Photo by Omer Seckin.
“Last night a man proposed to his girl in Gezi Park. Did you know?” Omer asked.
Omer, my flatmate, came in late last night, and was full of wonder at what he had seen in Taksim Square, which had just ended its tenth day of protests.
“Did she accept?” I asked.
“Yes, she did.”
A ghostly swell of cheers from the tens of thousands roared like a phantasm in my head. She accepted.
“And,” Omer went on, “There were all these signs saying, ‘I want to have your Chapullcu baby!”
I knew then that I had to go. It had been creeping up on me all week, as the streams of protesters passed by in the streets below our flat in Kadikoy, waving Turkish flags, banging pots and pans, shouting “We are the soldiers of Ataturk!” and calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to resign. I had been seeing the aftershocks: Taksim Square, Gezi Park – this was the epicenter of the political and sociological earthquake that has ripped across the country, even around the world, in recent days.
If the Summer of Love in ‘67 brought us Flower Children; the Summer of Taksim has given us The Chapullcu children. Like their hippie forebears, today’s Chapullcu children are out in force with the arrival of summer.
“You know the real meaning of capullcu (pronounced Chap-ull-ju),” said Omer, on Saturday morning as we set out for the ferry station. “It means a poor man who needs to support his family, so he takes something from the rich.”
For readers back home, a little context. The protests began last week when plans to demolish Gezi Park, which is in the heart of Taksim Square, began. Imagine if bulldozers arrived in New York City to pave under Central Park. The cultural significance, the historical memories attached to the park, run deep. But it is more than that. The park in recent days has become a stronghold by half of the country fearful of a prime minister they believe is bent on shoving his ruling AK Party, and its conservative agenda, down their throats.
Erdogan dismissed the tens of thousands of protesters in Taksim as “bums,” and “looters,” or “çapullcu,” to say it in Turkish. For millions of Turks,it was a slap in the face: to be called criminals by your leader simply because you are voicing dissent. Hence, the birth of a new idea, and a new English word: Chapulling.
“EVERY DAY I AM CHAPPULLING,” shouts the graffitti on the walls of buildings all around the city. Even one of the leading networks, NTV, posted a photo of its journalists, all of them holding signs over their heads. “We are also chapulling,” the signs read.
In the current situation here, to “chapull,” is to express oneself. In the context of the prime minister’s denunciation, it is an expression of rebellion. That is, if I am to be deemed a looter, or “chapullcu,” simply for expressing myself, then I guess that makes me a a chapullcu. But to be a chapullcu has expressed itself in many other ways, as we will see.
The ferry pulled away from Kadikoy, rolling out onto the Bosphorous. Again, release, the feeling of moving off into a new world. In all the cities I’ve seen, from San Francisco to New York to Prague to Paris, no other city compares to the feeling that Istanbul gives you when crossing the Bosphorous. You are not only crossing the city, you are crossing continents, all cliches aside.
This morning, as we made our way to Taksim, the journey assumed a new significance. We were heading into the heart of a war zone, a battleground, or so it seemed. Over in the Sea of Marmarra, sailboats were out drifting on a cool, placid horizon. Oh, to be out with them! They had the right idea … who needs all the turmoil of this world?
We landed at Besiktas, and walked past Dolmabahce Palace, beneath the rows of chestnut treees and past iconic pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state.
“Boy, the camera loved him,” I remarked.
“There was a leader,” Omer said. “Charismatic, photogenic, cultured.”
We walked up a hill through a park and past Istanbul Technical University. Here the streets were all blocked by stone barriers, which had been erected in a frenzy by demonstrators during their clashes with police. Turkish flags, with their star and crescent, were planted atop the stone barriers like captured enemy hills. The police, by government order, had been ordered out of the vicinity of Taksim Square, but we had passed scores of them down the hill in Besiktas.
Here on the outskirts of Taksim, passing the stone barriers, it felt almost like a demilitarized zone, a no man’s land, except there were lots of Istanbullus out, mostly young people. They were taking pictures. We passed a car that had been overturned in the street by the demonstrators. It lay, defeated and prostrate like a wounded animal. Young people were posing by the overturned car, snapping photos on their iPhones.
