Published in abridged form in The Tower
Part 1: Laying Pipe
In the sitcom business, they call it “laying pipe.” It means the exposition of the backstory, the quick explanation of the events that set the plot in motion. Sitcom writers admire each other for the economy with which they lay pipe. In writing about Turkey, the hardest part is that before you can even begin to say anything interesting, you need to lay ten miles of pipe, and by that point you’ve lost your audience.
Moreover, the names are confusing and unpronounceable, Americans have simply had it with this part of the world; and besides, Turkey’s all so Byzantine—no surprise—that they just can’t keep the plot straight, even if you give them a PowerPoint presentation, Cliff Notes, and an iPhone App that reminds them who the characters are.
Americans have suddenly seen an explosion of images from Turkey on their television screens: massive clouds of tear gas, the sound of screams and sirens, lots of Turks looking mad as hell. Say what? More Muslim rage? Something about kids camping in a park? Isn’t Turkey supposed to be the model moderate miracle?
Apparently, the news scored among the decade’s lowest ratings. I strongly suspect that’s because these scenes simply baffled everyone back home, specialists apart. Specialists included, perhaps. “None of us expected this in Turkey,” said John McCain, who of all people really should have, given his eagerness to commit the United States to a military intervention on Turkey’s southern border.
Grasping why this explosion happened—or more importantly, why it came as a surprise to so many who should have known better—requires serious pipe-laying skills. I think I can do it, but work with me, not against me. Start by forgetting everything you’ve been reading for the past ten years about Turkey. Pretty much every bit of it has been nonsense. Scrub the words “secularists” and “Islamists” from your brains. Don’t try to compare Turkey to any other country: not America, not Afghanistan, not Egypt, not Syria, not Iran, not Russia, and certainly not France in 1968—not that the latter would ever occur to you, but the French press seems crazy for the idea.
Turkey is Turkey—a massive, complex country, formerly an empire, formerly many empires, in fact; its history not only as unique, complex and difficult to understand as American history but a thousand times more so. They can’t even build a functional metro system here, because every time they dig, they find priceless Neolithic ruins and the archeologists go berserk.
Here’s what you need to know, bare-bones: The supposedly secular Turkish Republic was an authoritarian state, although not a totalitarian one, and yes, Jeanne Kirkpatrick was right, there is a difference. I went behind the Iron Curtain when the Wall was still standing. The USSR was indeed—immediately, visibly, on first sight—an evil empire. Turkey wasn’t remotely like that, nor is it now, and God willing it never will be. But it is, still, an authoritarian state. Turkey has always had weak institutions, but a state that’s strong as an ox. The authoritarianism just comes in a different flavor—once they served it state-worship style and from time-to-time military style; now they serve it piety style. But it’s still the same thing—weak institutions and a strong, authoritarian state. They just changed the wrapping paper. It’s much better off economically, but not so much as you’ve been told. Still, even considering the past few week’s God-awful events, even considering the preposterous show trials, the jailing of journalists, the censorship of the Internet, the almost unfathomable dishonesty of its government and its intellectuals, the cronyism, the corruption, the foreign policy misadventures—it’s probably a better place to live, for most of its citizens, jailed or unjailed, than it has been at many points in its recent so-called secular past.
And it wasn’t “secular,” either, in the way an American would understand the term. A state-funded and state-controlled institution, the Diyanet, was one of the first organizations established by the Turkish Parliament after the abolition of the Caliphate. It was founded, in its own words, “to execute works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshipping places.” That would be the ethics of the Hanafi Sunni school of Islam, not the Eleusinian Mystery cults—or any of the religions of the 20 percent of the Turkish population who aren’t Sunni Muslims. The point is that religion here has always been subservient to and a tool for the state. When the state decides it’s important, the Diyanet can tell the Imams—all the imams, if they want to stay out of jail—what to put in their sermons. Does that sound “secular” to you? Does it sound, for that matter, “ultra-secular,” as the AKP’s opponents are often called? As for Turkey’s religious minorities, including other Muslim sects, well, it must be said that Turks don’t seem to kill them anywhere near as often since the AKP came to power, though you just never know; with Turkey, these things can turn on a dime.
But what Turkey does not have—and still does not have—is Islamic law. After the founding of the Republic Islamic courts were abolished and replaced with a secular legal apparatus, often modeled word-for-word on the Swiss, German, and Italian civil and penal codes. This has not been changed, and no, trying to regulate the sale of alcohol is not full-on sharia, it’s just full-on nanny-state, or more accurately, full-on daddy-state, since that’s what they call it here: Devlet Baba.
So Turkey is a rarity in the Middle East: It’s a democracy, if only in the sense that it does hold regular, free elections, and it has a secular constitution. It’s in NATO, and it furnishes NATO’s second-largest army—and its leading army, if you use the criteria of “percentage of admirals and generals in jail.” It provides a crucial energy corridor to Europe. The Incirlik air base is a vital staging point for the US military, or at least it’s supposed to be. It has made a reasonable contribution to the coalition forces in Afghanistan, and agreed to host a radar system designed by the United States as part of its NATO shield against a missile attack aimed at Europe. This pleased American military officials no end, but exposed Turkey to a significant threat of alienating a neighbor that is more than capable of inflicting upon it severe punishment of that special, sneaky, we-invented-chess-you-know Persian kind. And every so often, it’s sort of a national tradition, Turkey goes nuts and kills a few—or more than a few—of its own citizens. “This is not our country,” wrote Turkish novelist Tezer Özlü, “this is the country of those who want to kill us.” She died in 1986. She was not responding to a newborn phenomenon.
