Tag Archives: politics

AKP Political Rally

by Raphaella Friedman

The elections are everywhere. You can’t walk the streets of Urfa or Istanbul without hearing the songs and slogans of Turkey’s many political parties. Minibuses with candidates’ faces plastered on them bump around city streets, the BOOM BOOM BOOM of the loud speakers breaking even the quiet of Friday prayers. Confident, stoic looking men gaze out from billboards at voters stuck traffic while pedestrians walk beneath colorful banners criss-crossing between buildings.  ‘Tis the season indeed.

Yesterday, the Globalist’s Urfa contingency decided to actively participate in the Turkish election experience, attending a political rally for Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP, the current ruling party. Despite the characterization of AKP as pursuing a more conservative agenda, Erdogan’s posters depict him as a man of the people – all people. Businessmen, conservative women wearing hijabs, university students, secular women with uncovered hair, families, farmers, the list goes on. The Turkish population, especially in the East, overwhelmingly supports the AKP.

While I plan to take on the daunting task of outlining Turkish political parties in a later post, I thought I would focus on a different topic for now. Several of the Globalist’s female members had a particularly interesting experience at this rally, prompting me to consider the relationship between gender and public space.

These political flags can be seen advertising particular parties all over Turkey. (Friedman/TYG)

We walked to the rally in a group comprised of both males and females, and heard the reverberations of the AK Parti song long before we saw the thousands of people gathered beneath blue, orange and red flags and banners. It felt more like a rock concert than an election rally. The atmosphere was electric and contagious – I tingled with excitement, and many of us began singing and dancing along with the crowd, the reality of our political ambivalence forgotten. But as we made our way toward the throng of people, I felt the questioning eyes of men upon me. Other female Glo-members approached me, observing similar things. We were all asking the same question: where are all of the women?

Tensions and excitement ran high at the AKP rally. (Friedman/TYG)

A few of us enthusiastically pressed forward toward the stage, holding hands lest we lose each other, yet it soon proved impossible to break through the dense wall of bodies. We were caught in an increasingly unyielding sandwich of limbs and torsos, our faces smooshed against sweaty AK Parti tshirts. The men that had been staring at us began emphatically motioning for us to change course, to move to the side of the crowd. We were confused – did they want us to leave? We noticed a trail of colorful headscarves bobbing along the side of the increasingly boisterous crowd, and instinctively followed the line of women. As we wound our way through the crowd, men miraculously parted, politely, without any prompting. When we neared a wall, a few men formed a bridge with their hands pressing against the concrete, creating an opening and restraining the swelling crowd lest it crush us. Finally, we emerged at the very front of the stage. It was as though we had climbed through the wardrobe to emerge in Narnia: all around us were women!

Finally: women at the rally! (Friedman/TYG)

It was incredible – a far cry from the sweaty madhouse of the men’s section, but equally exuberant. I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me, the sea of waving orange blue, and red flags dense enough to render the stage invisible. The women all wore headscarves, but of such variety. Some wore shiny and floral hijabs, while others were shrouded in black. There were also a large number of Arab-Kurdish tribal women, identified by their trademark lavender head scarves and black facial markings. We sang and danced together. The women were incredibly friendly, far more so than in any other setting in which I had been with them. We all smiled at one another, light danced in our eyes. One young girl handed me her flag.

The women at the rally were all congregated at the front of the group. (Friedman/TYG)

As I mentioned before, we were not on the side of the stage, or behind the men, but rather somewhat unexpectedly at the very front. Behind us, the men were straining to get a glimpse of Erdogan, pushing forward but blocked by waist level barricades. Perhaps an even greater buffer, however, was the presence of the women in front of them. It was a sacred space, an untouchable island. Still, this was not an island behind closed doors – it was public space for women.

I wondered then, as I do now, what exactly did this placement and separation mean? Even if the separation of women from men was implemented to protect the perceived weaker sex, could the placement of the women in the front be a sign of respect or perceived superiority as well?

In most mosques and Orthodox synagogues, among other faiths that separate the sexes, women pray in separate sections that are either next to or behind the men’s sections, but rarely if ever in front. Here, women were given the best seat in the house, the one closest to Turkey’s premier political power.

I’m certainly not in a position to make any sweeping statements, but the role of female voters in East Turkey has certainly piqued my interest.


Dumb Luck, Language Barriers, and Terrorist Ties

by Jessica Shor

Bagcilar is at the end of Istanbul’s T1 tramline, 20 stops from our hotel in Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s tourist center. Wikipedia describes it as a working class suburb, known for its poor infrastructure, as well as a recent discovery that many families in the neighborhood fail to send their girls to school. With the Grand Bazaar and an endless number of mosques and side streets to explore, Bagcilar is on nobody’s list of top Istanbul destinations. I coaxed four other Glo-trippers to accompany me to Bagcilar one afternoon, however, because I was told it was one of Istanbul’s predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.

