Jul 13

Telekenetic Assassination Attempts and Accidental Deforestation


The Russell Crow lookalike above is Yiğit Bulut, Erdogan’s new chief advisor and former political journalist. Bulut was promoted recently after he announced that foreign powers were plotting to assassinate Erdogan via telekinesis, or the ability to move objects with the power of the mind alone (like Roald Dahl’s Matilda). I like to imagine that the photo above was taken as Bulut was in the process of explaining, step by step, how the telekinetic assassins would carry out their dastardly plans.

Construction work on the controversial third Bosphorus bridge has been suspended because it was happening in the wrong place. Thousands of trees had already been cut down when authorities realised their mistake and now, thousands more trees must be destroyed in the right place. Cynics are expecting the announcement of a new mall (or perhaps an Ottoman barracks?) to be built in the recently deforested construction spot.

The Taksim machete wielder from last week is in Morocco. After the public outcry at his release, a new arrest warrant was issued, but he had already providently left the country. At one point, it looked like he was actually going to be compensated by the state because he turned out to be one of the shop owners whose business had been adversely affected by the protests. At any rate, he can be neither compensated nor imprisoned now.

On a sombre note, the funeral of Ali Ismail Korkmaz, the most recent death resulting from the protests, was held in his hometown of Antakya, on the Syrian border. It was followed by a protest, attended by thousands of people, that was suppressed by police in their traditional manner.

Jul 13


Ramadan started yesterday with an extraordinary scene on Istiklal street: as the sun set, an outdoor picnic organised by the Anti-Capitalist Muslim Group welcomed one and all to celebrate iftar (the breaking of the fast) in a long, snaking line of rugs down the pedestrianized street. The leftist Muslims were overseen by suspicious riot police and their trusty water canons as they broke their fast. Up on Taksim Square, the municipality hosted a more formal outdoor iftar with restaurant-style, white-clothed tables and uniformed waiters. The Istiklal iftar happened again tonight, and I hope it will continue for the whole month of Ramadan.

A fifth person, 19 year old Ali Ismali Korkmaz, has died as a result of the protests. He was attacked on 2nd June by men in civilian clothes who have not yet been found, and died as a result of his injuries.

The Turkish government sold 2.5 billion US dollars yesterday to try and retain the value of the Turkish lira after it plummeted post-protests.

At midnight last night, a bill was hastily passed in parliament to limit the power of the Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB) after it spoke out in support of the Gezi protests.

I found this lucid explanation of events posted anonymously on Facebook:

“You are your country’s omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient prime minister and you are angry at a union of trade chambers for blocking your plans to redevelop a major public square and demolish a park at your own will. The project in question has triggered the largest anti-government demonstrations in your country’s modern history, to which you have responded with generous doses of brutality, animosity and denial. The union, which represents 23 chambers and over 400,000 engineers and architects, has dared to use its legal right to demand a judicial review of the project and managed to procure a court order to have it suspended. You’ve had your police repeatedly raid their offices and finally arrest their representatives, but they have not budged.

Here is how you use your parliamentary majority to put those ungrateful troublemakers in their place: You call for a last minute session at midnight. You present a draft law that increases ministerial supervision over all trade chambers, cuts their income and curtails their ability to review and approve relevant public projects. You throw the draft law in a package of 50+ unrelated revisions lumped together to fast-track legislative change. You read out, vote for and approve the whole thing in a matter of hours.

And then you call it a democracy. We simply call it Turkey.”

Finally, my favourite news of the day: Sırrı Sureyya Önder, the charismatic bulldozer-fighting MP, champion of Gezi park, gave a brilliant speech in parliament ridiculing the government’s development projects, pointing out that only about five companies ever win government tenders, and that their supposedly pedestrianized development project in Taksim Square would be missing anywhere for pedestrians to walk. It was a treat to watch, and the best bit was when he dramatically exposed his tummy to show the bruise he received when a tear gas canister hit him in Taksim Square. To the consternation of fellow ministers, he left the podium and went around showing them photos of his bruise in its riper days on his mobile phone. This man is wonderful.


Jul 13

Gezi Park: A Poisoned Apple


Yesterday at 5PM I wandered, disbelieving, into a newly opened Gezi Park. Gone was any trace of the hundreds of protesters who had lived there for weeks. It was pristine in a slightly surreal way: perfect, freshly planted flowerbeds, newly running waterfalls and a few locals wandering around as if nothing had happened. There was something not quite right, however: officials wearing fluorescent vests proclaiming themselves “Özel Güvenlik” (Private Security) hung around eyeing up anyone who stood out – the octogenarian sitting serenely on a bench with an enormous Turkish flag in his hand, or the father and his teenage son wearing matching t-shirts with the slogans: “Everyday I’m çapulling” (a popular refrain during the protests, after Erdogan referred to protesters as çapulcular – looters).