“Welcome to the New Turkey,” Omer said, as we passed through a kind of doorway made of scrap metal that the protesters had put on top of one of the stone hills.
“We have a new tourist economy,” Omer joked. “People are coming to see the demonstrations.” You looked around, and it was true. It was bizarre, and yet there was a strange logic in it too. After all, weren’t we there too? This was not shaping up to be a day when one dwells on such things as logic.
All of the buildings, and the streets as well, were covered in graffitti, some of it profound, amusing, others ironic, obscene, playful:
“I AM A SEXY CHAPULLCU,” a colourful blue cursive spray insisted from one of the walls.
We arrived at Gezi Park. The feeling was — . Well, it was like entering the World’s Fair, a carnival of politics, a bazar of expression. All around the park flags, stalls, kiosks were everywhere, advertising every political idea you could imagine. Communists, anti-Communists, nationalists, anti-Fascists, globalists, anti-globalists, environmentalists …
‘It’s like a who’s who of political causes,” I remarked. “A dissent trade show.”
“Look there,” Omer said, pointing to a stall set up near the entrance to the park. “Revolution Market. Everything they are giving for free.”
It was true; the volunteers were handing out water, fruit and cheese to whomsoever wanted.
We continued on into the park. It was just noon, and already getting warm. There were tents everywhere, and their occupants relaxed and regarded the passersby, others slept. They’d had a long night and were merely resting up for the evening’s action. Many of them had been camped out there for many days and they looked it; tired, in need of a bath, yet content within themselves in a way that is hard to express, just as it is hard to convey this new village that had sprung up in the park. They were the residents; we, Omer, myself and many others, were only like curious onlookers at a zoo.
I suggested that we get some video. Omer obligingly produced his iPhone and we started recording. Suddenly a young Turkish man, apparently one of the occupiers, stopped us. He spoke English, and I explained that we were just getting some video, but he waved us off. He turned to Omer and said something in Turkish.
“He’s my friend,” Omer said. “Arkadashim.”
“Oh!” the young man said. “Sorry.” He shook my hand apologetically and walked away.
“Did he think I was CIA or something?” I asked.
“No,” Omer said. “Well, he just said there could be troublemakers here, and I told him, no, you are my friend.”
We were tired from the long walk up the hill, so we found a place under the trees and had a rest.
“As you can see, it is a very beautiful park,” Omer said. “It is very cool and peaceful here under the trees. When I was a student at university, I used to come here a lot.”
“Yes, it is nice.”
It was early in the day, but the park was crowded. Nearby someone was giving a speech and a crowd was cheering the man on. All around there were signs, graffitti, in Turkish, English, German, and a host of other languages.
“So we are chapulling today,” I said.
“Yes, we are,” Omer said.
Everyone in the park, it seemed, was chapulling. We were chapullcu, and the irony of it was pleasant. Strangers passed and a look passed between you, a certain gleam, a smile, and there was an understanding that sufficed with no words said. You wanted to be gentle and calm and brave and heroic; you wanted to be a ray of sunlight, if that makes any sense at all.
“Erdogan should come here,” Omer said. “I think he would see that it is not like he thinks. It’s a really special atmosphere. You know, I am 32 years old. I am a chemical and mining engineer. (And) this is the most amazing thing I have ever seen in Turkey. I think we in Turkey are finally learning what a true democracy is supposed to be. These chapullcu—” he gestured toward the milling crowds— “That is what they are trying to say to Erdogan. Maybe he is powerful, maybe he has the majority, but that does not mean the rest of the people are criminals.”
Later, we got up and went for a walk. We passed Gezi Park TV, an impromptu station set up in the park and streamed live online. The organizers were all university students.
“We are trying to give people who want to say something a voice,” said Fatih, one of the organizers.
“Have you had many people?” I asked.
“Yes, we just set up yesterday and already we’ve had more than 100 people.”
“So what do you think of all this?” I asked. I had already introduced myself as a freelance journalist. “I mean, where do you see the protests going?”
