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Live from Gezi Park, an interview with Istanbul Pride Week organizer Emre Sağlam / by Max Pearl

Three days before we were supposed to get on a plane to Istanbul, I received an email with the subject heading, “Turkey police clash with Istanbul Gezi Park protesters.” I scanned the news piece. “Demonstrators had held a four-day sit-in at Gezi Park, angry at plans to redevelop that part of Taksim Square,” it read. Then I hit Twitter and saw the #occupygezi tags starting to populate my feed. Fuck it, we’re still going.

I had been kettled by cops, jostled by kids with handkerchiefs over their faces, and fed a fairly decent bean soup by anarchists in NYC’s financial district a year and a half earlier. I had been to a dozen-or-so rallies against Israeli apartheid in Boston’s Back Bay, and at the Israeli consulate in midtown. But I had never witnessed overturned news trucks, or felt the sting of tear gas in my eyes (which I mostly avoided in the weeks that followed). When my friends found out we were headed to Istanbul in the middle of a revolution, they gave us a field recorder and said that if we didn’t report back they’d be pissed.

Erica and I stepped off the plane into a bright Turkish afternoon. By this time, the first episodes of violence had reached their apex and were beginning to dwindle out, as cops prepared to retreat from the park and surrounding neighborhoods. In the early evening we checked into our hostel in Galata, a historic neighborhood centered around a nine-story stone tower built in the 14th century by the Genoese colonial army. The chunky cobblestones made our already-embarrassing rolling backpacks click loudly, as if everyone didn’t already know we were tourists. The TV in the kitchenette was showing footage from ongoing protests in Ismir and Ankara. The hostel was mostly empty. It was a weird time to be in Istanbul.

Over the next ten days, we tried to wrap our heads around not only the country’s sprawling, incredibly complicated political history, but we ultimately confronted the fact that our vision of a vacation full of clubbing, art openings, and fabulous dinners on the Bosphorus was going to have to wait. Fuck a film biennial or an outdoor techno festival—all of that was on hold. Instead, we got to see a city in revolt. Our nights mostly consisted of eating small plates of spiced meat and pickled meze dishes, drinking Yeni Raki, and perusing the occupied park, which at times resembled something more like a festival than a rally. The whole thing—complete with sound systems, cheap kebab, beer coolers, lending libraries, and the requisite People’s Kitchen—made poor Zucotti Park look like after-school detention or a meeting of small town bureaucrats. On the night of our arrival we had seen footage of protesters hijacking a tractor and chasing police vehicles through the neighborhoods north of Taksim, but by the second night of our stay, the police had retreated. We came at a special time when the cops had given protestors a weeklong respite from the head-bashing and tear-gassing, and the occupied Gezi park had turned into a utopian carnival.

Gas masks, safety goggles, and graffiti accoutrements on sale like souvenirs, from the area's main strip, Istiklal Cadessi

Hundreds of Kurdish men and boys were dancing in circles to Arabic pop, career activists were tabling with their pamphlets about alienation and wage labor, and stone-faced political hip hop groups were striking a b-boy stance on the main stage. Ultra-nationalist soccer jocks who make the British National Party look like care bears were waving flags depicting Turkey’s late military dictator Ataturk. And at the same time, the LGBT bloc was out in full force with their bedazzled signs and asymmetrical haircuts singing along to Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

One night somebody covered John Lennon’s “Imagine” and literally thousands of people sang along. If I was not so moved by the entire experience I probably would have cringed at all the twee. Protesters had appropriated a nearby Starbucks that had refused to shelter the injured and during the daytime were distributing food and supplies out of it. The People’s Starbucks™.

We came back to the park almost every night, when we weren’t staying across the Bosphorus on the Asian side of the city. Friends on Facebook had linked us up with a group of Turkish nationals who had studied in New England, or lived in Brooklyn and had come back to lecture at universities or build start-ups. We were lucky when they invited us to meet them on our second night in Istanbul, and surprised that they were willing to tolerate two clueless but enthusiastic tourists.

On the fourth night of our stay I’m a bit ashamed to say we were eating at a Brooklyn-inspired locavore restaurant that was run out of a first-floor living room in an apartment building in Beyoglu. The food wasn’t great—but whatever—and we stumbled out a little bit wine-drunk onto the landing of the apartment building’s large staircase. You could hear incessant Vespa-honking, groups of marchers singing Turkish nationalist songs that I wish I remembered, the sound of pots and pans banging from living rooms and stoops.

There was a steady stream of androgynous kids in crusty attire holding big bottles of cheap beer walking down from the second floor, and we figured there must be some uber-cool secret bar or something upstairs. We snuck up and onto the threshold of a huge, empty loft with folding chairs and a few kids still straggling, chatting with each other in hushed tones. I mustered up enough courage to peek my head in, clear my throat, and ask them if anybody spoke English. They all did.

Turns out we had the good luck to wander into the headquarters of Lambdaistanbul, a branch of the international LGBT rights organization, and we had even better luck when, after explaining that we were from New York and had ties to Occupy Wall Street, they offered to let us tag along with them to a particularly big night at the park.

Emre Sağlam is a tall, skinny human with eyeliner, neat facial hair, and the cosmopolitan swag of an art star. They are a member of Istanbul’s gay pride week planning committee, an event that exploded in size and visibility this year due to the momentum of the Gezi Park protests. Emre answered our questions about that moment in history as we made our way through throngs of gasmask-wearing protesters, past stone buildings painted thick with graffiti slogans. We have since corresponded by email and this transcription is an edited composite of the few conversations we had in two parts—first in Taksim Square, then online.

