THE BLOG

Taksim Square: The Business of Revolution

Jun 20, 2013 | Updated Aug 20, 2013

It all started over a proposal for a new shopping mall -- a protest against one of those shiny leviathans of commerce that wallows in the midst of cities, holding cities in its belly: clothes and shoes and food and jewelry and books and electronics and cars.

It is not that people in Istanbul are not used to them. After all, the city is home to the famous Kapalıçarşı, the Grand Bazaar, the grandfather of all malls, founded in 1461 by Sultan Mehmet II immediately after the fall of Constantinople. Then there is Mısır Çarşısı, or the Egyptian Bazaar, built in 1660 and still functioning today, merchants selling spices of variegated colors in the coolness of arabesque arcades. The bazaar and its contemporary offspring, the mall, are an important part of Turkish culture, which has always been pragmatic, favoring trade as a communication tool and a weapon of choice. Alışveriş -- shopping -- is the glue that binds Turkish society together, the core of Turkey's domestic and foreign policy. Religion and ethnicity may be important, but business trumps them all. That was largely the case in the Ottoman Empire; that is largely the case today.

But even peaceful commerce, taken to extremes, can fire back. When Turkey's popular but increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to bulldoze one of the few remaining green areas in central Istanbul -- Gezi Park, by Taksim Square -- to make space for a mall in the style of once extant Ottoman military barracks, Istanbullus rebelled. Many of them liked commerce just fine, some felt proud that in the past decade their favorite city had been transformed again into a major financial and cultural center, resurrected to greatness from the ashes of its 20th-century irrelevance. It was overdevelopment in the Chinese style -- corrupt, destructive, without public consultation -- that made people uncomfortable and finally pushed them into action.

Under the market-friendly rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, Istanbul has seen the construction of more than 80 shopping malls and more than 40 additional ones are currently in the planning stages. Construction companies with close ties to the government are reaping enormous financial benefits. Large international chains are quickly pushing aside local merchants. Like an invasive species without any natural enemies, shopping-mall monsters have started to take over the simple alışveriş biosphere of Istanbul, rending the traditional social fabric.

A few days after the protests began and the police responded with brutal amounts of tear gas, further eroding the situation, Erdoğan complained that the protesters -- çapulcu (riffraff, looters), he called them -- were undermining business in Istanbul at the height of the tourist season. To an extent he was right . Many of the large chains along Istiklal Caddesi, the main commercial strip in the city, had closed doors or, when open, seemed forlornly empty, their facades covered in protest graffiti and posters. The local currency, the lira, was suffering. Stocks were going down.

The violent protests in Istanbul did not arrest commerce, however, as much as some fringe leftist groups tried to promulgate their anti-capitalist agenda. The capital flows were simply redirected. If the large, impersonal corporate entities -- Mango, United Colors of Benetton, Starbucks, Burger King -- lost customers, street merchants quickly moved in to fill the vacuum and service a new specialized niche. People needed gas masks (or "Anonymous" masks) and goggles and helmets to protect themselves from police violence. T-shirts with the iconic face of the founder of the Turkish Republic and symbol of secularist values, Kemal Mustafa -- Ataturk, were in great demand. Peddlers sold their regular street wares: fake jewelry and cheap clothes and even carpets. A few forward-thinking individuals had set up makeshift bars, complete with bar-stools, directly on Istiklal. With Erdoğan trying to restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol, a beer or a quick shot of tequila in the street became another form of protest. And, then, there were the usual food vendors. Kebabs, corn, chestnuts, pilau, water melons, muscles, cucumbers, tea and coffee: there was something for everyone. During lulls in the clashes, policemen, protesters and journalists would get together around these stalls, eating peacefully along each other before moving again on the opposite sides of the front-line.

Istanbul tourism was also transformed in a peculiar way. Quick to capitalize on popular sentiments, merchants came up with original memorabilia. Street musicians commemorated the events in songs. It took just a few days for the Taksim protests to be commodified, turned into a souvenir and a spectacle, but nobody seemed to care. Every revolution and protest relies on myth, on iconography, and what better way to create and distribute that myth than stamp it on t-shirts and mugs. Suddenly, the old trading spirit of Istanbul was back. Commerce was about money, yes, but also about community.

Three weeks after the Gezi Park occupation began, the brutal tactics of the police broke up the protests and the government went on to restore business for the big corporate chains. The graffiti were quickly scrubbed out and history was violently erased. Many of the street merchants disappeared from Istiklal. Erdoğan agreed to abide by a court decision that stalled construction in Gezi Park and even offered a popular referendum on its future. But if history is any guide, he would continue the destructive policy of overdevelopment, chopping down trees, pushing small-time merchants out, exchanging the chatty bazaar for a cheerless mall.