Fatih grinned wearily.
“It should be peaceful like this the rest of the weekend,” he said. “But come Monday … (Erdogan) has said that by Monday we have to all be out of here.”
“So you don’t think he’s going to back down?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Well, good luck to you,” I said.
We moved on, passing a free bookshop that had been set up at a stall. İt was called the Chapullcu Book Store. You could just take any book you wanted. Nearby, there was a tent offering free medical help.
We left the park and went back toward Taksim Square, passing the construction that was halted in the wake of the protests. Several tractors that had been set to demolish Gezi Park had been set on fire by angry demonstrators. The burned wreckage had not been removed, and the tractors lay there in the sunlight like mangled corpses, decomposing in the sun.
In the square, the afternoon wore on and more people came. We passed a Kurdish Party demonstration on Istikklal Caddesi, and the crowds continued to pour in from down the hill. Street sellers were hawking gas masks (in the early days of the protests the police unleashed tear gas and pepper spray) and well as V for Vendetta masks, and there were other street merchants offering fresh watermelon and hummus seeds.
“Do you think it’s true what Fatih said?” I asked Omer. “That come Monday, the party will be over?” It was not a pretty thought to contemplate.
“I hope not,” Omer said.
We went to a bar in Nevizade Pasaj and had a few beers, and talked for a while, sitting and watching the people pass. Later, we paid and then went back to have another look at Gezi Park. It was very crowded now, with more people on the way, and you could tell that the festival-like atmosphere would only continue to build well into the evening and into the night. The night would be the longest night.
It was time to go back.
We looked for a toilet, the beer had run its course. Nobody seemed to know precisely where the toilet was. There were conflicting theories, and we were pointed in many hopeful directions. Our bladders were at the point of chapulling, and I was ready to chapull behind the nearest tree. Finally, we approached some of the protesters, they were students, at one of the tents. They pointed helpfully towards the Intercontinental, a five-star hotel not 50 meters away.
I thought they were joking, but when we got to the hotel, the elegantly dressed doorman greeted us kindly. Could we use the toilet? We could, but unfortunately the toilets were overcrowded at the moment, but if we could kindly go across the street to the Hyatt –
The doorman at the Hyatt was equally courteous. He directed us downstairs. The lavish bathroom was full of young Chapullcus, not only chapulling the toilet but also getting a quick chapullcu wash in.
“The chapullcu toilet!” I exclaimed.
An enthusiastic roar of approval rose from the crowded toilet. Never in your life would you expect that a four- or five-star hotel would open up its toilets in such a way. There was one older Turkish women, conservatively dressed, who looked tired and worried.
“She has a point,” I said to Omer as we were leaving. “It can’t just go on like this forever.”
“No, not forever,” said Omer. “But today –”
Outside, we thanked the doorman and shook hands. He smiled and we wished him a good day.
“Anyway, this is class,” I said.
“Five-star service,” Omer agreed.
“What a day,”
“Yes, what a day.”
We walked back down the hill toward Besiktas. Streams of more young Turks were on their way up to Taksim, and even more were coming on the ferry boats from the Asian side. A phalanx of police were stationed along the road near Dolmabahce Palace. At the ferry station, when the ferry arrived the people on the boat, the ones who were headed up to Taksim, began to clap. Spontaneously, everyone waiting to get on the ferry joined in, a show of support.
“Well,” Omer said. “We are leaving the New Turkey now, and going back home to our side in Anatolia. But you see? These people want to stop Erdogan now – in Taksim – otherwise all of the parks in Turkey will soon be like Gezi Park.”
The Bosphorous was the color of blue ink, and the waves rose as we passed the Maiden Tower, and the shipping yards. Past Haydarpasha Train Station, the cool green trees along the waterfront in Kadikoy announced our return.
We had crossed continents again, perhaps in more ways than one. It felt good to be home.
James Tressler covered politics for The Eureka Times-Standard. His work has also appeared in The Prague Post. His books, including “Conversations in Prague” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” are available at Amazon.com. He lives in Istanbul.