Contest of Masks: Can the path of protest lead Turkey anywhere?

Nadezhda Kevorkova
Nadezhda Kevorkova has worked at RT since 2010, before which she was a special correspondent for ‘Novaya gazeta,’ ‘Nezavisimaya gazeta,’ and ‘Gazeta.’ Kevorkova has also worked extensively in Russian mass-media. As a war correspondent, she covered the Arab Spring, military and religious conflicts, and the anti-globalization movement. She has worked as a reporter in Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Cuba, and in the republics of the North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and in the Far East. In 2001, after an invitation from US State Department, Kevorkova visited a number of states, including Alaska. As a correspondent of 'Gazeta' she reported from Indian settlements in the US. She covered the ‘Gaza Freedom Flotilla’ in 2008, 2010 and 2011; she also visited Gaza several times during the blockade. In 2010, Kevorkova was nominated for the ‘International Women of Courage’ award.
Contest of Masks: Can the path of protest lead Turkey anywhere?
On Monday, public workers of three major Turkish trade unions tried and failed to stage a mass protest. After being barred from Taksim Square, they picked another street, but the turnout was so low that the protest had little visual impact.

The media and the young demonstrators – dubbed “looters” (‘capulcular’ in Turkish) by PM Erdogan – became bored very quickly. Even the grinning visages of the Guy Fawkes masks hiding the protesters’ faces did little to lighten the mood.

A crowd of the police of all possible types having lunch near the entrance of Macka Demokrasi Park.

Macka Demokrasi park is not too far away from Taksim Square but it would be a more appropriate place for a rally – you have the statue of Ataturk here, but also sculptures of key historical figures, from Attila the Hun to Churchill to Dimitrie Cantemir, a Moldovan statesman who helped Russia in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. This political background could have added more significance to the protests, but, unlike Gezi, you don’t have so many hotels with foreign journalists, and its name is way too long to fit into a headline and too hard to memorize for foreigners.

On a different occasion, I would certainly write an article about this ‘politicized’ park because it reflects the intricate diversity of symbols of modern Turkey so well. There’s even a monument to the Universal declaration of human rights, where Istanbul cats doze sweetly. But neither the cats, nor the busts, nor the park set up to celebrate democracy made it into the history of the rebellion against Erdogan the dictator.

Hundreds of police officers have taken off their bullet-proof vests and helmets and are taking lunch together with their plain clothes colleagues in the shade. They are not hiding from anyone. You have the usual carts here selling corn on the cob, roast chestnuts and pastry. The vendors are conversing friendly with the police. The road is open, but there’s no traffic yet. The news of the strike spread the day before and the locals decided to bypass this area for a while, although the protest turned out to be weak in numbers.

This was a well-organized protest, but it failed.

Here’s what the protest of the trouble-makers looks like. Idle observers are loitering about in the Taksim Square and strolling along the pedestrian Istiqlal Street, there’s a police car and riot police nearby, ready to break up the demonstration. There is also a group of photographers with their cameras out. About five meters away rebellious youths are lying down, sitting, smoking, snacking and walking around. Girls get out their smartphones as soon as they hear ‘the sounds of the revolution’ – a scream, a shout, a pop or just laughter.

People hold a Turkish national flag as they stand on the flashpoint Taksim square in Istanbul on June 18, 2013 during a wave of new alternative protests (AFP Photo / Bulent Kilic)

There’s an even louder noise coming from the other end of Istiqlal. The sound of stomping feet becomes clearer, and hundreds of police officers clad in black and carrying guns and plastic shields come into view. Passers-by move aside. There’s shouting in the distance, then comes a popping sound, and a faint, barely noticeable smell of tear gas.

As soon as the police is out of sight, a small white car going in reverse stops in the middle of the street, where only police cars and garbage trucks are allowed to drive. Suddenly, a man holding a long object jumps out of it. The object turns out to be a half-meter-long knife. He starts pointing it at the passers-by. They run away, screaming, and the protesters, who are always expecting another gas attack, rush towards side streets. The omnipresent girls with phones hold them up to take a picture of ‘a police crackdown’. But everything happens too fast, and the man with the huge knife jumps back into the car and drives away, swerving.

