An Anarchist Outsider Amongst TÃ¼rkiye KomÃ¼nists
Istanbul exists separate from Europe and Asia. From Tophane, where the Bosphorous meets the Mediterranean, or the Eurocentric streets of Taksim, it's easy to find oneself staring at the horizon from a roof terrace, ringed by fresh skyscrapers and the lofty spires of mosques as the evening prayer surrounds you. The calls are dissimilar and just out of sync enough to let you hear their multitude, their omnipresence, the way the city for a few minutes, every few hours, is immersed in worship. I can see why westerners of a certain bent are terrified. Christians rarely express this kind of devotion; none that I know do so five times a day. While the unfamiliar food, names, and language will keep a student like me forever skimming the surface, the real alienating force rests somewhere underneath. My neighborhood is composed of curving alleys and collapsing apartments standing next to upscale restaurants catering to cruise-ship tourists. Everywhere you look the pristine new is pinned next to dilapidated relics and the occasional well-preserved ancient structure. Even in its dichotomy, Tophane is only a small wedge of the city.
After I graduated from High School my stepdad encouraged me to travel. His urgency was enhanced by a recent cancer diagnosis and post-surgery infection. He told me that there were a lot of people in the world doing interesting things, and I didn't have a lot of time to see them. Three years later I left for Santa Fe. A year after that he passed away. Here it is, yet another year later; I'm in Istanbul, and I'm eager to explore. I've realized that time will soon be flowing beyond me, faster than I can imagine. I smoke cigarettes â€“ I lose my hair. I meet women and buy hotel rooms â€“ I kiss Turkish girls outside of clubs with no pretext but a bummed cigarette and a half-smile between us. I compulsively seek out new bars, new clubs. Tonight itâ€™s the sports bar at Eski Beyrut. Tomorrow, Machine, where the industrial music ignites the walls with colored lights and heavy eye makeup. I try to take what I'm given, give what I can; I fight to keep the glass of my future self as empty as possible in anticipation of my next drink.
I shuffled past my sick roommate and down the dorm hall. I actually managed a few hours in class before a familiar feeling of restlessness came over me; that thereâ€™s more to life, so much more. At my first opportunity, I hopped on shuttle to Taksim Square. From there I headed towards Istiklal, a route that assured alcohol. Over my shoulder hung a leather bag that once belonged to my stepfather. It was stocked with a camera, a notebook and a Kindle loaded with a copy of Wuthering Heights that I should have already read. I wandered side streets until I saw a name I recognized, The James
Joyce, an Irish pub popular with British expats that I had only heard of. I found a small table facing a stage that would soon be host to a quiz-night. My Turkish is limited but I know enough to order a whiskey without ice. Once I got my beverage, (a Jameson had seemed appropriate) I laid the contents of my bag out on the table. I wrote a letter to a girl in New York. I then drank a beer while writing notes for the quiz I gently neglected to participate in.
My restlessness quenched with a little alcohol, I started making my way back to the dorms. As I hit the pavement, I was shocked to find busy Istiklal even more crowded than it was just a couple hours ago. Soon the foot traffic came to a halt. I tried to shuffle by a group of curious bystanders, but found myself tightly squeezed between a segmented wall of concrete and another of pedestrians. My ears pricked up, and I heard a chant echoing from just beyond the crowd. A group of young people were massed at the mouth of Istiklal. While I didn't have enough words to translate the signs with any certitude, I knew what 'KomÃ¼nist' meant; and of course, I recognized black flags.
â€œMy people!â€ I thought. Pushing my way through the crowd, I considered the wisdom of retrieving my camera and introducing myself. Then again, other cameras were flashing in the dark, so I thought at least the former must be safe. I snapped a few pictures. Finally I reached the other side, and while the crowd was putting as much distance between themselves and the radicals as possible, a few hushed stragglers with bright and curious eyes ringed the protest.
I circled the crowd. I ran the symbols through my mind, flags I'd known, but never seen flown. I saw the purple anarcho-feminist, red communist, black anarchist, and LGBT rainbow banners flying overhead. I had been warned to avoid Taksim rallies. Police crackdowns can be sudden and brutal. But I was enamored. Impassioned men were standing on anything high enough to see over the crowd. One man extended his hand to me and helped me up as he jumped down. The crowd then began to walk. â€œKa-til, APB! Kat-til, AKP!â€ For a moment it struck me that I should get the hell out. Instead, I considered that by running down the side streets, I might be able to outpace them. So I did â€“ camera-strap wrapped around my wrist and shutter control resting beneath my ready fingers. After a few snaking blocks I turned onto Istiklal, where other photographers had already positioned themselves on top of tree-planters. A camera crew moved ahead of the crowd, also finding high vantage points. I continued further and grabbed for tiny branches in a tree-planter to pull myself up.