The past few weeks, as you probably know, have been Tezer Özlü weeks. The police killed five of their fellow citizens—and probably more—and blinded nearly a dozen of them. It should also be noted that a policeman died, too, chasing his fellow citizens. But these words don’t begin to compass the explosion of violence and cruelty. I live by Taksim Square. It is not clear what set it ablaze one Tuesday evening, but certainly something did; police stormed a crowd of some 30,000 with massive clouds of tear gas and sound bombs, setting off a stampede. Extremists in the crowd began fighting back—throwing stones, setting off fireworks, starting fires to mitigate the effects of the gas, transforming what had just the day before been an irenic, quirky festival of a protest into a nightmare of nihilism and violence for the sake of violence, the sound of the ezan in the background adding surrealism to the sacrilege and vice-versa. The police behaved like animals. I saw it. They terrorized and maimed and wounded and traumatized a bunch of goofy kids whose only crime was camping out in a park, as well as everyone in a mile-wide range of them. God only knows what they did in the parts of the city and country where the media wasn’t looking. I’m not even sure I want to know. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as Thanatos.
But keep this in mind: With one exception, they did not shoot them with live bullets. This wasn’t a Syrian-style wholesale slaughter. And this was nothing compared to what happened from time to time during the so-called days of secular-paradise. The Dersim rebellion in 1937 and 1938 was suppressed with such vigor that historians suspect tens of thousands of souls perished. The civil war with the PKK is said to have claimed 40,000 lives, including state forces, and I do not imagine the Turkish military was scrupulous in its adherence to the Geneva Conventions when prosecuting its campaign against it. At the height of the conflict, in the 1990s, thousands of civilians were systematically rounded up and—with no trial—jailed and tortured and disappeared. There are hundreds of mass graves in Southeast Turkey. Now, don’t misunderstand me: The PKK is a neo-Maoist scourge and a curse, a personality cult centered around the clinically narcissistic figure of Abdullah Öcalan, and while I would rather it had been done differently, it had to be done. I take the PKK personally; they nearly killed me one fine Sunday morning in 2010, when one of their splinter groups took it into their heads to bomb Taksim Square, where I would have been but for my more pressing desire to sleep in. In principle I condemn and deplore torture, as all right-thinking people do, but I confess that in my heart of hearts, I don’t lose sleep when I imagine their leadership drawn and quartered. That said, mass graves, burnt villages, and the internal displacement of some half a million Kurds is not precisely an advertisement for this so-called secular Eden of yore, and if I hear that it was so great back then even one more time, I suppose I shall have to summon my patience, because I know I’ll hear it another million times, and I can’t afford to lose my mind every time I hear it.
And shall we mention not only the military coups, but the events that led up to them, such as the clashes in the 1970s between far-left and far-right paramilitaries, funded by God knows who (I truly fear the answer), which created such chaos and anarchy—killing, on average, ten people a day and toward the end, 20 a day—that the public was relieved, yes relieved, when the military finally stepped in? They whitewash that effusion of relief right out of history here these days, but ask anyone old enough to remember it, just remember to ask them in private. They wanted that junta, and badly, until the junta began doing what juntas tend to do, with one very important exception: After finishing up the torturing and the hanging, they returned the government to the civilians.
So we should not for a moment imagine that the events of the past weeks have been some hideous aberration from the otherwise irenic and secular history of the Turkish Republic. A May Day massacre in Taksim Square in 1977 claimed 35 victims. Following the sound of gunshots—and it is to this day a mystery who fired them—the security forces blazed in with armored vehicles, blaring their sirens, setting off noise bombs, and hosing the crowd with water cannon. This so panicked the crowd as to set off a stampede—does that sound familiar?—and it was in that stampede that most of the victims died. None of the perpetrators were caught and no one was brought to justice. Not one single Turk who watched the stampede in Taksim the other night would have failed, immediately, to remember this—except, it seems, the police who seemed determined to recreate it. Or perhaps they remembered it perfectly. Who knows. That there is the problem: No one knows.
Then there was the Maraş Massacre of 1978, when more than a hundred—and many believe far more than a hundred—Alevis were systematically massacred over the course of several days by the so-called Gray Wolves, a right-wing paramilitary now believed to have morphed into a louche political party with 13 seats in the parliament. This incident, too, remains shrouded in mystery. As do many in Turkey, some columnists at Zaman, one of Turkey’s most visible newspapers, ascribe the massacre to the Deep State—the term for a powerful secret coalition nested in the Turkish political system and comprised of high-level elements in the intelligence services, the military, the judiciary, and the mafia—to pave the way for the subsequent coup. But this same newspaper has been the chief vuvuzela championing the more recent arrest and incarceration of Turkey’s admirals and generals on charges of coup-plotting, while systematically failing to report that the case rests largely upon evidence that is obviously, indeed brazenly, forged.
A bit more pipe and we’ll get there. Zaman is part of a large media group owned by the powerful cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is always described as “reclusive” but who in fact rarely shuts up; he is the “inspiration” for the Hizmet, or “the Service,” a Nurcu-sect “civil society movement” (in their words) that is widely believed in Turkey to control the police and the justice system. Gülen is a powerful business figure both in Turkey and abroad. More interestingly, from the American point of view, he lives in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, and is one of the largest players in the world of American charter schools.
Needless to say, this is also most interesting from the Turkish point of view. Those here who are unnerved by his role in contemporary Turkey believe he is handled by the CIA, and while I could not possibly know, I’ve never been able to understand why we granted asylum to a man who, it may clearly be shown, was at least formerly a raving anti-American, anti-Semitic, Islamist nuthatch. This may be established by even the most casual perusal of his earlier books and sermons. These were written or delivered before he either had a change of heart—a transformation that he has never explained—or before it became more lucrative and expedient for him to establish himself as a champion of interfaith dialogue. I will spare you all the evidence of his former and perhaps current extremism, just one quote—a rather recent one, too—should suffice:
“Consider the issue of apostasy. Under Islamic law, apostasy is regarded with the same gravity as treason is regarded by most states and all armed forces. The hope must be to prevent, by pleading, prayers, persuasion, and all other legitimate means, such a crime from becoming public and offensive to society. Those who insist on pursuing this path must be asked to reconsider and repent. If they reject this opportunity, the penalty is death. No lesser penalty could express society’s abhorrence of breaking one’s covenant with God.”
