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Okmeydani: A Targeted Territory

The death on 11 March 2014, in the Okmeydanı hospital, of the young Berkin Elvan (fifteen years old) after months in a coma—he had been a victim of police violence on 16 June 2013 during the protests in support of Gezi—followed by his funeral and the murder of young Burak Can Karamanoğlu (twenty-two years old) on the night of 12 March, as well as the counter-demonstrations on 13 March, once again placed the territory of Okmeydanı under the spotlight of the media and politicians. Often referred to as a margin—and thus generally stigmatized—in dominant discourses, Okmeydanı cannot be reduced to such qualifications / disqualifications, like the warning "Istanbul, pay attention to this neighborhood!" used by the pro-government daily Star on 13 January 2014. Therefore, while questioning this territory and its plural and sometimes contradictory construction and representation modes, we can thus follow the actual mechanisms that produce margins in contemporary Istanbul. 

[Okmeydanı in 1882 (from Stolpe’s map)]


[Okmeydanı in 1941 (From a military map, initially at 1/100,000)]

A Spatial Margin?

The name of this territory located behind the hills overlooking the Golden Horn, the "Square (meydan) of the Bows,"refers to the glorious moments”—at least for a fraction of the population and the AKP—of the conquest of Istanbul (1453) and the actors of this conquest, who were archers (Okçular). If Okmeydanı was a spatial margin for centuries, on the edge of permanent settlements and cemeteries (see maps dated respectively 1882 and 1941), since the 1970s, this has no longer been the case. Overwhelmed by urban development, and a popular settlement location for migrants in the years 1950-1970,[1] Okmeydanı has in fact become a relative center when you place the neighborhood back into the immensity of the current urban area. The opening of the first motorway ring in 1973 marked its exit from the margin (“inner suburb” (İç varoş), according to Elpen), even promoting this territory as a new node in the circulation system. Okmeydanı has since benefited from excellent access, as the opening of the metrobüs (rapid transit bus) has confirmed: since September 2007, the metrobüs stop "Okmeydanı" has further strengthened the function of this territory as a platform physically torn apart by various roads.

One of the main reasons for the tensions in this area appears to be related to this relative repositioning, as Okmeydanı is now surrounded, placed in the cross-hairs of urban developers. The high-rise office buildings and apartments of Bomonti are close by, as well as those of neighboring Mecidiyeköy, which is slowly verticalizing (see Uşaklıgil). So the question of access to land has become crucial, considering the rental perspectives. Indeed, we can observe a transitional phase, through the Ministry of Finance, from the status of land belonging to the Department of Foundations to land privately owned. On the eve of the 30 March 2014 elections, the AKP thus multiplied promises of regularization and land security, even organizing solemn meetings—attended by the Prime Minister himself—where pre-property titles were distributed. Here then the opportunistic process—obviously due to the electoral environment—of consolidating a political clientele through the transfer of land or the promise of it still seems to be working well, as it was in the years 1960-1990 (in 1988 thousands of settlement titles, earning official recognition of a de facto situation and presented as a first step towards full property, had been sold by the ruling party at the time).

Furthermore, when you look closely, we see that Okmeydanı, which is not a neighborhood but a vague locality covering several administrative districts (or mahalle) totaling more than 150,000 inhabitants, is in fact torn between three municipalities—Beyoğlu[2], Şişli[3], and Kağıthane (district of Talatpasa)—and that each district, within the limits of its competence, develops its own policy. If, at the borough level of Şişli and Beyoğlu, Okmeydanı is a spatial margin, it is a center for the borough of Kağıthane.[4] From the single point of view of Beyoğlu, Okmeydanı represents approximately 74,000 inhabitants, 5,603 buildings, 18,828 housing units, and 5,478 business/activity spaces (according to a recent report by the city hall). The urban transformation project decided by the mayor of Beyoğlu and ratified by the metropolitan municipality in August 2013 only concerns a part of Okmeydanı, a territory variously defined by different actors, individual or collective.

A Religious Margin?

Among the most common versions of the stigmatization of Okmeydani, the primary one has to do with religious particularity. It is considered an "Alevi zone," that is, an area where most people would not recognize themselves as Sunnis. This allegation—with seriously negative consequences in some circumstances—is questionable on several levels. First, without mentioning the impossibility of counting the Alevi population using available statistics, this claim suggests the objectivity of “Aleviness” (having an Alevi identity), while there are a thousand ways of being Alevi and claiming this identity. The Aleviness of a young person born in Istanbul—like young  Berkin Elvan—as opposed to that of a woman from Dersim (such as Berkin’s mother) or that of an immigrant originally from a rural district of Tokat (such as Berkin’s father) are not developed in the same system of distinctive practices. Every generation, every locality, every gender, every social class, develops its own identity.

