Walking through Taksim’s Gezi Park on a warm Friday evening took me back a few years, a time when I frequently visited the park to study, relax and to escape the daily grind that was Istanbul. As a student living in the city this beautiful piece of greenery was a frequent place for me to slip away, to be alone and to feel like a local.
Visiting the park for the first time since the recent demonstrations and protests and for the first time since my time abroad, brought a sense of both nostalgia and pause. The park holds a special place in the heart of many who call Istanbul home and I was no exception during my stay in the city that straddles both East and West.
Makeshift shops were set up selling t-shirts and merchandise with #OccupyGeziAs I strolled through the park last week, shortly after it was reopened by the city, the Gezi Park I remembered from years ago remained but something had changed. Yes, it was still bustling with people. Vendors were ever-present selling simit and çay, in both English and Turkish. People were sprawled out on benches and on the grass waiting to break their fast and celebrate Iftar with their friends and families. The park was filled with beautiful flowers as children played on the playground. As I continued my walk and sat on a bench, I paused and looked deep inside to ask myself what had changed. The park I recalled remained, but the mood had changed, the atmosphere was different and the times tense.
Speaking with people in Istanbul during my visit, I got the sense that those who were apolitical only a few months ago, were now identifying an opportunity to change their future and to highlight problems with the Turkish democracy.
I also sensed a degree of frustration of some who saw the devastation and aftermath of what Gezi brought their country and city. Ismail Okan, 20, is just one example.
Ismail, who sat with me in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, told me:
“Gezi protesters were not there for a park. They want to (bring) down Erdogan with protests because they can’t win in elections.” With a hint of sarcasm, Ismail says that “yes, they are so democratic - they don’t want to wait for elections and (they) don’t know what to want for Turkey.”
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I was indeed frustrated and dismayed when I was walking on Istiklal Caddesi, a main thoroughfare leading to Taksim, on July 13 when crowds of people began running toward me to escape the police, who fired tear gas and water cannons. Escaping into a nearby store, I watched the police move by with their gas masks on, ready to prevent any sort of repeat of the demonstrations that shook the nation.
Despite my brief experience on Istiklal, being in Istanbul only a few days after the reopening of Gezi Park was a joyous occasion for me. Watching the events in Istanbul and Turkey over the past few months made me reminisce my time in Turkey and my fond memories of a park that I had grown attached to.
But things change, times change. Being in Gezi Park, knowing what had transpired only some time ago and the underlying problems that remain, continued to swirl in my head.
A memorial to those killed, set up at Gezi, attracted the attention of many, including a lot of foreigners. Makeshift shops were set up selling t-shirts and merchandise with ‘#OccupyGezi’, 'çapulcu' and 'Everyday I’m Capuling' messages available for purchase (and no shortage of people seemingly wanting to buy them).
Despite the violence, the anti-government protests, the response by the police and the massive amounts of damage that was done to both property and to the economy, Gezi Park remains and has once more opened itself to citizens and foreigners alike.
The discontent was initially sparked over a park and the fear that it would be closed and forgotten. My wish is that it will still be there when I return next time and that I’ll be able - once again - to experience the memories of a city and park that I fell completely in love with.
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