Quite straightforward, that.
Nor have I been able to understand why two CIA veterans, George Fidas and Graham Fuller, the latter of whom has long had ties to Central Asia—and indeed had family ties to “Uncle Ruslan,” the enraged uncle of the Boston bombers (to whom his daughter was briefly married)—provided references for Gülen’s Green Card application.
A last note about Gülen: Either he or Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the most powerful man in Turkey, but no one really knows who’s more powerful, although everyone does know by now that that this place ain’t big enough for the two of them.
But my main point is this: Brutality and human rights abuses were hardly unknown before the rise of the AKP. Nor was absolute poverty, although that now is largely gone thanks to them, which, along with the incompetence of Turkey’s opposition parties, accounts far more for the AKP’s electoral success than the inherent tendency of all Muslim countries to gravitate toward Islamist politics.
What is an aberration, and utterly inexplicable to me, is this: Since the AKP came to power in 2002, the world somehow ceased to care, or to ask any deep questions, about whether Turkey’s “democratic deficits,” as they’re known in the euphemism trade, have really healed, or are apt ever to heal given the AKP’s style of governance.
And what is that style of governance? To amass power—of every kind—and distribute the spoils to its supporters. The media? An impediment. Lock it up, buy it up, or terrify it into silence. Critics? No use for them: Sue them, slander them in the media (which they control), imprison them, or chase them out of the country to evade prosecution (for crimes that in all likelihood have been committed in one form or another by nine-tenths of the Turkish elite.). The Paleolithic, but at least independent, judiciary? Its independence is gone, and I cannot believe that the West was so stupid as to celebrate this as a democratic advance, rather than see it for what it was and scream bloody murder. It disappeared in a 2010 constitutional referendum, one with 23 items bundled into a single package. Voters couldn’t select the items they wanted: It was thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Of those items, 22 were innocuous or salutary, one was dubious, and one was a poison pill. It restructured the size and membership of the Constitutional Court, raising its membership from 11 to 17, and took the power of the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State to elect and appoint its members and assigned it to parliament and the president. (There goes the independence of the judicial branch.) This was in addition to Erdoğan’s pre-existing power to hand pick all of the MPs in his party (the legislative branch) and all of the ministers in his cabinet (the executive branch).
So the majority of the judiciary, including the members of the Constitutional Court, are now elected by a parliament dominated by MPs entirely under Erdoğan’s control. What’s more, a 2007 constitutional referendum resulted in the direct election of the president by the public. Before this, the president was elected by parliament, and viewed as an oppositional figure whose role was to limit the power of the prime minister. To put it succinctly, in two referenda—which the whole idiot world applauded like maniac penguins as great advances for Turkish democracy—the Prime Minister directly or indirectly took control of all three branches of the government.
The last leg of the balance-of-power stool was the military. Off to the clink went the top brass, who listed there for years without conviction; they will wait years more for the European Court of Human Rights to review their appeal. Some have already died in jail, and more will surely die before the case makes it to the top of the ECHR’s overcrowded docket. Kurds? Well, the word now is peace, but the word last year was war, with the highest casualties—some 700 dead—since 1999. Negotiations with Öcalan? Hey, why not? People here would accept almost anything to save their children from that unrelenting bloodletting. But we have no idea what these negotiations are for, or what has been promised, or why they are happening now when only months ago Erdoğan was boldly proposing to bring back the death penalty and hang that murderous scoundrel—a prospect, I must say, that rather inspired the public.
Now tell me: “Islamist-schlislamist,” as one (Muslim) friend said to me—can’t you see what the problem is here? A country already cursed by its authoritarian traditions managed to hand all of the power to one single man, a man who may for all I know have once had a heart of gold (though I doubt it), but who cares? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this man now has absolute power. His only challenger is a creepy cleric in the Poconos who may be a peacemaker but is more likely just a hell of a shrewd huckster or a CIA asset (And God, I hope it’s the latter and I hope we know what we’re playing with and have a plan here, because if we’re so stupid that we really think he’s a peacemaker, I don’t see us surviving into the 22nd century.). To make matters worse, Erdoğan has been feted ‘round the world, including by people who should surely know better, as the greatest democratic reformer since Benjamin Franklin, which did little to enhance his grasp on the Reality Principle.
So why is anyone surprised that suddenly we hear the sound of screams and sirens in Taksim Square, Turks looking mad as hell, and massive clouds of tear gas over Istanbul—not to mention Ankara, Izmir, Antakya, Adana, Eskişehir, Muğla, Mersin, Bursa, Balikesir, Kocaeli, Antalya, Rize, and God only knows where else, because the international media is focused on Istanbul chiefly and Ankara as a footnote, and the domestic media is muzzled. Really, the only surprise is that it took this long.
So the pipe has been laid. The story begins.
Part 2: The Gezi Diary
I warn you now: I am not fond of vulgar language and don’t believe it belongs in a serious publication. But when things like this happen, people swear. You can stop now and read the AP version if the language I’m about to use will offend you. Keep reading if you want to know what something like this really sounds like. I can’t and won’t alter quotes—although in this case, for obvious reasons, I have to alter names.
April 2: A rumor started going around that people were trying to organize a protest to save Gezi Park. People here protest a lot, so I didn’t pay much attention. On weekends you can often see five or six protests a day in Taksim Square; usually no one notices them; the police watch them benignly, and they make no difference at all, especially since these protests are always uniquely boring—the slogans are ritualized, it’s always “shoulder-to-shoulder against something” (be it fascists or whale-killers), and everyone goes home at the scheduled time and nothing ever changes.
