Wednesday, 28 May 2014

One Year After Gezi Park

One year before today, the combined forces of government ineptitude, police brutality, divisive politics, malignant urban renewal and arrogant rhetoric by Turkey's then-prime minister led to spontaneous revolts across Turkish cities, culminating in the biggest wave of popular unrest Turkey had seen in decades.

I, like many other young people, was at the flashpoint of the revolts - Gezi Park, located at the heart of Taksim Square.

The government and Istanbul Municipality had already brought the park into the focus of a heated debate after trying to push through a controversial urban renewal plan. The straw that broke the camel's back was a planned "restoration" (as a gentrified, Dubai-esque shopping centre), of an Ottoman-era military barracks that used to sit where the park is located now.

In the 29th of May, construction crews moved in to uproot the oldest trees in the park. A small group of peaceful protesters camped in to oppose them, and were brutally repulsed by the police. The protests vent viral on social media, and the rest was history

Here is my collection of images from those colourful and turbulent days:

The barricades between Taksim Square and the adjacent Sıraselviler avenue.

The barricade between Gezi Park and Taksim Square.

Afternoon view of Taksim Square, next to Gezi Park.

The Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox church, with protesters during the days after Gezi Park's occupation. The atmosphere of those few days was rather like a carnival - there was almost no police presence and people from all walks of life came to visit Gezi Park and Taksim Square.

Protesters, young and old.

A patriotic protester. Adherents of Kemalist nationalism made up a large part of the Gezi Park protestors.

Protesters wearing penguin masks, in protest of pro-government TV channels,
which broadcast a documentary on penguins instead of the events in Gezi Park.

A Che Guevara fan in Gezi Park.

A Kurdish boy, wearing a gnarly, black Guy Fawkes mask, sits atop a destroyed police vehicle.

Feminist protestor enjoying a newspaper in Gezi Park.

The "occupied" park had the mood of an indie music festival.

Young people enjoying life in Gezi Park.

"Something has to change, but how?"
Young Gezi park protesters, debating and sleeping.

A couple out camping at Gezi Park.

Young people at Gezi Park.

Everyone I met was beaming and enthusiastic about the protests, even if they did not know what, if anything, would be changed by their activism. For this young generation of Turks, the few precious days at Gezi Park were an exciting adventure in public visibility and self-actualization.

Clueless-looking leftist girls in Gezi Park.

Kurdish youths with girlfriend.

A fellow photographer snaps my picture.

A determined-looking activist atop a kiosk next to the AKM, a large opera building next to Gezi Park.

Young people singing folk tunes during the occupation of Gezi Park.

Street vendors were quick to turn the protests into profit.
This guy was selling Guy Fawkes masks and cans of spray paint.

By the third day of Gezi Park's occupation, street vendors had expanded their line-up, and even produced custom-made flags and t-shirts.

Artists were there too. This giant poster of an evil-eye charm was naively meant to protect the park from harm.

There were countless slogans sprayed and written on the walls, but this was one of the most bizarre. It translates as; "CAR BODY VEHICLE FISH PROSTITUTE SAME DRIVE SHAFT SAME THING." Confused? Me too!
Perhaps the author was a bit of a Dadaist.

An artist had painted this construction vehicle in a flamboyant pink colour.
It was one of the neatest attractions in Gezi Park.

A tongue-in-cheek "offline Twitter" activity in the park.
You simply came by and wrote what you were thinking in a Twitter-like format.

"Istanbul, the capital of three empires. Birth, 8000 BC, Death, Kanal Istanbul"

The "Gezi Park Masjid," an Islamic prayer tent operated by a group of self-titled "Anti-Capitalist Muslims."

This naive German guy ran a "video corner," filming people's ideas about what they'd change in the world.

A makeshift tent built out of iron bunk-beds and bedsheets.

The famous "Gezi Park Library," where people could exchange and borrow books freely. Too bad most books were self-help books, or outdated political pap.

A burnt-out media van outside Gezi Park.

A "nursing and child-care tent" in Gezi Park.

Banners of fringe socialist groups flutter above the barricade outside the park.

