I arrived in Istanbul on Friday evening. As I left the airport, one of the first views of Istanbul was a large shopping mall in the Atakoy district (here). What is more symbolic of neoliberal capitalism and consumerism taking over a country than the spread of shopping malls? This sentiment was certainly at the heart of what initially started the protests in Gezi Park at the end of last May (details here). I hope to expand on this further as I meet some protestors in the next week.
After Friday night traffic and an interesting conversation on gender with my female taxi driver, I arrived at Divan Hotel, located across from Gezi Park. The hotel hosted one of the memorable moments of the protests, when it opened its doors to the protestors running away from tear gas and water cannons. The video of a protestor sitting in the Divan Hotel lobby minutes after swallowing tear gas and playing a beautiful tune from the movie Good Bye Lenin was widely shared on social media. There was no trace of those days (less than two months ago) as I entered the hotel lobby. However, as we approached the hotel in the neighborhood of Taksim, I saw groups of police walking the streets. It was not immediately apparent why there was any need for groups of police to be patrolling what appeared to be rather calm streets on a Friday evening.
Before dinner, I went to Gezi Park with two friends, both of whom were at the protests from the beginning, and one of whom has been active in grassroots organizing throughout the protests, or Direnis (Resistance), as the protestors have referred to it. Gezi Park was calm, with people scattered around on the grass enjoying a summer evening throughout the park. My friends told me that since the protests the park had been cleaner and safer for all to enjoy- a successful outcome of civil disobedience. Walking around the neighborhood at night, there were only some remnants of the protests: a water cannon waiting quietly in a side street, undercover police in civilian clothes roaming the park, walls with ugly grey patchwork paint to cover the graffiti from the protests, and a memorial to those who had died during the protests (pictures to come later). As I understand, there are still occasional protests complete with police use of gas and pressurized water, but they are in other Istanbul neighborhoods and other Turkish cities.
My first evening in Istanbul left me thinking about a book I am reading: Corpus Anarchicum: Political Protest, Suicidal Violence, and the Making of the Posthuman Body by Hamid Dabashi. In June, during the height of the protests, I saw a documentary of street interviews with some protestors (unfortunately, in Turkish only). One man says that he is there “as a body” to protest the current government (starting at around 3:23 of the video). Roughly translated, he explains: “We are not poets, or film makers. They’ve written poems, made films; people have signed petitions on social media- none of it worked. The political system has left us no other choice, so we’ve come here as bodies to say to the government ‘we the people do not want you’.” Since I first listened to these words, I have been thinking about the human body as the most potent and crucial site of resistance against the State. I have written about the Muslim woman’s hair as a site of struggle between different political narratives (here, here, and discussed in this chapter), but the recent rise in protests around the world, especially since the Arab uprisings of 2011 (which I discuss in this symposium piece) have highlighted that the human body is increasingly the primary means of any sustained protest against power structures, including the State. This is especially true where the people perceive that they will not achieve justice through established formal legal and political means- from the Arab uprisings to the protests understandably objecting to the outcome of the Zimmerman trial (for example, here). I will expand more on this at the end of my trip, hoping that my discussions with the protestors will help crystallize my thoughts.