But this rumor was a little different, because the organizers claimed that 50,000 people had already signed up for it. That’s a lot of protesters. I mentioned this to a friend, en passant. He’s pretty shrewd about Turkey, being Turkish, after all. He said, “If 50,000 people actually signed something and a sizable fraction shows up, I don’t see the AKP tolerating this. Even the anti-censorship march drew inane bile from the heavyweights of the AKP newspapers.”
“Or they’ll be ignored,” I said. “But I wish them well.”
“There’s a fairly good chance they’ll get hit and gassed,” he replied. I should note that “hit and gassed” happens so often here that we barely even notice it anymore—we just check the #dailygasreport on Twitter to see what streets to avoid. It’s like the traffic—just one of the hassles of Istanbul that you learn to deal with.
“Maybe,” I said, and then made one of my less prescient predictions. “Of one thing I’m sure—unless, say, 50 Buddhist nuns set themselves on fire, or an American tourist is bludgeoned by a glue-sniffer, no one outside of Turkey will be interested, and it won’t stop the AKP from doing whatever the fuck it pleases to Gezi Park.”
“No, and some young people, especially if they’re students, can get in trouble.”
“And I don’t really care about Gezi Park. Do they? I mean, Gezi Park isn’t so great. So I guess I won’t bother to go to see what happens.”
“No, it’s ugly. I don’t want a building there, though. But I don’t think we can stop this. As usual they dug up some historic thing or other too, and nobody made much fuss about that.”
We then moved on to other subjects, and forgot about it completely.
JUMP CUT, as they say in the screenplays.
May 31: The police burst into Gezi Park at dawn with tear gas and water cannon. More than a hundred protesters are injured, including three journalists. By eight that evening, some 100,000 more return to the area to try to defend it. The police block the roads leading to Taksim Square with barriers, trying to disperse the crowds with gas and water canon. Within hours, the protests spread throughout Istanbul, and then to other cities. At three in the morning, a massive crowd begins marching across the Bosphorus Bridge from Asia to the European side. People join the protests from their houses, banging pots and pans to make noise, shouting and clapping. Why? Over some trees? No—over years and years and years of taking this crap. It was just the breaking point, and we all knew it would come some day.
And as all of this is happening—and broadcast around the world by the foreign news services—the Turkish news stations are showing anything but these scenes. CNN Türk aired a documentary about penguins.
June 1: Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in more than 40 Turkish cities keep protesting. The protesters move to the Prime Minister’s office in Beşiktaş, thus providing the police with an excuse for even harsher retaliation. Every living being in the district gets showered with gas—including, I’m told, the officials in that office, which at least was satisfying to imagine, if it’s true. Ankara and Izmir rise up in force.
Snippets of conversation:
“They’ve got to be running low on gas.”
“They fucking saturation bombed this part of the city with gas, how much can they possibly have?”
“Be careful. My brother got gassed today, too.”
“This is just ridiculous. What the fuck are they thinking?”
“I hate this fucking gas. Was a bit late to shut the windows and now I can’t breathe.”
“OK, no way to get anywhere near Taksim from here. They’ve blocked Vali Konaği Avenue with a bus. I haven’t seen any gassing, but judging how hard it was for me to breathe and the way kids were taunting the cops to take off their masks and helmets, I imagine they’re gassing them regularly.”
“People were walking back teary-eyed and coughing on Cumhuriyet Avenue. Halaskargazi was crowded with people in surgical masks. Folks were mumbling obscenities, but I saw no tendency towards violence or anything like that. Oh, and they blocked the rear entrance of the governor’s residence with fire trucks.”
“Why the fuck are they provoking this, I wonder? Completely lost it? Cops doing this in a scheme to provoke people against Erdoğan? The Zaman folks who’d ordinarily call demonstrators Ergenekoncu [coup-plotters] have turned civil libertarian all of a sudden!”
“I get gassed at home and walk by the semi-dispersed crowds and breathe the gas. I can tell you, though, the people I saw were ordinary people. Just frustrated.”
June 3: A Tweet from journalist Orkun Un: “I have just spoken with a police chief, these are his exact words: The country is finished, may God help us all. We got direct orders from the prime minister to break up the protests.”
June 4: Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç announces that 244 police and 60 protesters have been injured in clashes. The Turkish Doctor’s Union, on the other hand, puts the number of injured protesters at 4,177, including two deaths and multiple blindings. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch suggest the number of deaths and injuries may be much higher. Journalists debate among themselves how to report the number of casualties. We’ve seen what’s going on: We know who to trust. We settle on “more than 4,000.”
Later that night, heavy protests break out in the eastern province of Tunceli. The police are forced to call for help from the military in Antakya, on the Syrian border, although they remain on the sidelines. In İzmir, police began detaining people for BadTweet. They’re under suspicion of Tweeting “provocations” and “misinformation.” “Provocations,” apparently, compass such Tweets as “Please don’t act in unrestrained ways and don’t assault the police.” The state says they picked them up for taking pictures of buildings they set on fire and gloating about having done it on Twitter. Probably both are true.
We’re all getting paranoid. We start writing e-mails to each other like this: “Let me just say, once again, how much I love our police and how much I appreciate their intelligence capabilities and diligence. And their unique manliness, their rugged good looks, and their unparalleled loyalty to God and country. Fine men, one and all, and I am honored to share my correspondence with them. I only hope my small contribution might contribute to the glory and power of Turkey, I mean Türkiye.” (Once, they decided to rebrand: They’d had it with the Thanksgiving jokes.)
