To turn on the TV over the past few weeks and see the streets that I roamed in Ankara and Istanbul for two years filled with throngs of protesters, tear gas, riot police, and burned out debris is a rather odd, and somewhat scary thing. But, man, I also have to say I wish I were there at this exciting time in Turkish history.
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We lived in Ankara from 2007 to 2009, working at a university on the edge of the city called Bilkent. We were put up in a tiny apartment in the scraggly hills, overlooking an often smoggy city of 5 million people. It was our first experience living and working abroad, and it had its challenges, though it was also exciting.
While we were there, national elections took place, and the ruling AK party was once again elected, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Prime Minister. At that time, I remember the anger, frustration and disappointment felt by many around us over this win. People we knew openly said that they hoped that the military would overthrow the government which they saw as a threat to secularism in the country as envisioned by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Erdogan and the AKP are a moderate Islamist party, and this has caused concerns from day one.
Turkey is really a tale of two realities. There are the secular, modern cities and the conservative, religious rural areas. It is the rural areas that have managed keep Erdogan in power. This hasn’t exactly sat well with those in the urban areas who’ve been concerned about the erosion of secularism. Furthermore, they’ve watched their government jail members of the military and journalists who have been accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
On top of that, secularists have felt that their rights are being eroded, with crackdowns on alcohol sales and even public displays of affection in accordance with Islamic principles. In our time there, I did find out one thing: Turks do like their Efes beer and their Raki. So, messing with alcohol is a bad idea. On the plus side, Erdogan has brought about a time of economic prosperity that has been particularly felt in urban areas. So, the political situation has been rather polarized and complex for a while now. And by awhile, I mean, since the day Turkey was born really. It’s been a tumultuous place at times, with three military coups already taking place since it’s inception in 1960, 1971 and 1980.
The recent protests began when the government decided that it would be a good idea to level a park in Istanbul to build a shopping mall and mosque. When a small group protested, the police showed up in full force to crush the dissent. This really helped to ignite the large scale protests that have gone from being about a park to being a fight against police brutality, the government and its political and social direction, and a fight for secularism. Sure, the AK party has grown in strength gaining more votes each election. But, it has completely failed to acknowledge the desires and dreams of those who didn’t vote for them. This has left many disenfranchised, and now willing to be bombarded with tear gas to fight against them.
Turkey does love its politics. In my time there, I spent several weekends in downtown Ankara checking out protests, from secularist and May Day rallies, to an angry protest against the then war between Israel and Gaza. This last one was an interesting protest because it was the first I had been to in Turkey where gender segregation was in effect along Islamic principles, with men leading the march, followed by women. That was an odd experience. And what was dubbed as a rally for peace was anything but. It was a call for the destruction of Israel as well – not overly peaceful in that respect. The smell of burning American and Israeli flags wasn’t exactly a smell of peace either.
Protests were always big affairs, with thousands of people, and of course a huge contingent of police who were primed and ready for battle. They had their armoured cars, their giant TOMAs with water cannons on top, dogs, shields, and almost as many cops as protesters. It always felt like at any moment everything would or could blow wide open. Only once in that time did I see protest violence, during a May Day rally. In retaliation for the violence faced by fellow union members in Istanbul, the same union started a small riot at one corner of the event in Ankara, which was swiftly met with tear gas and arrests. After the tear gas hit, I got out of there. That stuff is quite brutal in how it burns your eyes and feels like it’s going to turn your nose inside out. Going back to the scene later, it looked like a small warzone. Nowadays, the streets of Ankara and Istanbul look like a complete and total warzone.
To watch how these recent protests have developed has been fascinating and has brought about a tremendous bit of personal nostalgia. Turkey was an amazing country to experience, and it was where our first son was born. It was where we met friends, many of whom we are still close with. It was a time when we had opportunity to travel. It was a time of learning, growing, developing and experiencing. It was also a time of getting completely frustrated with an over bloated system of bureaucracy and living in a city where we knew little of the language, and English wasn’t widely spoken.
I know some people protesting now. I know what they are demanding, and I know that I want the same thing for them. I support secularism and liberalism, and those anywhere who are fighting to have this. Who knows when the protests will end or what they’ll lead to; will they push Erdogan out of power? Will the protests fizzle out? Will the military get involved? We shall see. But I do hope for the safety of everyone fighting for their rights on the streets of Ankara, Istanbul and other Turkish cities to create the future they want for themselves. And, man, I wish I was there, camera in hand, seeing this all for myself.
Chris Hearn writes and posts videos for Spectator Tribune.
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