I am researching Kurdish issues, and by going to Bagcilar, I hoped to get a feel for what a predominantly Kurdish area is like. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know whether it would look or feel different from the rest of Istanbul, whether I would be able to speak with anybody, or even whether the neighborhood was actually as Kurdish as people claimed it was. In the back of my mind, though, I did have an idea of what would make the trip to Bagcilar a true success: finding a BDP office.

The BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) is the latest of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political parties. Over the years, all of its predecessors have been banned by the government, and the party is considered by many to be the political wing of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), which the EU, US, and Turkey have designated as a terrorist organization. At the very least, experts and Turkey-watchers claim a close, if informal, connection between the PKK and BDP. With general elections approaching on June 12, the BDP and PKK have assumed greater roles on the political stage. Turkey has banned 12 BDP candidates from running in the election, sparking mass riots, violence, and the threat of an all-out war by the PKK if the situation does not improve by June 15. In places like Diyarbakir, the southeastern city considered the capital of Turkish Kurdistan, the situation has become quite literally explosive.

the BDP's logo/credit: photo courtesy of sor roj tv

So imagine my surprise and excitement when the five of us rounded a corner and spotted a yellow BDP sign on the side of a building. I had exchanged several emails with a BDP representative while in the US, but had never found the address or contact information for the party’s main Istanbul branch. Yet with a stroke of dumb luck, we found ourselves outside of an office. We exchanged excited glances and decided to check it out.

We climbed up the six flights of stairs of the office, marked BDP posters plastered to the walls. We knocked. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, as we were about to leave, a man opened the metal door and peered out at us, clearly surprised to find five foreigners staring back at him.

“BDP?” I asked, pointing at him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“English?” I asked, crossing my fingers for a nod.

He shook his head. I cringed. We, however, were not about to give up. I pointed inside, and he gave a slight nod. We were in. He offered us cay (tea), and we smiled eagerly. As soon as he left, we began frantically paging through the short glossaries in our Lonely Planet guidebooks for help. The man returned, armed with six cups of tea and two more men, and the “interview” began.

I turned on my tape recorder,  pointed at the BDP poster behind us, and gestured as though I were speaking. Can you talk about the BDP? The man beside me smiled. I settled back into my chair satisfied, assuming he had understood my charade. I waited for him to start speaking.

“BDP!” the man said with a grin, “Kurdish! Yes, Kurdish. BDP Kurdish. Me Kurdish.”

I repeated my gesture. He repeated his answer. I changed my gesture. He repeated his answer. My companions and I exchanged hopeless glances and grabbed for the Lonely Planets.

“BDP why?” we managed. “PKK good? PKK why? PKK and BDP together?”

I motioned to the TV screen in the corner, which was showing photos of militants set to triumphant music. “Who?” “Guerrilla,” came the reply. “Turks,” he said, making a gun out of his thumb and index finger, shooting at himself then pretending to be dead. The people on the screen were martyrs, I realized; the Turkish military had killed them.

signs up in the BDP office/credit: Jessica Shor

Armed with a small crack in the language barrier and a new set of tactics – writing down questions and handing over a pen for a written reply – we gained confidence. The “interview” was stilted, filled with awkward silences, frantic flipping through our language guide, and frustrated muttering under our breath, but we stayed for nearly an hour, drinking tea and attempting communication. By the time we left, we had forty-five minutes recorded on tape, handfuls of paper with written questions and answers, and a stack of BDP posters.

I have yet to translate the recording and writing, but the five of us immediately deemed the chance meeting a complete success. A visit to an unknown neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul became an afternoon tea with politicians who may or may not have ties to a militant separatist group. It was lucky, impromptu, and once-in-a-lifetime – everything the Globalist trip is about. Encounters like that are daily reminders of why the Globalist trip is such an invaluable experience. To send emails, speak over Skype, and conduct background research online are one type of reporting, but to stumble into a meeting, communicate without a common language, and come out feeling as though you better understand another group’s mindset is quite another.

Democratic protests…?

by Sanjena Sathian

credit: Sanjena Sathian

 This afternoon, a few of us found ourselves in the middle of a Kurdish minority group’s political protest near Taksim Square, a central area in Istanbul. This is not a strange occurrence in Turkey, from what we’re told – protests are a regular facet of life here (just yesterday, crowds filled Taksim Square, protesting new Internet censorship laws). Many people have told me about this constancy of protests, often adding, with a twinkling eye that betrays a joke, “Well, because we are a democracy, right?” That’s what we heard from our new Kurdish poet friend who a few of us spent the morning chatting with in a Kurdish café near Taksim. He mentioned the protest to us offhand, mentioning that he didn’t think we should go. But we wanted to check it out, so we decided to venture nearby, keeping a safe distance just in case.

