On the 28th or the 29th of May last year, I was smoking on the balcony with Z, in a break between classes. He started telling me about how out of control the original Gezi park protest had gotten, and I enthusiastically exclaimed that I knew! I knew! A handful of peaceful protesters viciously attacked by riot police- the famous Lady in Red getting squirted in the face with pepper spray at point blank range, etc. I astonished him.
“How do you know this?! You are yabanci!”
“How can anyone not know? How can you not pay attention to what’s going on around you?”
We talked for a bit more, and I astonished him further by being up to date on Kurdish matters, (Z’s Kurdish) and the general downward spiral of Turkish politics.
“I am going right after work, to Taksim. Do you want to come?”
I wish I’d gone, but I was tired and looking forward to a nap.
“I get off later than you. I’m going this weekend.”
I have felt the need to write about the year that’s passed since the Gezi Park protests began, but every time I sit down to write no words come. There are 250,000 words in the English language, and somehow I cannot string a dozen together to explain. When I tell the story to people, the bowdlerized version, anyway, it sounds unreal. I went to protests. I photographed them. I got caught, beaten, put on trial, put in jail, and deported. Whew! But when I try to explain the why of it, and many, many people ask me why, and chastise me, and tell me I had no business, I come up short.
How to explain how I felt when Ceren took me to my first Bir Mayıs in Taksim, and how I was struck with the bravery of the Turkish people for fighting so long and so hard for the right to assemble peacefully, as they gathered in the millions? How to explain how although at that time I was fairly ignorant of modern Turkish politics, the hair on my arms rose as I heard the roll call of the slain from Mayday 1977?
Maybe it’s best discussed in terms of physical reactions: the gut twisting sensation of reading, day after day about ridiculous, petty, bureaucratic injustice. The ache in the stem of your eyeball when you roll your eyes too hard. The stomach churning feeling of helplessness. The swelling in the chest when you are so, so proud. The squeezing in your chest when you are humbled by how honored you are to witness something. The hair raising along your arms as you march with 10,000 people from widely disparate backgrounds, united in a common, positive goal. The prickling behind your eyes at the third rousing round of Ciao Bella, or when someone thanks you for being American and THERE, American AND present, American and a witness to the INSANITY. (Many people ask how I could be a guest in the country and participate in the riots. More on that in a mo- but I was never not thanked, never not looked after. Four minutes before I was swept up by riot police a middle aged man put his arm around me and urged me to retreat to a side street. “You are too precious. We need you here tomorrow,” he said.) The peripheral awareness of a crease deepening between your eyebrows, of your forehead muscles being rather overworked. And the tiredness, I was so tired last summer. The weight of it, the weight of it. The ache of laughing hysterically, because if you don’t laugh you might, just might, start crying and never stop.
Trying to explain it to anyone who wasn’t there, I’ve found, is impossible. We all developed new vocabularies, verbal and emotional, that summer
“But why were you even there?”
I had a mild tiff with my mama over the winter about it.
“You raised me to fight against injustice where I saw it,” I said.
“I did NO such thing,” she insisted. “I did NO such thing.”
My uncle hung up on me and hasn’t spoken to me since.
A week ago I was scolded by a new coworker anew, and yesterday a comment was left on my blog by an anonymous someone, questioning my motives for “rioting” when I was a “guest” of the country.
The only explanation I have is that old saying: if you stand by when injustice is being perpetrated, you are complicit. To say and do nothing is to be a part of the problem. The world would be a poorer place if everyone stood back and said, “this is not my problem.”
It is all of our problems.
My life was dismantled by protests in Turkey.
I lost a country I loved, a life I loved, a job I loved, an apartment I loved. I lost friends, and rakı.
If I had it to do all over again I would’ve left Bahariye two minutes earlier, or maybe I wouldn’t even have left Katrina’s apartment after I got the news that police were sweeping people up.
That is the only thing I would take back. I was honored, again and again, by everything that I saw, that I witnessed, and everything that I experienced last year.
I would do it all over again.