June 5: I receive an unbearable letter from a local human rights group. I reproduce it in full:
“I am at home, I’m fine. I want to write what I went through. My only aim is that everybody knows what is being experienced while in detention. I have no other aim; I want to say that at the beginning. I will write all of the events that happened to me from the beginning and with all swear words and insults included. With all its openness…
“Last night (June 3, 2013) around 9 p.m. I was detained in Beşiktaş, at traffic lights on Barbaros Avenue. I was not involved in any action like swearing or throwing stones. They took me in bending my arm the moment they saw me. Some friends of mine saw on TV how I was taken into custody. Then hell began. “After crossing the lights in the direction of the seaside, while I was at the edge of the platform where the IETT bus stops are at the seaside, any policeman who was there and any riot police squad member (çevik kuvvet) who saw me started kicking and punching me. For about 100-150 meters, in other words, all the way to the Kadıköy ferry station, whoever was present there was kicking and punching. Insults and curses such as ‘Are you the ones to save this country, mother f***rs, sons of b***es,’ never ended. I could not count how many people hit me before I reached the detention bus. “Just as I was taken near the buses, a few policemen called from behind a bus, ‘Bring him here.’ They took me behind the bus and started kicking and punching me there. I learned later that because of the cameras they took me behind the bus to beat me.
“When I was inside the detention bus (İETT) the lights were out, and I heard a girl’s voice begging inside the bus: ‘I did not do anything, sir.’ I could not even see who was hitting me as I was taken inside the bus and after I was in the bus. The only thing I was able to do in the dark was to cover my head. Curses and insults continued. I sat. Everyone who was passing near me was hitting me. I got up and went to a corner. They wanted me to take a seat again. I told them everyone who passed by was hitting me when I was seated. They again swore, slapped and punched me and made me sit. “They were hitting the girl and throttling her. A civilian policeman whose name is Suleyman told the girl, ‘I will bend you over and f***, right now.’ “Response of the girl was heartbreaking. She could only say ‘Yes, sir.’ with a low voice.
“And next, we, the three people present at the bus, were forced to shout: ‘I love the Turkish police. I love my country.’ They made us yell this again and again ordered us to make it ‘louder, louder.’ The insults and beating did not come to an end. “The atmosphere seemed a bit calmer, as they brought another young person. The guy’s nose was broken. When I asked him why he didn’t protect his face, he told me ‘Two people held me by force and a third person punched my nose three times.’ From time to time there were others brought in.
“Later, a young person named Mustafa from Bahçeşehir University was brought in. He looked too weak even to stand up after being attacked by twenty cops. They took him inside the bus while continuously hitting (a helmet was one of the tools used to hit him), slapping, punching and smashing his head on the window. His hands were cuffed from behind; his head was bleeding; they made him sit on the floor. I went near him and held a cloth (the bloody t-shirt of the guy whose nose was broken) to his wound to stop the bleeding. This police named Süleyman told me to ‘get the f*** back to my seat. When I told him that “he is bleeding”, his uncaring response was: ‘he can bleed.’… They were holding the guy in handcuffs with all his injuries. We pointed that out to a couple of policemen. Finally, one of them opened the cuffs.
“The second heartbreaking incident happened when we were at the police station for statements. Mustafa asked me: ‘Did they hit me in the bus? What happened?’ He could not remember anything as he was totally unconscious while he was on the bus.
“As a last point, we could not go to the toilet while we were at the bus. They only gave us a bottle of water. Then we were taken to the hospital for doctor’s reports and then to the police station.
“Once we were at the police station, an army of lawyers was waiting for us. And the policemen now were talking to us on polite terms.
“I want to thank all the lawyers, all our friends who called the lawyers and everybody who was worried about us. There is not a bit of an exaggeration in this piece. Everything that has been experienced is true and my only aim is for everybody to hear it firsthand.”
Oh, by the way—they detained the lawyers, too. I can’t remember when. A few days ago, I think. I ask a friend whether the account above could possibly be true. He almost injures himself laughing at my naiveté. Of course it could be, he says. “It’s what I’ve been hearing all my fucking life here. When Turgut Sunalp was asked about reports of rape with truncheons in jail, his response was that they had virile men for that who had no need for truncheons.” That would be General Turgut Sunalp, Chairman of the Representative Committee for Turkey at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, the second-in-command of the General Staff, subsequently the commander of Turkey’s military academies, latterly Turkey’s ambassador to Canada.
Then I speak to another friend, a lecturer at a university I won’t name, who tells me similar stories not only about what the cops have done to his undergraduates, but about the vile cowardice of the university rector, who insisted that no more fleeing, injured students were to be given refuge in his university. What’s more, students who tried to administer first aid to them on the street might be expelled.
I repeat this to friend number one. He’s not shocked. “They’re selected for vile cowardice, so hardly surprising. If you didn’t already, you now understand my visceral reaction to people who kiss up to power. Decorations for streetlamps, the lot of ‘em. In some of my dreams.”
It’s true: After the 1980 coup, the generals emptied the universities of anyone who might encourage student radicalism, and just to be on the safe side, emptied them of anyone intelligent. Students here know not to take classes from professors of a certain age—they know they won’t learn a damned thing.
So don’t tell me again how great it was before. And don’t tell me again how terrific it is now.
June 6: Delivering a speech from Tunisia, the prime minister defiantly vows to demolish the park and promptly crashes the stock market. Here, people are going insane. There are rumors—sparked by an idiot comment posted on CNN’s “Comments for Idiots” page—that the cops are using Agent Orange. No one here has a clue that CNN’s “Comments for Idiots” page is not “Official, trustworthy Western journalism,” or even what Agent Orange is. They just know it’s something really, really bad. The irony of this—that Agent Orange is a defoliant and that the very point of this protest (ostensibly, at least) is to manifest discontent with Istanbul’s near-absence of trees—is not lost on the few of us who speak English. We try to explain on Twitter that the gas is probably colored with something orange because the cops want to identify and arrest the people they can’t manage to catch right away. In retrospect, I suspect, this probably only somewhat reassured them.
