Here We Are: Look at us Standing, Upright in the Sunshine

In memory of Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert,
and Ethem Sarisülük.

By Övül Ö. Durmusoglu
  • Övül Ö. Durmusoglu

    Ovul O. Durmusoglu is a curator and writer based in Berlin and Istanbul. Durmusoglu was the curator of the international contemporary art festival Sofia Contemporary 2013 titled 'Near, Closer, Together: Exercises for a Common Ground'. She organized different programs and events as a Goethe Institute fellow at Maybe Education and Public Programs for dOCUMENTA (13). She  recently acted as Public Program Curator for the Moving Museum Istanbul. Working on a long term research project to take place between Mexico and Turkey, she is also the artistic director of YAMA Public Screen Project in Istanbul.

Look here, underneath this black marble
Is buried a child who would have come to the blackboard
From nature if he had one more breath of life
He was killed in the class on government
The wrong question posed by both government and nature was:
“Where does Transoxiana run into?”
The only correct answer from a hand raised in the last row was:
“Into the heart of the rebellion of pale lower-class children.”

Ece Ayhan, Unknown Student Monument (1973)
Translated by Talat S. Halman

For twenty days, civil society in Turkey has been going through a series of social uprisings, the like of which it has not experienced for fifty years. It appeared to start with the park in question, but, for a while, the government, which came to power through criticizing authoritarian regimes in Turkey, had already started to push buttons with its social engineering schemes and the imposing of moral standards of living (such as stating that every woman must bear three children). Knowing the past traumas of previous generations, the government hoped to repress the protesting millions by using a theatrics of violence to realize their schemes. Theatrics have always worked in favor of populism. But, despite those very fears and traumas, this current, re-born civil society responds with humor and poetry whenever the lights are turned off in seventy-four cities around Turkey. Melting the experiences of Tahrir, Occupy Wall Street, and the Indignados movement in one pot with an exclusively local spice, a new exploration in collectivity has begun. Yes, the humor; the political satire weeklies in the tradition of Gırgır have kept us alive in the most suffocating periods. Yes, the poetry; it has always been the strongest weapon of the Turkish language.

Due to its re-construction as a capital of the Turkish Republic, Ankara carries along a set of difficult metaphors to live with. It is the blackboard in the famous picture showing Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet in 1923—the blackboard on which the Turkish state experimented with the ideals of a new society. It is the Cinderella sister of a 600-year-old capital where the streets don’t lead to the sea. There is no place where one can turn one’s back to the rest and allow oneself to get lost even for a brief moment. People look at each other all the time; they have to. They go home when they are tired of looking at each other; when they are tired of being reminded of army, government, and bureaucracy encircling them in their daily lives. A young generation of writers have begun to analyze the difficult spirit of Ankara very lucidly; Barış Bıçakçı’s Our Grand Despair, a story of two good friends falling in love with the same woman while also missing their own childhood, or Emrah Serbes’ police detective character Behzat Ç who obsessively attempts to solve social and judicial inequalities while solving murder cases, are just two examples. In short, it is not easy to be the city symptomatic of why the Turkish modernity project failed. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the imposition of the shopping mall as a legitimate pastime has worked so well in the city. 80 percent of billboards advertise for shopping malls, competing with each other via concerts or celebrity engagements.

With the resistance growing from Gezi Park to other cities in the country, people realized that no one was alone in their concerns. Remembering the critical actions by students and academics when Prime Minister Erdoğan visited METU (Middle East Technical University), which began on 18 December 2012 with similar demands of respect and freedom, it was no surprise that Ankara became one of the driving forces of the current uprising. The protesters at METU used non-violent protest strategies very cleverly: They decided the rules of the game. The police responded with intense brutality; massive amounts of tear gas were used on protestors. The academic staff stood by the students who started the protests. On 20 December, the lectures at the university were boycotted. Many university students all around the country supported METU. Erdoğan, protected by 3000 police on campus, used, at that point, the same tactics of disinformation he is using today: he called students and supportive academics terrorists. Unfortunately, too many people remained silent after this ‘dress rehearsal’. And yet, METU’s memory of the student movements of the 1970s is still alive. Bullet holes can still be seen on some student dormitories; these are the remains from when soldiers were hunting for leaders of the movement hiding on campus. No alumni or student in the university can forget that past. In the end, three of them, Deniz Gezmis, Yusuf Arslan, and Huseyin İnan, were sentenced to death and hanged by the Turkish state.