And just like that, as if nothing had happened, everyone resumes their interrupted activities – passers-by are strolling again, street musicians keep playing and gypsies keep begging, their quiet babies lying on the ground beside them. Small groups of athletic guys in dark sleeveless shirts come out of side streets, a spring in their step. It’s impossible to tell who they are. At the same time, delicate-looking boys with Guy Fawkes masks and faces covered in head scarves also appear – they are the ‘children’ that Erdogan urged the parents ‘to take off the streets’.

RT Photo / Nadezhda Kevorkova

Shop assistants stay fairly still in front of the shop windows, looking this way and that and waiting for the next act of this strange play to begin, ready to close the iron shutters of their expensive stores in seconds. Every evening there is a tense suspense reigning on Istiqlal Street. There are no trees to be protected. Neither is there any ‘slipping into Islamism’, which is so scary for the protesting young people – it is the most well-off, fashionable and expensive part of the city. Scientists will someday study this phenomenon of ‘the squares hell’ of the 21st century, and explain the reason, why protests in the last century were about seizing power, and one hundred years afterwards, it all comes down to attacking police and setting fire to private cars.

Erdogan’s behavior makes more sense: he calls a rally of 1.2 million his rock-solid supporters, and then visits an international Turkish language contest attended by 150,000 Turks. The demonstration was held in Kazlicesme, which is located halfway between the center of Istanbul and Ataturk Airport. In the morning, when the square was still empty, and the workers had just got down to setting out flags, CNN did a live broadcast. Anxious female correspondents were recalling how the protest camp was cleared up in Istanbul's Gezi Park, and warned the Turks not to respond to Erdogan’s appeals to show the world that ‘the real Turkey’ supports him.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s supporters that were disdainfully dubbed ‘Turkey for Erdogan’ by the opposition, crowded all the access roads leading to the Kazlicesme area – they were coming from all parts of the city in buses, cars, motorbikes and trucks. The buses were packed with the elderly people, entire families, women in black hijabs and women in colorful outfits, with headscarves or with their hair down, people with babies and their grand-children, farmers, residents of wealthy districts outside Istanbul and urban fat cats, men with a full beard as well as cleanly shaved Turks. Snack carts with a variety of foods were following in the same direction.

A woman and three children stand on the flashpoint Taksim square in Istanbul on June 18, 2013 during a wave of new alternative protests (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)

If the international media took Erdogan’s appeal without any prejudice, they wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to question the Turks about their wishes. But apparently, they have decided to boycott this part of the Turkish people.

People filled the stadium as well all the surrounding fields, groves, paths and lawns. Erdogan was speaking for quite a while walking across the white podium in his checkered shirt. His performance was broadcast on a large screen, and huge loudspeakers were conveying his message to everyone around.

Erdogan’s team posted large portraits of him everywhere, a copycat of the US election campaign. So Erdogan was speaking against the background of his own huge face.

One particularly creative campaigner suggested putting Erdogan’s face on cardboard masks so that anyone could wear them. It was quite a spooky sight: wherever you looked you’d see thousands of Erdogans staring back at you. Some wore masks on the back of their heads, and others, on the top of their heads like baseball caps, so the Prime Minister’s empty eye pits were staring up into the sky with a silent question. Had CNN been smarter they would’ve shown the world thousands of large and small Erdogans. But I was told that all CNN could do was show the rally and refer to it as an opposition protest.

RT Photo / Nadezhda Kevorkova

Erdogan was saying that none of the protesters wanted the truth, and hinting at some secret organizers, and calling on people to refrain from responding to provocations, and promising to reveal those behind the unrest. As he spoke, I was watching a gloomy, skinny middle-aged man squatting behind the stage making careful notes on the back of his mask.

He would time and again cross his words and start writing again on a new mask. He was hiding his writing with his other hand. A friend of his was standing nearby covering him from curious onlookers. He was writing a message to Erdogan. It started with ‘My 16-year marriage is in danger now…’

Did he manage to forward his letter to the addressee? Would the Prime Minister be able to help resolve his situation by the means at his disposal? Did the letter violate the democracy standards in the understanding of CNN and the mysteries ‘interest-rate lobby’ which Erdogan blamed for organizing he unrest? I don’t know.

Either way, a Guy Fawkes mask is a mask of plastic mockery created to help the anonymous lawlessness. One advantage of a paper mask is that it can help people convey their desperation in words.

RT Photo / Nadezhda Kevorkova

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.