The world is in an uproar, danger zone is everywhere…
— Ray Charles
All weekend, I have been receiving constant Facebook updates by Gokce, one of my Istanbul friends and family from the International Body Music Festival.
As much as he can, Gokce and his partner Ayse have been providing a blow-by-blow account on the state of Istanbul as it undergoes yet another day of mass demonstration, dissent and police brutality, today marking the sixth day of protest across the city. At the center of it is Taksim Square, one of Istanbul’s cultural hearts and a symbol of modern day secular Turkey founded under Ataturk. It is a 15 minute walk from their house.
Events began Monday, May 27, as a peaceful demonstration of resistance — an “Occupy Gezi” movement. The Erdogan government had usurped all legal processes to turn the last of Istanbul’s green spaces — Gezi Park — into a shopping mall.
Seventy protesters gathered to stop the bulldozers from beginning work. On the second day of resistance, demonstrators were met with police brutality far exceeding that of the excesses of police at Zuccotti Park and Oakland’s Oscar Grant Plaza. Over 1,000 protesters have been hospitalized for concussions caused by tear gas canisters and water cannons fired directly at their heads. The death count is still not clear, and the state news media blackout has ceased the flow of information over broader traditional networks. As of this moment, the Turkish people are in a news blackout.
The uproar caused by police brutality against people leading a peaceful demonstration was the last straw for the Turks, and the city has risen in defiance over police tactics under Erdogan. But the deepest underlying cause of this public rage is not just Gezi Park, but the growing authoritarianism and overreach by the government, which is entrenched in protecting Erdogan and his AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) party cronies. They are interested in destabilizing the delicate balance of a secular democracy that has been the trademark of Istanbul. Ironically, the English translation of Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi is “the Justice and Development Party.”
Here, in a beautifully worded synopsis from a Facebook post by Yusuf Bilgehan Arik, is the deeper reason as to why the Turkish people are up in arms:
“If you guys are wondering why Turks are rising against the government and its diving [dividing] policies: You probably know Turkey as a moderate Islamic country but we do not. We were founded secular and grew up in a culture that was tolerant to differences. Our women voted and elected to leadership before yours. Religion was not a tool for politics. Our grandfathers went to mosques to pray but also drank Raki with their friends and never judged others for their lifestyle.
Islam has not been our defining identity until this government. What Europe and US sees is a strong government, a good example of a predominantly Muslim nation as a shining beacon to Middle East and a growing economy. What we see is our journalists being prisoned, our army dispersed and a government who single handedly changes the constitution to serve their purpose with the intention of slowly taking away our freedoms.
We are being pitted against each other based on our heritage, lifestyle or religious beliefs. This is why we are protesting. We want our original founding principals back. We want the whole world to know: The people on the streets are not the TURKS or MUSLIMS or LIBERALS — they are the PUBLIC that claim their uniting identity back. That identity is SECULAR and UNITED as a nation.”
The ideal of Istanbul has been that of a crossroads city, an empire enriched by its diversity of cultures, religions and races intersecting over the centuries. As we know, that ideal has existed peacefully at times, but in other times its reality emerges, and in some of the most brutal ways possible.
I am an artist and part of a global family from the International Body Music Festival, which has grown and broadened over the last five years. As you have read here, I traveled to help at the fifth festival in Istanbul in the fall of last year. Because of this creative involvement I came to love Istanbul, first through its people, and then through the city itself. That infatuation has not faded. But today it is tinged with heartache and anxiousness. I have not been so directly involved with friends and loved ones from a country in turmoil before.
Amazing how the miracle of the Internet has so united us, with the pleasure of the acquaintance and friendship of others outside one’s culture and knowledge and country, and the pain of separation and frustrating inability to be there when they now need help. But we are all still joined at the hip — this festival family of ours — because we united body and soul as family doing our music together. Something beautiful and creative and alive. That’s a bond as rich and deep as love, and it pulls at me by the moment.
In my Facebook chat with Ayse yesterday, I begged her to stay safe, to keep out of danger, and to please, please have a Plan B to leave the country before the situation spirals out of control. She responded in a way that some of us have known in our lifetimes, being engulfed in and taken up with a movement larger than ourselves: it’s hard to leave to try to commence a normal life while your country is in trouble.
As I finished the paragraph above, Ayse re-opened her Facebook chat window with me to report that they are all safe and at home, and to please call to re-assure her mother, who is a guest professor here in California. Erdogan has declared today was the last day of demonstrations and his forces will be coming down with brute strength onto the protests if they are continued. Taksim Square, the center of the storm, is still safe; from what I can tell by her chat, it is still ‘occupied’. It seems that Istanbul is more or less settled down — for now.
But protests and police brutality in response continue throughout cities and towns across the country. They are the worst in Ankara, where demonstrators have been arrested en masse, and we hear they are being tortured without questioning in malls in that city.
The most maddening and shameful thing about the situation in Turkey, for those of us anxious to gather news on the event, is that the U.S. news blackout on their struggle is almost as tight here as it is in Turkey. Sympathetic demonstrations took place over the weekend in Zuccotti Park and San Francisco to draw attention to the events. But as of now on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC — nothing.
While we Americans are confronting the terrible effects of destructive tornadoes in the Midwest and full-blown dimwits in Congress, the world itself is turning faster on a speeding axis, propelled by the spirit of revolt fitting to these times. Danger zones are everywhere. But that shared danger of countries in transition, of governments making stupid decisions and lethal mistakes, of special interests threatening to turn this world into everyone else’s public hell for their profit and amusement is something uniting us all.
During these days of the square between Uranus and Pluto the danger zone is happening in Turkey and around the world. Reaching across to Gokce and Ayse and all my friends in Istanbul, we are reassured that we do have each other. Turkey’s revolution is personal for me, because it involves people I care about. I feel this more intensely today than ever — that we are a large body of spirits moving as one across this big blue planet. The time has come to stand up, and to help those who need it as they stand up. And regardless what happens, to never forget that we are everywhere.