We also try to explain that no, contrary to what they’ve been told by their prime minister, the United States didn’t kill 17 protesters during the Occupy Wall Street protests. The US Embassy puts up a tweet to this effect, and then, for reasons no one understands, deletes it. Enraged, I send them a volley of doubtless unwise invective: “Even the Czech Republic had the nads to stick by their guns when they said they weren’t Chechnyans.” What the hell is wrong with our embassy?
I think of yet another friend’s comment to me, long ago: “We were never democratic, but please, don’t help us become even less democratic.” I feel ashamed of the way my country is behaving, which isn’t a good feeling.
June 7: Calm and peaceful, save for incidents in Cizre, near the Syrian border (tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, stones, Molotov cocktails), and in the Istanbul neighborhood of Gazi, not to be confused with Gezi, a primarily Alevi quarter known for what the more responsible local papers call its “oppositional sentiment.” A protester there was hit in the head by a gas canister the previous night and is still in critical condition; clashes there continue throughout the night (barricades, tear gas, water cannon, slingshots).
Compared to days prior, though, my own neighborhood is irenic. The police have pulled out of Taksim. I go for a walk through Taksim and Gezi Park and can’t believe what I’m seeing: It looks like freedom. For the first time ever, maybe. I walk through Taksim all the time; I live right by it, and it’s always full of cops. Don’t get me wrong: They are there for a very good reason. The PKK and its affiliates have attacked Taksim four times since 1995—and like I said, I was nearly one of their victims the last time they did it. Istanbul is a city of some twelve million people, not all of them pleasant (though most of them are), and Turkey lives in the world’s roughest neighborhood. Obviously, yes, you do want a heavy police presence in the city’s most heavily trafficked square and its most obvious terrorist target.
But what is that joke about orchestras and conductors? Ah yes, I remember: How is a conductor like a condom? It’s a lot safer with one, but a lot more fun without it. And Taksim is a lot more fun without the cops, especially when lately the cops have been about as safe as a San Francisco bathhouse in the 1970s. The place has almost overnight become a giant carnival—singing, dancing, improbable comity among groups that under normal circumstances would prefer to be killing each other—nationalists and communists, Turks and Kurds, Alevis and Sufis, all thrilled to be there, thrilled not to be choking in teargas. An overheard anecdote, reported in a local newspaper: Elderly lady asks, “Kids, is this the PKK flag?” A lesbian answers her, “No auntie, it is the LGBT flag. The lady walks away, saying “Oh, all right.”
There’s a little too much of a Leftist showing for my taste—a few too many Che Guevara posters—but then again, no one here really knows who he is, thanks to the successful marketing of his brand. (Thanks, Hollywood.) There’s definitely a small, serious, hardcore-left component that wants to wriggle their way in to get a piece of this action, but they’re just tagging along for the ride, as you’d expect. If the protesters have a brain in their collective, dreamy heads, they’ll find some way to get them the hell out of there, because if there’s one thing the Turks cannot stand, it’s the kind of communists who really mean it. But I have a bad feeling about this. These kids are just too politically naïve to realize this. I worry that this could easily be hijacked by the lunatics and end up in even more blood.
(Unfortunately, I was correct: There have since been credible reports of senseless vandalism and violence committed by the kind of people who given any excuse will commit senseless vandalism and violence. This has of course given the government just the pretext they wanted to tar the Gezi protesters and their supporters with the same brush.)
An overturned police van—the only sign that they were ever there—has been turned into a makeshift memorial to the wounded and killed, with handwritten messages promising them that they won’t be forgotten and it won’t be in vain. I know I said that I didn’t really care about Gezi Park, but if it could stay the way it was that night, I’d care. Again I’m baffled, just baffled, by the prime minister’s determination to destroy this place. What a tourist attraction this could be! “Joyful, harmless festival” versus “multiple subdural hematomas and packed casualty wards”—you’d think that would be a no brainer, right? It’s all so innocent that even the streetwalkers and the seedy drunks I usually see on the streets around Taksim have, for some reason, decamped for seedier pastures. Even the tents look innocent! Not a soul in those tents looked the sort to say, “You see the tent rockin,’ you don’t come a-knockin.’” I keep thinking that if only Erdoğan would visit the place, he’d see there was nothing to fear.
But apparently that wasn’t his plan. Later that night, he returns from Tunisia. While publicly AKP officials announce that there will be no fanfare at the airport for fear of further aggravating the tension, half of Istanbul receives text messages from their local AKP branch instructing them to show up at the airport to show their support. Busses will be provided. Public transportation will be open late. Crowds of thousands greet him, chanting his name ecstatically. “I salute my brothers who are here in Istanbul,” he says, indefatigable even after all that traveling. And he continues: “in Istanbul’s brother city Sarajevo, Baku, Beirut, Skopje, Damascus, Gaza, Mecca, Medina. I salute Istanbul again and again with all my heart, every Istanbul neighborhood, every street, every district.”
The crowd, perhaps, didn’t catch that last part. “Ya Allah, Bismillah, Allahu Akbar,” they roar. “Let us go, we’ll crush Taksim.”
Wait, he tells them, you’ll have your chance at the ballot box.
June 13: The prime minister says, “This will all be over in 24 hours.” People old enough to remember the ‘70s are getting worried. Yes, plastic bullets are bad. Real bullets are worse.
