THE MAN BY THE BOSPHORUS

It’s now been a few months since the infamous “Gezi park” protests spread like wild fire through some parts of Turkey and made the headlines on most of the major dailies around the world. Journalists, both domestic and international, have written that first draft of history, as the saying goes…and Turkey has once again escaped (albeit barely) being forever ostracized from the European Union despite its unacceptable standards in quelling civilian unrest. It seems that, somewhere during the heated conversations and negotiations between the Turkish foreign ministry and the European Union officials, the damage done to the country’s international reputation was somewhat recovered.

While the intensity and shock of those first few weeks have subsided, my thoughts do trail back to those days back in late May/early June when I attended the Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop in Istanbul.  As I walked out from the conference hall certain streets and avenues were being closed off and the protestors’ noises were intensifying. I jumped into the first cab I could hail.  In a matter of minutes, there appeared a sea of protestors, a majority of them carrying the red and white Turkish flag and I couldn’t help but notice that a good number of them were also carrying the emblems of the opposition party, CHP.  Even though it may be sound thinking to disregard this particular political connotation, I remember thinking about the sheer quantity of those flags and asking myself: “If I were to organize a sit-in against the cutting of trees for the building of a shopping mall in my favorite park, would I instinctively wrap myself up in the nation’s or my party’s flag?” But then I considered the protestors’ anger and rage against the Turkish prime minister and thought: “Does the act of standing in defiance against a particular government or a prime minister require the carrying of a flag?” Or “Was there a danger brewing from across the country’s borders that made people fear for losing their flag, their nation, their country?” As I kept pondering these questions in the following days and weeks, the protests spread across the country, wounding thousands and tragically taking the lives of five (as of July 24) people.  The lethargic way the media had responded in the first few days improved somewhat. That said, I found myself switching between three or four channels at a time in order to get a realistic picture, since most of the newspapers and media outlets in Turkey prefer a “selective” way of reporting the news, very much in line with the direction of their respective bosses and their pro or anti-government biases.

Throughout those weeks, using his own brand of hubris and bravado, the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan continued to offend and alienate many, including some who had initially supported him and his party. By the time he got on a plane for his North Africa trip, he had called the protestors (i.e. a better portion of Istanbul citizens who had clearly articulated their unease over his plans to erect yet another shopping mall at the park in question) “a bunch of riff raff,” had offended a good number of Turkish people who consume alcohol by implying anyone who enjoys a drink or two is considered an “alcoholic,” and, breaking all standards of democracy and decency, he had declared that if the protestors did not retreat, he certainly had the other fifty percent of the country on his side and that he could unleash them as needed!

At around the same time, the opposition party tried its best to prove they would not use the Gezi protests to their political advantage.  And as the international media kept up the interest of its readers and viewers with headlines such as “the week that changed Turkey,” I kept thinking if Turkey had indeed changed… and if so, how would that translate into making Turkey a better place for all its citizens, not only the young, educated, considerably urban youth that dominated the headlines by making their distaste of a particular government as visible as possible. Whether this particular new generation (not to mention the various other groups who attached themselves to this movement through genuine interest as well as ulterior motives) did indeed write the first draft of a new and improved Turkey, remains to be seen.  But I simply cannot get myself to elevate what has been dubbed as the “Gezi spirit” to the realm of a “game-changer,” at least not yet.  That is because of the last image I remember from my recent visit to Istanbul, an image of a man I spotted by the Bosphorus strait.

He seemed a bit off, slightly disheveled and was rummaging through the recyclable bins, and this is what was inscribed on his t-shirt:  “Hop dedik, karşında Türk var!”  That means something to the effect of “Stop right there, you got a Turk in front of you!”  Is there not something that goes beyond the average national pride in that saying? Is there not something a bit offensive, a bit aggressive and, if it goes unchecked, a bit dangerous in that way of thinking?  To me, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.

And that is why, in my humble opinion, until and unless this kind of mentality—whether in the tone of a prime minister’s haughty tone of addressing his opponents, the latter’s fervent desire to find comfort through nationalism on every occasion, or on the shirt of a random man on his morning walk—is erased from the hearts and minds of the entire country of Turkey, no “Gezi spirit” will suffice in bringing Turkey into a truly new and improved future.