“Critical Times”: Class Acts In Istanbul

July 8, 2015 by cosmoakacitizensmith

Anarchist Cafe, Istanbul

Anarchist Cafe, Istanbul

At the 26a anarchist cafe in Istanbul, Johnny and I were in for a shock. One of the volunteers told us the gig was cancelled. But he had a good excuse: the gig organiser had gone off to help flight ISIS and support the Kurds in Kobane.

Ah, Kobane! The anarchist newswire has been tapping frantically about this new development in recent months. Kurds are a people without a state: a ethnic minority in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, denied their own country in treaties and chaos that followed the end of World War One. In recent years, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, has embraced the thinking of American anarchist Murray Bookchin. The Kurdish majority city of Kobane and the surrounding area of Rojave in Syria is now under anarchist control, besieged by Assad’s loyalists on one hand and ISIS on the other.

“It’s not strictly anarchism in Kobane, but we do solidarity work there because they are organising without a state,” one of the activists explains to us over some menemen. I’ve heard some interesting excuses from gig promoters about why gigs have been cancelled over the years, but fighting fascists and religious headcases in an anarchist stronghold takes some beating. Fair play!

Propaganda showing the comparisons between Kobane now and anarchist-controlled Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, 1936

Propaganda showing the comparisons between Kobane now and anarchist-controlled Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, 1936

The movement in Kobane prides itself on being horizontally organised and puts a premium on the involvement of minorities. The anarcho-feminist movement is particularly strong there and women fight alongside men on the frontline in equal numbers. They have held their ground.

“These are critical times, comrade,” we are told, the first of many times I hear the phrase in Istanbul.

We leave the winding back streets and head to Taksim Square, just next to Gezi park where there were massive anti-government protests in 2013. “It was a wonderful time to be in Istanbul then,” another activist explains. The government had decided to build a shopping mall in Gezi park and the protests mushroomed as all manner of anti-government groups joined in. “It was a tent city for a while, a little like Occupy,” I am told. “Everyone was against the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the war in Syria and the creeping conservatism of the government.”

Turkish politics has taken almost the opposite direction to the UK. In recent elections here, Erdoğan was given a bloody nose by a combination of progressive, feminist and minority-rights groups centred around the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who gained a foothold in parliament for the first time. This means that not only is Erdoğan unable to fulfil his presidential ambitions, but the parties are deadlocked in talks to form the next government. Perhaps there will be another election soon.

“These are critical times here.” That phrase again.

One of the streets off Taksim is thronged day and night by shoppers, night-life freaks and the occasional beggar. Roast chestnut and corn-on-the-cob sellers have stalls strategically placed at various points along it. Others sells mussels from the Bosphorus and always have a lemon amongst the piles of shells. Round about the late afternoon, street musicians start to set up and perform. Crowds gather round them, varying in size depending on how good the acts are. In the streets off the main drag, there are trendy bars selling very reasonably-priced booze and food. By sundown, the area has the feel of a festival, seven days a week.

One of the street musicians I meet is fantastic zither player, and he and his band work the main drag just up from a place called Tunel. “We set up at about half four,” he explains. “There is a usually a demonstration here in the early afternoon, and we play after that.”

“What would you like to change in Turkey?” I ask.

“I would change many things!” he says. “But it’s like people are asleep here.” I know that feeling back home.

imageAnother street musician joins us: “Many of us believe the government is giving tacit support to ISIS against the Kurds in Kobane because they keep the lid on the Kurdish minority here in Turkey. The government provides the jihadis with medical care and logistical support. There is a lot of anger about this. These are critical times.”


I see just how angry people are the next day when I get caught up in the demonstration I had been told about. A group of women from NGOs and elsewhere all over Turkey are protesting against the government’s role on the war in Syria and their support for the jihadists. They also want to draw attention to the disproportionate amount of violence against women in this and all other conflicts.

The group start amassing during the early afternoon in the busy shopping centre, many bearing home-made placards. They are joined by another group of women who march down from the top end of the street chanting and carrying Kurdistan Workers Party flags and pictures of Ocalan. Just as they reach critical mass, five huge police vans turn up and cops get out, carrying guns and teargas. There are about forty of them, confronting about 120 unarmed women, who stand their ground and chant slogans denouncing the war.


There is a stand-off for about twenty minutes as shoppers and tourists walk by, half fearful, half trying to ignore what is happening. I’m scared too, but I can’t help being mesmerised by the strange spectacle. Suddenly, the police decide to turn around and march back to their vans, leaving the rest of us to it. The women screech their defiance at the police and then start marching and chanting down the main street towards Taksim, banners and home-made placards aloft.

It was incredibly moving and emotional to see this.

Further up the street, students have set up a stall to generate interest for an anti-nuclear camp later in July. Further up again, in Taksim Square, I learn about the massacre of nearly forty people, (the number is disputed), in May Day protests there in 1977. “We believe CIA snipers were in the big hotel there,” I am told. “They were very afraid of working-class power at that time.”

Just the week before, teargas and water cannons had been used to disperse people on the Gay Pride march. “The excuse they used was that it was Ramadan,” an activist tells me, “but it was held in Ramadan last year and there was no problem”. What was funny was that amongst all the tear gas and water cannons last week, the fact that it was so sunny meant that rainbows were formed in the clashes. You couldn’t make it up!

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

A final thought: the evening Johnny and I arrived, we hung out in the Sutanahmet area, where there are lots of mosques, including the famous Blue Mosque. We wondered around as families broke their fasts and sat outside in the warm evening having picnics. It was a great atmosphere. I thought about the Islam-bashing dullards in the UK who see Muslim countries as monolithic sharia-zones with every citizen a potential suicide bomber. They parade their ideas in sneering ignorance. Maybe they should come out here to Istanbul for a visit. It’s cheap. They may actually learn something worth spouting – and they may even have a laugh 😉

Critical times.


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