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Coffee House

The tragedy of Taksim square

12 June 2013

5:38 PM

12 June 2013

5:38 PM

First he set the police on his own people, now ‘democratic’ Prime Minister Erdogan is refusing even to meet them. The peace talks he promised are being held not with protestors themselves but with a group of official mediators the protestors have never met.

In the days to come, Erdogan will try to persuade the world that he is battling extremists, but as Claire Berlinski points out in her heart-breaking piece in this week’s magazine — written from the centre of the riots in Istanbul last night — the demonstrators were until recently very ordinary citizens from all walks of life, brought together in peaceful protest. She describes the scene before the police arrived:

‘It was glorious — a huge innocent carnival, filled with improbable (I would have hitherto thought impossible) scenes of nationalist Turks mingling amiably with nationalist Kurds, the latter dancing to some strange ghastly species of techno-Halay, the former pumping their fists in the air and chanting their eternal allegiance to something very nationalist, I’m sure. Balloons lit with candles sailed over the sky; hawkers sold every species of Gezi souvenir, and the only smell of pepper in the air came from the grilled meatballs served in hunks of fresh bread and sprinkled with chilli powder.

‘Among the protesters’ grievances was the prime minister’s imperious effort to pass restrictive new laws on alcohol sales, so in a gesture of special defiance, entrepreneurial protesters — or maybe just entrepreneurial Turks — sold ice-cold beer from coolers. (I’ve never before seen anyone sell beer from coolers in the streets of Istanbul.)

‘There were commies and pinkos of every species sharing that beer with right-wing whackjobs of every stripe — groups that in the 1970s fought gun battles here, drenching the streets in blood and leading to the 1980 coup. The communists didn’t seem the sort to worry about — when people complained that the price of beer had risen in response to demand, they shrugged: ‘What can we do? If people want to sell it, we can’t stop them.’

‘There were trade unionists and doctors and ordinary yuppies and, mostly, college kids; there were gays, Alevis, Sufis and yogis; there were impromptu skits — all making fun of the government, and some of them very funny but untranslatable both linguistically and culturally; there was impromptu dancing (innocent and sexless by western standards), barkers enjoining the crowd to jump up and down for the liberation of the park (and everyone did), a stall that advertised itself as the park’s new free lending library, and vast crowds of people smiling in a silly, carefree way that grave Istanbullus, serious people, people who dress in dark colours and worry terribly about what the neighbours will think, rarely do.’

This happy picture was soon to be violently disrupted, on the Prime Minister’s orders. Find out the brutal, eye-witness, truth about what happened next in the latest Spectator, out tomorrow. Click here to subscribe from just £1 a week.

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