Category Archives: protests

The Road to Istanbul Modern

As Charles Atlas would have it, Istanbul is a place of dynamic tensions.

On the Beyoğlu road

On the Beyoğlu road

For the visitor of course, these contrasts are both exciting and challenging.  We have been intrigued by traditional Istanbul, hugely impressed by ancient Istanbul, and quite confronted by religious and conservative Istanbul.  Not surprisingly, we are most comfortable with modern Istanbul, even though that’s not without its challenges.

After almost two weeks here, some recurring themes are appearing.  Eating and restaurants of course, and the Taksim protests, but an unexpected theme of considerable importance has turned out to be roads.

IMG_1243Before the Taksim protests showed just how differently the government and their supporters were thinking, most would have said that Turkey was roaring down the road to modern Turkey, European Turkey, and certainly modern Istanbul.

Just how on earth Erdogan thinks he can put that genie back in the bottle defies all logic.  While the crushing of the protests, which he has all but achieved, will slow things down a bit, nothing will stop the path that Istanbul is on.

One way - but which way?

One way – but which way?

There is of course a short-term cost, and the European media are suggesting that the violent and duplicitous way that the PM has reacted to the Taksim protests has finally killed off Turkey’s desire to join the European Union.  However, if they manage to get the Olympics in 2020, Istanbul will move even further away from Erdogan’s Turkey.

Our road to modern Istanbul has of course been a little more pedestrian (heh heh).

Being quite literal, the actual roads are crazy, like the small one-way street we are staying in, where cars just ignore the rules and drive straight at each other.  The really steep streets falling away from Beyoğlu and Istiklal Street are also a wonder to behold.

Back in the metaphorical, while we have loved the uber-cheap street cafes and old fashioned shops and markets, we have also really enjoyed the upmarket restaurants and fashionable neighbourhoods that are an equal to any modern city.

On the Bosphorus

On the Bosphorus

We had a superb meal at Lokanta Maya (Kemankeş Cd, Karaköy) run by New York trained Istanbul chef Didem Şenol (though she is off having a baby at the moment).  We breakfasted on the Bosphorus at The House Café at Ortaköy (Salhane Sk), surrounded by wealthy and very modern locals.

But we probably had the most modern fun on our visit to the Istanbul Modern, which turned out to be a very telling metaphor for modern Istanbul.

The road to the Istanbul Modern is in fact an ugly driveway into a carpark, with no dedicated space for pedestrians.  The entrance is at the end of said carpark, and looks like the sign-on shed for crew for the nearby docks.  The museum building itself fares no better, sandwhiched between a machinery storage yard and the docks.  On a good day, the docks provide a spectacular view of the Bosphorus and the Asian side from the museum café; problem is, on most days, there is a huge cruise ship docked there, totally blocking the view.

The view to nowhere

The view to nowhere

Once inside, the Istanbul Modern is the very model of a modern major art museum, and fortunately the current exhibitions included a major retrospective of their collection, Past and Future.  Populist at one level, but a great opportunity for the one-time visitor.

There was also a very strong retrospective of local artist Erol Akyavaş.

But to prove that Art Imitates Life just as often as the other way around, our favourite piece in the Istanbul Modern retrospective was a video piece by two Istanbul artists titled …….

Road to Tate Modern.

[It’s only 6:41 long but you can skip to 4:55 and get the gist]

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Erdogan talks tough… and acts tougher!

IMG_1015The ground has shifted enormously re the Taksim/Gezi protests in the last two days, and PM Tayip Erdogan has once again shown that what he says and what he does are two quite different things.

The negotiations in Ankara with representatives of the protesters appeared to have gone reasonably well, with both sides sticking to their positions, but with the PM seeming to give enough room for the protestors to consider ending the occupation of Taksim Square and Gezi Park. The protesters started dismantling some of the barricades.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, Erdogan reverted to his original hard-line position, and demanded that the protestors leave by Sunday evening, or be removed by force. As people poured into the area for what they thought would be a last show of solidarity with those camped in the Park, the police suddenly announced that the crowds had to vacate the area immediately.

Thirty minutes later, with huge force and rubber bullets enhancing the usual tear gas and water cannons, the police attacked en masse, followed closely by bulldozers and workers to remove all traces of the occupation. The street battles went on all night, and apparently there were many injuries.

Ideas market on Istiklal Street

Ideas market on Istiklal Street

We had been in the Square only about an hour before, to begin the Istanbul Passeggiata, a long walk down Istiklal Street. There were swarms of unsuspecting people going the other way, up to the Square, with the only indication of what was to come being the very large numbers of police we saw all around the area.

Accessories market on Istiklal Street

Accessories market on Istiklal Street

By the time we got home, we were unaware that the police had moved in. However the early and more frantic pots and pans soundscape told us something big had happened, and sent us scurrying to Twitter and Al Jazeera (the only English language TV we have) to find out what was happening. It also sent us to the saucepan cupboard so we could join the solidarity sonata.

Pots and pans, 16 June

Pots and pans, 16 June

The protests continued in many parts of Istanbul today, while for its part the government outed an endless array of absurd conspiracy theories (eg, the substantial coverage of the protests by BBC-World and CNN must have been paid for by some hostile foreign interests, proving that the protests were being run by “outsiders”). They also prepared for their own very large rally of Erdogan supporters on the outskirts of the city.

