At precisely 9 o’clock last evening, the din of spoons on pots began to rise from the houses and businesses that ring Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The noise grew during the quarter-hour that followed, weirdly mimicking the amplified calls to prayer that echo through this mostly Muslim city several times each day.
This was not a call to prayer however, but a signal to protesters who have been gathering in the square and Gezi Park, the patch of green at one edge of the vast square that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to replace with a shopping mall.
What began less than a week ago as a hodge-podge movement to stop the development plan has grown with a speed and abandon that has stunned this city of 15 million.
“A few weeks ago, if you were being critical of Erdogan in a public place, you would lower your voice to a whisper,” said one of the people in the park, who didn’t mind being seen in the throng yet feared having his name in a newspaper story. “To have all this going on out in the open is incredible.”
The streets leading to the square are full of vendors hawking swimming goggles and breathing masks for use when the inevitable tear gas canisters begin popping later in the night. During the day, there’s a kind of euphoria as people wait for 5 p.m. so they can leave work and get ready to meet their friends and head en masse to Taksim.
Despite the threat of water cannons and tear gas, the numbers gathering in the park have grown exponentially to the scores, if not hundreds, of thousands. They comprise an unlikely and motley coalition of tree-huggers, students, union workers, bar flies, secularists, and people simply fed up with what is seen as the prime minister’s rule by fiat -- and, perhaps as insulting, his plain bad manners.
So far Erdogan has tried to minimize the significance of the actions, which have spread to other Turkish cities, by calling the protesters “looters” and “alcoholics” and declaring that he will not bow to their demands.
Evidence to the contrary is in plain view around the square and throughout the city and very hard to ignore. The walls of buildings are covered with anti-Erdogan graffiti that ranges from the comic (“I’ve had enough, I’m calling the police”) to the obscene.
The streets surrounding the square are blockaded with lumber, junk and a few overturned police buses. Like a scene from a modern-day version of “Les Miserables,” protesters stand atop them waving red flags stamped with the image of Kemal Ataturk, the revered leader and founder of modern Turkey as a secular state whose legacy they believe Erdogan is intent on erasing.
In addition to clearing Gezi, a rare patch of green in an increasingly claustrophobic city, Erdogan has indicated a deepening religious agenda that has startled Turkish moderates. The latest evidence is putting curbs on alcohol that were dispensed with decades ago.
That action alone effectively expanded the protest movement beyond environmentalists and liberals wary of the prime minister’s rightward tilt. He has pursued his policy, they say, by aggressively quashing dissent among artists and journalists.
“So many journalists and intellectuals have been imprisoned, detained for as long as five years without an official charge or trial,” said Tarik Gunersel, a poet and dramatist who is president of the regional chapter of the human rights group PEN International.
“More than 70 journalists are in prison,” he added. “Human rights violations in Turkey are terrible. His regime hates theater, ballet, literature. He is canceling state holidays started by Ataturk.”
Late last night, a half-dozen makeshift stages were being used to lead protest songs (in at least one case, complete with a sing-a-long Teleprompter) and deliver rabble-rousing speeches.
Vendors sold watermelon and Ataturk tee-shirts along with the ubiquitous face masks. Gezi Park was punctuated with blue, yellow and red pup tents, in which the hardcore were camping out. The air was still vaguely acrid with the metallic scent of the previous night’s tear gas, along with the pungency of human waste.
It was impossible to see a quick or quiet end to the crowds, unarmed, passive and genial. Last night’s crowd was larger than the previous evenings despite it being a Muslim holiday. The next one will undoubtedly be larger.
“When a despot suppresses competition, his contact with reality gets lost,” said Gunersel, expressing a common sentiment you could feel in the air of Taksim Square.
With Ergodan scheduled to return shortly from Tunis, there is a palpable electricity on the air around Taksim Square. With side roads barricaded twice and in some cases three times, escape in the event of police action will be near impossible as the weekend approaches.
“I don’t see this having a peaceful ending,” Ali Berktay, a book publishing executive, said over coffee this afternoon at a cafe on the edge of the Square, where the crowd was building earlier than yesterday. “I’m very anxious about it.”
(Jeremy Gerard writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Hephzibah Anderson on books, Jason H. Harper on cars and Katya Kazakina on art.