How One Istanbul Filmmaker Foresaw the Gezi Protests

As summer winds down and the Turkish government warns of a “hot autumn” of protest, this seems a good time to look back at the roots of Gezi frustration and ahead to a remade political landscape.

One sunny summer day in Istanbul, a woman stood before an animated crowd of protesters, many holding placards denouncing their government’s heavy-handedness. “Against the forces that create divided and unsafe cities, against the usurpation of our right to the city and for the right to shape our city ourselves,” she said to the crowd, “we declare that we’ll stand united, moving beyond all our differences.”

This seems an apt mission statement for the three-week occupation of Gezi Park earlier this year, a happening hailed by many Turks as an unprecedented moment of unity -- when Islamists and nationalists, religious and ethnic minorities and football fans of all stripes stood together against their government.

But the woman, Cihan Baysal, spokesperson for Urban Movements Istanbul, was speaking not just a few months ago, when protests swelled in Istanbul and spilled across Turkey, but in the summer of 2010.

This is a scene from Ekumenopolis: City Without Limits, a 2011 documentary about the city’s problematic transformation that seems to capture an iconic Istanbul uprising that had yet to happen. “Maybe I smelled it or something,” says the filmmaker Imre Azem, sipping tea on a bright, humid day in a park along the Bosporus. “Maybe it was a feeling. I don’t know. But to me it was obvious once I did the research that these urban issues would become the centerpiece of a social movement.”

Born in Istanbul, Azem studied political science and French literature at Tulane University, in New Orleans, before moving to New York City to work for a magazine. In 2003, prodded by what he saw as the injustice of the US invasion of Iraq, he and a friend began making a documentary linking that war to Western colonialism in the region. “We didn’t finish the film, but we learned filmmaking,” said Azem. “I really got a taste for documentaries.”

He saved some money and moved back to Istanbul in 2007 to start work on a film critiquing the global economic system through the problems of Istanbul. He cast about for the right approach, working odd jobs for a couple years, until lightning struck in 2009.

“One day I was listening to the radio and heard a story about the third bridge,” said Azem, referring to the third bridge over the Bosporus, following the first two built in 1973 and 1988. “I had never heard any public discussion of this project, so I started researching it.”

The bridge, to be built near the northern, Black Sea end of the 19-mile-long Bosporus, had initially been proposed during the mid-90s mayoralty of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who at the time said it would be “murder” to the city.

Istanbul planners agreed, pointing out that the construction area covers forests and water reservoirs the city needs to survive. But as prime minister, Erdogan has spearheaded the project, which began construction on May 29, a day before the Gezi protests exploded.

“Everybody I spoke to said it’s a disastrous project, and that no one is really looking at the effects,” Azem continued. “More importantly, I learned that this is actually part of a much bigger plan, a much broader vision for Istanbul that includes all the urban transformation issues, all these other mega-projects. So I decided to make the film about not just the third bridge, but about all this, making connections between these issues.”

The film opens with one shot after another of Istanbul’s vast, repetitive sprawl, as a narrator likens the 19th century modernization of cities in the West to 21st century urbanization in the developing world. Azem details the destruction of old Istanbul neighborhoods and the mostly failed relocation of their residents before widening his lens to consider the third bridge, other mega projects and the city’s recent economic history. The film makes a convincing argument that the current leadership has put Istanbul in peril.

"With the new convention centers, sports and cultural centers that we're building, we're preparing the way for a modern future on a historic foundation," Erdogan says in the film. "At the same time, we're investing to turn Istanbul into the financial center of the world."

Writing about Ekumenopolis last year, the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman called it “a remarkable cinematic effort,” that “is also one of the most socially and politically pertinent works of our times.”

That pertinence exploded into view this past spring, when a small protest to halt the uprooting of a few trees mushroomed into a movement. Azem was at Gezi Park from the first night, sleeping in a tent with a handful of activist friends.

Abetted by over-aggressive police and security forces, their little demonstration soon blossomed into a nationwide movement against the government. By July, six people had been killed, including a police officer, and thousands injured in the crackdown.

Yet as Azem well knows, local concern about Taksim had been brewing for some time. Starting in mid-2011, when the government announced its plan to remake Taksim Square, several movements emerged to protect the square and highlight urban issues in Istanbul, including Taksim Solidarity and Urban Movements Istanbul. One event in January 2012 even included a discussion at Gezi Park about how “Istanbul Claims its Right to the City.”

“Even as a person struggling for social rights, who made a film about this and had been involved in the struggle for five years, I didn’t expect such a huge response,” said Azem, who believes the political ground has shifted leading up to local elections next March. “The Gezi resistance has sent a message, not only to the AKP, but to the whole established political system. The message is that this system of parliamentary democracy is not representing the will of the people.”