June 15: The police burst into Gezi Park. Hours before, parents (idiot parents, I must say) were there with their kids, planting gardens. They clear out the media first, then go in with water canon and flash-bangs and start tearing up the tents. They attack the medical tent, too. It’s rumored that one of the medics has a nervous breakdown because the wounded are being attacked. Panicked crowds run to the nearby Divan hotel. Tear gas and stun grenades are shot down neighboring roads. Police gas women with children in their arms. At the Divan Hotel, the lobby is full of vomit—everyone is vomiting because the police are shooting gas directly into an enclosed space. Many are wounded. The police warn that they’ll arrest anyone who comes out. No one, but no one, has any clue why they’re doing this.
An attack on Ankara began at the same time, but I don’t know much about what happened because I wasn’t there.
Thousands try to march to Taksim Square in solidarity; the police gas them all. They kick and assault a cameraman trying to film the Divan Hotel. Sound bombs and tear gas no longer seem to frighten the crowd as much as they did. I worry this will prompt the cops to move up to something that will. The police burn the “wishing tree” in Gezi Park where protesters had hung messages with their dreams, and cart everything else off in dump trucks.
Finally, the police allow ambulances into the Divan to take out the injured. But they keep gassing for miles in every direction. The US Embassy is completely silent—not even a pro-forma call for “restraint on both sides.” The British Embassy is not quite so silent: “@LeighTurnerFCO #istanbul 0045-tear-gas becoming eye-watering at #British Consulate-General c 1 km from Taksim Sq.”
Chief Negotiator and Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bağış announces that anyone in Taksim Square will be “treated as a terrorist.” In Turkey, this usually means “jailed for life or shot on sight.” His years of patient negotiations with the EU are undermined when police burst into and gas the Hilton Hotel, dousing Germany’s Green Party co-chair, Claudia Roth, with astringent chemicals that leave her skin so red it’s practically fluorescent. I saw the photos. Not even fury (which she certainly expressed) can account for a human face turning that color.
They fire tear gas into the hospital near my apartment. I had pneumonia once; they treated me there. I think about the effect this must be having on the lung patients who are there now. If this were a war, attacking a hospital would be a flagrant violation of Article 56 of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, if this were a war, the record of the day would include notable violations of Islamic law, too. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, was exceptionally clear on this point: “Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful.” And that’s only the most obvious law that comes to mind. They’ve also violated the Turkish constitution in ways too countless to mention, but that’s been going on for so many years that pointing it out seems as obvious as noting that objects unsupported fall toward the earth. The major networks in Turkey have returned to their regularly scheduled programming. On SkyTurk 360: a fascinating history of traditional tea and coffee cups.
A Tweet that sums up how many are feeling: “Let me take this opportunity to thank Erdoğan’s international cheerleaders for the monster they’ve co-created. Oh, & fuck you @FareedZakaria.”
June 16: Yeni Şafak, said to be the Prime Minister’s favorite newspaper, devotes its front page to the revelation of a Jewish, Armenian, and CNN sex-scandal plot against Turkey. In Ankara, police are preventing demonstrators from approaching Kizilay square, where slain protestor Ethem Sarısülük’s funeral is to be held. It’s father’s day, and people in neighborhoods miles from mine are doing their Sunday shopping in gas masks. The police won’t reveal where they’re detaining the people they arrested the night before.
The Istanbul governor meanwhile says that while he respects medical science, he urges medics not to treat protesters. (Hey, docs, too bad about that Hippocratic oath.) US Embassy still silent as an Antarctic graveyard. The Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanır, who is in Washington, tells me that spoke to a White House official late the night before. They have no updated comment on the situation.
In the afternoon, the Prime Minister holds a massive “Respect for the National Will” rally in Istanbul. The state media news agency covers it with extra-special Baghdad-Bob-Pravda-c.1956 sauce: “LIVE: Erdoğan says international media is alone with their lies.” They report, too, that an AK Party official says the Taksim protests were planned by the “American Entrepreneur Institute.”
The AKP rally ground is packed so tightly, according to a Bloomberg reporter on the scene, that five women have been carted off for treatment after fainting. Erdoğan scolds the European Parliament: “How dare you adopt a decision about Turkey. Know your place.” He’s furious at the media: “If there are those who really want to know about Turkey, they should come and try to understand the AKP. It’s the truth.” I’m about to faint myself just watching this on television. … Turkey is the Party and the Party is Turkey, they have merged …
He claims that before he came to power, there was police abuse: He stopped it. I wonder if I’ve misunderstood that, but my native-speaker friends confirm that I heard it just right. He promises to identify social media provocateurs “one by one.” He says that only three people have been hospitalized, one of whom was a police officer shot by the protesters. He says this while I have the medical reports from my local hospitals printed out on my desk, all filled with accounts of blindings, brain damage, thoracic damage, testicular trauma, comas, and patients in intensive care.
Erdoğan is becoming more and more aggressive. The speech is going on forever. Police helicopters are hovering above me, everyone outside my apartment is screaming and whistling, and my neighborhood is yet again filling up with tear gas. Elif Batuman also lives in this neighborhood. She writes on Twitter that she sees billows of smoke rolling out of Siraselviler Avenue, “like Lord of the Rings.” I take a moment from my busy journalistic schedule to wish I’d thought of that line.
There’s teargas in the Dutch Consulate, now. A fairly trustworthy news source reports that shootings have been heard by the Istanbul Police Headquarters. The headquarters of the main opposition CHP party are apparently under attack, no one injured.
The historian Jim Meyer, who specializes in the Turkic world, is in Istanbul this week. He writes, “These are not ‘clashes.’ The police are attacking protesters. The protesters are building barricades, making noise, and occupying territory, then scattering in the face of water cannons and gas bombs. From everything I’ve seen, these are police riots.”