The AKM, an opera house next to Gezi Park, was decorated with all manner of anti-government and left-wing posters.
For many, this was the iconic image of the Gezi Park protests.

Activists and visitors enjoying a historic moment atop the AKM.

Tents inside Gezi Park.

An utopian "free food stand" was handing out cookies and bread to people in the park.

This tent belonged to animal rights and environment activists. One of their placards read: "Our purpose is mercy for all life, without separation between people, nature and animals." 

A voluntary translators' association was offering free services to journalists and foreign visitors.

An "art favela" tent inside Gezi Park.

This neon-pink plastic piglet, placed on top of a makeshift "organic garden" in one corner of the park, was one of the last images I shot in the final day of Gezi Park's occupation. Fifteen minutes after I took this picture, a massive incursion by police forces evacuated the park, and everything you saw in the previous pictures was swept away.

I also filmed a mini-documentary about the protests, you can watch it here:

The years after Gezi Park was one of uncertainty and gloom for Turkey. There was a hotly-contested municipal election, right in the wake of massive corruption and wire-tapping scandals, none of which seemed to hurt the present government's strength or then-prime-minister Erdoğan's popularity. In the passing years, Turkey has become a polarized society with an uncertain future, and a growing risk of isolation from the world.

Looking back, I feel that Gezi Park was an acute manifestation of a generation war - between the old, rural or small-town "governor" mentality (complete with the Islamic cultural baggage common to Turkey,) and a new generation of urban, computer-literate youth with more-or-less liberal values. With an education system that offers no real prospects, a serious imbalance of opportunities between the rich and the poor, and the government encroaching on their basic freedoms, (freedom of information, sexual liberty, freedom from religion, etc.) the future looks bleak to Turkey's liberal-minded youth. I wonder when, if ever, this outlook will change.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A Walk on the Hills Above Ortakoy

In the first week of April, 2014, I took a long and refreshing walk on the hills above Ortaköy, one of Istanbul's picturesque seaside neighborhoods. Although Ortaköy is surrounded by the masses of ugly urban sprawl, this certain hill was spared due to its proximity to a historical Jewish cemetery.

Spring was beginning to assert itself and scores of tiny animals were frolicking among the green grass and the blooming flowers. It was a welcome respite from the soul-grinding chaos of Istanbul's traffic and rude people. Here re some animals I encountered:

I was familiar with these fleet-footed spiders since childhood. My friends and I even had a name for them - to us the yellowish, improbably fast spiders that ran, jumped and hunted among grass blades were cheetah spiders. This was my first chance to take decent photographs of them.

The "cheetah spiders" were known commonly as nursery web spiders, Pisaura mirabilis. This individual was a male, as evident from its patterned back and boxing-glove-like appendages on its pedipalps. The males pumped these organs full of sperm and inserted them into the females' genitals when mating. I'm not kidding. The human equivalent of this action would be someone ejaculating into his hands and fisting his partner in order to get her pregnant!

Another beautiful arachnid I saw was this brightly-coloured jumping spider of the family Salticidae, sucking on some sort of fly while basking on the marble of a 30-year-old Jewish tomb. I love jumping spiders - their faces are adorned with cute, owl-like eyes and they have an incredible variety of rare species. Identifying them was an arachnologist's nightmare. I's never seen a jumping spider of this colour before, it could even have been a new species.

Two other spiders, from the crab spider family Thomisidae were displaying to each other, perhaps as a mating dance, perhaps as part of a territorial battle, or perhaps a bit of both.

These two dazzlingly-coloured flies, Diptera sp. were getting it on on a milkweed leaf. They sat without moving, mounted together in a statue-like embrace. They reminded me of ravers with colourful sunglasses. Note how the male's eyes had a touch of red, compared to the female's blue-green tincture.

There was a sudden rustle from the tall bushes behind me. I first thought it to be a cat, but then out came this old, friendly-looking tortoise, possibly of the species Testudo gracea. I felt very happy that such an animal could live to old age in the middle of Istanbul's concrete inferno. Perhaps all cities needed more cemeteries to preserve what was left of their wildlife.