One step back from 18 December 2012 is the famous TEKEL resistance between December 2009 and May 2010. 1TEKEL was the name of the state body coordinating the production and sale of tobacco and alcohol production and sales in the country Turkey. British American Tobacco (BAT) had bought TEKEL’s Adana, Ballıca, Bitlis, Malatya, Samsun, and Tokat tobacco factories, paying $1.72 Million USD and sacking 8,247 workers. The workers of TEKEL started a movement against the brutal privatization policies of Erdoğan’s AKP  government that became the biggest strike in Turkey since the 1980s. A large group of workers and supporters lived in tents on the streets of the Kizilay neighborhood. Their non-violent protests became the target of intense police intervention. At the same time, the strike was inspirational for many other movements, among which Tahrir Square can be counted. The serious ‘mall-ization’ process in Ankara was going full steam ahead at this time. The largest and most beautiful cinema in Ankara, Akün, was closed.

The resistance has been simmering in Istanbul. The gypsies had already been sent from their historical neighborhood to make way for a profit-making gated community. Many people were seriously disturbed by their inability to intervene in the extravagant commercialization happening on Istiklal Street; symbolized by the massive, ugly Demiroren shopping mall. The big construction hole in the middle of Taksim became an important sign of the social engineering actions that the Erdoğan government enforced. The protests couldn’t stop it. In the meantime, a similar group of protestors was trying to save Emek [labor] Sineması, one of the oldest existing movie theaters on Istiklal Street, which ended in teargas in April 2013, and was followed by another angry protest reaction on 1 May. The old texture of the Beşiktaş neighborhood, on the shoreline of which the prime minister decided to have an Istanbul office in the Dolmabahçe Palace, continues to be endangered by gentrification processes. After 3 June, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his police force choreographed a game in an attempt to create, internationally, the idea that the anti-government resistance was limited to Istanbul and concerned only “a number of trees.” The cameras in Istanbul didn’t see what was happening at that point in Ankara, Adana, Antakya, or many others…

The Ankara police are notorious for their capacity for violence, and it is not the first time they attacked non-violent protesters with as overwhelming a force as the city experienced with the TEKEL and METU resistances. The shouts heard from Istanbul were only an excuse for Ankara to continue where they had left off in these former protests. Being secretly in love with Istanbul, somehow Ankara has never been taken so seriously by Istanbulites. The internal dynamics of the city are generally unknown to many Istanbul people who imagine a grey, boring city without ever seeing it. Thus, it was a surprise when the Ankara resistance could go on with such perseverance, beaten by police almost every day, shouting “Everywhere is Taksim; everywhere is resistance.” Most of the protestors haven’t even been to Gezi Park probably. And yet, in Ankara people claimed and marked the space of a collective dream of freedom and justice symbolized by Gezi Park, while Istanbul fell in love with enacting that collective dream itself. Ankara characterizes its people with a mixture of shyness, warmness, and seriousness; and one doesn’t realize that character until one leaves Ankara for somewhere new; most of the time, for young people, the move is to Istanbul.

