Fire in Istanbul, Rain in Vienna: An Inside look at Unrest in Turkey

Gezi Park

This protest, in its rapid expansion, has grown to defy any specific cause. A list of several might do the job: A park under peril from construction, dead protesters – or rumors of dead protesters – and police brutality in general, especially after the extreme violence of the May Day gatherings. Then there's Prime Minister Erdogan’s insistance that Ayran, a yogurt drink, be the national beverage instead of the alcoholic Raki. This is more significant than being merely about alcohol. It's about a theocratic government that, among other things has tried to ban the sale of alcohol after ten at night and forbids any new liquor store within a hundred meters of a mosque (Which, if you've ever been to Istanbul, covers something like - everywhere.) Migration to the city from the country is another factor. The unemployment rate is brutal. People are being kicked out of their homes to make room for massive apartment buildings that they can't afford to live in. A third bridge across the Bosphorous is being planned although the public transportation system of this city of twelve-to-twenty million is painfully, madly inadequate. Through it all, Erdogan has praised himself for planting trees. Facebook and Twitter have been throttled with activists finding their accounts censored. The day I left Istanbul 40,000 people walked over the bridge from the Asian side to join the protesters in Taksim. Now hundreds of tear gas canisters litter the city along with countless discarded supplies from the protesters and I’m miles away.

Gezi Park-3

Lets be clear, I'm dreadfully selfish. It’s not a label I apply to myself lightly – I've been dreadfully selfish. “Don't make this protest about you!” I've thought, while my friends have joked - “Hey, the big anarchist is leaving so they're throwing the biggest party of the year!” Yes, that's what I thought but wouldn't express myself, because I don't want to trivialize what's happening. I had quite the last night, is what I mean to say – Because I wouldn't be a white male if I didn't make this all about me; I can try, though.

The history behind this uprising can be hard to grasp.  I struggle on where to start. Part of why I felt so welcome in Turkey was because suddenly I wasn't in America latched to the TV watching the country I live in fuck up over and over. That's not to say Turkey wasn't fucking up, just that I lacked the language to pay proper attention. One of my favorite teachers once said to his class “Now, most of you have only been alive for one coup.” Coups happen fairly often in Turkey, the last, indeed, within the lifetime and memory of college juniors. Coups in Turkey tend to happen when the country becomes too Islamicized – A creeping fundamentalism find its way into the government until inevitably the military steps in to return Ataturk's vision of secularism. Of course, the rolling riots and police crackdowns are more complicated than that. While it began with police burning the tents of protesters who wanted to maintain a park near Taksim, it has since expanded massively in opposition to Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies.

Gezi Park-2

The night before I writing this, I found myself on Istiklal where the attitude was less celebratory and increasingly confrontational. My friend Farhan and I bought four-lira gas masks while he reminisced about his protests in Pakistan, about how in that country, the cops fear the protesters, not the other way around. Istiklal was crowded wall-to-wall with people, their fists high, chanting, “Diren, Istiklal! Diren, Istiklal!” Occasionally the crowd would push back from the plumes of smoke and tear billowing from the mouth of the street. Farhan and I flowed with part of the crowd down a larger side street in the direction of the Tarlebasi district. It was quieter, with barricades and burning motorcycles blocking what was once a busy highway. We left the area, lungs only half-full of gas, to meet some friends in a quiet corner of the city.  Even though we were away from the epicenter of the protest, you could still hear the echoing bombs and shouts from other neighborhoods. For the night instead of cheers, we drank to “Diren, Istiklal.”

Today it seems safe to estimate that 1000 people have been detained, and over 3,000 people wounded, both police and civilians. “But what about the white guy?!” I hear you shouting at your computer screen. “How does this affect your cracker sensibilities?”

As I said, it was a relief to be in a place where I didn't speak the language. I'm sure that’s why I felt so comfortable so quickly; I didn't hear the complaints. Although, now when I look back, I can identify a few prophetical moments. A certain unwillingness by some of the Turks to talk about the problems in their country with me - now I know why.

This was growing for a while. Istanbul is always described as where the east meets west; Islam meets European progressivism; where the modern meets the very old. This is said because it deserves saying. With the diverse desires of strong ethnic, religious and political entities trying to form a national identity, this turmoil was coming to a head for a long time.  I heard it in quick statement here and there – through the cleaning ladies in my dorm watching a Tayyip Erdogan’s speech on the TV in the morning, without speaking. A Turkish friend slowly shaking their head and saying yes, we do have our problems. A sigh. Jailed journalists. Kurdish unrest. Syrian violence – But to me, back home, they were always just rumors. I watched American politicians act in ways I found morally reprehensible. I counted myself lucky for getting to travel to a place so far away. Then came the time I had to leave.

As I hauled my luggage from Tophane along the tram to Yusefpasa, I watched the buildings of the city passing endlessly. I tried to think of a way out. At Zeytinburnu, I knew I could turn around, carry my luggage back, find a place with Turkish friend, watch history unfurl in black, red and yellow. My heart screamed to go back. The doors closed.

Vienna greeted me with widespread flooding – The riots and the flooding maintain equal time on Austrian English language radio. I can't wait to see the way Denmark destroys itself upon my arrival. I can't help but feel like a harbinger of doom, but that's only because I'm still self-absorbed. I know it's not my presence, it's just my epoch. It's the ancient chinese curse, conveniently invented in 1836 by the English: “May you live in interesting times.” I'm not sure what the seven billion of us alive today did in Ancient China in a past life to get this, but at least we have no excuse to ever be bored. So tonight, when I drink, I'll drink to rain in Istanbul to wash away the tear gas, and for the sun to break through Viennese skies.



Juro Gagne is a writer living in Maine, Santa Fe, and anywhere else he has the opportunity to go. Gagne studied comparative literature at Bilgi University, in Istanbul, and is currently studying creative writing at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. You can read more of his exploits on his blog