Turkish Protests: What I saw at Taksim square
People were dancing, chanting and flaunting their injuries as victories while I fought my way into the crowd...
I was a regular tourist, a museum buff, landing in Istanbul with little more than a working knowledge of Turkey's political past and present. That was until the district I was staying in became engulfed in a battle between the people and the police.
Even as a foreigner with no take in Turkey's socio political course, the air at Taksim square awoke in me a sense of awe and wonder that no exhibit at the Topkapi palace could do.
It all started with a small group of concerned citizens protesting the uprooting of trees at Gezi Park, for the construction of a shopping mall. The demonstrations were responded to, in the words of most analysts and onlookers, with "excessive use of force".
Consequently, ‘Occupy Gezi’ has snowballed into a colossal movement against the conservative ruling party, which has already been on thin ice with the nation's secular progressives.
We were blissfully unaware of the storm brewing in our own backyard, until the receptionist warned us to stay away from Taksim square. And so we did.
But the protests were not limited to the square. Rioters were parading around the city, particularly the streets around the famous Galata tower, a tourist hot-spot. They were everywhere: chanting, singing, and clapping. Their words begged no translation:
"Tayyip, isteefah! Tayyip isteefah!”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, is now the focus of seething rage emanating from the secular, leftist citizens of the country. They scream for his immediate resignation in the light of his alleged failures in keeping the nation in line with Kemal Ataturk's vision. It's being asked if Taksim square could prove to be for Erdogan, what Tahrir square was for Hossani Mubarik.
The locals I spoke to were all unmistakably furious. A bartender from a nearby meyhane (Turkish bar) complained bitterly about a recently passed legislation banning the advertisement of alcoholic beverages, and their sale from 10:00pm to 6:00am. This effectively ends the nightlife in a city with a high dependency on tourism, as most people prefer to drink late at night.
This is troubling for more than just the bar owners. Erdogan's statements about wanting to raise a "pious generation”, coupled with a list of conservative actions, has sparked fears among a nation built on a strongly secular bedrock by the Ataturk, the "Father of the Turks".
Other locals have termed Gezi Park the "Hyde Park of Istanbul". They cannot imagine this spot of green to be bulldozed and replaced with yet another shopping mall in an already endless span of stone and concrete.
I went up to Taksim square a day after the security forces had retreated from the area and the fighting had ceased.
I was overwhelmed by what I saw: men and women dancing in circles around the fabulous Monument of the Republic; demonstrators wearing Turkish flags as capes; graffiti everywhere; people roaming about in Guy Fawkes masks, proudly exhibiting the injuries they had acquired during the protests. The tear gas hadn't completely dissipated yet, but I fought through the unease to witness this spectacle.
A police helicopter appeared overhead, and the collective boos of thousands of people rocked the square. This was the same dreaded helicopter that had been dropping tear-gas canisters into the crowd during the riots for the past couple of days.
Then came the familiar chant:
"Tayyip isteefah! Tayyip isteefah!"
This time, the harbinger merely shone its searchlight at the monument and flew away; followed by a great victory applause from the people in the square.
I cannot say that I haven't seen more violent protests, but I've certainly not seen any of this magnitude thus far. At least, not personally.
I hope the Turkish government too understands the scale of it, and takes adequate steps to address the people's demands...
...Because this situation is poised to explode given the tiniest of sparks.
Read more by Faraz here, or follow him on Twitter @FarazTalat
Correction: This blog earlier had a mistranslation. The error is regretted.