Actually, I am the only person in my family who was born in Ankara. I grew up there. At the end of the 1970s my parents decided to move to Ankara from a factory town in the middle of Anatolia where they were working as engineers. At that time, fascists were frequently torturing leftists in the basements of our downtown Ankara neighborhood. During our childhood, I was regularly taken with my brother to Atatürk’s mausoleum, which was close to our house. The Anatolian Civilizations Museum (where we are about to start research work with Mari Spirito in collaboration with Rossella Biscotti, Nilbar Gures, and Akram Zaatari) was the first museum I saw in my life. I grew up with the portrait image of the 1980s military coup d’état general Kenan Evren and Prime Minister Turgut Ozal’s development talks on state television (TRT), and with the news of a non-officially declared civil war continuing in the south east of Turkey. When I was 18 years old, I did my best to move to Istanbul. After university, I moved to the downtown Çarşı neighborhood, the home of Beşiktaş çArşı Grubu, a supporter group of the Beşiktaş football team and one of the driving forces of Gezi resistance. Meanwhile, Ankara grew bigger with migrants from deeper in Anatolia. Ex-socialists, republican Kemalists, conservatives, and anarchists formed the urban political tone. Even now, the city suffers terribly from its AKP mayor who cannot be shifted away from power for more than ten years, a similar pattern to Erdoğan’s governance.

Although I visited my parents and my friends on a regular basis, I had never really been back to Ankara before 3 June 2013. Seeing strong solidarity growing in Istanbul and hearing of Ankara’s struggle against a more brutal police force with all its shy but persistent naivety, my decision of where to join the resistance was crystal clear. On my first day in Kızılay, the people I met protesting against the police were no more than 20 years old. They were all incredibly alert in preventing incognito police in civilian clothing busting the infirmaries where people were being treated. Many different groups are fighting with similar concerns in Ankara, chanting their slogans; nobody has forgotten what happened to the TEKEL resistance; METU students never kept silent after what they experienced in December 2012. I found myself in discussion with people I didn’t know on Facebook to see what else we could do. How can we reach the governor to speak with his police? How can we transform the movement in Ankara? How can different groups come together? What kinds of new strategies can be found against the police who are very experienced with brutal interventions? I met with so many angry but hopeful people who decided to resist together, determined to strengthen the ongoing resistance. It is difficult to believe, but people organizing the resistance in Istanbul and Ankara don’t know each other very well. That was the main reason I traveled to Istanbul on 15 June: to connect the groups in communication. Two hours after I arrived, I found my contacts, but the black weekend began when the state proved its capacity and willingness to inflict real terror on ‘its’ people.

In the meantime, Ethem Sarısülük, an unarmed peaceful protestor, lost his struggle to live in intensive care after police aimed a gun at him in Kızılay. We couldn’t even take him to the place where he was shot. Police stopped the funeral and attacked people waiting for the ceremony in Kızılay. Kuğulu İnisiyatifi, the chapuller group based in Ankara’s Kuğulu Park [Swans Park], continues to discuss in forums while constantly being threatened and assaulted by the police. Every night now, just after 11pm, there have been new attacks by police in Ankara’s Bestekar and Kennedy Streets. An unofficial number of people have been arrested.

Today, on 20 June, the new political sciences graduates of Ankara University (another important political institution in the city, known as Mulkiye) wore the masks of Ethem Sarısülük during their graduation ceremony. 2Ahmet Şahbaz, the police officer who killed Ethem Sarısülük, was released by the courts for lawful defense on 26 June 2013. Prime Minister Erdoğan proudly declared that he is the one who gave the order and takes full responsibility. That is one of the reasons why this not a story of darkness. In every attempt by the government to kill the resistance, we continue to add new words and phrases such as “Ethem Sarısülük is our dignity” or “Where are you honey? I am here honey!” to our lexicon that had already left the traumas of 1970s and 1980s behind. We started neighborhood forums in parks all around Turkey to discuss our future. A man standing in the middle of Taksim Square for eight hours becomes a new poetry that aids us with such ease. He embodies the gesture that can beat persistent state violence by saying so many things in silence. He was immediately joined by thousands of others in Turkey and all around the world. Here we are; look at us standing upright in the sunshine. Join us at 8pm, wherever you are.

Övül Ö. Durmusoglu
20 June 2013


Note from the Editors: This article is a special commission that grounds recent and historic events in Ankara, Istanbul, and other cities across Turkey so as to help trace the the complex and evolving political tides cresting over the entire nation today.