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Nafeesa Syeed: Setting Down Roots in Istanbul’s Gezi Park

June 7, 2013

Protestors in Istanbul are settling in to Gezi park, where the demonstrations across Turkey began.


Images courtesy of Nafeesa Syeed

By Nafeesa Syeed

Last weekend, what started as a call against construction at the park—to “save the trees” as the refrain now goes—had already burgeoned into mass protests calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to step down. Encounters with police got violent. But at that time, the park was full only of demonstrators, their bodies and backpacks sprawled across the lawn.

By week’s end, they had moved in. Now the grass is covered with a rainbow of camping tents. They’ve also labeled their territories. One area is for the feminists. Another for the vegans. Then there’s the LGBT sign, under which some did a line dance on Thursday. And there are pockets representing the various factions along the socialist-communist divide.

It looks a lot like the Occupy movement’s encampments back in Washington, in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, before they were dismantled, after officials cited public health concerns, amongst others.

Next to one tent, dozens of books are spread on the ground. A woman named Isra tells me that she and a group of other university librarians who have been protesting decided to create an “open-air library.”

Back in Istanbul, the demonstrators are making themselves comfortable, settling into their new makeshift abodes, even though the prime minister has reportedly said the building plans at the park will continue. A group plays volleyball along the perimeter. Some distribute snacks to passersby. Others hand out their party’s newspaper.

Next to one tent, dozens of books are spread on the ground. A woman named Isra tells me that she and a group of other university librarians who have been protesting decided to create an “open-air library.” Many visitors stand still, peering down at the offerings, which range from novels and history texts to translations of American bestsellers, such as Eat, Pray, Love. Many demonstrators have been in the park for ten or more days, Isra said. She and her colleagues thought the library would provide their fellow rabble-rousers with something constructive to pass the long hours. The librarians hold onto white bookmarks while prospective borrowers choose their titles.

There’s also a stage, complete with a proper sound system, from which opposition leaders address the crowds. There are doctors around to help in emergencies. Protesters say everyone is doing their part.

Vehicles damaged in the weekend chaos, abandoned in the street, have become spontaneous memorials, layered with posters and hand-written notes.

Vendors have swiftly responded to the market demands of the protestors’ camp. The impromptu stalls offer an array of white Guy Fawkes masks, snorkeling gear and pool goggles, medical masks, whistles, toy horns, and patriotic paraphernalia featuring headshots of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, seen as the father figure of the secular Turkish republic. Food sellers are also in on it, carving political messages onto watermelons and putting Guy Fawkes masks onto fruit.

Just as the park presence has expanded, so too has graffiti proliferated up and down the streets around the park and nearby Taksim Square. Some messages are broad statements against fascism, others are more to-the-point: curse words above Erdoğan’s name. Cleanup crews have painted over some lettering with grey and black paint, but many scribblings remain, and the protestors keep at it, on walls and sidewalks both. Over the last few days, banners marked with slogans have been unfurled from the roof of one of the taller buildings in the square. Vehicles damaged in the weekend chaos, abandoned in the street, have become spontaneous memorials, layered with posters and hand-written notes. Some protestors have collected loose bricks with which to spell out their thoughts right on the pavement.

Near Taksim Square, earlier in the week, marchers pushed down Istiklal Avenue, the city’s main commercial drag, passing the cracked windows of the Levi’s and Mango storefronts. From the second floor of one building, tagged with spray-painted anarchist symbols, what looked like a team of teenaged boys, bandanas covering their faces, emerged. As one brandished a beer bottle, thrusting it a few times into the air, the crowd cheered.

The ripples from the park have reached the neighborhood where I’m staying, in the sprawl of Istanbul’s Asian side. Every night, always at the same time, just after sunset, some kids begin striking pots and pans. It gradually gets louder, until all the splintered notes of opposition merge into a unified, crashing din. From the crush of high-rise apartments across the hills, some residents flick their lights off and on, another show of support. Many others do not partake, watching TV or running to the corner store amid the clinks and blinks, with which they may not agree. Then it all dies down—tapering off slowly, both sound and light.

As the week progressed, a massive, red Turkish flag suddenly appeared between my building and the apartments across the street. Its white crescent and star point downward. It hangs four stories up, from a rope, which is thin.

Nafeesa Syeed is a writer and editor bases in Washington. You can follow her on Twitter at @NafeesaSyeed.

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One comment for Nafeesa Syeed: Setting Down Roots in Istanbul’s Gezi Park

  1. Comment by Star on June 9, 2013 at 4:34 am

    The hipster view of the Turkish resistance. Just can’t bring yourselves to mention Syria since the Guernica editorial line is that the FSA cannibals are really freedom fighters. Thankfully the Turks know better.

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