I’m far away in New York, as something epic and wonderful is going on in Turkey. My entire, supposedly, apolitical generation realize that there’s no one to speak for us, so we should speak for each other. This is unwelcome news to leaders of an oppressive regime that pretends to be a democracy. They respond to a peaceful sit-in with violence, and the protest grows, it spreads and transforms. It has a message, “let people speak.”
Other expats from Turkey gather in our apartment. We connect my absent roommate’s laptop to the TV, and stream one of the only two live feeds during the protest, a Norwegian channel, or an extremely Republican (not in the US sense, but in the Turkish, current opposition CHP sense). And we are all checking Twitter and Facebook, reading articles and instantly sending it to each other. We’ve created a situation room and we know more about what’s going on than most people in Turkey. CNN Turk shows a documentary on penguins as we see photos of the injured getting treated at mosques.
I wouldn’t get out of the apartment if it weren’t for the solidarity protest in Zuccotti Park. I try to think of what people wear to solidarity protests. I settle on cutouts. We go there and find more friends in the crowd. I had never been there before, and it seems small. I wonder how it looked during Occupy Wall St. I was in New York then, I don’t know why I never came. I check tweets at the same time, find out the protesters managed to take back Gezi Park. It’s peaceful over there for a few hours. We chant, “Government Resign”, “Shoulder to Shoulder Against Fascism”. Our fascists are not here, but some tourists are. They take our pictures. I go back to the situation room after my phone’s battery dies.
I’m fascinated and horrified with the events we follow through different screens. I move from the couch, to the table, to my bed. We don’t leave the apartment for days. I feel strange as I order from Seamless and get a Facebook message from a friend who got hit in the face with a nightstick. I think I smell, a fellow armchair activist says, equally unsettled, equally wishing he were there, creating change, resisting. Not of pepper spray, I say. He agrees and leaves for Istanbul the next day. I see pictures of my friends with swollen eyes, bleeding heads, status updates of them seeking refuge, asking those with vandalistic tendencies to retain their peace. I wonder if I’m being dramatic enough.
By the 5th day of protest, my brain is overloaded. I understand the meaning of time difference for the first time. Every time I wake up there are 200 messages on a group chat between close friends. One of us is in Istanbul, one in Ankara, one in Mersin, one in London and one in New York. We are protesters separated at birth and we take turns sleeping and keeping each other updated. What did I miss, I ask. Erdogan just got an honorary doctorate from the University of Algiers for his services to humanity, someone responds.
To gather my thoughts, I first need to somehow distract myself. So, I play Mad Men and the commentator on the TV within the TV says, “It was supposed to be a nonviolent demonstration today, and we’ll never know how it turned violent.” And as I watch Don Draper watch the Chicago Riots I think that maybe I am the third layer of TV and somebody is watching me. I continue with The Daily Show. The directors of the Pussy Riot documentary are on. Two years of hard labor for playing for 40 seconds in a church? Asks Jon Stewart. The Russian Orthodox Church was repressed, now they’re repressing. Power and empathy doesn’t seem to go hand in hand.
There are moments when I’m extremely hopeful. They’ve built a library out of bricks in Gezi, and there are yoga sessions and it’s all just really beautiful. They listen to a live performance by the philharmonic one night and they ask people not to drink on the next, out of respect for the protesters celebrating the holy night of Kandil. At the same time I get a text from Ankara, a tear bomb landed at our door, it says. Rize is complete chaos; people who call themselves “Tayyip’s Soldiers” attack the resistance. There are more protests in Dersim, Adana, Izmir. A 22-year-old dies in Antakya from a head wound.
The Prime Minister continues to be belligerent and unreasonable. Still, people respond to him with humor and wit. And I turn into a half crying, half laughing, strange person as I look at the incredibly creative blogs, memes, and videos created during the protest. CNN Turk’s documentary coverage leads to “protester penguin” jokes. When Erdogan calls the protesters “capulcu”, which means looters, low-lifes, the term becomes a part of the group identity. And when he says that these protests are just the same old tune from “pots and pans”, an acapella group turns it into a lovely, hurt, but optimistic song.
I read that 25 people are arrested for alleged anti-government tweets. I go to a fiction workshop. We talk about how that character wouldn’t say “lily thighs” and that sentence is unnecessary and this disrupts the narrative flow. I’m only half there. Then I look at my phone and Erdogan has landed in Istanbul after his three-day trip to Northern Africa. I rush home to watch but I’ve missed it. The live feed remains on the crowd of people who went to greet him at the airport at 2:30 am. Newspapers declare their number as 10,000 but it seems much less than that. “Let’s go to Taksim and smash them!” and “Minority, don’t get confused, don’t test our patience,” they yell and I’m horrified. I watch the speech later, and see Erdogan on a bus, doing little to appease the surges of people who have been suffering police brutality for speaking their mind. “They have pots and pans,” he says, “You have computers!” Coming from the man who declared Twitter as a menace just a few days ago, this statement confuses me. It also makes me wonder if he has seen anything on the internet since the beginning of the protests
Erdogan goes to my hometown Mersin on June 9th. And I watch in dread through a live-feed as nothing changes in his rhetoric. A friend was interrogated for 4 hours for protesting in Istanbul’s Gazi yesterday. I watch a video of the girl in Izmir who was beaten up by the police because she wouldn’t say “I love the police and I love Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
I wish he understands that this isn’t the protest of one half of the country against the other. This is an outcry of the people to have a say in their own lives. But I know that if he doesn’t, the rest of the world will, because when you ignore the tens of thousands on the street, when you continue to use divisive language as people who’ve been constantly told that they’re different hold hands, and when you call your own youth worthless, it becomes less about your leadership and more about your humanity.
Do you feel guilty about not being here? asks my best friend. No, but I’m sad that I’m not there, I reply.