Istanbul had been my home for six years, but when the protests over the destruction of Gezi Park began in late May, I was in London. Every day on television I watched tear gas ballooning over the buildings and streets of my own neighborhood: a woman fled a water cannon in front of the French Cultural Center; a barricade had been slung up near the FedEx storefront; acquaintances and friends of mine were interviewed on CNN. Everything was familiar, yet I couldn’t make sense of it. On TV, the protests looked like a grave cataclysm. But I had seen many protests in Turkey, a country whose people still believe they have a stake in democracy; protests were normal there. Police violence was normal there. I thought the whole thing wouldn’t amount to much.
I also felt somewhat cynical, even defensive of the government. Those chanting kids on CNN looked like the same apolitical wealthy ones who had benefited from Turkey’s economic boom, who had grown up in a liberal era with fewer rules, who rarely engaged in politics at all but found the religious prime minister, and his rural-conservative ways, distasteful. I could tell that many of the people in the park came from a small minority of the country’s true liberals—open-minded and inclusive—but I had reservations concerning the rich kids who complain about alcohol laws, or the secularist nationalists with their tattoos of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (founder of the Turkish republic), the Turks I imagined would embrace this cause against religious people for all the wrong reasons.
All I knew in those first days was that environmentalists had pitched tents to protest the destruction of several hundred trees in Gezi Park and, in their place, the construction of a shopping mall. When the police began burning the tents and shooting off canisters of tear gas, this violence triggered a larger uprising mostly composed of—as it looked to me—bourgeois kids from Beyoğlu, the trendy municipality in which they and I lived. Most of them probably hadn’t gone to Gezi that much. Although it is part of Taksim Square, essentially the heart of European Istanbul, the park always seemed forlorn. I had never heard anyone marvel at the trees.
This was not a protest against the development of a park, I supposed, although I could barely imagine why anyone would want to build a massive concrete mall in an area of so much concrete. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan had recently passed laws restricting alcohol use, so I assumed it was a revolt of the old secular elite. People in Turkey’s many regions and representatives of its many classes and political parties—the long-suffering leftist underclass, or the working class, or the Kurds, or of course, the observant Muslims who love Erdoğan—probably didn’t feel they belonged in this fight. It also wasn’t anything similar to the protests erupting all over the world—in Athens’ Syntagma Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, and on Wall Street—against enormous global forces crippling people’s lives; if anything, most Turks were happier now because an economic boom had made them rich.
This Gezi Park thing, I gathered, was something specific to Turkey: a secularist versus religious, White Turk versus Black Turk family squabble. Erdoğan may have become a monster, but when had the authoritarian Turkish state been anything else? Where were these kids then? They would soon get bored and return to their bars by the Bosporus.
When I returned to Istanbul, six days into the Gezi occupation, the first person I had coffee with was my oldest friend, Caner. We sat at one of those Europeanized Beyoğlu cafés near Taksim, the kind that charge 20 lira for a bad burger and 10 for a Turkish beer; we only wanted tea and a shady spot. Caner’s wife had just had a baby, and that day he seemed consumed by the new demands of his life. I wondered whether he remained as engaged in Turkish politics as I remembered. In 2007, when I moved from New York to Istanbul, he was the prism through which I saw Turkey.
Back then the central preoccupation was whether Abdullah Gül, a member of the Justice and Development party (AKP) and a religious man whose wife wore a headscarf, would be allowed to become president. He had won the parliamentary election fairly. But the presidency was usually occupied by a state-controlled, secularist sort of wise man, someone the military overlords could call upon to intervene when the elected government behaved badly. Before the election, the prospect of a pious president from the same party as a pious prime minister (Erdoğan) scared people, especially those who believed women would soon be forced to wear burqas. The spectral military issued what was called an e-coup—a warning on its website that such a president would not be tolerated in Atatürk’s country—and thousands, maybe millions, of secularists took to the streets in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, waving red flags and screaming about Iran. Everywhere, in a far less tumultuous and violent incarnation of the current situation in Egypt, religious people could be heard talking about democracy, and secular people could be heard talking about sharia, the moral code and religious law of Islam. It was all that the Western journalists reported; they loved this sort of eternal good-against-evil fight. Gül attained office, the opposition subsided, and he remains president.
Caner—a leftist, a Kurd, and an Alevi, which means he’s part of a religious minority in Turkey—always viewed such situations coolly. He would gently remind me that both sides were corrupt and elite and responsible for tragedy. The rising AKP was bad, but the old elite was far worse; in any case, neither cared about the poor and the dispossessed. I was sure the Gezi Park protest this spring was merely another battle between these two powers, and I was sure my friend would be cynical, skeptical, unromantic about the protesters.
“So what do you think?” I said after we sat down.
“It is incredible,” he replied, eyes shining. “I have never seen anything like this in my life.”
I had been horribly wrong. Mine was an embarrassing misperception, but I had my reasons for it. Turkey in 2007 had been on the verge of what would become its 21st-century renaissance. After decades of political disarray and military rule, the country had become more democratic. The army had been eased out of politics like a senile king, and intellectuals wrote in the newspapers about the Armenian genocide and the suffering of the Kurds; other rarely discussed issues like women’s rights became part of the national conversation. Erdoğan had taken a rightward turn in the past three years, but I saw that as the natural order of things—a pendulum that would swing back eventually to some happier middle. The religious people had never before ruled Turkey, and they too deserved to have their day in the sun.