But, journalists and politicians, and some researchers, like religious boundaries where potential conflicts between "religious territories" allegedly homogeneous could erupt —such as the place called "Yolağzı" where the youth gangs clashed on the night of 12 March 2014. In so doing, there is a risk of ignoring internal differences. In some contexts, at certain times, identity references can become simplified and hardened, and we can see a return to the performativity of macro-identities (such as "Sunni-Muslim” or “Alevi”).

Therefore, the reconstruction of the "convent of archers" (Okçular Tekkesi) can be seen as an expression of the will of the conservative Sunni power to drive a wedge into an area perceived as hostile. In 2012, decidedly a key year for Okmeydanı, the Prime Minister himself inaugurated the convent of archers, a replica of an old convent that had disappeared over a century before. This convent, a prime example of the policy that creates ex-nihilo a politically correct historical heritage (for the AKP)—deployed systematically throughout Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, since 2004—is located at the entrance of Okmeydanı on the Kasımpaşa side at the edge of the cemeteries. Its location can be interpreted as the sign of a desire to mark the territory with the seal of the "Ottoman-Turkish-Sunni” conservative ideology with which all the people around do not identify. Developed instead of a local football field on a wasteland area, the convent is flanked by an archery field, a sport recently promoted as typically "Turkish-Ottoman." It is used for political events—although only one party has access to it—and is managed by a foundation run by people, some of them very close to the Prime Minister.

A Political Margin?

In the dominant discourse, the territory of Okmeydanı is also often described, even stigmatized, as a political margin under the strict control of organizations from the radical left, like the DHKP-C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party Front, created in 1984), who claimed the murder on the evening of 12 March 2014. On the walls of streets of Okmeydanı, the slogans of organizations from the “legal” and “illegal” radical left are flourishing, and for several years the authorities seem to have abandoned the idea of cleaning them off. Enumerating them exhaustively would be tedious, as they are numerous and subject to variation; we should include among others: SPB, HÖC, MLKP, ESP, SODAP, LDG, SDP, SYKP, BDSP, and FKBC.[5] What is certain is that Okmeydanı is for these factions a territory of expression and reference. Among these, Halk Cephesi (or "Popular Front") is currently the most visible organization, as it is in other areas of the radical opposition, in Gülsuyu (Maltepe district), Gazi (Sultangazi), Küçük Armutlu (Sarıyer), Mayıs Bir (Ümraniye), or Sarıgazi (Sancaktepe).[6] Although it appeared only a few years ago, Halk Cephesi is an influential organization in schools and among youth who are socialized as Alevi; it is associated with its paramilitary style and its references to DHKP-C, the oldest organization of the Turkish radical left (created in the early 1980s, but whose references go back to the 1970s, its famous figures and movements THKP-C and Dev-Yol).[7] 

All these organizations—often competing with each other, sometimes as violent rivals[8]—participate in the local creation of contesting and segmented identities, building their own schedule of activities and commemorations (like those of the many who died in hunger strikes in 1996 and 2000-2005), promoting their own heroic figures, their own repository of actions, and their own reference places.[9] They have their martyrs, from the militants killed in the 1970s[10], to the victims of police repression during the Gezi uprisings[11], all faithfully worshiped and offered to the youth for identification. Thus, the day of Berkin Elvan’s funeral corresponded to the remembrance day of the 12 March 1995 Gazi events (during which more than twenty people were killed). The Popular Front has a cultural center in Okmeydani (the Idil Cultural Center[12]) and a sanctified park[13], alternative places of socialization, the magazine Yürüyüs (March)[14], and a fetish band—Yorum. The discourse produced by these organizations, who recruit among the non-Sunni urban youth in Okmeydani, competes with the discourse published by the government. And opposite the "Popular Front," the more nationalist-conservative group called "Kasımpaşa 1453" (again we see an obsessive reference to the conquest, constitutive of the conservative political identity), which was familiar to the young Burak Can, carries other references, other symbols, more in line with the government and the local municipality of Beyoğlu (including the mayor, who travelled to attend the funeral of the deceased, in his distant home district).[15]


[Wall in Okmeydanı, M. Şevket Paşa Mahallesi, 24 March 2014 (by author)]

An Ethnic Margin?

