Story Publication logo October 30, 2013

Turkey: A Day in Fatih


Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...

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Young women break for prayer and dodge a maintenance team, in one of Fatih's many mosques. Image by Jenna Krajeski. Turkey, 2013.

On weekday mornings the Fatih branch of Tekbir, a popular Istanbul-based Islamic fashion company, is quiet. One Thursday in early October Fatima, a Tekbir sales person, milled around the racks of clothes, smoothing down dress sleeves and tidying stacks of blouses, fluffing hanging displays of brightly colored scarves all stamped with the label's name. Like her colleagues, Fatima wears a long, sea foam green coat buttoned up to her neck, a matching patterned headscarf, and a small gold name tag. She is an observant Muslim, at home in Fatih, a conservative neighborhood on the Golden Horn where she has been working for the past year and a half.

From here, Fatima watched as protests took over Taksim Square, a scant three miles away, following them in a press that, for those few months, all seemed foreign. She disapproves of the urban development project of Prime Minister Recep Teyyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). "I've lived here for 28 years and I can't afford to buy a house in the center of the city," she told me. "I'm not rich enough to be in the neighborhood." Still, she did not go to Taksim.

Taksim Square was the centerpiece of the Gezi protests, its rationale and later its beating heart. The police, the protesters, and, for the most part, the journalists were in Taksim, as well as nearby Besiktas and Dolmabahce and Cihangir, or Kadikoy — the government opposition stronghold across the Bosporus. But while the world's eyes were turned to the narrow, hilly streets and wide shopping areas being torn through by clashes, other neighborhoods seemed to shrivel into obscurity. Istanbul is a city of sprawl more than a city of squares, with an enormous and growing population — owing in part to Erdogan's ambition to make it the center of Turkey. While Taksim boiled, a lot of Istanbul stayed away. Those three miles separating Fatih — an historic and religiously conservative neighborhood, dotted with mosques — grew longer, the Golden Horn wider.

A block from Tekbir I met Furkan, a 27-year-old who works for a plumbing company while he finishes his education online. On his left hand Furkan wore a large metal ring stamped with a star and crescent. He has grown a thick, dark beard. In Istanbul, where the spectrum of religious devotion is long and full of individual specifics, it's helpful to have visual clues. Fatima's headscarf, for example — and, only slightly less potently, her long overcoat — indicated that she is devout. Furkan's ring and beard ido the same. But it's far from a perfect system. All too often the bearers become overshadowed by these symbols, reduced to a headscarf or a beard. They know that these choices become shorthand for both their religious and political affiliations, particularly in the hands of foreign media. Neither the beard nor the headscarf scratches the surface of a person's individual faith or politics, particularly in a place like Istanbul. It's best to ask.

"Doesn't the American president hold his hand over the Bible?" Furkan, who it turns out is both devout and an AKP supporter, asked. He defended the religious identity of the government by pointing out what he sees as a fundamental hypocrisy in how the West views the AKP. "In Turkey you do not hold your hand over the Koran. Using this logic, the U.S. government is more religious than the Turkish government."

Furkan stayed away from Gezi. "What was at stake was not the trees," he told me. "The government has planted three billion trees! We are a democratic unity of Alevis, Sunnis, and Kurds…but the Gezi protesters provoked the Alevi community and caused clashes."

Like many of the AKP supporters I spoke to in Fatih that day, Furkan alternated between informed opinions about the ruling party (such as their progress negotiating peace with the Kurdish minority) and pure party line (three billion trees). He continued. "The West and the media are dishonest about Turkey and Gezi," he told me. "[The West] understands that Turkey is becoming powerful…They transformed a mouse into a camel. The West has blood on its hands."

A few blocks away an elderly woman manned a booth for the charity Kimse Yok Mu (Is No One There?). She is wrapped in a thick shawl and, like Fatima, wears a headscarf. She preferred not to give her name and like both Fatima and Furkan wanted to be sure I wouldn't take photos. For the past 15 years, the woman has helped collect donations for Kimse Yok Mu, sitting beside a plastic box in all corners of the city. "I voted for the AKP in all the elections," she told me. "But I would vote for any government that represents the people." I asked whether it was important to her that the prime minister be religious. She said it was. "Since he is a Muslim, he helps everyone," she said.

