from Bristol

Just over two years ago I left Istanbul, the city that had made my home for the past ten months. I knew I would miss the food, and my friends – these things are the instant, daily pangs that one feels at the end of anything. And over time I began to miss the city itself, its mad loud beating pulse and awkward decrepit buildings beside hi-rise shopping centres. Our one-bedroom flat on Balo Sokak. Trips across the Bosphorus to the calmer Anatolian side.

It took much longer, though, for me to want to go back. A year. When I did, it was not gradual: I very suddenly had to go, booking the flights to travel in late September as a birthday present to myself. Yet here was a city that I could never really be myself in, never quite, for all it’s western pretensions, wear the clothes I wanted to, feel like an equal to a stranger or agree with politically in almost any sense. After ten months I had been more than ready to leave; my mind muddled by the realisation that simply by living there (renting a flat, having a bank account, shopping at the supermarket) I was, in my ignorant ex-pat way, supporting a regime that still believes in torture. That is becoming more and not less religious. That doesn’t believe in the things I believe in. And once I had felt this, I could not un-feel it, and leaving was only a matter of time. 

But, my friends loved it still. For them it is home. The place in which they have grown up, or aimed for from another, quieter part of Turkey. Sure, they were discontent but it never seemed to me that they were particularly more discontent than I am with Cameron’s government. And like most of the people I know in the UK, whilst they mumbled about going elsewhere few could actually really imagine settling in a different country.

By the time I went back in September however, I could feel a shift. At the same time as I was falling back in love with the place, glad of the year’s distance to make me yearn for it, my Turkish friends had spent the previous year growing restless. Getting angry.

Erdoğan’s government regarded them, these people, my friends, less and less. With each year he seemed to have realised that he did not need them on his side. That with big business and a booming economy it was enough to have the farmers and the moneymakers without having the city dwellers, the liberals, artists, young people. Plans for a third crossing over the Bosphorus pushed ahead, shopping malls popped up in place of past-treasured landmarks and alcohol and entertainment licenses were revoked at an alarming rate.

My friends now felt stifled, and sitting in Beyoğlu’s smoky teras bars with them in late September last year almost all expressed to me a desire – or more, a plan – to leave Turkey within the next five years.

I was shocked that the balance had tipped. My friends, the previous reluctant patriots – trapped in a love hate relationship with their nationality (but Always determined to ‘make it work’) had decided to leave. To give up, ship out. Finally accept the fact that there was nothing they could do here, where Erdoğan still enjoyed huge support in the provinces and the green spaces diminished daily.

At the time I was unsure whether to be disheartened or enthused about this. I spent one night vehemently trying to argue a friend into staying: but this city is really Something Special! There’s nowhere else like this in the world! You’ve got to change things from the inside! And the next helping another to plan his escape, glad of his decision to live in Berlin and be able to achieve the things he’s always wanted from life.

Since then more religiously motivated policies and opinions have crept into legislation. A couple were told to stop kissing on the metro. Air hostesses prescribed a uniform shade of lipstick. Already shaky attitudes towards women were getting worse - just yesterday a politician said on TV that pregnant women shouldn’t be seen in the street - and I thought about these people who I’d sat with in September, and hoped they could get out sooner. Go somewhere else. Because at a point you stop caring about the wider political scene and just want the people you love to be happy.

And then Gezi Park came up for demolition – the government planning to build a replica Ottoman style barracks, replete with yet another shopping centre. Parks are important spaces. I don’t think governments realise quite how important (or perhaps they do now!). Open space is limited in any city - I’ve been lucky enough to live in a few fairly green ones but lots aren’t. Istanbul isn’t. A park is a place that everyone can use: it’s communal, free, and probably the most class-less space we have, particularly when it’s in the centre of town like Gezi.

And so the people began to react. To fight for their park, and consequently their way of life, beliefs and rights.

On the 31st May I turned on the radio in my mum’s house – coincidentally sitting at the time with a German friend who had lived in Istanbul at the same time as me – and over breakfast we listened to BBC reports that thousands of Istanbullus were occupying Gezi. Here they were, my friends the city dwellers, liberals, artists, young people, and over the next week as police reacted violently and hospital admissions and arrests soared, they were joined by the very people who had voted Erdoğan and the AKP in in the first place. Field hospitals sprung up in high class restaurants and old women banged pots and pans in residential districts. Horrified masses united by the shared anger and disbelief that human beings could be treated like this.

The park sit-in became a catalyst for protests all over the country, pushing back against all that is wrong about the way the AKP have ruled over the Turkish people these last ten years, and once again giving people a belief that their country was worth it, that they might be able to stay here and change something. Within a week there was action in every province in Turkey. Twitter seethed and like in the Arab Spring uprisings that were happening so closeby at the time when I lived in Turkey, information was shared online by the people at the centre of the events. The protest about this communal space had become communal news and the world started to notice.

And two months on, things are happening. It’s slow moving. Police are still attacking protestors with tear gas, blocking public spaces and arresting innocent people but it sounds like there are some good conversations going on – nightly meetings that I’ve heard (and I hope) feel like the beginnings of change. The fact that these protests are continuing, that I have finished this piece of writing, started on the first day of protests, rather than ditching it when it became quickly irrelevant is testimony to the resilience of the Turkish people, and proof of just how much they care.

And it’s given a generation of young hopefuls something to fight for, something to hold onto.

I’m very glad and very proud that my friends are amongst them, in the streets, at the meetings, holding on, and I hope they can continue to do so. Because, for all its faults, that city is pretty incredible and I think it’s worth fighting for.