; pavement stones; flower pots; tiles, bricks and debris.  Here’s a good BBC page for the novice to get oriented around Taksim Square.

One evening we took the subway from Levent, closer we got to our stop, more people got on the train all equipped with the protestor uniform of jeans, T-shirt, goggles, surgical masks or scarves and water.  Some had backpacks which I assumed held Talcid mixed with water and milk and sometimes lemon and vinegar which happen to be antidotes against the teargas used by the police. The Taksim stop was very crowded with protestors returning home and as we exited the train, we walked through a clap line! Soon everyone who got off the train with us started chanting “Taksim is everywhere, resistance is everywhere” in unison.

Goggles and Masks Vendor

All You’d Need For A Nice Protest in Taksim

As we walked up the stairs to the square, we were greeted by a graffito which said “We are the soldiers of noone” alluding to a banner by the Kemalists who sometimes call themselves the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk).  The entrance to the square was surrounded by vendors of goggles, surgical and V for Vandetta masks, lemons, and watermelons (the latter is only used as food).  The crowd was very young, there were kids who couldn’t have been older than 16 as well as others in their 20’s and 30’s. Just outside the exit, there was a group of kids dancing the halay, a local dance that involves getting in a line side by side in the shape of a crescent and jumping in rhythm counterclockwise. As they danced, they were saying something in Kurdish that I did not understand except the word ciwan which means young.

AKM By Night Occupy

AKM By Night

One of the obvious symbols of the takeover is the AKM (Ataturk Cultural Centre), the city’s main building for the opera and classical music and the state theatre. This building, probably despised by the goverment, has been closed for 5 years for renovations that are not happening. Now it was being used as a banner holder by the protestors.

Halay during the occupation

Halay With A Mock Riot Policeman In The Middle

Gezi Park
The Gezi Park was packed, and it looked like a carnival. There were street vendors selling all sorts of food, guitar players sitting in lotus position on the grass with cigarettes in their mouths, people dancing the halay, voracious readers reading in dim light, a tattoo maker with a sign that said, “Ataturk’s signature tattooed with henna”, more people dancing the halay, a big group singing songs by Zulfu Livaneli (a popular leftwing singer from the 90’s), LBGT tent with a rainbow flag, people sleeping to get prepared for the long night, occupiers on cleaning duty going around with huge trash bags, a lot of people taking photos, more voracious readers choosing books from the occupation library and even more people dancing the halay.  There were tents with signs saying they are free tents for everyone to get a rest.  Visitors could also have their pictures taken by inserting their faces into the picture of the lady in red who was one of the first protestors to get tear gassed (see my previous post for a picture).

Watermelons in the park

There Must Be A Lot Of Toilets Around Here

Among the people, the trees and the tents, there were a few burnt and (unfortunately) vandalised vehicles. The police bus was used as a photo prop and the minibus which looked like a Volkswagen was covered with little pieces of paper bearing slogans and wishes. There was a guy by the Volkswagen offering pieces of paper and a pen to those who wanted to leave a memento.  There was another bus with a huge graffito labeling it as the library and people reading inside.  The famous riot vehicle confiscated from the police and put up for sale on Turkish version of eBay as “hardly used” was also on display.

The Wishing Vehicle

The Wishing Vehicle

The Museum
Behind the police bus was a little prefabricated shack which was used as the Museum of the Revolution. Inside, there were pictures of the occupation, covers about the Prime Minister from humour magazines, used banners, papers with slogans, riot police gear confiscated during the protests and a real person dressed up as a policeman with a helmet and a shield, covering his face with a bandana in the style of the protestors. Above the Museum entrance was a banner of the Revolutionary Muslims, a religious group opposing the PM.

Revolution Museum Riot Police

Is It The Policeman From The Halay?

Walking around the square we saw a canteen where a Starbucks used to be, an infirmary attended by volunteer doctors around the clock (apparently there is a vet as well) and walls filled with graffitti.  90% of the grafitti is aimed at the prime minister and some obscene ones had been purpled out by a feminist group working against sexism.

Out of nowhere a crescendo of a chant was heard: “If you don’t jump you are Tayyip”, one by one everyone on the square started jumping up and down accompanying the chant.  It was quite a sight.

We slowly made our way back to the subway station. As we were going in, hordes of people were just arriving to the square ready for another night of peaceful protesting and partying. Hopefully, the police will stay out of the square until a truce is made with the occupiers and the festive atmosphere will remain.

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