Whenever I asked people why they voted for the AKP, the answer was always the same: Erdoğan works hard. It was ironic that urban development was turning out to be the prime minister’s undoing, because for a long time that had been the one thing much of the opposition covertly loved about him. During Erdoğan’s successful term as mayor of Istanbul, he’d improved the city’s drinking water, cleaned the streets, and beautified the waterfronts. As prime minister, he at first focused attention on infrastructure and services, building highways and hospitals and initiating universal health care. Even those who hated Erdoğan and didn’t vote for the AKP said privately they hoped he would stay in power.
Along the way Erdoğan’s achievements, and eventually his missteps, got lost in the dizzying whirlwind of an economic boom, one all the more intoxicating because the rest of the world seemed to be drowning in financial catastrophe. America’s doom and gloom when I visited in 2008 made Turkey seem vibrant, energetic, young—the new world. Istanbul changed overnight: Vietnamese restaurants took over abandoned buildings; religious women flaunted fashionable headscarves along the Turkish Bosporus; everywhere there were the banging sounds of new construction. Young Turks returned from New York and Washington to take corporate jobs and start graphic design firms. My best friend, who usually moaned that she wished she lived in Manhattan, began saying she wanted to stay in Istanbul forever. “Istanbul is where everything is happening now,” she said. After the Arab Spring, Turkey was heralded as some sort of model Islamic democracy; books and op-eds proclaimed that wealth had an inherently moderating and stabilizing effect on Muslims naturally prone to violence.
It didn’t matter that the changes were mostly superficial. To the isolated urbane in Istanbul, the prosperity suggested a greater national well-being, as if a new art gallery in Istanbul meant higher employment in Anatolia. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s government was privatizing highways, Turkish Airlines, and Bosphorus ferries and developing its own crony class of businessmen who seized Istanbul’s real estate with a vengeance. As Turkey became richer, progress came faster, until, in the last two years, it came too fast, too big, too necessarily destructive. Yet wasn’t this what these nascent modernizing democracies are supposed to do? We noticed wrongdoing, but we accepted it. Westerners and Western-looking Turks, comforted that the Muslims liked money just as much as they themselves did, saw Turkey as a reassuring success story and a country experiencing growing pains endemic to progress. When Gezi Park erupted, one of the things that surprised many Turks was that so many people had become so unhappy.
Soon after my talk with Caner, about a week after the protests first erupted, I visited Gezi Park for a couple of hours and quietly observed the scene. Taksim Square is a mostly paved area in a tourist zone where several busy thoroughfares intersect. The police weren’t much in evidence that evening, and Turks by the hundreds had shown up. Couples wheeled their children in strollers; lovers held hands and kissed. Gay men danced about; boys stood on remnants of construction and barricades and waved Turkish flags; chubby soccer fans gave impassioned speeches next to an overturned, burned-out bus. I had never seen Turks so unafraid and free.
Gezi, a landscape of grassy areas, plane trees, walkways, and fountains, was covered in tents and looked bigger and far more interesting than I had ever seen it. Seated at tables, activists gave out leaflets and posters; people gathered in circles on the grass, talking and singing; and a line of dancers snaked through the park. There were secularists for sure—and nationalists and even more right-wing nationalists—but no group dominated the others. The nationalists slept and chanted not far from the Kurds, with whom they usually fight; liberals slept and chanted near the secularists, whose obsession with Atatürk they detest.
Ethnic, political, and personal stereotypes seemed to be breaking. A headscarf girl spoke about anti-imperialism and abortion; instead of gay rights, a homosexual man talked about hydroelectric power stations and the constitution. If Erdoğan’s electorate had been the silent majority for many decades, I realized, these people constituted a newer silent majority: those who did not want to be pigeonholed by the state. They weren’t self-identifying as secularists or religionists, or any one thing at all.
“We’re not like Erdoğan,” said one of my friends who voted for Erdoğan in 2002 when the candidate seemed a beacon for democracy. My friend cared most that Turkey has since become a country that values wealth and development over human rights.
The Gezi protests brought home to me that I had become distracted by the myth of Turkey’s progress. Suddenly the problem in understanding this foreign country was not just that I wasn’t Turkish; it was that I was American. I was enraged about Wall Street and income inequality, even capitalism itself, and yet still I had missed the news that Turkey’s particular form of modernization hadn’t at all been making Turkey better. Some part of me reflexively, unconsciously, believed countries could only evolve one way.
Two years ago, a young, successful Turkish artist who had just returned from a decade in New York said to me, “Western history is a farce, and everyone knows it. Perhaps we can take the values that Americans have abused for material gain and do something better with them.” I didn’t tell him that most Americans would have no idea what he was talking about, and that I, to some degree, also did not. But now I will never forget that stabbing feeling of newly recognized ignorance. If I learned something new about Turkey, I received it, as curious people do, happily. But if I learned something about how Turks related to the West—or Americans—my brain experienced it like a cavity filling, something drilled out, something shoved in, and afterward, a dull ache and a tooth that would never quite be the same.
Many Turks believe Turkey has changed forever, and yet I am skeptical that any immediate transformation will come through the sudden birth of some effective new political party. After all, it took Erdoğan and his post-Islamists 30 years of slow, patient organizing to come to power. Most important, I know better than to make any more predictions about Gezi Park. In mid-August, Gezi remained un-redeveloped, alternately cordoned off by the police and open to the public. But every day thousands of Turks passed by it and talked about what to do next.