Letter from Istanbul: What Does The Turkish Flag Mean?

The Turkish flag — I realized that suddenly no one knows what it means anymore. As I was driving in from the airport a few days ago, I watched out the van window for signs of change, anything different. I saw some homes with  Turkish flags hanging from the windows. Wait a moment, I said to myself, I thought this was a conservative neighborhood. Until now, homes flying the flag outside of holidays tended to be Kemalist, nationalist. For Kemalists, the flag was a powerful statement that often went along with a picture of Ataturk displayed in the window facing out. So what did THESE flags mean? I realized that it was no longer possible to tell.

During the protests, both sides have used the flag. The police chased protesters out of Taksim Square last week and took away the Gezi posters and assorted leftist banners the protesters had draped over the Ataturk Cultural Center, replacing them with a giant portrait of Ataturk on a cloth hung from the building and flanked by two enormous Turkish flags. Social media described some of the TOMA or armed water cannon trucks used by police as decorated with Turkish flags. A protester ripped the flag from one of the TOMA and, clutching it to his chest, shouted at the driver, “You don’t deserve this!”

I’ve been in Istanbul a few days now, but have been busy with tasks — interviews, my talk at the Minerva Han, and participation in the Sabanci Essay Awards — to move much around the city.

Last night I walked along the Bosphorus in Arnavutkoy, a neighborhood still lovely and humble, not yet taken over by wealthy kids and chain stores as its sister Bebek up the road. The famous old houses along the waterfront are ever more neglected. When the Bosphorus road was built on stilts in the water in front of these fancy chalet-like waterfront houses in the 1980s, their value as residences plummeted. It’s too noisy for anyone to live there anymore, so they tend to be populated by a series of failed restaurants or sit empty.

But that row of houses on the water is one of the emblematic views of Istanbul. I hope they don’t let them fall down as they have so many other old houses in recent years. One of the houses, the one with the little room perched on its roof like a jaunty conical hat, has fire damage on the top story and pigeons perched inside the cracked, open windows. Each building is attached to the next, so each is a danger to the others. There’s so little concern for these old wooden houses. People who own them aren’t allowed to tear them down because they’re historic buildings, so they wait for them to fall in as the wood rots (sometimes with a little help like a fire or a hole in the roof so rain gets in and aids the rotting process). When the building collapses, they can remove it and build a modern house there. It’s incredibly expensive to actually restore these wooden houses.  And often there are many heirs, none who actually want to live there, but all interested in sharing the money the land would bring (or owning an apartment in a modern building in its place).

The protests are on and off in Istanbul, Ankara, elsewhere. I haven’t been near any of them so far. I certainly want to avoid the tear-gas; people who have experienced it say your throat closes up so you can’t breathe and your eyes burn. The police seem to have reached their limit after days of sleeplessness and adrenaline. Judging by the social media reports (and a few circulating videos), some policemen appear to be going around beating anyone they can find in the vicinity of a protest.  I heard that at one of the earlier incidents, police chased protesters inside a big mall and the customers on every floor gathered and looked down on the police and boo-ed them (“Yu! Yu!”). Apparently some of the police started crying and one pulled off his helmet and said, “I can’t do this anymore.”  There’s a video posted on Facebook of a policeman in the street totally losing it and jumping up and down, screaming, “What do you mean I shouldn’t tear gas them? What should I do, fart at them?”

The repression seems to have moved into another phase, with people associated with the protests being rounded up and arrested. The policeman who shot a young protester in the head (the protester died) was identified in video and the dead man’s family filed charges. The policeman was arrested, but then released and instead the two witnesses who had testified against him were arrested. The Turkish media covers some of this, but gingerly, and some newspapers not at all.

Eyes are turning to other issues — the Kurdish peace process is moving along to its next phase. The ball is now in the AKP government’s court to meet some of their obligations in the peace deal, one of which is to defang the anti-terror law that has been used to jail hundreds of Kurds and people who have anything to do with the Kurdish issue. This would also presumably lead to their release. Yet at the same time, the anti-terror law is being applied to a new population — the protesters.

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