The communists pushed the regular pedestrians to the side of the street as a line of photographers walked backwards leading the vanguard. Confused tourists gazed from the sidelines. Istanbul natives, many who doubtlessly disagreed with the participants, walked past with their eyes focused intently on the shoe stores, shops and malls â€“ all the white and gleaming accoutrements of capitalism. There was no counter-rally; no competing voices. They were stricken into silence by the size of the spectacle. It was as if the entire population of my hometown was marching on the haggard stone blocks of Istiklal, their hands and voices high with the signs and the drumbeat of their chant.
They paused several times to read speeches through a megaphone. The, stopped for the last time in front of Galatasaray High School. I climbed onto the base of the massive sculpture, a stone '1973,â€ to see the extent of the assembly. After the final speaker ended, I returned to the ground and notice a tall man, slightly rotund and stubble-bearded, speaking to his Turkish guide.
â€œHey, I couldn't help but overhear you speaking English,â€ I said, as a matter of introduction. He was American working in Istanbul as an English teacher. His Turkish guide had been translating the event for him. They were kind enough to write down the chant and give me a translation:
Killer USA, Killer AKP! (The ruling party in Turkey at this time.) Killer USA, Fuck off from the Middle East! Peace in country, peace in region! We don't want war! We want peace! Killer USA, Killer AKP! Killer USA, fuck off from the Middle East! Fascism standing shoulder to shoulder, We don't support an imperialist war with Syria.
The teacher nodded knowingly as I read it, my reaction more transparent than I had realized. Another American, a woman that, while blonde, did not necessarily 'read' as American, joined our little group and we explained the chant to her. Although I often find myself laughing in anxious situations, a trait I picked up from my father, none of us managed more than a sardonic smile as we all agreed, â€œThat it was a good night to be a Canadian, eh?â€
â€œJe suis FranÃ§ais,â€ I offered to no one. While taxi-drivers seem to recognize that Iâ€™m an American right away, shopkeepers, cashiers, and waiters tend to hail me with a 'Bonjour.â€ Perhaps itâ€™s my beard? Is it because my one-quarter French heritage is somehow recognizable to a people that have commandeered many French words for their â€œNew Turkish?â€ Is it because I'm brutally skinny and therefore shirk the stereotype of the fat American? And is this self-absorbed self-reflection simply a product of my youth, stopping me from asking more important questions?
Questions like, what would have happened if I had said hello? If I had grasped a hand and tried to express solidarity? A lingering feeling came over me that my â€œAmericanâ€ anarchism would just be a joke to them, a joke against their show of force dominating one of the busiest squares in the world. My concerns are vastly different from theirs. While my focus is mostly labor-based and opposed to two undeniably imperialist wars being waged in the Middle East, our context is vastly different.
Americans not only have the luxury, but are also expected to respond to their government with vitriol bordering on madness. We extol at length the failings of the presidents we didn't vote for. We construct elaborate apocalyptic fantasies of the hellscape that once was the nation when the other party is in charge. Our culture encourages fury and dissatisfaction as well as vaunted freedom. Turkey's relationship with their government is not so magnanimous.
There were rumors of cops further down Istiklal. Turkeyâ€™s cops donâ€™t fuck around. Assault rifles and body armor are common. A few dozen of the red-flag wavers carried on, shouting slogans, hearts flush, minds still crackling with their show of mass. Whether they were on their way home or walking into the waiting truncheons and riot shields of the police, Iâ€™ll never know; I was too tired or perhaps too cowardly to follow.
This was no Occupy Istiklal. While the threat of violence would be indistinguishable, there would be no articles the next morning talking about how these were dirty kids with silly â€œmic checksâ€ and â€œhand signsâ€ who â€œdidn't know what they were out there for.â€ There would be, at least on the English sites â€“ no news at all, just the lingering memory of Kurdish journalists on hunger strikes in Diyarbakir prison. Headlines would be made in Syria, however. These Turkish anarchists could very well be fodder for Assad. Opposition to American and Turkish imperialism could be a valuable tool for a Middle Eastern dictator trying to keep his people under thumb. It was painfully irreconcilable to me.
Perhaps it's simple rejection of national identity, an understanding that while nations exist, they must be fought when they try to increase their power-base. Did the brainiest among them think it's better to join the weak against the strong, even when the weak are despots? Did they think at all? Is this any different from the way anarchists in the states reject American identity, and romanticize revolutionary Catalonia or Nester Makhno's Ukraine? We're all building narratives, inventing our allies and heroes. I know from experience that when we are together, everything feels possible. We are out there, by god, we are out there doing what's right. Weâ€™re speaking up against all injustices ever known; and we have the answers. At least for a passionate moment we think we do.
It's easier to be an anarchist from inside the walls of solidarity. Being the anarchist on the outside, the one with the camera and mental notepad, slipping across the surface of a culture, sliding with curious eyes around iconoclasts, no shared language, only leaves me with more questions. If I ever find myself on the inside again, I can only keep my eyes open for that young man peering out above the crowd, the one with the camera and questions.