When a small group of environmentalists and liberals started sleeping in a small, overlooked park next to Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, slated for replacement by a mall, I thought little aside from being infused by a private kind of sadness. It meant the adding of another brick to the tomb of Levantine Pera, the minority district par excellence where the cosmopolitan, multilingual melting pot of the late Ottoman Empire lived, worked, worshipped, mingled and partied.
My great-grandparents lived in this city atop a hill crowned by the Galata Tower. The streets were lined with elegant 19th century Parisian-style apartment blocks and bohemian commercial passages. Mossy medieval churches hid within inner courtyards, where the passing of time was compressed into a continuum marked only by the screeching of seagulls.
This district withered when its people emigrated or were deported in successive waves from around the time of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s.
The new republic that was established focused on crafting a Turkish Sunni Muslim identity, and did not hesitate to communicate this to its hundreds of thousands of Armenian, Greek, Jewish and Levantine citizens through prejudicial taxes, pogroms and direct deportations. Once the non-Muslims were gone, the republic confronted some of its Muslim citizens, too, discriminating against Kurds and Alevis.
Around the world, as news of the protests in Istanbul spread and those same forgotten streets became the backdrop to breaking news bulletins, thousands of the descendants of the Armenians, Greeks and Jews who left Pera (today known as the district of Beyoğlu) and spread across the five continents, might have reached for stiff, black-and-white images of that once-renowned area—perhaps showing their well-dressed ancestors as part of the crowds thronging the Grande Rue de Pera. This commercial avenue survives in diminished form today as İstiklal Avenue, an uninspiring, paved-over shadow of its former self, shorn of its trees and lined with second-class branded clothes emporiums, fast-food outlets and tourist-trap cafes. The entertainment district of bars and clubs that extended on either side of İstiklal was dealt a blow in 2011, when the government banned outdoor seating from its winding lanes.
I also share with the descendants of Pera’s immigrants those photographic mementoes and reported memories. But having made a high-ceilinged, early 20th century Greek apartment block my home for the past few years—just down the hill from İstiklal and within teargas range of Taksim Square—the protests acquired a greater urgency for me.
As the police brutally cleared out the protesters and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s confrontational comments escalated, the images from Istanbul migrated from the semi-private digital corridors of social media to the international news channels. Suddenly, as with Tahrir Square in 2011 and the 2009 Tehran protests, they were part of the global consciousness.
Inside Gezi Park, the demonstrators dug in and started holding proto-democratic assemblies similar to those of Zucotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protest. It soon became obvious that the protest over the park signaled the coming-out of a generation with a new mentality—one that largely surpassed the Kemalist-versus-Islamist politics of yesteryear. But most of the protesters had no idea of the symbolism and historical background of the district they were fighting to save. Another legacy of the Turkish Republic was an almost total separation from their history.
In the middle of Taksim, at an independence memorial, a protester thrummed a melody on a concert piano as an audience of protesters listened. A few steps farther on, a man in gas mask and goggles stood sentinel atop a burned-out, flipped-over car marking the entrance of a medieval-looking tent city resounding to music, chatter and the sounds of a hitherto apolitical generation attaining consciousness.
This protest came to a sudden end at dusk on Saturday, June 15, as a concert wound down inside the park and news crackled through the congested pathways that, a hundred meters away, the riot police were donning masks and helmets. Then, sound and light grenades detonated at the periphery, followed by teargas canisters plopping through the trees, trailing fizzing tails of white smoke. Riot police advanced into the park and the barricades were crushed. The air swirled with stinging vapor; the ground writhed with the bodies of stunned people out for a Saturday afternoon promenade
That night, we managed to make our way through chaotic streets, exploding projectiles and lines of riot police to a long, narrow room on the third floor of a 19th-century arcade. A band was scheduled to play rebetika, the Greek- and Turkish-language songs inspired by the cosmopolitan port cities of the East Mediterranean. Its members, a group of Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian musicians, sat around moodily, picking at starters, their evening quite clearly cancelled.
But another sound started filtering through the walls: the protesting clash of pots on pans from the neighborhood’s windows, the pop of teargas canisters, and the protesters’ defiant shouts on İstiklal. Downstairs, the great metal doors of the passage clanged shut as protesters went into hiding from the police. Some of them joined us upstairs, and the patron distributed glasses of rakı, an anise-based liquor. Traces of teargas still hung in the room’s atmosphere when the musicians picked up their instruments and began playing leftist anthems last heard during the period of the Greek civil war. Now, they were infused with a new defiance.
The police’s brutal and premature clear-out of Taksim set the stage for clashes throughout the night as protesters tried and failed to retake the square. The next morning, I walked through a subdued Sunday market, past my local church and up a hill. The further I walked, the more my surroundings betrayed signs of recent—and ongoing—conflict.
That day, the last of the major clashes in Istanbul for the time being, remains hazy in my mind. But it is also punched through with searing recollections: neighborhood kids, some in their early teens, doggedly holding a barricade next to an Armenian cemetery, wreaths of teargas swathing the tombstones. An armored police vehicle advanced up İstiklal, scattering crowds in its wake. Protesters ran down a steep, cobbled lane as tear gas fizzed behind them. A crowd of thousands in the neighborhood of Cihangir was dispersed by advancing police units that beat and arrested those too slow to flee. Ships crammed with protesters arrived at Karaköy dock, chanting slogans and singing anthems. There was a fin-de-siècle feeling as I shared cigarettes and a beer with a friend at the foot of the tower of Galata and news spread that meat cleaver-yielding government loyalists were fanning out through nearby streets.
Late at night, a sudden, cleansing storm descended upon Istanbul. But the energy I can never forget is reserved for that magical triangle of land and water where the commercial districts of Karaköy and Eminönü connect to each other under the shadow of the great Ottoman mosques and across the Haliç channel—the Golden Horn—which, in turn, flows into the Bosporus. It was there that thousands of mostly teenage demonstrators formed human chains to shift bricks onto the barricades. After blocking the bridge across the Haliç, they removed the traffic cameras used by the government to identify protesters, lit fires and sat back, waiting for the police to arrive. A few minutes later, the government obliged, dropping tear gas canisters into the fleeing crowd. As I ran along with thousands of others, I wondered whether these venerable buildings—the banks and shipping agencies of late Ottoman Empire Istanbul—had witnessed any more compelling scenes in their long history.
Little significance can be attached to the unfolding of the weekend’s chaos against the backdrop of a neighborhood that was once a model of minority integration. But there is still a poignancy in that it is the very place that Turkey’s Islamizing leader—through a barrage of urban redesign and restrictions on public behavior, the sale of alcohol and nightlife—wants to “purify” and open to suitably religious tourists from the Arab Gulf region.
Beyoğlu, or Pera, is very much the kind of neighborhood that the Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy would have felt at home in and been creatively moved by: a district of grimy arcades, raucous taverns, dingy brothels and forgotten churches that encapsulated, in the early 20th century, the passing from the world of empires to the world of nation-states.
A century later, those nation states are in danger of being swept away by transnational ideologies, whether commercial, political or religious. The apostle of these ideologies in the Middle East is Islam-compatible neoliberalism, and its centrifugal forces are redesigning Beyoğlu in its image: gleaming shopping malls, splendiferous mosques, militaristic Ottoman barracks and a puritan literalism completely lacking the abstraction and nuance fostered in historical Pera’s decrepitude and decay.