It's not just about the trees-what's fueling the protests in Turkey?" /> First Person: Living Through Turkey's Summer of Discontent
National Geographic News
Protesters in Gezi Park.

Thousands of demonstrators began protesting in Gezi Park after an announcement that the green space would be razed for construction of a modern development.

Photograph by Saner Sen, NarPhotos/Redux

Julia Konmaz

for National Geographic News

Published June 17, 2013

Part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.

Our neighborhood in Istanbul has a new nightly alarm clock. In Turkish it's called tencere tava, which translates as "pots and pans." At 9 on the dot, people who live around us head to their balconies and windows to violently hit kitchenware with spoons as a mode of protest during the month that's rocked Turkey.

The first time I heard the sounds of  tencere tava, I was deeply touched; it was Saturday, June 1, and the entire city had burst into a mad cacophony of noise. Though no one was quite sure where it was all headed, the unity was profound, and the sounds, quite unforgettable. (Related: "Turkey Protests Shine Light on Tear Gas.")

We were just arriving home from a nearby restaurant; my husband was away on business, but my three kids and I longed to get out of the house and be near others, hoping to eavesdrop on what strangers were saying about the steadily intensifying Gezi Park protests. It was a few minutes past 9, and the insistent drumbeat enveloped us. We couldn't see our neighbors as we walked up the dark sidewalk, but we could certainly hear them.

Organized over Facebook—as so much else has been in recent days—this homegrown demonstration shows no signs of letting up; nor, for that matter, do the other forms of protest against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Though Erdoğan ordered Taksim, the city's central square, cleared of its unprecedented crowds and sealed off over the weekend, the protests had already filtered into every aspect of life. They've been unlike anything I've witnessed in the country since arriving in Istanbul in 1996 as a newlywed American who married into a Turkish family.

A new kind of societal unity is evident; it's reflected in the crowds in our neighborhood faithfully beating their pots and pans. Young and old, headscarved and not, male and female, wealthy and poor—everyone seems to have a spoon in hand, ready to make some noise.

Suddenly we're confronted with humor-laced street graffiti—before recent events I had rarely seen graffiti in Istanbul, let alone profanity directed at officials in high office. At malls, flash mobs use aggressive applause to force customers to abandon their tables at chain-based eateries perceived as being "hostile" to the Gezi Park uprising—an attempt to enforce a boycott of businesses with branches around the park, including Starbucks, that closed their doors to protesters during the police crackdown.

Social media has kept the drumbeat alive. Twitter was labeled a "nuisance" by Erdoğan, and last week in the city of Izmir, some 25 people were arrested for tweets that authorities claimed were inciting unrest. And while tencere tava may be the least bothersome aspect of the turmoil facing Erdoğan, the nightly chorus heard through every neighborhood in Istanbul is an indicator of just how deep-rooted the displeasure with his leadership has become.


Under Erdoğan's rule—his Justice and Development (AK) Party was elected in 2002—Turkey has leapt forward economically. Ambitious reforms have set the country on track toward EU accession, and this moderately religious government has also undertaken massive development projects with Turkey's future in mind, such as a third bridge spanning the Bosphorus—the strait dividing Istanbul's European and Asian sides—and a new international airport for the city.

Though these projects created a whirlwind of optimism and prosperity among some, they have also led to a backlash among environmentalists and others concerned about his response—ben yaparım or "I'll do it if I want"—to rampant building in the name of progress.

Rooted in another plan for development, the Gezi Park direniş, or "uprising," started out innocuously enough in late May with a few protesters sleeping in tents in a small park, vowing to block plans to raze the area. But on May 31, as Turkish police forced their way into the park, spraying pepper gas and putting on a show of excessive force that elicited anger from the Turkish public, Gezi Park catapulted onto the national agenda.


 A riot policeman sprays tear gas on a protester.
Turkish police officers use tear gas to disperse a crowd in Taksim Square in central Istanbul during a protest on May 28.

Photograph by Osman Orsal, Reuters


As demonstrations spread all over Turkey, Erdoğan continued to dismiss them as being about "some three to five trees being uprooted." Though Gezi Park is not the only green spot in the metropolis—Istanbul boasts some beautiful Ottoman-era parks like Emirgen and Yıldız—it is a rare patch of trees in the central city.

