Besides the obvious answer of “Home”, many of us have somewhere else that occupies a special place in our hearts. It could be where you fell in love for the first time, or where you saw your team win the cup, or somewhere you went on holiday as a kid. For me, unlike probably everyone else who shares a postcode with Elland Road, that place is Istanbul.
I knew it from the moment I arrived for the first time. I liked the way it seemed to stretch forever; I liked the sound of the Call To Prayer drifting out over the rooftops; I liked the frenetic traffic and general noise levels; I liked the food, the nightlife, the history, but most of all I loved the people. The way they seemed interested in what I was doing visiting their country, the genuine warmth they extended to me, how they took me into their homes and made me feel like a valued guest, the way they came with me to watch Besiktas. The events of the last week have reignited my feelings for the Turkish people.
For many of us in the UK our experience of Turkey will be from the perspective of one of the holiday resorts on its Mediterranean coast or perhaps from watching one of its club sides’ forays into Champions League competition. We know little of its history and still less of its current political climate, yet for the past few days an increasing number of us will have been watching events in the country unfold as what began as a peaceful protest to save some trees from developers’ bulldozers has turned into mass demonstrations on an unprecedented level.
Last week saw the beginnings of the unrest with a seemingly innocuous protest in Gezi Park, a green oasis in Istanbul’s giant Taksim Square, against plans to redevelop the site into a shopping mall. A small group of protesters set up camp in the park early last week with a view to saving one of the last green places in the centre of the giant metropolis. The camp was peaceful and the hundred or so protesters satisfied themselves with chanting slogans. What happened on Friday morning was to change everything, not just at the camp but perhaps in all of Turkey.
Arriving at dawn, the police decided to deal with the protesters by firing tear gas and water cannon before burning their tents. The use of force was completely disproportionate to the situation at hand. In many parts of the world this would have signalled the end of the protest but not in Istanbul. This was the touchpaper being lit.
Here. a local populace who has become tired of the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the ruling AK Party, saw yet another example of the creeping disregard not just for the will of the ordinary people but for the people themselves.
I first became aware of events when Aysin, one of my friends in the city, messaged me saying “Things are bad here, Dom”. From then on, and more or less constantly for the next two days, I stayed online trying to see how things were unfolding, not just out of my own curiosity but also to help my friends in Istanbul know what was happening due to the fact that their own TV channels were not showing the story. Instead the news channel was showing cookery shows or reruns of Survivor.
It was clear from the offset that something remarkable was taking place. Aysin kept me up to date. The Gezi Park protest was the straw that broke the camel’s back of a decade under Erdogan’s rule; a decade in which Turkey was consistently held up as a beacon of burgeoning economic growth and democracy in the region yet where the reality on the ground saw workers’ rights, women’s rights and basic human rights being eroded. During this period, unnoticed by the champions of “democratic” Turkey, it has become the country that imprisons more journalists than any other. While the world at large chose to ignore the reality, Aysin was one of many who saw what was happening to her country: “I was actually hopeless. I used to say that nothing would ever change in this country. But in the end the rescue came from Erdogan! He brought us all together again. We are all in the streets against him: nationalists, activists, old women, lefts, anarchists, Kurds, even Revolutionary Islamists group, soldiers, workers. Only the police are acting like a real enemy.”
Indeed, the role of the army could be pivotal. Erdogan has acted to neuter the power of the army, the traditional defenders of Ataturk’s secular legacy, in the past few years by arresting several top generals and accusing them of plotting a coup. During the protests, however, there has been evidence that the army have given out gas masks and medical aid to protesters. One other key group in the protests has been the Çarşı, a section of Besiktas fans. A Çarşı slogan goes “Çarşı Her Şeye Karşı” which means “Çarşı is Against Everything.” There have been pictures of Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray fans marching together in protest, something unimaginable only a short time ago. One of the chants directed at the police by the fans has invited them to take off their armour and put down their guns in order to see who has the guts for the battle.
What started as a peaceful protest to save some trees has now spread throughout Turkey. As Aysin said “since yesterday protests are not in the centres anymore. Every neighbourhood plays music with pans and spoons, marches peacefully and says “Resign Tayyip!” Only, there are still some neighbours who feel annoyed because they can not watch Survivor due to the noise.”
The world is watching Turkey, not only because of the current troubles but because of the crucial position it holds straddling East and West. The Turkish people have occupied this centre stage with heroism and dignity. They deserve our solidarity.