Free Expression: The surprising weapon of the Taksim Gezi Park protests: a cheery disposition.
A newlywed couple, having stayed at the Taksim Square protests day and night throughout the first week of demonstrations, hung a banner on the front of their tent with a message personally directed to the Prime Minister: “Dear sir, please let it go so we can go home and make love!”
Passersby, depending on their political stance, either giggled or raised their eyebrows. Both reactions derived from the same fact: it is not proper in Turkey to mention the act of making love audibly in public, let alone in writing on a banner hung in the very center of the city. However, during the occupation a joke with erotic connotations had an extremely political meaning: the prime minister was attacking the occupiers with conservative morality. He was implying if not saying openly that the “looters” staying on Taksim Square were “doing rather dirty things—God knows what!” This was of course a part of a larger propaganda operation against the protestors. One day there were claims that the “looters” were drinking in a mosque, another day there were accusations that protestors had beaten a woman wearing a headscarf. Both incidents were supposedly captured on video, but the footage never materialized. When the imam of the mosque in question testified that the protestors had been trying to find shelter for the wounded and never had alcohol, he was interrogated for speaking to the press and exiled to another, very remote, mosque.
So it was quite brave, amid all this stigmatization, for the couple to announce on a banner that they were not able to make love due to the tear gas attacks and police violence, but that they really wanted to do it if the police forces would only retreat from Taksim Gezi Park.
This rather insignificant joke was lost among zillions of others during the days of turmoil, which started out as a protest against the development plan for Gezi Park but grew to include wider concerns about freedom of press and expression, and about growing injustice, inequality, and conservatism in Turkey. Looking back, I find it rather notable when thinking about the limits of disobedience. There are three broad types of rules to disobey: written laws, society’s established morals, and the code of behavior. In Turkey it is very easy to disobey any of these.
At times, disobedience is not even deliberate—it is something that seems to happen to you, rather than something you choose. The youngest journalist ever prosecuted, Sami Menteş, was doing his job—interviewing leftist activists just after the Taksim resistance—and he ended up in prison, where he waited nearly nine months for his initial trial. Menteş was released after his first hearing and the only evidence against him was provided by a “secret witness.” The “secret witness” has become a quite popular source of information in the last ten years, especially in court cases against journalists, politicians, and activists. Since the secret witness’s testimony is often identical to the prosecutor’s claims, one might question whether these secret witnesses even exist. Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world—to say nothing of the thousands of political activists, politicians, etc. But this article is not about them.
Nor is this article about a young judge, Didem Yaylalı, who committed suicide last summer. When I talked to her closest friend and roommate, Evrim Ortakçı, to my surprise she described Didem wearing tights and dancing, going to parties on the weekends, maybe having a bit of booze, and posting photos of her happy moments on Facebook. Those were the “evil” actions that paved the way to her suicide (tights reveal too much, you know). According to Evrim, Didem was blacklisted by the Higher Commission of Judges and Prosecutors; although she was trained and ready for her job, Didem was not allowed to start practicing her profession because of what the Commission deemed her “improper lifestyle.” This tights-wearing-and-dancing-at-parties business was brought up during her intensive interview with the Commission and she was openly told that “her lifestyle is not fit for a female judge.” Right after the interview, she ended her life. Only a very few people attended her funeral. Evrim was furious that Didem’s colleagues were too afraid to be associated with this tights-wearing persona non grata. This is how easy it is to perform civil disobedience in Turkey: one doesn’t need to speak out against police brutality or enforced sexual morality. A pair of tights will do.
Yet, this is not our topic at the moment. Breaking the law or the established common code of (so-called) morality is not the business of this piece; civil disobedience against the general code of behavior is. It is a subtler, more refined form of disobedience—yet punished equally harshly at times, and it was an important part of the Gezi uprising. It might sound like too broad a definition for an act of civil disobedience, or too gray an area, but I call this form of rebellion simply “being nice.” In fact it is quite a courageous form of disobedience if you are aware of the essence of daily life in today’s Turkey.
Just like their counterparts in Tahrir, Sol, and Kasbah, the people who gathered in Taksim Square couldn’t perfectly articulate why they didn’t want to leave the space, even when the occupation was no longer as massive or effective as it had been. They mumbled sentences like, “It was too beautiful to leave,” or, “Nevermind the gas or the beatings, those were the best days of my life.” And most of the time, the only explanation they could offer was some variation on a theme: “People are so nice here!” They were probably not aware that with these sweet words, they themselves were becoming a part of a subtle but strong form of disobedience.
Turkey is a rough country. An ordinary Turk visiting Britain would be shocked to see the amount of time Brits waste on apologizing to and thanking each other. Let alone the time wasted on waiting in a line. Except for a few individuals who are determined to maintain their own politeness against the general current, we hardly say sorry. And I don’t mean big political “sorries” to Armenians or Kurds who have been massacred or tortured; I mean the basic, quotidian “sorry” to someone we bump into on a busy street. Apologies are a sign of weakness in the land of pretending that bad things never happened. There may not be a straight line between spoken pleasantries and larger feelings of compassion, but neither seem to be valued in Turkey, where—according to Istanbul Bar Association statistics—a woman is killed every two days. Maybe it is the post-traumatic stress disorder of men who are obliged to serve in the military, or the rising general tension in the society—whatever the reason, between 2002 and 2009, the number of women’s killings has risen 1,400 percent.