Crowds and police gathered near Taksim Square this afternoon/credit: Sanjena Sathian

Crowds had gathered in one of the larger streets branching off of Taksim Square – one we’ve already walked down many times in our few days here – and they were surrounded by the most policemen I’ve ever seen in one area. About sixty or seventy policemen hung around the perimeter, completely decked out in full riot gear… and it was definitely a larger crowd of policemen than are necessary to keep the peace. A line of plainclothes police stood in the middle of the street, blocking people from entering the area with the protesters. Playing the innocent tourist, a few of us went up to them to ask what was going on.

“Minority protest,” they told us.

“What are they protesting?”

“The government. They’re always protesting. All the days.”

“What about the government?”

“Just everything. Always protesting. Elections. They’re just a minority.”

It went on like this for some time: we pressed, they didn’t answer. It wasn’t as though they were evading the questions – it just seemed abundantly clear that these were regular facts of their lives. As we peered into the crowds to get better looks at the scene and pestered the unresponsive policemen, a few of them even peeled off from the pack and wandered into nearby kebab stores to buy a coke and a snack. Their bored demeanor seemed a strange, flat contrast to the steady pounding of political chants and the occasional high-pitched screetch of what can only be described as pure anger coming from the protesters.

the crowds of pro-Kurds and PKK supporters chanted the illegal party's name and sang political songs/credit: Sanjena Sathian

From what we knew, these protesters weren’t just there to complain about the government as per usual. What we witnessed was a memorial service to twelve of the Kurdish minority party’s fighters who had just been shot and killed in the mountainous area of what Kurds call Kurdistan and Turks call southeastern Turkey. (the party is called the PKK and is officially outlawed in the Turkish parliament). Protesters symoblically held a black flag with twelve red roses printed on it, but that flag stood out as the only clear tribute to the fighters themselves. It was overwhelmed by red and yellow PKK and BDP flags and hordes of members of the Kurdish minority who had gathered not only to remember their lost ones but also to continue to demand, as they do “all the days,” a political voice.

a protester holds a PKK flag/credit: Sanjena Sathian

But the plainclothes policemen we were bothering had no sympathy or even recognition for the Kurds. They never even mentioned to us who the protesters were, referring to them only as “the minority,” and telling us that the protest might get violent because “these people are violent.”

a close up look at the protesters/credit: Sanjena Sathian

The tone throughout the street seemed precarious as we watched the protest unfold. We neared the area, only to be told by a journalist vehemently to clear away because it could get violent. Everything remained calm as we watched, but we found out later that after we left, the police did in fact use tear gas on protesters.

We’re still learning about the ins and outs of Turkish politics and the way minorities voice their opinions, but today was a confirmation that we’re not in Kansas anymore. The way this public sphere operates is wildly different from our own, and being in the minority here means something very weighty.

See the additional video below for more of our film footage of the protest:

credit: Sanjena Sathian

Power and Politics at the Grand Bazaar

by Diana Saverin

As a group of twenty-two, our dinner tables are long. I sat on one end the other night, enjoying a “mountain salad” and working through the latest breadbasket, when conversation about South America flickered a memory from the morning, drowned by the many glasses of afternoon çay. I jumped up without explanation and ran to the opposite end of the table. I called out for Diego, who looked at me bewildered. That morning, I had met a former president of his country, Chile. In shock, he squinted his eyes. “What?”

Earlier in the day, I had meandered from carpet shop to carpet shop, letting stories of village women and natural dyes mix like the sugar in my tea. One rug seller, Hassan, told me that over the course of 32 years in his shop in the Grand Bazaar, he had seen the world. “The world comes through here,” he told me. I saw pictures tacked on his wall of various customers, but did not look closely. After asking him questions about the industry, a group of customers came in, and I wandered away to enjoy my tea and admire his collection as he closed a sale.

A few minutes later, he called me back over, flapping his hand frantically. Confused, I walked back towards him, and he introduced me to a woman whose name I couldn’t hear through the melody of thick accents. The woman told me she had been in the area for the UN conference held in Istanbul a few days before. She worked with UN Women, the new streamlined UN body. I had written a Globalist article about the making of such a body, and attended a conference about women’s rights at the UN headquarters in New York. We were talking about the conference and the progress of the new body when the person next to me told me she was the Executive Director of the program, as well as the first Under-Secretary-General at the UN. The rug seller nodded emphatically, and I knew I looked bewildered. Then, another woman whispered, “She’s Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile.” I nodded and smiled, saying something about what an honor it was to meet her before she filed out with her team, a carpet rolled up under one man’s arm.

“See!” Hassan said, “I see the world!” Then he pointed to the pictures, where he stood posing awkwardly with Kofi Annan, among others. I laughed and sipped my tea uncomfortably, still mortified I hadn’t recognized her. My embarrassment wore off, though, especially when met by Diego’s seething jealousy.