The tweet I circulated before I went to the Gezi Park on Thursday read: “Could this place turn into a Tiananmen or Tahrir? Why not?” Under certain conditions, those things that we cannot fully grasp on the conscious level, we simply sense subconsciously. I must have sensed without knowing it, that a full-blown resistance would break out of a park that we were protecting from demolition as part of the state’s renovation plan. Taksim Square—where the park is located—was, after all, the only remaining public space in Istanbul for those in opposition to the government. The government wanted to turn the park into a shopping mall.
As members of a diversely-motivated opposition in Turkey, we have—for the past month—been shuttling back and forth between conferences about the peace process recently initiated between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There was mobilization across all social classes. Everybody had their own expectations from the peace process. In addition, for at least the past year, universities featured mobilizations against state pressure and student arrests. As did the feminists. Furthermore, for the past few years, a handful of activists, scholars, and organizers—be it in press releases, writing workshops, meetings, or demonstrations—have been spending almost all of our week in and around Taksim Square—a Taksim Square that is now under (re)construction.
Indeed, the entirety of Turkey has been under (re)construction. Every single place we have intimately known was being demolished and rebuilt. Or, to remain more loyal to the language of the government, these spaces were being “renewed.” Spaces are also markers of memory: the unplanned, large and small buildings; the dusty spaces squeezed among them; and even the weeds growing in sites of prolonged construction. These spaces carry not only the memories of urban struggles of survival, those of labor and laborers, and those of marginalization, but also those of our roots in villages or where we had otherwise come from. Under the banner of “renewal,” not only were places being demolished and constructed anew—the very memories of the city were being rewritten. The city was being transformed into a cold set for a science-fiction film.
Being an urban dweller is about dwelling in a border landscape. It is about having borderline experiences. A city, after all, is a spatial construct where alcohol and other vices are produced and consumed, where forbidden pleasures in unknown nooks emerge as inviting promises, where strange bed fellowships and social assemblages emerge out of even stranger coincidences. Under the banner of “urban renewal,” the moralist cleansing operation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) aimed to discipline and gentrify all the nooks of Istanbul. All those who were displaced from their corners and stripped of their memories were very quickly being pulled toward one another.
Everybody’s worlds, let alone “lifestyles,” seemed under threat. During the Human Rights Federation Conference convened ten days ago, the minister of human hights, Beşir Atalay, claimed that the AKP was normalizing Turkey. Yet, for a rather long time, the lives of Kurds, Alevis, women, LGBT individuals, the poor, and even soccer fans have been under exceptional pressure, if not full-blown attack. Walter Benjamin argues that what is exceptional in the lives of the oppressed is the very normalization of this exceptional nature of the oppression. Benjamin in turn invites the oppressed individuals, classes, and communities to resist by creating their own exceptions, exceptional acts, and spaces out of every day ordinariness and by creating exceptions of the oppressors’ every day. Since Thursday, widely diverse groups, communities, and classes in Turkey have been responding to this invitation. To go back to the Human Rights Confederation Conference, in response to the protests that are going into their eighth day yesterday, Turkey’s president—who had talked about how the successes of Turkey has transformed the country into a regional powerhouse—could not abstain from tweeting: “One is really amazed [at the demonstrations.]”
On the Kurdish Question
Over the course of last thirty years, Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere in the region have reconstituted themselves as a people. This has been the case with respect to their spaces, social relations, views on gender and ecology, understandings of leadership, political parties, and—last but not least—with respect to their relation with history and truth. Unceasingly and indefatigably, they told the truth to the Turks. They spoke of the history of a one hundred-year-old catastrophe that has resulted in mass graves filled with the unidentified bones of three different generations, and of disappearances, abuses, rapes, and assassinations—the perpetrators of which remain unknown or undisclosed to this day. Across their reclaimed mountain fields, and in cities where they were forced to move to in search of a new life, they have constructed a different hope with the guerrillas. They have theorized life anew, and have been practicing this new theory of hope and life in the metropoles of Turkey since their villages were systemically burned in the 1990s. Every day, they revolted against the state anew. Confronted with this new theory and praxis of life and hope, the Turkishness—which firmly embraced its state, and nothing but its state—remained blind and deaf until this day.
That said, however, it is important to highlight here that the relationship between peoples is organic as much it is ideological, and material as much as it is discursive. Indeed, the differential existence of Kurds in an urban setting, their differential resistance, their differential memory and knowledge of and in the world, all of this, combined with the otherness they have shared with those standing in solidarity with them, has touched the Turks too. The words of the Kurds that succeeded at breaking through media censorship and into the general public, along with pictures of them resisting police brutality, as well as their humanist and people-based re-assemblage, was worked into the subconscious of the Turkish public. The universality of their woman- and ecology-based ideology enabled many belittled political factions within Turkish political life—such as the anarchist, feminist, ecological, and student movements—to find a political footing in their respective struggles.
Social media during the Kurdish political prisoners’ hunger strikes—particularly the Facebook-based open source newsfeed Hunger Strike Post, which later transformed itself into The Others’ Post—was able to succeed against the much revered media censorship of the repressive regime. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s now infamous first response to the hunger strikes, namely that “they [Kurdish politicians] are eating lamb kebabs,” froze in the air the moment they were uttered, fell to the ground, and shattered. It was that loud noise of shattering, a reverberation of denial and censorship, which swelled the numbers of hunger strikers to ten thousand and paved the way for the ongoing peace process.