The ethnic dimension is often called upon by discourses stigmatizing territories or populations. But despite the visible presence of organizations associated with the "Kurdish movement"[16] and the dense writings on the walls of the neighborhoods of Mahmut Şevket Paşa and Piyale Paşa (KCK, HPG, KÖH [17]), Okmeydani resists this aspect too. The "Kurdish" stigma is hardly possible, or is used by people who know nothing about the complexity of this area. As in Berkin’s family, marriages are less related to an "ethnic" logic than to a class-based logic. If Berkin’s mother is a Kurd from Dersim—we will not enter into the rather sterile polemics about the Kurdishness of Zaza Kurds of Dersim—his father is a "Turk" from Tokat (Kizildere, the district where Mahir Cayan and his companions were killed in March 1972). The “Kurdish” macro-identity that is often given to individuals or groups—and sometimes worse, to territories—thus does not make much sense; it is only relevant for those who carry out such amalgams or in a reactive logic (of integration or the appropriation of the stigma).

A type of stigma remains, widely used by those who consider themselves "Old Istanbulites” and thus the only legitimate inhabitants of the world-city: the stigma against the migrants who have settled in Istanbul since the 1950s, as well as their children and grandchildren.[18] The migrant identity can stick to the skin generations later, if the socio-economic takeoff has not taken place. Okmeydanı can be partly characterized as a "trap-territory" that is difficult to escape "from above," that is to say, through a change of status.

An Economic and Legal Margin?

After this analysis, more than any supposed ethnicity, it is the common condition of domestic migrants feeding the precarious labor market that creates a potential link. The telephone conversation between the fathers of the deceased of 11 and 12 March, between the father of Berkin and that of Burak Can—originally from Alucra (a district of the department of Giresun)—proved that beyond “identity” labels, the proximity of conditions had its importance.

Okmeydanı is a territory marked by the omnipresence of the undeclared economy—in every street we hear day and night the noise of textile workshops—and thus of precarious types of employment. Berkin's father works in one of these innumerable textile workshops of the neighborhood and his mother works as a cleaner here and there: without state social insurance, without a minimum state salary, they are renters in one of these poorly constructed buildings produced in the fury of construction densification. Without being able to accumulate, they live from day to day, and can only rely on protections that are close at hand—outside of any state or state-related assistance system—from the extended family and various networks.[19]

However, there are not only renters in Okmeydanı. More than a third of households in the territory own their homes, but without necessarily owning the ground where their property is located. Hence, the importance of the distribution of land titles for local authorities who are assured of the opportunity to consolidate their political clientele in this way. The statutes are thus differentiated and are subject to change; hence the impossibility of reducing this territory to an economic and legal margin, especially given the prospects for land regularization—which create jealousies and intrigues—and the prospects for recovery of land conveniently located with respect to the entire city, increasingly coveted by investors of all kinds.

Okmeydanı is therefore only a margin for those who limit themselves to dated representations—in comparison with urban developments and reconstructions, as well as economic dynamics—or who accept the stigma tirelessly promoted by some political and media discourses. It is actually a territory worked through by centripetal and centrifugal logics at the same time, a territory with its own internal organizational dynamics, which sometimes reacts violently to external events, appropriated and locally reinterpreted (such as after the death of Serkan Tosun, a young MLKP activist from Istanbul, in northern Syria in September 2013).

In any case, the example of Okmeydanı proves quite revealing of the mechanisms of discursive production—with obvious performative effects—of the margin in contemporary Turkey, which combine multiple factors of the institution of difference, and tend to reproduce a certain idea of what makes the center. The "square of the bows" is truly now the target of numerous and contradictory strategies of physical and symbolic appropriation.

[This article was first published in French in Observatoire de la Vie Politique Turque on 4 April 2014. It was translated by Brigitte Jelen.]

Abay, Önder, « Birbirlerini yaralarından tanıyanların mahallesi: Okmeydanı », Birgün, 17 Mart 2014, p. 2.
Altan, Ertan, « Cenazelerden cenaze beğenmek », Taraf, 14 Mart 2014, p. 8.
Ayanoğlu, İ. F., Okmeydanı ve okçuluk tarihi, İ(stanbul: Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü Yayınları, 1974).
Elpen Levent, "Fatih'in Vakfı Ok Meydanı", İstanbul Dergisi, avril 1998, p. 20-28.
İşli H. Necdet, “Okmeydanı”, Geçmişten günümüze Beyoğlu, Cilt. I, İstanbul, Koç, (2004) p. 253-281.
Kızıltan Fikret « Varoşlar üzerine notlar-II. Okmeydanı deneyimi”, Yol 5, Mart (2005: 76-88).
Saymaz İsmail, “Okmeydanı kimseye mezar olmasın”, Radikal, 24 mars 2014, p. 6-7.
Uşaklıgil Emine, Bir Şehri Yok Etmek. İstanbul’da Kazanmak ya da Kaybetmek (Istanbul: Can, 2014). 