In Turkey, Black Boxes Aim to Turn Neighbors into Spies

Istanbul has been abuzz this week with the harsh verdicts meted out in the five-year Ergenekon coup plot trial, with 17 of 275 defendants receiving life sentences for plotting to overthrow the government. It’s a stern warning to coup plotters, to be sure, much like another bit of recent, less-covered news.

Last week, police announced plans to install neighborhood informant boxes in cities across Turkey. Dubbed the Confidential Police Notice Point Project, the move will allow residents to submit anonymous written and oral tips on their neighbors. Picture a small black box on the corner where neighbors drop in slips of paper incriminating one another for offenses like banging pots and pans in support of the Gezi Park protesters (a nightly show of solidarity in many urban areas in the weeks following the countrywide protests).

“It’s a crime to disturb neighbors,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly said in July, urging the public to turn in dissenters. “I’m telling you that such acts require punishment.”

The informant boxes follow a government decision to replace private security workers with state police at all state-run universities, the better to keep an eye on protest-prone college students. Meanwhile, anti-government protests that started back in May continued this past weekend.

On a sultry night, police chased a few hundred demonstrators from Gezi Park using teargas. Then, seemingly unaware of the irony, they drove armored trucks down Istiklal, or Independence, Avenue — Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, filled with high-end shops and cafes — shooting rubber bullets at those brave or dumb enough to get in their way.

All this should be acutely troubling to anyone who cares about democracy in the urban world. Istanbulites long weary of the gaze of their government now must look into the eyes of their neighbors. Sure, in the 21st century, public assistance for crime-solving is a must. And most Western countries maintain anonymous hotlines and 411 numbers citizens can call with information on crimes and suspicious activity. But tools similar to the informant boxes have been used in dictator-run Arab countries, and as well as in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia — places where secret police kept watch and public trust evaporated.

In fact, local informants are not completely new to Turkey. “Historically, Istanbul police relied on local informants — the imam, the mukhtar (neighborhood or village leader) — at times of social unrest,” Fariba Zarinebaf, director of Middle East and Islamic studies at the University of California-Riverside and author of Crime and Punishment in Istanbul: 1700-1800, said via email, citing the late 19th century. “But I doubt these measures were ever that effective.”

In a modern world, with a government that has used force to silence demonstrators and cast them as looters, terrorists and rodents, this plan seems far more sinister.

What’s more, the rule of law has never been terribly strong in Turkey. With anonymous reporting, the potential for abuse is considerable. The government has in recent months made little secret of going after journalists it deems a threat to its reputation. What would stop the authorities from going after citizens that draw their ire, claiming an informant’s tip as their prod?

“It is interesting that dissent, i.e. banging on pots and pans, is being defined as a crime,” Zarinebaf said. “Citizens are asked to report this specific form of dissent, and you can imagine how much tension this would create among neighbors who may be mad at each other for various reasons, trying to settle scores.”

On the conservative Istanbul street where I live, near Galata Tower in Beyoglu, locals are out in the street all day. Older men chat, smoke and stare while headscarved women watch their children play and young boys huddle in groups to snack and laugh. They know everybody and trust each other. Crime is rare.

Security in the city relies on a patchwork of similarly organic neighborhood watches, based on familiarity. Take away that sense of familiarity and openness, and erode the system of public trust that has made Istanbul one of Europe’s safest cities.

“If the boxes work, it will tear away the unity of the mahalle (neighborhood) and will create extreme distrust,” Zarinebaf said. “But I am sure the citizens will defy the measure in most neighborhoods. The public has a clear understanding of what constitutes a ‘crime’ and when they should inform on criminal elements.”

The question is whether they may begin to expand those concepts at the urging of their government. In a recent television ad from the government security directorate, a young man is shown giving a rose to a young girl. Soon after, the girl is seen chanting slogans in a street protest. “They use the mask of ‘standing up for your rights’ in small demonstrations,” the narrator says, “ then they quietly steal your child from you.” The story closes with the girl becoming a suicide bomber.

The message is that any young person who stands up for his or her rights is a terrorist — and that everyone must be on guard against threats lurking in plain sight, like the young man with the rose.

There is, however, still hope for many parts of Istanbul where residents have already banded together in the wake of the Gezi protests. Urban Turks have launched more than 100 neighborhood forums all over the country. Most groups meet a few times per week and discuss the issues of the day, from the local to the national, and tend to share a strong sense of solidarity in opposition to the government of Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

For these groups, the informant boxes will not be a welcome addition to the neighborhood and likely will go all but ignored.

But the same cannot be said of the large swaths of AKP supporters — like many residents of my neighborhood — that make up as much as half of Turkey’s 75 million people. For them, the çapulcu, the pot-banger, the terrorist and the coup plotter may soon be one and the same -- and the informant box may have its uses.