Denial and censorship, rendered as banal and pragmatic during the hunger strikes, have subsequently become increasingly more visible and problematic for the general public. Partially due to this realization, Twitter and Facebook have become the spaces to know, get uncensored news, and organize. It is again Benjamin who talks about the revolutionary possibilities that technology opens up. It is no exaggeration to claim therefore that social media has, at least for previously marginalized political factions and individuals in Turkey, been recently experienced in the most revolutionary fashion, generating those strange coincidences out of which unthinkable political and social alliances as well as differential social relations emerge. In other words, for those tired of seeing the prime minister’s face on television, electronic and social media have become an alternative modality of being in and of the world in Turkey.
Reducing the Future to One Possibility
The increasingly dominant presence of the prime minister on television screens has encroached on the worlds of a very large and all the more diverse portion of the general public. We were having difficulty even understanding the logical progression of his speeches: how he moved from the “operational mistake” of massacring thirty-four villagers in Uludere with newly acquired drones to an abortion debate; or how he moved from the bombings in Reyhanli to a new alcohol law. He was angrier, ruder, more self-confident, and self-obsessed every time he opened his mouth. He had made a habit of misrepresenting the grievances and objections of the opposition, in a belittling and increasingly condescending fashion. His speeches that outlined his party’s plans for 2023 (the one hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the republic) and 2071 (the one thousandth year anniversary of Turkish arrival of Anatolia) did not give hope of stability to people. They suffocated them. Nobody wants their future to be reduced to one possibility.
Thinking about big social explosions, one usually asks “why that particular day?” There is no need to raise such a question in the case of Turkey. The third Bosphorus bridge and the new airport are coming to claim Istanbul’s last breath. To make matters worse, the bridge is named after a notorious Ottoman sultan, Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is known to have massacred Alevites. The Gezi Park was the last space that the urban renewal project aimed at reconstructing in Taksim Square that we knew intimately. And however far it might seem, the exiled poet Nazim Hikmet had once said, “as one and free like a tree, and in solidarity like a forest.”
Now, the PKK guerillas are relocating from Turkey to Iraq, and giving one last chance to the state. However, it is the people and not the state that have taken up that chance. Turks had for a long time accumulated anger, insecurity, and mourning in their abdomens, while resorting to racism, indifference, and fear to suppress these feelings. The gas of the police, while clouding their vision, has also caused them to face their truth: while they were being manipulated by a meaningless war against Kurds, an ever growing alliance of capitalism and state was denying them their life spaces, their past, their reality, as well as their freedom of expression and association. One should give credit to the AKP where it is due, however. The AKP’s success in paralyzing the military, and taking it practically out of decades-old political calculus of the country, is part of the picture. Otherwise, could we have imagined any of this?
At the forefront of the demonstrations, we see women—women, whose bodies have been violated and abused, whose procreational organs have become topics of debate in the words and laws of the state. There are the Kurdish and Turkish revolutionaries, who, in their long struggle against the state, have learned how to resist and fight together, how to take cobblestones off the paved streets, how to throw the teargas canisters back at the police. There are the environmentalists, who know how to stand shoulder to shoulder and care for the wounded and weaker ones. There are the students, who know how to have fun and enjoy themselves together while tweeting and withstanding tear gas at the same time. There are LGBT individuals, who have been verbally abused by the homophobic AKP politicians just about a week ago. There the anti-capitalist Muslims who for some time now have been standing in solidarity with the anti-nationalist communists and Kurds. Then there are the anarchists, who are against all of the gas, the liquid, and the solid state of the state. Also, there are those who are sick and tired of the outmoded politics of the republican CHP. There are also lawyers, doctors, and nurses. Finally, there are the soccer fans, who have always made this city a little unruly, a little vulgar, and a little exuberant. In other words, a people who were promised a more democratic society, a new constitution, and a real process of facing the truth of the past, were subsequently and utterly let down: a people who desire freedom, justice, and identity, stand together at the forefront of the demonstrations.
A politically-unorganized people is highly likely to resort to reflexes. Tomorrow, everything might end, and the demonstrations might dissipate. Or, they might turn more nationalist, and more masculinist. We are talking about a people who have not produced a slogan of dissent in over thirty years since the military coup of 1980, who have not created a political language except for the nationalist songs learned at schools, who lack a political symbol except for their flag, and who lack a political ideology besides their material demands and their desires to construct their lives anew. In a press release during the hunger strikes, Kurdish strikers had extended an invitation to all democratic factions within Turkey: “Give a hand to our people who have now risen up.” Now, the same invitation is uttered by the Turkish civil resistance with the same voice of urgency. For years, analysts and activists alike agreed on one fact about political life in Turkey: the inability of oppositional politics to mobilize the masses. Now the masses are mobilized, and the people have risen up. Everything could be transformed. It is time to give these people a hand. Maybe, and maybe only then, the people of Turkey could achieve peace, and help contribute to creating a stateless alliance of peoples based on social justice—an alliance comprising the entire Middle East.
[This article was translated from Turkish by Emrah Yildiz]