ISTANBUL: Under the towering sycamore trees, young Turks whirl hand-in-hand in a circle, whooping with joy to the beat of the drum. To see them dance, you wouldn’t think they were caught up in their country’s fiercest political unrest in years.
It may be the cradle of nearly a week of police violence, but amid the smoke of kebabs and the rattle of tambourines, Istanbul’s Gezi Park looks more like a funfair.
Concerts, yoga classes, tables of free food and even an open air cinema have sprung up here as a small local demonstration has flowered into a teeming community in the six days since the protests started last week.
Tents cover the grass — though protesters say they are hardly sleeping — and crowds teem on nearly every inch of paved ground.
From one end of the park swells the rhythmic refrain of the old anti-fascist anthem “Ciao Bella” — all but its Italian chorus chanted here in Turkish.
A cherished historical spot in one of Europe’s top tourist areas, the five-acre park has also become a chill-out zone for protesters exhausted by marching in anger against the government.
“I’m not sleeping. It’s just craziness,” said one protestor, Perine, after a yoga class held on purple mats in the open air. “You feel really upset, but I was at peace today. It was nice.”
The first protesters came here last week in a demonstration to protect some of the last trees and greenery in central Istanbul from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to redevelop the park.
The trees would likely give way to more concrete, with the renovation of an old barracks nearby, a new mosque and, some protesters fear, a shopping centre.
When police surprised the first park protesters on May 31 with a storm of tear gas, Turks across the country poured into the streets in sympathy.
They have done so every day since, raging not just at the park plan but at Erdogan’s Islamic, conservative and authoritarian leanings in general, and yelling for him to resign.
— Songs, sandwiches, oxygen tanks –
Gezi and the adjacent Taksim Square — likened by some to Tahrir, the heart of the Egyptian revolution — have remained not only the symbolic hub of the movement but also its canteen, debating chamber and recreation centre.
“It’s like a fair,” says Yilmaz Koc, 35, standing smoking beside his friend Dilek Kaftasi, a 28-year-old lawyer, in a fenced-off cluster of tents and plastic bags.
“Some people living near here come and ask if anyone wants to use their bathroom or bedroom.”
The two are manning a makeshift quartermaster’s store, supplied by donations: piles of food, gas masks and medical supplies for protesters injured in the clashes with police.
A skinny young man standing nearby holds up his arm — a purple bruise covers it, partly patched over by a white dressing, from where a police pepper gas canister hit him.
“Some people who come here can’t breathe, so we have oxygen tanks,” for victims of the gas, says Koc.
For other visitors, he has bags of cheese and tomato sandwiches.
“Being here in a crowd makes us powerful. That is why people come,” he says, as a woman hands him a bag of food.
“I came to support the young people. I’m old enough to be their mother,” says the donor, not giving her name.
“I have a problem with my neck and the doctor told me not to go out, but I couldn’t stay home. I told myself I had to help.”
In the park’s open spaces, young men and women leap over long skipping ropes, while a street entertainer gathers a large crowd of spectators around him by performing complicated tricks with a reel of tape.
In one corner, couples sit on the ground watching films on a giant screen.
Muslims celebrating a holy day hand out crunchy bread rings for free to passers-by.
Abandoned buses stand blocking nearby streets, the glass of their windows pulverised and bodywork coated in graffiti. Chuckling tourists and wags pose for photographs in the drivers’ seats.
Some protestors stand atop bulldozers parked nearby the entrance. It is a telling symbol of the local issue at the root of this nationwide wave of anger that has left at least two young men dead.
Inside the park, revellers leap to their feet and dance, cheering and chiming in when they hear a song they like.
“There are no cops here. That’s why they’re happy,” said Bahar Burcu Kabak, a dark curly-haired waitress of 25, immaculately made up and sitting on the grass in a cluster of tents.
“They’re having fun right now,” adds her friend Dervis Aktug, 30, smiling wearily with bags under his eyes after five nights in the park. “It should always be like that.”