Monday 21 July 2014

Getting involved

   Between it and Taksim you can find many Western franchises and the swankiest hotels in the city. The street has mainly nineteenth century and early twentieth century buildings.
There is an impressive Roman Catholic Church, a Greek church, and a number of prestigious schools and other buildings of note. Istiklal has no traffic, except for the old tram chugging back and forth.

       But today I had not come to take a stroll down this street. Today I came to meet a new friend, and to take in Taksim Square, the place of so much recent history. 
The park, which authorities wanted removed so big business could have space to expand, takes up about half square. It isn’t much of a park, as far as city parks go, but it is the only green space that this part of town has. It is a quiet space amidst one of the busiest parts of a busy city. People love to come here.
   As I walked, I contemplated how a little over a year ago, this place saw bloodshed. Not the kind of bloodshed it had seen in the past, notably the late sixties and seventies, but there is still enough nervousness on behalf of the authorities that police keep a vigilant presence at all times. Taksim is the place where demonstrations take place, and Gezi Park has become a symbol of ordinary people’s rights.

    When G and I met we only had two hours, but we talked like old friends will. The kind of talking with no beginning and no end and that goes on over a life time. We were sitting in front of a latte and a sinfully delicious portion of chocolate creation. G gave me her take on Gezi Park and the clashes with the police, words and sharing flowing as smoothly as the chocolate concoction sliding down our throats.
    In the beginning of my stay, I truly was amazed how freely people shared their views about the political situation but by now I realized that this was pretty common. Outside Turkey, when you get reports of people clashing with police you get a distorted picture of how safe this place is to those who speak their minds. Certainly, in the past you would get punished if you professed what the authorities didn’t want to hear but for now things have eased up. Not everywhere. Some buildings are still closed to the public and guarded.

G said her views about the current situation were not always those shared by her peers. “I just want to say, I think people forget how much progress we have made.” She leaned into me before she continued. “I clash with my father because he strongly believes in the secularization process Atatürk introduced to this country. He also served in the diplomatic services of subsequent governments. And then, here I am, his daughter, defending some of what Erdogan has implemented. The Kurds. We didn’t even have a name for them before he came to power. And that just wasn’t right. My mother is afraid I’ll show up wearing a veil one of these days.”
     But she and her parents love one another dearly and, recently, she has been able to find a way to help her father understand where she is coming from. And her mother no longer wonders if she will show up with a veil.
     Although! She tried one on. The other day.
     “I thought I would feel suffocated,” she said. Her mischievous laugh underscored her words.  “But it was actually kind of nice. I could see everything. No one could see me.”
      Playing hide and go seek. It suits her impish temperament. “Actually,” she said, “my sense of humour is simply childish. You remember when pipi and kaka jokes would make us laugh. They still do.”
      When she smiled at me, I got a glimpse of the cheeky child within. The smart provocateur who smiles at you charmingly while giving you a clear message that something needs to be said.
      Then she got serious again. “What happened here last year, and earlier,” she said, “is not a good thing. Police spraying water and gas at people for just speaking their minds. But if you compare it with what we used to have, then you have to admit there is progress. People used to get shot dead, now they get sprayed with water, or pushed back by gas. A few still get hurt, a few died last year, but it is not as it was.”
      “I see,” I say.
      She has a point. Progress in small quantities is still progress. I told her of the documentaries I saw at the Modern that show the time when freely speaking out, or being the kind of person that was not wanted, could get you into all kinds of trouble.
We continued our musings about freedom and progress. Is it progress when Miley Cyrus spreads her legs to the world? Is it freedom? Or is freedom and progress being able to wear a veil when you choose to? Is a girl who decides to follow old traditions any less free than a girl who pushes the limits of a world that embraces hedonism?
     Staying here, in this country, the questions come at me with urgency. Turkey is a multi-faceted and multi-cultured society that is bubbling with possibilities. When you sit with a woman who defines herself as a secular atheist, who lives on the Asian side, and who has friends who wear the veil without giving up their capacity for tolerance, then there is hope.

We met hope again on our last Sunday here: Pride Day. Our friends were going in support of a friend so we decided we couldn’t sit back. Th and I set off for Taksim Square early, and with a sense of caution. We checked in at the Taksim Square Burger King where we had agreed to meet. No rainbows yet, apart from the decorative string of colourful shopping bags high up, and that run the length or Istiklal. We retreated and found a coffee shop. There a girl in a white organdie dress entertained us playing a repetitive tune on a small accordion. We called her over just as she was shoed away by the proprietor. She told him she had a coin to collect.
    It takes guts taking to the street.
    Pretty soon, groups of young people carrying multicoloured flags started drifting by. Our cue for going to Burger King to see if our friends had arrived. On our way we saw a group of men hanging out by an official looking building. Plainclothes policemen? We thought so. At Burger King I spotted my first rainbow coloured piece of clothing, a fingerless glove on a tough looking dude. Further down, some merchants were selling whistles in all colours, and LTGBQ banners. A couple arrived on a motorbike. He was wearing a multi coloured helmet, she carried a striped flag, the colours of the rainbow. People started to move in on one another, hugging, old friends meeting.
A man in a white bridal gown walked by and the mood shifted. Something was afoot. Then our friends arrived. Behind them we saw a congregation of flags and we heard the beginnings of the chants that would come over us in waves for the next four hours. Before long, rows of police helmets, shields and gas masks filed by. Their intimidated stand accentuated by the white armoured vehicles that followed.
    “They’re just people, standing up for their rights,” I still said. And, just then, rainbow flags were thrown in our midst, like gauntlets. Some of us picked them up and looked over the row of helmets to the flags that were now jumping up and down. Before we had time to decide, police shoved us gently, but firmly, into the circle. “You go that way,” they said. And we were committed. In the midst of it. Our fate sealed to this growing crowd that came out to show the world what speaking out means.

    It soon became clear that the police only had one wish: no one was to go to near Gezi Park. It was also clear that this group of protesters was not here to tackle that problem. They had their own statement to make. Before long, the helmet clad police wearing gas masks retreated. So did the armoured cars that came with them. Only a few rows of plainclothes police were left and they eventually also took a few large steps back and then disappeared behind a wave of colour.
     No Gezi Park. We were all clear on that. But what was also clear was that the police would have used whatever means necessary to make sure we didn’t make a move on the park. You seldom see police, here in Istanbul, and when you do, you don't sense threat. Until a group decides to speak out. Then they appear in formation. Each individual a fortified unit. Each formation impenetrable like the fortresses of old, except that those fortresses used to offer protection to the subjects of the lords. Not so today. The people who come out to protest are clearly the enemy. But who needs protection from them? Gezi Park? Or the plans on the desks of the corporations that want to move in? 
They’re good questions but on a day like this, when so many have come out joyfully to celebrate diversity, they don’t need an answer. We walked shoulder to shoulder, several tens of thousands of us, by the occasional parked armoured cars, which soon filled up with graffiti and banners; past the couple leaning like royalty from a second floor window, kissing one another to our cheers, and showing the wedding rings they obtained; past bewildered shoppers and bemused shopkeepers.
     I, a person who never raised a flag, not counting that one time in my youth when I was coerced, gladly held aloft the rainbow flag. I gladly joined my voice with those that were chanting and shouting and showing the world that personal freedom is sacred.

     That the freedom to be who you are, cannot be touched.

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