Oray Egin reports on the continuing protests in Turkey, why they began in Gezi Park and what the writers of the country owe to those marching on the streets

It was a small, insignificant park at the centre of Istanbul. For years it served as a gay cruising area at night, but during the day families with children spent time there as it was one of the last remaining green spaces. Many couples got married at the adjacent registry office. Almost all Istanbulians have memories in the park, but none of these mattered to the administration of the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (the AKP). Their decade-long rule of Turkey brought along a construction boom, and the Gezi Park was the latest to face a similar destiny.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first conceived of a construction project at the site of the park when he was the mayor of Istanbul, in the early 90s. He didn’t get enough support then, but as a powerful premier, with 50 per cent support from the electorate, he revisited his original idea. His wish was to rebuild the Ottoman era military barracks torn down by the 50s government to make way for green space. “It may be a hotel, or a residence with shops on the ground floor,” Erdoğan recently announced.

Urban transformation projects in Turkey rarely involve public opinion, therefore the bulldozers entered the Gezi Park without much delay after Erdoğan’s statements. But that tiny park triggered a country-wide demonstration against the government when a small group, of about 20 to 30 people, stood against the bulldozers and saved a tree.

Soon after, the word got out via Twitter and involved more people frustrated with the government’s policies – not only environmental, but an accumulation of frustration. Thousands marched to Taksim Square, where the Gezi Park is located, and similar protests erupted in dozens of other Turkish cities. Police dealt brutally with protesters using tear gas bombs and water cannons. There are numerous injuries, including a protester who lost an eye, and even a civilian casualty.

Turkey’s media, out of fear of the government, remained silent for days. The country’s first privately owned news network, NTV, became the focus of heavy criticism. The network is part of a large conglomerate which also owns Garanti Bank, one of the largest in Turkey. On Monday, its shares dropped 9 per cent and more than 1,500 customers closed their accounts. The network’s executive issued an apology the next day: “We were wrong.”

“It’s significant that the protest started over a tree,” says Buket Uzuner, a novelist who’s working on a quartet inspired by nature. “But of course, it is not only about a park, all of us are frustrated. And for the first time in ten years we’ve had the will to say enough.”

Indeed, the Gezi Park protests were ignited because of the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule and threats to secular lifestyles. Just recently, a bill banning alcohol sales from 10pm until 6am was passed by the government. A symbol of the Istanbul Film Festival, the historic Emek Theatre, was torn down and is now being converted into a shopping mall. Added to this is the intimidation of free press.

“For me one of the biggest issues is censorship and self-censorship,” adds Uzuner. “I was writing in the 70s as well, during military rule, and I can honestly say that the pressure wasn’t as severe as today.”

Most recently, many of Turkey’s leading writers, including Uzuner, O.Z. Livaneli, Latife Tekin, Mehmet Murat Somer, Ece Temelkuran and Ayse Kulin signed a petition calling for an independent council to be formed that will hear the people’s demands and stop police brutality. “I believe that among those protesters are people who grew up reading my books,” says Uzuner. “I owe it to them to raise my voice, support them, and even march with them.”

About the Author

Oray Egin is a journalist and a writer based in Istanbul and New York. You can follow him on Twitter @orayinenglish

Additional Information

This special edition of PEN Atlas is in response to events in Turkey, and will be followed by a piece tomorrow by Mario Levi on The Sounds of Istanbul.