[1] One of Berkin's parents is from Tokat and the other from Dersim/Tunceli; those of Burak Can are from Giresun, a department of the coast of the Black Sea, which has massively contributed to the Anatolian migration toward Istanbul (with a significant concentration in the district of Beyoğlu). 
[2] The neighborhoods of Fetihpaşa, Fetihtepe, Piyale Paşa, and in the north of the E5, Örnektepe.
[3] Essentially the neighborhood of Mahmut Şevket Paşa, where the Alevi cultural/religious center (Cemevi) is situated and where a ceremony to the memory of Berkin Elvan was celebrated on 12 March, to which we can add that of Halil Rıfat Paşa. 
[4] Okmeydanı lies in the continuity of Kasımpaşa, a conservative-nationalist-religious territory. The vast cemetery of Kulaksız acts as a border or buffer zone between these two subsets. 
[5] Respectively: the Union for Armed Propaganda (1969); Front for Rights and Freedoms (since 1968); Communist Maxist-Leninist Parti (founded in 1994); Socialist Platform of the Oppressed (legal offshoot of the MLKP); Platform for Socialist Mutual Aid (established in 2004), following the theoretician H. Kıvılcım; High-School Revolutionary Youth (old organization going back to the end of the 1960s); Socialist Parti for Democracy (very present in Taksim in June 2013), created in 2003, close to the “Kurdish movement;” Socialist Parti for Reconstruction; Independent Platform of the Revolutionary Class; and
United Front against Fascism.
[6] On this movement, named “Popular Front of Revolutionary Patriots,” see
[7] Dev-Yol or “Revolutionary Way”: Extreme left political group that appeared in 1974, as a continuation of the THKP-C.
[8] In spring 2007, very violent clashes even took place in Okmeydanı between supporters of HÖC and sympathizers of the "Kurdish movement." Since these events, no common action seems possible between all components of the radical opposition. On this question of the difficulty to constitute a broad united front even at the scale of a neighborhood, see this
study of another neighborhood by Jean-François Pérouse.
[9] Begun on 29 October 2000, the long and deadly hunger strike against prison isolation was designated by the DHKP-C as the "Great Resistance." There were more than 130 deaths in total (if you count both the death of strikers inside the prison, and outside—like in Küçük Armutlu—and thirty victims of the military operation on 19 December 2000 against the striking prisoners).
[10] Like Mahir Çayan, the leader of Dev-Genç ("Revolutionary Youth," formed in 1969) and member of THKP-C (which is related to DHKP-C), killed in a clash with security forces on March 30, 1972.
[11] Among them, let us mention Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, a young man from the neighborhood of Bir Mayıs, intentionally crushed by a car on 2 June 2013, when protesters were trying to block the nearby highway to reach Taksim by foot, at the height of the Gezi events. As a consequence, the death of Berkin Elvan is like the addition of a name to the “pantheon of martyrs."
[12] İdil, the name of a young activist from the DHKP-C—Ayçe İdil Erkmen—who died in the hunger strikes at of the end of 1996. 
[13] The park unofficially has the name of a "martyr" from the DHKP-C, Sibel Yalçın, a young (eighteen years old) activist killed in the heart of the district of Şişli in June 1995 at the headquarters of a center-right party after having killed a young policeman.
[14] Succeeded “Justice and Work" (Adalet ve Emek) which had itself succeeded "Fatherland" (Vatan ), “Free People" (Özgür Halk), and "Liberation" (Kurtuluş). 
[15] Let us note that Sedat Peker, a formidable figure of the Istanbl underworld (and a supporter of pan-Turkism), who had just come out of prison, ostensibly participated in demonstrations in memory of the young Burakcan, and sent a wreath to his funeral in the province.
[16] A term used to describe all the components of the Kurdish opposition in Turkey, from the illegal to the legal components, knowing that this distinction in reality has limited value.
[17] Kurdish Liberation Mouvement: blanket denomination.
[18] Departments that have fueled migration to Okmeydanı are located mainly in the center of the country (including Tokat, Sivas, Tunceli / Dersim, and Erzincan). 
[19] By outside of the state, we mean the nebula of associations and conservative foundations to which the AKP has delegated part of social policy, in partnership with private entrepreneurs. The ideological allegiance and accountability of the beneficiaries are conditions for the proper functioning of the system.

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