—Max Pearl

Erica Schapiro-Sakashita: So why are you rallying here tonight?

Emre Sağlam: The occupation movement was started by environmental protestors who wanted to stop Tayyip Edrogan’s regime from cutting down trees in Gezi Park and turning it into a shopping mall. But people are also here protesting against his politics and his economic policies. We are here protesting as LGBT people in Istanbul to show that there’s a queer community here. We’re here alongside all the little subcultural and sub-political societies in this protest, but we’re getting bigger and bigger every day.

Max Pearl: So there’s an intersection of many interests here at Taksim—how does queer liberation fit in here?

Emre: Queer people don’t have any rights from the government, and this occupation created a place for us to spread our voices to the whole people.

Max: So you think that these protests are helping make queer visibility possible?

Emre: Yeah, of course, and there is a lot of powerful feedback we’ve gotten from heteronormative society.

Erica: What other movements are represented here?

Emre: There are Kurdish movements, liberal movements, socialist people, there are lots of seculars in here. Also fans of [the late military dictator and ultra-nationalist] Mulata Kemal Ataturk, Republican party fans, feminists and anarchists. I was totally surprised to see all of these people with opposing views reconcile over the course of a night.

Max: Among the many discussions, there’s a lot of talk about public space. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Emre: We don’t want shopping malls in Istanbul. There are 94 shopping malls in Istanbul. We want to this place to be an actual society—parks, cinemas, theaters. They demolished our first cinema during this development process. Maybe you know about the Emek theatre.

Max: Was that an important place?

Emre: Yeah. It was the first festival venue in Istanbul—they destroyed it to make a shopping mall.

At this point the three of us had made our way into Gezi Park, and Emre told us they had to meet a friend who was waiting for them in the tent city. We couldn’t hear much over the sound of fireworks and groups of men singing, so we parted ways and found each other later, but didn’t get to continue our interview until two months later, over email and Facebook. The second part of our interview was significantly less hectic.

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Max: So, have you felt a lasting effect in Istanbul since the protests?

Emre: I believe that the movement turned into something more concrete. After these events, the government knew it couldn’t destroy Gezi park, and now there are hundreds of regular forum meetings throughout Turkey. It's hard to imagine that many people meeting every night, in their own backyards, to talk politics about their country.

Many of us also built important, lasting social networks during the Gezi movement. People from the movement now know each other and we can contact each other in a second.

Max: Did you take part in protests prior to Gezi Park?

Emre: Yes—I attended protests after the assassination of Hrant Din, a journalist who wrote about Armenian genocide in Turkey, as well as LGBT pride protests (I say pride as a protest cause we haven’t gotten our legal rights yet), and Kurdish rights protests. The last protest I attended was for the five people who were killed during the Gezi movement.

Istanbul Pride 2013

Max: How did the LGBT camp at Gezi Park get started?

Emre: The LGBT bloc was actually built in one night. When we got back into the park after police retreated, some of us had rainbow flags and placards on our hands. We all know each other and we wanted to do a sit-in together. We didn’t know if the police were going to strike again and we wanted to stay together as LGBT people—it's the mindset of minorities. That first night we brought a table and put some water and gas masks on it, and in the morning people from different groups brought food, hygiene stuff and medical supplies to our table. Other LGBT people throughout Turkey began talking about the bloc, and suddenly we became a new formative LGBT group in Turkey. It worked so successfully.

Max: With so many different interest groups in the park, did you ever experience tension or animosity towards you?

Emre: I never saw anything hateful happen in LGBT bloc. People were totally surprised and shocked because their stereotypes about LGBT people totally collapsed during these movements. LGBT Bloc was one of the main groups in the first day of the occupy movement, and we were fighting with the police too. People began apologizing to us for their homophobic and transphobic behaviors.

Football fans recently declared that from now on there won't be any homophobic or transphobic chants in the stadiums—this was a first for Turkey. And also this year roughly 100,000 people attended LGBT pride in Turkey because of Gezi events. In 2012 we only walked with 25,000 people. I believe this occupation movement has awakened the new generation in Turkey.

Max: When we last spoke we were talking about shopping malls and the destruction of important cultural sites. This article even refers to the process as "gentrification" which I think is interesting. Can you talk more about that?

Emre: Gentrification started in 2002 during the AKP's first year in Turkish politics. They proffered a housing model called TOKİ that transferred people living in old, damaged houses or shanties here to the suburbs of Istanbul. These suburbs had many problems with electricity and water—we still have electricity problems in the year of 2013 in Istanbul, a city that is an Olympic candidate.

Another type of gentrification has been taking place in an area called Tarlabasi—it's very close to Taksim. After the military coup of the 80s, most of the city’s minority groups— Kurdish, Armenian, black and trans* people—created their own community in Tarlabasi. Residents weren’t able to maintain or repair their old and damaged houses, so the government needed to "sterilize" the area because of its location close to [the bustling tourist district] Taksim.

The AKP government does not want to see that in the center of Istanbul–it’s clear watching Istanbul's promotional video for the Olympics. When I saw it first, I needed to look outside from the window to reassure myself, “yes, I’m still in Istanbul.”

Photos via Dis Magazine, Facebook, and Max Pearl.

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