Originally published here, for Next City


A Long Flight from Beirut to Istanbul

It's the day after a glorious Lebanese wedding, or more accurately a long, drink-fueled wedding weekend, so I'm tired and hungover as I board my hour-and-a-half Middle East Airlines flight from Beirut back home to Istanbul. I want peace and quiet, the freedom to read, relax and look out the window, perhaps even catch a bit of shut eye. More than anything I want to be left alone.

Nearing my aisle I'm smacked upside the olfactory by the strong smell of vomit. I settle in to my window seat as a flight attendant comes by and sprays some cheap, potpourri-smelling air freshener. Apparently Febreze has yet to reach Lebanon. Within minutes the smell returns. I hit the call button. She returns and sprays for a full minute. Again the smell returns, though now overlain with eau de fake flowers.

I resign myself to the stench and start digging into my New Yorker, when the woman sitting next to me spies her friend a couple rows back. She asks the slim, thirty-something fellow sitting next to her friend to switch seats. He does so, and sits down next to me. "That woman, crazy,” he says to me, grinning. I nod and return to my reading.

"What are you reading?"

"Please," I say, wearily, "no."

A few minutes pass as we taxi for takeoff. Our elbows bump on the armrest between us. He grabs the small airline pillow, and places it on the armrest. "Here," he says, grabbing my elbow, lifting it up and placing it back on top of the pillow, "put your arm on this, very comfortable."

"No thanks."

We take off and I take a drink from my water bottle and put it back in the seat-back pocket in front of me. "I’m also thirsty," he tells me. Is he suggesting...

"Good," I say, "they are bringing drinks."

The flight attendants come down the aisle handing out meals -- a slab of white cheese between two thick slices of white bread, orange juice and a biscuit. I turn mine down; he accepts and rips open the tray.

"Eat something!" he shouts, thrusting his sandwich towards me. "It’s delicious."

A minute passes. "Here," he says. "This, good biscuit." Again I say no thanks and attempt to focus on my reading, or the view out the window, anything to get him to understand.

"Orange juice!" he exclaims, offering his cup. "Very fresh. Drink some."

I shake my head.

"What this?" he asks, holding a packet of powdered creamer. I explain and start reading again. Out of the corner of my eye I see he’s ripped open the packet and is pouring bits of the powder into his hand and slapping into his mouth.

The flight attendants are coming down the aisle again. "Do you want coffee?" he asks me. I plead with him to stop and leave me to my reading. One, two, three minutes pass. Perhaps he's finally gotten the...

His hand shoots across my field of vision as he reaches over to my side of the aisle. "Here, take this," he says, popping my controller out of its panel on the seat-back in front of me. "Fuck the reading and play with me."

Shocked, I laugh, and decide this little episode needs to be put into writing, recounting the most wonderfully annoying seat-mate of all time. And in the eight-or-so minutes I’ve been writing this he hasn’t said a word. I think he even moved slightly away from me in his seat, towards the aisle. Respect for the writer at work? Or has he finally given up after his obscenity-laced last gasp?

Whatever the case, the pilot is announcing our descent into Istanbul. I offer him a piece of gum, and he accepts. "Strong mint," he says, fanning his mouth as if it’s on fire.

Now I'm grinning. As we touch down I realize I'd forgotten all about the vomit stink and he whips out his phone. "Let me get a photo of you to remember... uh, what is your name?" I tell him. "To remember my friend David," Ali says, grinning broadly. He leans towards me, extends his arm into the aisle while tilting the back of his phone towards us, and snaps.


Cobblestones and Urban Resilience

They dug up my street the other day to repair a water pipe. In cobblestoned Galata, such work requires the removal of dozens of sizable stones, which must be set aside for post-job replacement. But while the work is ongoing, the yawning hole is jarring -- the work-a-day life of the city has little respect for enchanting street scenes.

And yet it does. Istanbul's Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk noticed this, in the book he wrote about his beloved hometown: "When they dug up a street, the cobblestones had to be pulled up one by one and this made the work drag on for ever -- particularly if they found a Byzantine corridor underneath. When the repairs were done, I loved watching the workmen replacing the cobblestones one by one -- with a bewitching rhythmic skill."

I missed the bewitching rhythm of replacement, but the next day when I passed by the dug-up area I found the stones roughly back in place, though somewhat haphazardly -- too much space between stones here, one slightly askew there. A few days later, the morning after a hard rain, the stones had begun settling into place.

It's probably safe to assume that over the past half millennium or so each and every street in Galata has been similarly dug up. In a month or two, my street will look as if it hadn't been touched in centuries, the disturbance gone and forgotten, like the thousands that have come before.