The park felt a bit like something beautiful but sour, a sinister counterfeit, but at the time I thought I was imagining things. After about an hour of wandering around I heard a familiar chant start up: “Her yer Taksim, her yer direnis!” (Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!” A small crowd had gathered under some trees, perhaps thirty people, and immediately there were riot police everywhere – the borders of the park were lined with them, and as I left they were stopping people getting in and arguing with enraged locals who demanded to be let into the park that had been confiscated and then falsely promised them.

The square was already shut and taped off. As I walked round, I noticed a battalion of female riot police standing near the park – a new sight. On Istiklal I saw hundreds more police – they must have been at the ready for some time, and some were already putting on their gas masks. Ten minutes later, I encountered people with streaming eyes who had been chased down from Taksim Square by police – many were in their suits, having just got off the metro from work.

It would be naïve to expect police not to be anxious about people re-occupying the park. But this response to a few people chanting was totally uncalled for: a reported 80 people were arrested last night (many of them at least a kilometre from the park), hundreds more gassed, fired at and water cannoned. Residents were asked aggressively whether they were protesters by non-uniformed thugs. Last night for the first time, ordinary locals were united in rage; when I finally returned to my flat via a circuitous backstreet route, I found one of my neighbours screaming at a line of police at the end of our road. He was backed up by several others: they were fed up of the intrusion into their lives, the police searches, the heavy-handedness. A friend of mine was searched and asked why he was carrying swimming goggles.

“They’re for swimming, mate” answered my friend amiably.
“No they’re not.”
“Well, since you ask, they’re to protect my eyes from the poisonous gas which you are in the habit of throwing at us. Can I pass?”

A word on Turkish politics: last week I explained how the main opposition party, the CHP, are defined by their reactionary policies – they disagree with anything the ruling AKP says on principle. I would like to modify that and extend the criticism to the AKP. This morning I read that a bill was put to vote in parliament yesterday, and defeated by the very party which had proposed it: the AKP. The bill included some reforms to rural healthcare, and the CHP, unusually, voted in favour of these reforms. AKP deputies automatically voted against them, assuming that they had been put forward by the CHP, so the proposal could not pass. In the words of CHP deputy Haydar Akar:

“They [AKP deputies] do not read the laws, they do not follow Parliament. They are not present in the assembly hall, they come in running when there is voting and look at each other puzzled.”

As I have said, the CHP are guilty of this kind of behaviour too, but it is amusing to see that the AKP are equally clueless and sheep-like. Apparently, once the AKP deputies realised that they had scored an own goal they tried to get a re-vote but it was too late – the proposal was beyond recall. Luckily for the government, their police force are more than in control of events on the ground.

Jul 13

Machetes and Parliamentary Fisticuffs

machete man

Last night police stopped people trying to enter Taksim Square with clouds of tear gas and water canons: so far, so normal. What was unexpected was a group of machete-wielding men rampaging in the streets around Taksim Square. These men were ignored by police, who talked to them briefly and let them get on with lunging at passers-by. The “machetes” are, on closer inspection of the footage, the specialized blades used in the preparation of kokoreç or sheep’s intestines, a popular Turkish street food – I have also seen them used to cut up onions and tomatoes. The men wielding them wear white shirts and dark trousers, possibly employees of the same kokoreç-selling establishment. The knives were not used but they were of terrifying size – I would not be surprised if the men had been instructed to frighten protesters away but not shed blood. Instructed by whom? We cannot say. But it is interesting that peaceful protesters have their goggles and masks confiscated by police while thugs brandishing enormous knives are waved on their way. If we have a situation where not only secret police but paid pro-government thugs are on the loose, things might get very nasty indeed. This government will literally have blood on their hands.

Footage below from the Dogan news agency.

Last night I tried to cross the square with a friend and we were stopped by police. As we stood, pondering which backstreet route to take to Istiklal St, a policeman sitting nearby told us to get going – we were not allowed to stand there. I am so pleased the Standing Man has left such a legacy.

Gezi Park is set to open today but that might not happen in the current climate of uncertainty and violence. Last night’s trouble would be the perfect excuse to keep it closed, much better than the excuse given hitherto, namely that municipal workers have been beautifying the park with new flower beds. This process has taken several weeks, making the AKP look like nice environmentalists while conveniently preventing anyone getting back in the park.

Later today, the First Annual Gas Man Festival will be held in Kadikoy on the Asian side of town, a festival which ironically celebrates the tear gas used during the Gezi protests. It is to be hoped that it will bring back a bit of the air of celebration and solidarity which characterised Gezi Park a few weeks ago.

Last night in parliament, a CHP minister tried to interrupt an AKP minister talking about the finer points of a new bill. He wanted to know whether the AKP had investigated the identities of the machete-wielding men. His questions were ignored, until an undignified scuffle broke out between CHP and AKP ministers and Mehment Emin Dindar, an AKP deputy, had his eyebrow split by someone in the melée.

This, to me, was an incident of exquisite absurdity given the situation in Taksim.