After returning home this afternoon from a great day Kadiköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we heard the unmistakable sound of a demonstration. Right at the end of our street, on the water’s edge, a huge march went past on its way to Dolmabahçe Palace, and the PM’s Istanbul offices.

Protest at Kabataş, Sunday 17 June.

Protest at Kabataş, Sunday 17 June.

The police were there in force, and for quite a while it looked like they would charge, but eventually things calmed down and the protestors dispersed.

As a backdrop to this confrontation, we could see specially decorated ferries on the water carrying Erdogan supporters to his very successful rally.

What seemed most obvious to us was that this political confrontation is far from over.

Democracy this way

Democracy this way

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Call to Taksim

It’s 9.00pm in Kabatas, not far from Taksim Square, and the now nightly sounds of solidarity burst out – the clanging cacophony of Istanbul residents in the Beyoglu district, leaning out their windows and their balconies, beating pots and pans to support the embattled protesters in Taksim Square and Gezi Park.

Tuesday night, while we were still on our way to Turkey, the riot police charged again, without warning, to try to drive the protesters away with tear gas and water cannon and violence.  Once again they failed.

After our arrival in Istanbul, we walked through Taksim and Gezi yesterday, and the whole area looked like a war zone.

Riot police protecting protesters' hero, Ataturk.

Riot police protecting protesters’ hero, Ataturk.

There were police everywhere around the edges, lounging around and in cafes, but still in full riot gear, and with tear-gas and water-cannon trucks (more like tanks, really) in many strategic places.

Taksim was a shambolic mess of barricades and rubbish and rubble, and signs of fires and fighting.  Gezi Park was like Woodstock on the fifteenth day, with hundreds of tents, mountains of rubbish, and every alternative hawker, healer and haranguer you could imagine.

Barricade at Taksim, 12 June 2013

Barricade at Taksim, 12 June 2013

Many wore light gas masks loosely around their necks, and it was a faction factory, with dozens of groups discussing politics and tactics.  The more aggressively radical groups were in Taksim, while the biggest numbers, and the greatest diversity was in the Park.

Then today, Prime Minister Erdogan threatened the protesters with even tougher language, despite growing international pressure, and some earlier suggestions of a compromise.

The protests, and Erdogan’s intransigence, is the only topic of conversation here, where the parallels for us to Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland are a bit too close for comfort.

Erdogan enjoys a comfortable majority-support from conservative and religious Turks, largely in the rural areas, and is also a friend to the white-shoe brigade.  However he has alienated and repressed the younger and more progressive city-based Turks, which suits his supporters just fine.

Small section of Gezi, 12 June 2013

Small section of Gezi, 12 June 2013

The problem is, these progressive urban Turks are the ones that are responsible for his country’s positive and contemporary image that makes it attractive to tourists (a massive industry here), and to Turkey’s pet national projects – gaining membership of the European Union for Turkey, and hosting the 2020 Olympics in Istanbul.

The Western media have gone ballistic over the level of violence, now being played out in the mainstream media, not just the twitterverse, and the EU came out today with a statement very critical of Erdogan.

Tonight’s expected attack on the protesters has just been called off, and a second, more-representative peace negotiation has been called in Ankara, beginning shortly, but on past form it seems doubtful that Erdogan will concede anything like enough to satisfy even the moderate elements within the protesters.

After a day of visiting the historic wonders of Sultanahmet, to the ever present soundtrack of the call-to-prayer that occurs five times daily, we are even more moved by the new sound of Istanbul, the 9.00pm call-to-Taksim.

red dress graphic

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Taksim Square protests, Istanbul

We are a few days away from jumping on the plane to Istanbul, so have been following events on the streets there with great interest. There are continuing large demonstrations in Taksim Square and other areas of Istanbul and across Turkey. Our apartment in Kabatas is not that far from the epicentre of the action in Taksim. At this stage, we are alert but not alarmed!

'Woman in red' pepper sprayed by police becomes symbol of Istanbul's Occupy Gezi unrest against Prime Minister Erdogan

‘Woman in red’ pepper sprayed by police becomes symbol of Istanbul’s Occupy Gezi unrest against Prime Minister Erdogan

For those interested in the background to the direct political action, here is a link to a recent article in the New York Times, When the middle class strike back.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

In short, the AKP with  Recep Yayyip Erdogan as Prime Minister has ruled Turkey for over ten years with a constituency largely based in the conservative regions rather than in the big cities. The commentators suggest that Erdogan has failed to realize that he is dealing with a new Turkey. Many Turks fear the AKP is trying to wind back the  secular nature of the modern republic of Turkey, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after the First World War.

The AKP has faced severe public opposition to some of its projects, including legislation that limits the sale of alcohol as well as the catalyst for the protests: his plan to uproot hundreds of trees and turn a park adjacent to Istanbul’s largest square into a shopping mall. Yet in both cases the AKP leadership simply ploughed ahead. For them, steamrolling opposing voices was just business as usual. But when the police moved in to crack down on the environmentalist sit-in  organized in downtown Istanbul to save the city park, tens of thousands of middle-class citizens poured into the streets in the middle of the night.

turkish_plate_01  Nobody seems to know where it will go from here. Next week we’ll no doubt find out more about what’s happening, but hopefully our future posts will be less polemic, and more culture, food and art…

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