This Halloween I attended a friend’s party in Taksim dressed as the title character from V For Vendetta. It got me thinking about Gezi and how rapidly time washes away the context of things. While walking through Taksim Square, I asked myself whether the ground beneath me could really be the same pavement that thundered with thousands of protestor’s footsteps; could this peaceful square really be the same one in which such violence and brutality occurred just one year before? The thought made my stomach turn: all those lives lost – all those ghosts.
Don’t get me wrong, I love living in Istanbul, for many of the more obvious reasons: the great nightlife, beautiful scenery, rich history, fantastic cuisine, welcoming and hospitable culture etc. However, for me, Turkey is a place full of contradictions. It is a frustrating truth that, as a yabancı (outsider), nothing quite runs smoothly in Istanbul. Here the expat must face the frustrating reality of being reduced to an infantilised state when trying to set up a new life in an entirely unknown environment. For us, everything here seems skewiff somehow. So far, it’s been a bit like existing in a strange wonderland and it often feels like we are running on borrowed time. For a foreigner, everything from buying furniture, phone credit and Internet bundles to opening a bank account, getting health insurance, or arranging residency is difficult. It is also deeply frustrating to me that many Turkish people seem to be unhappy. They often seem downtrodden, frustrated and are incredibly self deprecating. When I complain about this, along with the infuriating extent of Turkish bureaucracy to my native friends, they simply say, “Welcome to Turkey” and seem surprised that I would expect any different.
As a proud Bristolian — having lived in the South West practically my whole life and relished the peace and quiet of the city’s plethora of parks, playgrounds, city farms and nature reserves — my recent migration to a large metropolis like Istanbul may not seem the obvious choice. Being one of the largest cities in the world, by population within city limits, to me Istanbul is a shimmering jungle of metal and concrete that makes Bristol feel like a quaint little tea garden. On both the Asian and Europian sides, the City is a sensory banquet of vivid colours and shapes, her eternal chorus of noises overpowering the sound of silence. With a landmass of 5,343 km² and a whopping population of approximately 16 million, the overwhelmingly busy cityscape is at once repelling, enthralling and utterly intoxicating to me. Everywhere I look, as I walk from my house to the Metro everyday, a performance of one sort or another unfolds; with every new glance the eye is drawn to the beautiful, comic and often sobering details of this urban landscape. The simitci and midye dolmaci selling their wares in the street day and night; the dust-covered, mangy-haired street animals and gypsy kids playing on the pavement; the mountainous piles of domestic waste overflowing from open bins onto the roadside; the mounted red flags, winking a star and smiling a half moon as they wave in the autumn breeze.
As a new arrival, walking in the streets of a city divided by the gushing waters of the Bosphorus strait flowing through its heart feels almost surreal. Istanbul has a volcanic atmosphere of unpredictability. It feels like a place in which anything could happen. Perhaps the human psyche responds to the tangible electricity generated by living in an earthquake zone? Or perhaps it is electricity left over from the socio-political vibrations caused by the uprising at Gezi Parkı last year.
Oli and I were in Istanbul for a month’s holiday last summer and were caught up in the aftermath of the Gezi riots. When we told friends back home our plans to move to Turkey, they’d reply “Istanbul, really… Are you sure?” I’d smile and say, “Yes!” Because “Yes” is the only answer that really holds any meaning. Yes, Istanbul is the epicentre of an imminent and devastating earthquake that will test the strength of her precariously tall buildings, vast Bosphorus bridges and over 16 million inhabitants. An earthquake that, when it finally comes, could raze this entire city and her people to the ground. Yes, the 2013 Gezi Parkı Movement saw Istanbul rise up against the Islamic ruling of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s corrupt government. Yes, the city suffered riots that lead to months of violent clashes between a brutal Turkish police force and protesters, resulting in unjustified killing and perpetuating political dissent. Yes, Turkey still has an authoritarian government, who has previously tried to ban Twitter and Youtube, and who systematically undermines the freedom of its citizens. Yes, it is true that Istanbul is not a particularly ‘safe’ place for two wide-eyed Brits to shack-up in right now. But where is ‘safe’? Where should one want to be, when the entire world is rife with hardship of one kind or another? England? The Netherlands? On an exotic palm-lined beach somewhere, cocktail in hand? Not us. We wanted Istanbul, and still do, in spite of the various disadvantages of living here.