In this context, it is quite remarkable that one of the most popular fragments of the discourse surrounding the Gezi uprising were testimonials like this: “You know what? People at the Square are amazing! Even when we are sprayed with tear gas, even when police are attacking they say sorry if they bump into you! They do it even while we struggle for our lives! Amazing!” In Gezi, this persistent politeness was a sign of a larger philosophy: that others matter as much as yourself, that compassion for others is not a sign of weakness.
The “otherization” of anyone deviating from the mainstream is also a strong theme in modern Turkish life. Being too brunette; being a Kurd; being a non-Sunni Muslim; not fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; being a bachelor; being a female university student with male roommates; being a woman and laughing slightly too much: any of these may be taken as a sign of “oddness” that might be punished harshly by society. Anybody who leads a life different from the Sunni-male dominated, Turkish-militarized, profit-driven standard may face various forms of “correction,” from excommunication to public beating.
Blame this trend toward cultural enforcement on the rising conservatism, or the forty-year-old war that gave the whole country PTSD, or the obligatory military service that hardened the entire male population, or harsh neoliberal economic conditions, or call it a plainly cultural thing. Whatever the reasons, Turkey is a place where acceptance of difference is becoming rare.
But in Gezi Square and other similar squares created in other cities around Turkey, diversity was celebrated and people were showing that they coexist against all odds. The secular socialists were holding umbrellas for anti-capitalist Islamists as they prayed in the rain; a nationalist leftist young woman held hands with a Kurdish activist. These personal connections—however small or fleeting they might sound—seemed impossible until Gezi happened. A miniskirt-wearing young woman collaborating with an Islamist activist to secure daily supplies for the Taksim communne might sound like a romantic-eclectic dream, but that really was the case.
People amazed themselves by becoming guerillas in just a few days, but perhaps they were even more surprised by the fact that they were free to be kind without fear of being counted as weak. When there is a culture of extreme violence surrounding you, and you choose to reject this mindset by just being polite, this becomes an act of resistance. In other settings, when the powers that be demand politeness, a firm stance is an act of defiance; perhaps we are more used to thinking of revolutions on these terms. But being “nice” might be revolutionary when you are encouraged—even forced—to do the opposite. In Tahrir (Cairo) and in Al Kasbah (Tunis) it was the same: demonstrators’ deliberate and decisive kindness toward one another seemed like an effort to heal each others’ faith in humanity, which had been deeply bruised by the cruelty of the regimes.
The most awe-inspiring exemplar of revolutionary niceness that I saw during the Arab Spring was the mother of a three-year-old, whom I met in a refugee camp on the Tunisia-Libya border. In the middle of the desert, with no past and no foreseeable future, the Somalian mother grew a tiny garden, with heart-shaped borders made of plastic bottles half-buried in the sand. With the seeds borrowed from Bedouins passing by, she was able to grow a few vegetables. When I gave a candy to her baby daughter, in spite of the sand that swallowed every bit of hope and civic habits, she made the little one say, “Thank you!” I stood there for a while to receive the politeness; it took a few minutes for the baby girl to say it in English. She was not only trying to hold onto her dignity despite the harsh conditions, but also performing a kind of resistance against the environment that had stripped her of many of the trappings of civilized living. Maybe she was even “disobeying” my expectation of her numbness. In my view, people in the Gezi uprising were doing something similar, rejecting the numbness that was forced upon them by massive violence.
Survival in Turkey requires numbness, like any other war zone or politically polarized country where citizens are ordered to “love it or leave it!” In Taksim Square, some disobedient citizens of Turkey rejected not only the notion that they should “leave it,” but also rejected numbness, rejected the pattern of being hostile, violent, harsh, or rude to each other. Amid clouds of tear gas, they created a world they desired: a highly unlikely Neverland of niceness. Children drew pictures; a common library was established right away; stages were built for artists’ performances; people brought food to share; mothers formed human chains to protect their children. Everything was shared. I remember a kid living on the streets and begging the occupiers not leave because in their actions he “saw humaneness for the first time.” Abused for so long, we were savoring the taste, over and over again, of meeting and being nice.
Some might think it sounds like Woodstock, hippie-dippy, flower-power stuff. And during the daytime maybe it was, but after sunset it was more Gaza strip than upstate music festival. After sunset, people who looked so naive during the day were obliged to turn into warriors against police violence. And after each night when the sun rose, it was time again to “be nice” as an action of resistance. Not giving away the politeness was an act of disobedience that was performed deliberately, at times stubbornly, I must say.
One of the most popular slogans of the time was “Everywhere it is Taksim! Everywhere is resistance!” Protestors dreamed of stretching the boundaries of the square, of extending the newly created culture out into the rest of the country.
In retrospect, I have come to think that the Taksim Square protestors were trying to restore a sense of justice in a country where that faith had been ruined completely. In a country where political law cases go on for years without a single hearing, gigantic new prisons are built to house dissidents, the “winner takes all” mentality reigns unchecked, and the uniformization of human lives and minds is fierce, the people of the Gezi resistance were re-envisioning a different rule of law and a more humane morality. Disobedience is most often associated with bringing a system down or breaking a law, but the very essence of Gezi was the opposite. They were, day in day out, creating, codifying, and enacting a new code of behavior. And it was nice…very nice.