Editorial—Breaking Memory, Spoiling Memorization: The Taksim Protests in Istanbul

From the Series: An Impromptu Uprising: Ethnographic Reflections on the Gezi Park Protests in Turkey

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, licensed under CC BY SA.

The government of Turkey wanted to refashion Taksim Square, the public space most symbolically representative of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had big dreams, a huge imagination, as well as the power and means to implement any megaproject he set his mind to. The transformation of Taksim, so associated with Ataturk, Turkey’s founding leader, could mark Erdogan’s own ascendance to power, in the model of the sultans, the old Ottoman emperors. Erdogan had a neo-Ottomanist vision; he thought he could restore the grandeur of Istanbul, that once-upon-a-time of the Ottoman Empire, when the Sultan, with a seat at Topkapi Palace, ruled over his large portion of the earth with words between his two lips. So Erdogan imagined re-building the old Ottoman barracks which used to stand in what is now (still) Gezi Park in Taksim Square. This huge building would emblematize (in kitsch style and fashion) a return to the Ottoman Empire, its vision, its taste, its moral values, but most importantly, its power and authority in its territory as well as in the world.

This would not be a simple return to the past, of course. It would be done according to the rules, game, and vision of today’s neoliberal capitalism. What would the use of an old barracks be today if it were not employed as a shopping mall?—what Istanbul, the Turkish economy, and Turkey needed most! This building, huge in size and architectural proportions, would look over the Ataturk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square, so associated with Turkey’s Republican modernism, with its Western classical-music concerts, ballet performances, and theater.

So too would this new building transform the nature of the people visiting Taksim Square. Nearing Beyoglu, Taksim has been known as the hangout of Istanbul’s artistic and intellectual communities, the heart of Turkey’s creative sector, with cinemas, theaters, art galleries, museums, cafes, tavernas, bookshops, and publishing houses. It has been the meeting place for writers, artists, actors, academics, feminists, gays, lesbians, transvestites, leftists, environmentalists, taverngoers, and anyone who would feel ill-fit within the broader norms and values of Turkey’s established politics and society. A shopping mall could break this. “Everyone” could come to Taksim!

Moreover, Beyoglu—the old Pera district of Istanbul—had always been associated with the non-Muslim minorities of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, as well as with their closeness to “the West.” A culture of nostalgia for the bygone days of these minorities had developed among Istanbul’s intelligentsia in the last two decades and this had somewhat, and somehow, resurfaced the buried memory of the Greeks, Jews, and Armenians of Istanbul, especially of their once-upon-a-time visibility and presence in Beyoglu. This neighborhood was spotted with churches and synagogues, now used by the few remaining members of the non-Muslim communities. The dome of a Greek Orthodox church looked over Taksim Square. But, Erdogan thought, Taksim lacked a mosque. This too, alongside the barrack-mall, was among his visions of the future.

Memory could be broken; it could be manipulated; it could be reburied. This could be done again. And again. Power and architecture could be the best means employed to orchestrate this. A gigantic barrack-mall in the middle of Taksim Square could lay a permanent mark on the city, cover over the remains of the old Armenian cemetery that used to underlie what is now Gezi Park. An Ottoman barracks could orient collective memory in the direction of the old imperial city’s grandiosity. And it could wash over, once again and bombastically, those remaining bits and flashes of fragmented memory left behind from Istanbul’s largely evaporated minorities. Likewise, as a shopping mall, such a building could direct Istanbul (and therefore Turkey’s gaze) towards the future, rather than dwelling in memories of violence committed to others in the past. In sum, such a new structure would be truly multifunctional!

While the Turkish government wanted to break or re-orient memory, something unexpected took place instead. Spontaneously, and in the space of Gezi Park, that very site on which the government had laid its eyes and channeled its interests, a social formation emerged, a movement of diversities. On May 31, 2013, as the essays in this Hot Spots series testify, people from different walks of life began to make an appearance in Taksim Square to protest the government’s plans to build a shopping mall in the space of Gezi Park. People sat in the park. They started building tents. They wrote their wishes on paper, on cloth, and banners. They started dancing in the park, singing. They said they didn’t want the trees in the park to be uprooted, did not want a shopping mall. They didn’t like the government’s grandiose ideas, did not find them appealing. They found them offensive.

This core and basic reaction attracted the diverse and long-term grievances of a wide array of people from different social classes, political affiliations, and leanings onto the park and square, as well as Istiklal street in Beyoglu, in anti-government demonstrations. It was no longer just the prospective shopping mall that people were protesting; they were crying out all their issues with the AKP government of Tayyip Erdogan: its conservative and repressive moralist approach to governing society, its authoritarianism, its crackdown on intellectuals by restricting freedom of expression, its neoliberal development plans, its destruction of nature with the building of gigantic hydroelectric terminals, its takeover of Istanbul’s old quarters and neighborhoods for neoliberal gentrification projects, its long-term repression of Kurds and of non-Muslim minorities, and its lack of a sense of humor.

The people in the park and on the square had not been part of a unified social formation before. Many had never taken part in a demonstration tout court. Some thought of themselves as apolitical. Others who belonged to social movements and groups had never sat side by side with the multiple other groups represented in the park. Unlikely brushes of the shoulder took place, surprising encounters between feminists and football fans, secularists and anti-capitalist Muslims, members of Istanbul’s bourgeoisie and the working classes, LGBT activists and professional lawyers, Kurds and Jews. Unpremeditated meetings. Unthought criss-crossings of purpose. And in response to the government’s breaking of memory, with its bulldozers, tear gas tanks, and plastic bullets, the protesters spoiled memorization.

Spoiling memorization (ezberi bozmak) is a Turkish idiom. It refers to redoing that which is taken-for-granted. It implies creativity, innovation. It points at an intrinsic remaking of that which has been transmitted down the line. A play with accepted norms. A shuffling of cards. A surprise move. A joke. A newness. Fresh air. In all these senses, the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul could be interpreted as having spoiled memorization. These protests have not allowed themselves to be placed in any known frameworks of analysis such as secularism versus Islam, modernists versus traditionalists, liberals versus conservatives, the bourgeoisie versus the working classes, left versus right, cosmopolitans versus nationalists, feminists versus sexist men, gay rights activists versus homophobes. The protesters in the square represented all these inclinations, as well as none. Or rather, the way they expressed their sentiments and desires, spoke their minds and hearts, fitted with no predisposed lenses. Instead, what was remarkable was the creativity and humor , the turning of every governmental pronouncement topsy-turvy in carnivalesque fashion, the forming of solidarity across unlikely and uncommon political stances.

Social scientists in the square were surprised; so were anthropologists. Everyone was amazed to be part of this sui generis formation. New ground was broken in terms of analysis. Everything needed to be rethought, theories reconsidered, books rewritten. This was the thrill, the excitement, the euphoria of Gezi Park, the life energy it exuded, the hope it created. It broke everything out of their boxes. It enabled us all to imagine, think, and possibly be, otherwise. All in the midst of tear gas and plastic bullets and debris.