Jul 13

Egyptian Alarm Bells and Criminal Doctors

Recent events in Egypt have really spooked the Turkish authorities. First came a statement from the AKP’s spokesman Huseyin Celik calling Egypt “backward” for staging a military coup (the AKP have worked hard on reducing the power of the Turkish military so that coups are now extremely unlikely here. Erdogan recently boasted that Turkey is “coup-proof”.) Now, the Foreign Minister Davutoglu is demanding that Morsi is released from house arrest and has reminded everyone that “Leaders who come to power with open and transparent elections reflecting the will of the people can only be removed by elections, that is to say, the will of the nation.” He certainly does not want the Turkish public getting nasty ideas about deposing his boss.

The AKP’s refusal to admit that democracy is comprised of anything other than ballot box victories might be their undoing. Morsi was deposed because he did not measure up to expectations. He won at the ballot box, and did not deliver what he promised when he was persuading the Egyptian public to vote for him. Many Turks feel much the same way about Erdogan, which is why the AKP is insisting that voting is the only legitimate expression of public will.
Amusingly, Celik also said that foreign powers had “mobilized the streets” in Egypt and staged the coup. This chimes perfectly with the government’s account of the Gezi protests, which as everyone knows were staged by an eclectic mix of terrorists, journalists, Jews and interest rate lobbyers scheming in perfect harmony. Celik pointed out that the military probably could not solve Egypt’s economic problems – a reminder to Turks that their hard-won economic gains might be in jeopardy if nonsensical talk of coups start surfacing here.

Actions speak louder than words: I noticed that the main road leading to Taksim Square is swarming with municipal workmen pulling up the paving stones and replacing them with concrete. During the protests, people pulled up paving stones on this road to build makeshift blockades which prevented the police tanks coming up to the square. In future they will not be able to do so. The authorities are warning people off protests with scaremongering tactics, but they are also taking practical precautions in case the scaremongering does not work as well as hoped.

One of the most depressing developments of recent days has been a bill proposed to make it illegal for doctors to practice anywhere other than a specific licensed medical location. This bill is clearly in response to doctors treating injured protesters at the medical centres in Gezi Park; some were arrested for doing so. Aside from being a gross infringement of the Hippocratic Oath, the bill is incredibly irresponsible – what happens when there is an earthquake, or a car accident, or someone has a heart attack? The doctor who attempts to treat the victims of these untoward accidents or natural disasters will face fines and prosecution. This is the Turkish government at its most vindictive and morally repulsive.

Jul 13

Erdoğan Vs. Alcohol

erd dress
Erdogan is a religious teetotaller, which is fine, but he seems to be making his own choice a national policy, and resistance to this has been a significant element of the Gezi protests. I am particularly interested in the ways this personal moralistic crusade has been painted to the public, namely as an attempt to improve public health and to protect the Turkish youth from a tragic descent into alcoholism. The Prime Minister’s views on the subject are well known, and there have been many instances in the past few years where he has offered life coaching advice to the Turkish public, for example the catchy one-liner: “Eat grapes, don’t drink wine”. He recently declared that the national drink was no longer rakı (alcoholic) but ayran, a non-alcoholic drink made of yoghurt. Most seriously for nationalist Turks, he has insinuated that Atatürk was a drunkard (true or not, this was a massive faux pas).

For some, the latest alcohol restricting law of May 2013 has been the last straw. Among many other things, it dramatically limits the sale and advertisement of alcohol, dictates that bottles of alcohol must carry graphic health warnings, like cigarette packets, and all films or programmes on television must have images of alcoholic drinks blanked out (like on Iranian television), so actors look like they are drinking pixelated blurs. Egeman Bağış, the EU minister, defended the law to EU ministers on the grounds that some parts of it have been approved by the World Health Organisation, such as the ban on selling alcohol from 10PM to 6AM. Bağış pointed out that it is unfair to accuse the AKP of Islamic authoritarianism when countries like Sweden implement the same rules.

This would be a fair point, if it were not belied by more sinister elements of the law, for example the seemingly innocuous rule that no licenses will be given to shops or restaurants within 100m of either a school or mosque. In urban areas, everywhere is 100m from either a school or mosque. No new licenses will be given. And there is widespread concern among shops, bars and restaurant owners who already hold licenses that these will not be renewed when the time comes. For me, the censoring of alcohol on television is the most distasteful part of the law because it seems more like moral censorship than anything else. Alcohol has become a moral failing, something we must be protected from. Images of cigarettes are already blurred on Turkish television, and there is slightly more of a case for this as a purely health-related rule (though I still think it is unnecessary and ridiculous – try watching Casablanca and taking Humphrey Bogart seriously with a constant blur around his mouth). Alcohol is a risk when it is abused, but it is also an important part of Turkey’s heritage. Whether Erdogan likes it or not, rakı is Turkey’s national drink. Let it remain so and stop being so sanctimonious.

(N.B: the photograph above is not photoshopped)