"This was a social uprising, not simply some demonstration"
"I have never before in my whole life swallowed tear gas, but I didn't give much thought to what might happen," said Levent, a 20-year-old mathematics student, who lives with his parents in the working-class district of Bayrampaşa. "But, above all, I was unable to explain to my parents what I saw in Gezi Park. They heard on television that all those who took part were terrorists. I could have told them what I liked about what really happened or showed them videos on YouTube, it wouldn't have made much difference."
Encounters such as this make Deniz Yuecel's debut book "Taksim is Everywhere" much more than a simple reconstruction of the events of that exceptional summer in Turkey in 2013. Instead, what the Berlin-based journalist with Turkish roots presents is a whistle-stop tour of Turkish society. While researching his book, he conducted interviews with 96 individuals, ranging from football fans, managers, Kurds, Islamists, and transvestites to kebab sellers. Each of them is representative of a certain city district, city, or milieu, and, taken as a whole, provide a portrait of the more than 3.5 million people who joined the Gezi demonstrations.
Diverse motives, varied resistance
The diversity of the motives that seemingly overnight led to the largest demonstrations in recent Turkish history quickly becomes apparent. Some came to save the trees in Gezi Park from being chopped down; others sought to re-establish Atatuerk's republic; still others wanted to defend what they see as the true Islam from the "false" version propagated by Prime Minister Erdogan.
And then there were those like Oguz from the slum neighbourhood of Gazi, notorious for its left-wing radicalism, who came to do what they always do, namely put up resistance. "We don't really give a damn about a bunch of trees," he freely admits in Yuecel's book. "For us, it had more to do with a sense of justice. The police resort to violence against the people; the people defend themselves."
"I wanted to tell who these people were, where they came from, how they live, and how they want to live…" explained the author during a walk through Taksim Square in February 2014. In his attempt to find out and describe everything, Yuecel himself remains a low-key author, hardly making an appearance and rarely passing judgement. However, through his selection of interlocutors and events, he adopts a clear stance – one of admiration for what took place last summer in the homeland of his parents.
Lack of distance
However, those readers expecting an objective report of events or an author who remains aloof, should leave this book on the shelf. Just like the many people whom he visited and interviewed in the months following the protests, Deniz Yuecel was right in the thick of things in the summer of 2013. Time and again in the book, the journalist becomes a participant, moving through certain areas, sharing certain points of view, and fleeing with thousands of others from police water cannons and tear gas canisters. Some readers may object to this stance.
However, one can take it as an explanation as to why this book provides such a close and gripping account of the events in Gezi Park, one that a purely observational background report could never offer. "This was a social uprising, not simply some demonstration," explains Yuecel today, now separated from events by nine months and 224 pages. "What I tried to do was to put all my journalistic skills to use in reporting events, but, of course, my sympathies were with this movement." This is evident in his personal epilogue to the book:
"From where I stood, I could see how a police vehicle sped towards four people sitting on the curb and how a police officer shot rubber bullets at a women only two metres away. And I saw how a group of AKP supporters from Kasımpaşa armed with clubs started attacking the crowd in plain sight of the police. Whoever reports on such events could quite easily be accused of being one-sided. Yet, firing rubber bullets at a distance of two metres is also a one-sided affair."
Today, there are no traces of last summer's agitation and violence on Taksim Square. Once again, passers-by are carrying shopping bags instead of posters and protest signs. Sellers of sesame bread rings are peddling their aromatic goods on the sidewalk and in nearby Gezi Park, pansies planted by the city authorities are in full bloom. It's as if nothing ever happened. Yet, appearances can be deceptive, and not only Deniz Yuecel is certain of that.
In his book, he asks a young man who took part in the demonstrations and who has been dreaming about committing his recollections to paper ever since, if enough had not already been written about Gezi. "Certainly not!" comes the answer.
"My generation has shed its lethargy. Before these events, we would only talk about football or parties. Now, we discuss politics. (…) Whatever the future brings, before undertaking anything, all governments will now ask themselves, 'What will the people say?' And when the people find government actions to be wrong, they will resist. Neither was previously the case."
Quite in passing, Yuecel's highly recommendable debut book offers readers an account of the history of the Turkish left-wing movement, the Armenian minority, the situation of the Turkish transgender and homosexual movement, the Kurds, the military, the problem of gentrification in Istanbul, and much, much more. It is a colourful and sweeping round-up of everything that makes modern Turkey so exciting and, equally, so problematic.
Occasionally, however, readers might ask themselves whether the author hasn't strayed a little too far from his actual starting point: Taksim Square. For readers who are not experts on Turkish affairs, a little less could have been a lot more.
© Qantara.de 2014
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de
Deniz Yuecel: "Taksim ist Ueberall – Die Gezi-Bewegung und die Zukunft der Tuerkei" (Taksim is everywhere: the Gezi Movement and the future of Turkey), Verlag Edition Nautilus 2014, 224 pages
This article was amended on 8 April to reflect the fact that 3.5 million people took part in the Gezi protests in 2011.