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Cool Istanbul

Bright young things of the Bosphorus

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By KATE HAVARD
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As we mingle before dinner, though, there is mention of the 49 Turks seized by ISIS from the consulate in Mosul and still being held hostage. Some of the guests are speculating wildly about the probability of a war between Turkey and Iraq (“It could be by the end of the week!”). One Western journalist, in a plaid blazer and Ray-Bans, even though it is dark, wonders if he shouldn’t be filing something about the hostages, too. (He won’t.)

The discussion takes on a familiar tune: The United States shouldn’t get involved, he says. “This is not our war.” The crisis, I’m told, is about a complicated web of interconnected historical conflicts, about forces beyond our control​—​and, naturally, George W. Bush.

“Istanbul today is like Tehran in the seventies,” he says. 

Last year Istancool was canceled because of the Gezi Park conflict. This year, the Gezi kids are staffing the festival, serving us cocktails and driving guests around in private cars. At first, our drivers are polite and monosyllabic. But ask them, “Were you at Gezi?” and they light up, whipping out phones to show pictures: Here I am in a gas mask, here’s the barricade I helped build. One shows me a picture of some graffiti. “Do you know the Game of Thrones?” he asks. The graffiti says: “Tayyip! Winter is coming,” referencing the hit fantasy series’s tagline. 

They point to their arms and chests, where they were shot with “spicy gas” canisters and rubber bullets. Another one emails me a link to a short film he had made of the protests: In one shot, a police helicopter soars low overhead and a sea of hands rise up to give it the finger.

“Gezi was the greatest thing to happen to me,” says one. “It was better than any nightclub.”

But a year after the protests, these young men have gone from rock-throwing idealists to resentful pessimists. AKP’s reelection was especially disappointing. At first, they’ll say that Erdogan stole the election, or that he won by relying on the votes of grateful Syrian refugees (which doesn’t make sense because they can’t vote).

Eventually, though, they admit that a lot of people are happy with Erdogan’s economy and his more conservative policies, and that the opposition​—​the Republican People’s party (CHP)​—​is too disorganized.

That leaves these young leftist Turks with few options. At one panel, the Turkish writer Murat Mentes criticizes the Gezi generation, telling them to leave “Occupy” tactics behind: “Turkish people cannot be famous for protesting,” he says. “It is like being famous for preparing meals. Eventually you have to eat something.” But no one seems to know what they should do instead.

While the older secular liberal Turks (the ones who sit next to me at Demet’s fancy dinners) express anger at Erdogan, they don’t believe that Turkey’s increasingly Islamist streak will last. Turkey, they assure me, is a moderate, secular democracy. What’s happening elsewhere could never happen here, they say. “Erdogan is just one man.”

The young are not so optimistic: They see Erdogan emboldened by his victories, increasingly confident, and tightening his grip on power.

Although Erdogan is about to be term-limited out of office as prime minister, he’s unlikely to go away. On July 1, he stole a move from the Putin playbook and announced that he would be running for president in August. Traditionally, Turkey’s president has been chosen by parliament and has held mostly a ceremonial role. But for the first time, Turkish voters will elect the president directly, a fact that may give Erdogan room to dramatically change the scope of the office. “He wants to be an Ottoman,” one driver says.

The kids don’t talk about starting up Gezi again​—​they talk about leaving. One tells me his dream is to go to San Diego. Another doesn’t know, maybe New York. “I would be sad to leave my home, of course. Wouldn’t you be? But talking about the government makes me so, uh, anxious, no, nervous​—​” he pauses, tugs at his hair, searches for the word. “Angry,” he says. “Apologies. I get so mad, my English stop.”

The anniversary of the protests fell about two weeks before I arrived in Istanbul. On May 31, police surrounded Gezi, anticipating trouble and renewed protests. They got it. A CNN correspondent was detained live on the air. Crowds were tear-gassed. Close to 100 people were arrested and beaten by police. But the protests did not evolve into a massive collective force as they had done the year before.

A few weeks later, I visit Gezi Park at 1 a.m. It’s mostly empty, except for a drunk girl vomiting behind a tree. The onlyindication that something happened here is a lonely graffito scrawled on the wall that translates literally as “Gezi, I’m glad you happened.” It also means “Happy Birthday.”

In 312 a.d., the history of Turkey​—​and the world​—​was forever changed by a burning sign. On the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine is said to have seen a cross of light in the sky, just above the sun, which read: Under this you shall conquer. He won the battle and converted to Christianity. 

The burning sign Demet stands in front of isn’t going to alter the course of history. But the festival she has created serves as a kind of bellwether for Turkey’s attitude towards the West. Like the Gezi protests, the fire poem is arresting and dangerous, powerful but fleeting. The sign is mostly right. Many things in Istanbul are perfect. It is a perfectly beautiful city, where the ancient and the modern coexist​—​there’s a 500-year-old Turkish bath hidden in a strip mall next to a French-fry stand. But it is also a city torn between the lure of cosmopolitan society and the coercion of an Islamist regime.

The jazzy techno music piped into Demet’s parties sometimes has to compete with the plaintive evening calls to prayer, a different kind of sacred music than the author of the fire poem had in mind. For now, the mix is a beautiful one. But as Erdogan flirts with terror and shuts off avenues for dissent, it may not last.

It’s clear that Erdogan has his own idea of perfection, and he’s not shy about enforcing it. The streets increasingly belong to him, to a government that silences dissident voices online and in the press, to those who cover up pictures of women’s legs and censor pictures of beer.

The kids from Gezi Park keep telling stories about when the streets belonged to them. Their obsession with showing evidence​—​in pictures and videos​—​is more than the bluster of youth. It’s about documentation. They want to prove that their triumphant moment really happened, that something tangible from that time has endured.

They can’t help but see that Gezi is slipping into history. In the end, the streets will belong to one side or the other.

The bourgeois elite milling about at Istancool know this too. Yet as long as the city still funds their galas, they’re not so alarmed.

These joyful celebrations of free expression are indeed reassuring. But look behind you, Demet. Trouble’s burning bright. 

Kate Havard is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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