Çapuling in Istanbul: Elif Batuman takes a break from her novel to report (updated with her photo from the park)Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
Events are outpacing our ability to describe them, so I thought I’d better not let more time roll by before I wrote about Elif Batuman‘s account of what’s happening in Istanbul, where the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is battling protesters. The report captures the moment, but that moment is already several days old: writing in the New Yorker, here, she says “over the course of the week, Occupy Gezi transformed from what felt like a festival, with yoga, barbecues, and concerts, into what feels like a war, with barricades, plastic bullets, and gas attacks.”
The scene last Friday:
Thinking the demonstration was winding down, I went back home and tried to work on my novel. The demonstration wasn’t winding down. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were flooding the streets. I texted the photographer Carolyn Drake, a friend and colleague. We covered our mouths with scarves and set out to meet each other. I started walking up Siraselviler, the street that connects Cihangir, where I live, to Taksim Square. It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans, some of them quite inventive. …
I got as far as the German Hospital, where the crowd became too dense to penetrate. Carolyn meanwhile was stuck at the northern edge of the park. I never did meet her, though she’s been sending me the pictures she snaps from her cell phone. During the twenty minutes I spent standing in front of the hospital, two ambulances came careening in from Taksim. The crowds climbed up on walls to let the ambulances by, almost drowning out the sirens with their chants: “To your health, Tayyip!” Later, everyone started jumping up and down, chanting “Jump! Jump! Jump or you’re a fascist!” I, too, hopped up and down a little, to signal my disapproval of fascism. I tried to strike up conversation with a demonstrator, a young woman in her twenties with a surgical mask around her neck, but I could see I was interrupting her tweeting. In fact, I realized that almost every person there was either typing on a phone or recording the scene on a tablet.
This is the image that will stay with me: ” At midnight, the street where I live was gas bombed. Demonstrators in gas masks and goggles marched below the windows, cheering ‘Spray! Spray! Let us see you spray!’ Pepper gas poured through the open windows and immediately filled my seventh-floor apartment. Around one, a tremendous racket broke out as people all over the city started beating on cymbals, pots, pans, and metal street signs; I saw one man looking around in vain for a stick, and then cheerfully starting to bang his head against a metal storefront shutter.”
She concludes, “On my street, spirits seem to be high. Someone is playing ‘Bella, Ciao’ on a boom-box, and I can hear cheering and clapping. But every now and then the spring breeze carries a high, whistling, screaming sound, and the faint smell of pepper gas.”
But that was already a few days ago.
I text messaged my Turkish friend, Eren Göknar, for her take on Elif’s article, and an update: “I’m getting posts from friends of relatives showing people bloodied up by tear gas canisters thrown at them. There was a cell phone shot of Ankara police helmuts with their IDs taped up so they wouldn’t be identified. The violence to peaceful protestors is shocking. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the links with the ‘I am çapuling’ rap, but it’s hysterical. The protesters are playing on Erdogan’s accusation that they are mainly ‘looters’ or Çapuls in Turkish, or fringe elements of society.
“Frankly, I’m relieved to see ordinary Turks standing up to the prime minister, who has gone way too far by injecting his own morality into the mainstream. The alcohol prohibition is minor compared to the jailing of journalists and suppression of free speech, of course.” She reports that her father told her that restaurants get around the alcohol ban by having code words for “Raki” on the menu – “just like during Prohibition times here.”
“But to see young teens arrested for posting Twitter comments really underscores his lack of concern for freedom of speech, to say the least. Hopefully, these protests will put an end to his administration, because he’s not good for Turkey in the long run. He can’t run the country like a Saudi Arabian fiefdom, Turks are too independent. The protesters represent the other half of voters who want a say in urban planning, consideration for the environment, and Turkey’s secular history. I also doubt that he got his votes without buying them in some way. I heard tales of his giving gifts to poor villagers to vote for him. These protesters are saying they’re willing to tolerate others’ religious views, but they want full participation in a true democracy–and separation of government and religion. The Gezi Park bulldozing was even more symbolic because this is where wreaths were often laid at the statue of Ataturk during national holidays – and he said he wanted to build a mosque there. Kind of ironic, considering Ataturk wanted to separate religion from the government. Erdogan’s votes don’t give him an excuse to rule autocratically, it just isn’t going to fly.”
I could use a little Raki myself about now.
Postscript: Eren’s bro Erdağ Göknar of Duke University has an article here: “This is not the outcome Prime Minister Erdoğan expected when he dismissed a handful of protestors in an Istanbul park just days before with his usual swagger. ‘I decided. It will be done,’ he quipped about the construction of a replica Ottoman barracks and mall in Gezi Park. Then, in telling irony, he left the country in chaos for a four-day ‘friendship’ trip to Arab Spring countries. One of the signs that greeted Erdoğan in Morocco read, ‘We don’t want criminals visiting our country.’ This is a far cry from his reception fresh off the Arab Spring two years ago, when he was welcomed as a hero.”
Postscript on 6/6: We’ve updated with Elif’s photo from the park, tweeted a few minutes ago. Could I post it? I asked. “Absolutely!” she tweeted back.