Standing Tall

When Slow Food President Carlo Petrini arrived in Istanbul on Thursday for the International Council meeting – happening now from June 14-16 – he wrote this comment on the city’s recent events and the involvement of local Slow Food members for Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The crisis in Turkey began in Istanbul on May 28, when a small group of environmental activists held a sit-in to protest the Turkish government’s plans to raze Taksim Square’s Gezi Park and the now widespread involvement is sending a message for: “a new Turkey, able to value simple but important things, like the trees in a park.”

From the Galata Bridge to Gezi Park is three and half kilometers. Three minutes on the funicular to reach the top of Istiklal Caddesi, the street that opens into Taksim Square. Down below, towards the Golden Horn, the usual ceaseless human swarm: traffic, open building sites, high-tech trams gliding past the old carts of the street vendors. Above, the main commercial street of modern Istanbul. Three minutes on the underground funicular, symbolizing the distance between two completely separated worlds. On the one side, normal daily life continues. On the other, we face the scenes of urban warfare seen on televisions around the world. We were told not to take the funicular that far, because of the tear gas making the air unbreathable, because of the ongoing clashes.

It seems strange to see Taksim Square “liberated” from the demonstrators and the adjacent Gezi Park, where tents and colored banners still stand out among the trees. Those trees are now the symbol of a rebellion that has become much bigger than anyone expected. There is an air of demobilization, but also an underlying tension. In the middle of the square, an old man in an improbable yellow raincoat is standing still, holding up a large Turkish flag. The stairs that lead from the square up to the park’s entrance are still almost completely blocked by barricades, though there is a narrow passageway through which people move freely, amidst the banners and posters of the different factions. Inside, some people are collecting sleeping bags, some are taking down the camps, some are sitting in circles and talking.

Istiklal Caddesi, usually crowded, is slowly starting to come back to life just a few hours after the latest clashes between the police, equipped with helmets, water cannons and tear gas, and the thousands of young people who came here from many of metropolitan Istanbul’s neighborhoods, wearing dust masks and hard hats. It feels as though the fire is smoldering under the ashes, and that this day of truce, during which Erdogan has agreed to talks, is just one step along the long journey still to come.

In this context, the movement so recently formed to defend the trees of Gezi Park, threatened by the construction of a gigantic shopping mall (the umpteenth in Istanbul) is something completely new. Even to a tourist without any particular environmental convictions, the idea that this patch of green in the middle of the city center should disappear seems completely illogical. The sharp conflict is not just between two different conceptions of urban planning, but between two philosophies of life, in this Turkey growing at an incredible pace but struggling to find a synthesis between two culturally different worlds. For years, secularity, imposed at times by the army, subdued the religious demands of a mostly Muslim population. Now the parties have switched and a religious-leaning government is stifling the modern secularity of youth who look to Europe and democracy. Certainly Erdogan enjoys a recognized electoral majority, but he can also be highly disrespectful and arrogant towards these young people.

The distance between the two worlds can be seen by looking at the hotbed of Taksim Square on the one hand, and on the other, the humanity immersed in everyday activities in the rest of the city. However, there is one element that seems to unite Istanbul’s two spirits in moral support of the protest against the felling of the trees: At 9 pm, and then later on through the evening, in Beyoglu, the huge neighborhood spreading along the shores of the Bosporus, the lights of the houses switch on and off, and in front of their open windows, people hit pots and pans with kitchen utensils, sending up to the sky a constant noisy metallic hammering, similar to the noise of the cicadas that sing all summer in the very trees the government’s building project wants to chop down.

In Gezi Park, there was and still is a small contingent of young Slow Food supporters, who planted a food garden during the occupation. Today they have dismantled it, as they prepare for the final clear-out. Defne Koryurek, the leader of Slow Food in Istanbul, tells me: “It was pretty much a spontaneous gesture to create a library and a food garden, based on collaboration and the desire to share. This garden has no father or mother, but is the outcome of the work of an entire community.”

“For years, as a group, we were opposed to this city’s imperious projects,” she continues. “The third bridge over the Bosporus, the new airport to the north (the largest in the world, Ed.) and the shopping center that was supposed to take the place of Gezi. We always know what to say when we oppose something. It’s harder to come up with virtuous, concrete examples. The Gezi food garden represented our model for development, what we want to do with our land. And we tended it together with our children, planting seeds and seedlings with them, because they will be the ones to harvest the fruits.”

Refika Kortun is 18, a generation younger than Defne. She tells us how she joined the demonstrators defending the park. “Gezi is occupied by our dreams. The energy I’ve experienced in these days is incredible, though I’m also scared. We created a real community here, like I’ve never experienced before. A community also formed on Twitter and Facebook and it will continue there, even if they drive us out of here.”

Looking in the eyes of these young people, seeing their determination and passion, is to look at a new Turkey, able to value simple but important things, like the trees in a park.

Originally published in Italian in La Repubblica on June 14.

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