A few loud sound bombs go off about a street away from me. At least I hope they’re just sound bombs, but by this point I’m so tired that for all I really care it they could be H-bombs. All I want to do is sleep. A Christian cemetery in Şişli has somehow been damaged in all of this, details unclear. Someone warns me to be careful because they’re targeting Jews and targeting journalists, running through Asmalimescit with clubs in their hands and shouting “God is Greatest,” so I shouldn’t go out. I figure since they’re targeting half the country anyway—on an absolutely fair, non-sectarian basis, because you can’t get much fairer than “random”—there’s no reason for me to feel specially threatened. But I wasn’t planning to go out, anyway, because I’m just too exhausted.
I don’t know what happened next. I fell asleep in my chair. I don’t know what’s happening now, because I haven’t yet checked the news. It’s quiet outside, from what I can see.
Part 3: I Told You So, You Fucking Fools
You know that story, right? That’s what Robert Conquest reportedly told his editors when they asked him what he wanted to call the updated edition of “The Great Terror.” And that’s what I’m screaming now at every single lazy journalist, professional sycophant, idiot pundit who’s never so much as visited this place, the duly-funded social scientists and craven EU politicians and most of all our President who for years swallowed Erdoğan’s nonsense and helped to manufacture this fantasy about Turkey—that it was just getting more and more democratic by the day. Only months ago, not an hour went by without some dimwit churning out an article about the economic and the reformist wonders of the AKP and its newly-emerged Anatolian middle class, the magnificent result of the AKP’s fiscal discipline and free-market economic policies, one of the best performers of its kind in the world, a model for every Arab who felt like springing, the blossoming of Turkey’s open society, the proof that Islam and democracy can mix just fine. Now, I have no idea if they can mix just fine, maybe they can, maybe they can’t, but I can tell you one thing, for sure: authoritarianism and democracy can’t mix just fine. And this was just obvious, blindingly obvious, years ago.
The AKP did one thing right: They didn’t screw up the economy too badly. But a miracle? Please. Let’s start with this business that they trebled per capita income. How often have you heard that? Well, let me show you what a friend just showed me. Whip out your calculator and I’ll walk you through this. You’re multiplying something by three in 10 years. Call whatever you multiply it with ‘g’ per year. Now ‘g’ multiplied by itself 10 times equals 3. (You with me so far?) If ‘g’ multiplied by itself 10 times equals 3, what is ‘g’? It’s the 10th root of 3. What is the 10th root of 3? 1.116. What does that correspond to? >11% sustained growth. Did this happen in Turkey? No. It would be amazing growth for aggregate let alone per capita income. How is it that no one noticed that? (Now frankly, I knew something was wrong with that figure, but the credit for figuring out just how to demonstrate it belongs entirely to my friend, who I can’t name because that’s how screwed up things are. But surely someone else out there should have noticed what he did: That number just didn’t make sense.)
Now how about this myth of the rapidly rising Islamic bourgeoisie? There surely is a new Islamic elite reaping the benefits of the ever-present corruption that’s always been part of the relationship between the Turkish government and the Turkish business world. The corruption existed before, and wonder of wonders, it’s still right there. But the difference is that coalitions used to compete with each other to hand out government projects to their cronies, and infighting put limits on the amount you could hand out. Now, having arrogated to himself all the power, Erdoğan alone hands them out. Ergo, if you’re not on his good side, your career is over.
So yes, those close to the party have become the new elite. And the old elite, by the way, is also just fine, unless they made the mistake of expressing their displeasure with Erdoğan, in which case they’re in jail. But the burgeoning middle class? Show them to me, then I’ll believe it.
Yes, there’s been steady economic growth, and many have benefited from it. The AKP’s handling of the economy, deliberately or accidentally, was impressive in its first four years, if only because they cleaned up the banks and didn’t abandon the fiscal discipline of the Kemal Derviş era. Since then, it’s been arguable at best, since it takes money to engage in the election economy and give handouts to the poor, and it will take more money still to cash the checks the AKP has been writing with its mouth without having the faintest idea how they’ll pay them back. Want to understand why Erdoğan keeps imploring women to have three babies? Look at the promises—free health care, forever!—and look at the demographics. You know that story, don’t you? Turkey has managed to keep inflation in check by financing its economy through capital inflows into its financial markets—which no one ever mentions. Hot money disappears when things look unstable. Another month like this, and it will be gone.
Myth upon myth: The AKP “abolished the death penalty.” No, it did not. It was abolished in August, 2002. The AKP won in November. They made it harder to close political parties. Really? It was the previous parliament did that, making it harder to shut down the AKP. And by the way, if it’s so hard to shut down parties now, where did the DTP go? But they allowed the Kurds to have a Kurdish-language television station, didn’t they? True, and more power to them (literally), but try showing a program with news on it: All you’ll get is penguins.
And then the worst myth of all: that Erdoğan cleaned up the Deep State. Surely you jest. No, it seems you do not, because you keep repeating it. The Deep State is real, no doubt about it, but the cure for this deadly disease was a fraud. The most terrifying psychopaths and murderers in Turkey are still running loose. No one really understands what happened in the past, and therefore no one has any idea what they’re still capable of doing.
All of this should have been absolutely obvious to anyone with two eyes—which is to say, fewer people now than there were two weeks ago.
Part 4: What’s Next?
I have no idea. I’m not clairvoyant. But this I do know: Now that things that have been true all along are finally getting coverage in English, the discourse will swing the other direction—and it will all be wrong and exaggerated again. This will help Turkey exactly as much as the creation of the imaginary “Turkish miracle.” There are real people here; they are not pawns to be moved about on a geographical chess board. They are not subjects for fashionable tall tales told by people climbing up the greasy pole of their careers in the West. They could use some honesty from the rest of the world, because they’re sure not going to get it from their government or their media and they know it. So if you had any part in creating this situation by promoting that advanced democracy and Model Muslim Nation crap, go have a look at those photos of the kids with no eyes. Then get down on your knees and beg God to forgive you—because they’re not going to.