Mustafa, a 35-year-old employee in a perfume shop, had harsh words for the Gezi protesters. "The people in Taksim were harmful for the country," he told me. "We have two perfume shops in Taksim. They were gassed for over 15 days. They were harmed by the protesters…The protesters were young, they were too immature."

Emre, a jewelry stand salesman, was similarly critical of the protests. We met in his office above a street lined with butchers and restaurants that specialize in lamb which has been roasted underground. Empty jewelry stands were neatly arranged in shelves around his office, and he used a few empty boxes — one big, one small, and a medium one in the middle — to illustrate a point. "The Left feels lonely like the small box," he said, sliding it away from the other two. "They hate [Erdogan] so much. Maybe when he dies they will admit he was good and hardworking."

The Gezi protesters are "white Turks," Emre said, referring to a derogatory formula which classifies secular Turks as "white" and religious Turks as "black." With Erdogan in power, and calling himself a "black Turk," that title has been reclaimed with pride. "They don't have a lot of struggles," Emre said of the protesters. "They are children of resentment."

Emre did not attend the protests and, like a lot of people who stayed away and who feel they cannot trust the media, received news from Gezi Park as through a long, winding game of telephone. Emre spoke of the protests being taken over by marginal groups, including the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). "Protests are a good thing," he said. "But shooting at the police is not a protest."

At various points during my day in Fatih it was difficult to get people to talk. Some, like Furkan, were wary of the foreign media. Others, like the woman at Kimse Yok Mu, were understandably shy about confessing their religious and political beliefs. Some seemed bored, or preoccupied (it was a workday). There was a general nervousness. Erdogan had done an excellent job convincing his supporters that they were being demonized by the international media, when they weren't being ignored. Erodogan's own portrayal as a brute and a dictator was likewise a conspiracy. In Fatih, I was asking people to talk about a subject that would require them to confess their religious feelings, their political affiliations, and defend a man who ordered riot police to shoot tear gas into a park of sleeping protesters and then called those police heroes. With Taksim Square now quiet, many Fatih residents just wanted to drink their tea in peace.

Parts of Faith are picturesque, with big parks, chunks of the ancient wall, and numerous mosques surrounded by quiet gardens and even quieter courtyards. On sunny days the parks are full. Women push baby strollers across the tiled walkways and families picnic on the grass. A figure or two lies still underneath a tree, napping in wrinkled clothes. Tourists take photos beneath an enormous statue of Fatih Sultan Mehmet who, after conquering Constantinople in 1453, now sails over Faith park on a leaping, muscular stallion.

Ismail, a 58-year-old retired restaurant owner, sat on a wooden bench doing a word jumble. "I'm normal," he told me, meaning that, like most of his peers, he was not raised in a religious household. He was wistful, talking about Islam the way a farmer might lament not having been born into the royal family. His secularism was an irreversible trick of fate. "I would like to be so," he said. "If I had grown up like that maybe I would be praying five times a day…but back then the country, and my family, was trying to produce one-dimensional people."

Ismail voted twice for the AKP and defends Erdogan, particularly when it comes to his controversial alcohol restrictions, the same laws which enraged the Gezi protesters. Ismail is a recovering alcoholic. "Alcohol is a bad thing," he told me. "I know, I drank for thirty years."

In the same park where I met Ismail, Fatima had gathered a few months before to protest against Bashar al-Assad and the ongoing violence in Syria. It was, according to her, a peaceful and necessary demonstration. To Fatima, the war south of Turkey eclipses any of the concerns raised during the Gezi protests. "In Syria our Muslim brothers and sisters are being massacred, and they don't say anything. We had a protest here in Fatih in support of the Syrian revolution and no one came."

It's not true that Syria wasn't a concern of the Gezi protesters. Erdogan's confused foreign policy tightens around Turkey like a vice, and the Gezi protests were a manifestation of the fears his policy inspires among many Turks. But Fatima was insulted by the absence of Gezi protesters at the Faith protest. Her bitterness has become a wall. "I think the [Gezi protests] were designed to separate people," she told me. "And they succeeded."


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