Intrusions into Private Life

But Gezi Park has come to symbolize something much larger than its trees. The direniş it sprouted seem to be the final domino in a series of moves engineered by Ankara that raised social tensions in April and early May.

There was the bill limiting sales and promotion of alcoholic drinks, passed by Parliament. Just weeks before, Erdoğan had declared that Turkey's national drink was not in fact rakı—a strong firewater favored by founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—but rather ayran, a very traditional, delicious, but decidedly non-alcoholic yogurt drink.

Drinking is a divisive issue; though far from being forbidden in this secular but mostly Muslim country, alcohol is a topic about which everyone seems to have an opinion, as to why they do or don't drink. A glass of beer or wine can often—though not always—say more about a person's socioeconomic status and worldview than any words they might speak.

Around the same time as the new alcohol restrictions, the city of Ankara hosted a "kiss-in" as a reaction to an announcement on the city subway system warning people to behave in "accordance with moral codes." Erdoğan's entreaties earlier in the year for Turks to have at least three children were perceived as yet another intrusion into private life.

But in the end, it was a small patch of green about to disappear in the middle of the city that sparked protests which look poised to shift Turkey's course, or at least halt its current direction. When thousands gathered in the dark morning hours of June 1, crossing the Bosphorus Bridge from Asia by foot over to Europe, heading in droves to Gezi Park and Taksim to join a demonstration against Erdoğan and his leadership, the noise was so loud I could hear them as I lay in bed, miles away.

Polarized Society

Since moving to Turkey nearly two decades ago, I have witnessed other critical events in its recent history, beginning with the February 1997 coup that toppled the country's first Islamic-led government. The ruling Welfare Party was banned, but its members, including Erdoğan, would soon reemerge in today's governing AK Party. It was the country's fourth and last coup; since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 with Ataturk, an army officer, at its helm, the military had served to guard the staunchly secular state he envisioned.

Turkish society has been polarized by that vision ever since—some vociferously embrace Ataturk's principles, while others, who might appreciate his place in history, find that religion has been far too suppressed. The conflict has had fuel poured over it from time to time too, as with the headscarf ban in Turkish universities, implemented a few decades ago and still in place.

When the overtly religious (though moderate) AK Party swept its first, second, and then third rounds of general elections, taking single-handed (as opposed to coalition) power in Ankara, it signaled an enormous shift. Voters not only selected a party with an entrepreneurial spirit, they supported one that didn't want to compromise on what it perceived as key cultural values and religious beliefs.


 Protesters hold flares.
Demonstrators bearing lit flares chant slogans during a protest in Taksim Square on June 4.

Photograph by Kostas Tsironis, AP


As a backdrop to political developments, the country has become more prosperous before my eyes, and also more livable. Malls are no longer filled with clouds of cigarette smoke; car seats for infants and toddlers—once rare—now abound. Monoliths of the old system, like the Turkish Postal, Telephone and Telegram company, have been privatized under the AK Party, leading to more efficient and faster service.

Democracy has permeated society in perhaps unexpected ways, too. The ban on headscarves in universities, a relic from a more strictly secular era, has been challenged under AK Party rule. One of the most striking aspects of the party's victory in 2002 was seeing the wives of the prime minister and the president in headscarves, a stark departure from the outward appearance of previous first ladies. Though large factions of society didn't approve, no one could deny that Turkey was breaking some long-held taboos.

Turkish Awakening

The Gezi Park protests seem to signal another transition, perhaps to a new middle ground. The pendulum swung, under the AK Party rule, away from the staunch secularity of past years, proving that a country can embrace a more conservative social path while also pursuing economic and geopolitical stability.

But now Turkey appears ready to abandon the black-and-white polarity of ayran versus rakı, or traditionalism versus modernity. As time goes on, Gezi Park may be adopted by more marginal groups and opposition political parties hoping to catch onto its coattails for future victories at the ballot box. Still, if any true victor is to emerge from these events, it will be the Turkish people, who this summer may finally be carving out more of a voice for themselves.

Molly Brown
Molly Brown

Kind of reminds me of the early years of the Soviet Union.


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