Despite the media black-out, which forced Turks to resign themselves to the fact that ‘The Revolution [would] not be televised”, the rest the world saw the damage Erdoğan was doing to his people. Yet, today Istanbul seems an unrecognisable place to that which was plastered across Western news channels and papers in 2013. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere of the city today is vastly different from that of Gezi. But if you stop to look, ghosts can still be seen, wandering through the early morning mist of Taksim Square. While my Turkish friends seem to hold a more cynical view of Istanbul, believing that the average citizen has relapsed into their former complaisance, others believe that the events of Gezi have changed people and irrevocably influence the future of Turkey. I believe that the events of Gezi Parkı created a shift in the attitudes of the Turkish people. At the time, the protest and subsequent riots suggested the emergence of an Istanbul that is evolving from a city divided by class, politics and general indifference to the social inequalities that riddle Turkey, into a place ruled by the people’s passionate resistance against political and religious oppression. I personally believe that the ghost of Gezi still whispers “Revolution” in the ears of those who were there a year before. But it can be difficult to see on a daily basis; the man in the street, the daily commuter, the shopkeeper, the street cleaner and the businessman all seem to carry a mysterious despair in their eyes.
On the whole, Turks remain deeply unhappy with their government and their country. The average Turk now carries a sense of the collective shame about his nation because of the barbaric way the AKP party responded to the Gezi movement. Nonetheless, in many positive ways, Istanbul today shares much in common with a Western city like Bristol — not to mention the parallel of both city’s respective protest cultures. The Stokes Croft- type hipster can be seen wondering the trendier areas of Istanbul, like Cihangir, Galata and Karaköy; liberal, artistic, student and expat communities are strong, particularly on the European side, which, paradoxically, is at once the touristic centre and the ‘ground zero’ of Gezi.
The destructive events of the Gezi Parkı riots held the promise of change. At the time, more liberal citizens expressed a hope that Gezi would give rise to a generation of new Turks — revolutionaries, whose recent political and social awakening would define a new community of left-wing thinkers, previously unrepresented in Turkish society. In Istanbul now, whether you are for or against it, the very fact that an uprising against the AKP occurred prompted a shift in Turkey’s political culture. While this fresh chapter in Istanbul’s history has granted the voices of alternative thinkers new political volume and momentum, many of my Turkish friends say that nothing has changed. Most of them now feel so ashamed to call Erdoğan leader (who promoted himself from Prime Minister to President this year) that they can no longer see a future for themselves in Turkey. They fantasise about leaving, while mourning what they believe to be the loss of the secular state Atatürk promoted and the unjust rise of the AKP’s covertly islamic government.
I hope that in spite of consistent attempts by the Turkish government to silence its people, Istanbul will continue to resist. I hope that Istanbulians continue to question the status quo in times ahead, as they did during the unrest at Gezi. I have been inspired by the bravery of the Turkish people over the past year. In fact, witnessing the culture of dissent that emerged in Turkey last year only made me want to move here more, to be part of something meaningful. For better or worse, Gezi illuminated Turkish politics, both under the scrutinizing microscope of the international stage and within her people’s consciousness. The riots were the catalyst for Turks to begin reevaluating what it means to be Turkish and what it means to live in a city like Istanbul. At the time, the many people I interviewed on the subject certainly felt that Gezi signified the beginning of a new era for Turkey, all of them repeating the same phrase: “We have finally woken up”. Despite my personal frustrations with negotiating the bureaucracy of living in Turkey today, my initial decision to move to this magnificent city was a spark of inspiration ignited by the same flames that burned in the streets during the riots; the same flames that I hope still burn in the hearts of those revolutionary few who are standing up to demand real change in Turkey.