In Istanbul, history folds over itself like geologic layers in the Grand Canyon. Dig anywhere and you uncover a hidden reality overlaying yet another hidden reality.
When I first went to the Gezi Park, which was the site of protests and violence in the city in spring, I expected barricades and an army of police. I doubted I would be let in. But I arrived the day they had taken all that down, and I found instead a fairly crowded urban park, with kids playing on the see-saw, vendors selling ice cream, many people lounging in the shade. There were no bulldozers, no fallen trees, no protestors whirling like silent Dervishes or throwing flowers in the air; gratefully, there were no armed police firing pepper spray and tear gas. Everything looked so calm, so eerily normal, that it was hard to imagine that Gezi, just a few days earlier, held one of the largest uprisings in modern Turkish history.
To someone unfamiliar with Gezi, the only evidence of the recent turmoil was a makeshift memorial made up with seven photos, a placard, and a small banner. The photos were portraits of those killed in the demonstrations: five for those who died in Gezi, one for a young man shot in the head at a solidarity demo in Ankora, and one for a transgender person, a recent victim of a hate crime murder not directly linked to the protest. The portraits, propped up in a flower garden, were surrounded by saplings of variegated maples whose crowns were tangled like recently topped trees.
But those maples and that flower garden weren’t there before the demonstration. Had you stood on that spot a couple of weeks ago, you would have been under a grove of London plane trees, whose proposed destruction sparked the confrontation. In spite of the protests, those trees were bulldozed, and there’s no sign of them now. And instead of laying the foundation for a new shopping mall, as was planned, the government responded to the protestors by sending in an army of gardeners, planting flowers and saplings to cover over as quickly as possible a layer of history officials would rather forget.
It’s an old tactic, covering over uncomfortable events, and one used on this site previously. An environmental activist from Turkey told me that Gezi Park was built on an Armenian graveyard. The trees in Gezi were probably only seventy-five years old, youngsters when compared to the plane tree shading a garden where we had lunch. That tree, though hollow, is magnificently huge, and dates back to the sixteenth century. But the government prefers to keep its history with the Armenian minority buried. My activist friend tells me that the only other demonstration in his life that rivals the events in and around Gezi was the 2007 funeral of Hrant Dink, a prominent Armenian editor, who was assassinated after he dared to write about the genocide that occurred in Turkey in 1915. Over 100,000 people attended Dink’s funeral and, at his wife’s request, protested by remaining silent. My friend says it’s hard to imagine the power of 100,000 silent people.
Over lunch we discussed how much of the recent protest was about the trees themselves. He says that it wasn’t just about the trees, but that it was about the trees; that if the government were taking down a historical building for the shopping mall, there wouldn’t have been anyone chaining themselves to the doors of the building. Bulldozing these trees, ripping out this oasis of nature in the heart of Istanbul, hit a nerve in the collective psyche. Trees, of course, are not only rooted in the ground; they also have roots in our minds. Trees function as living symbols of our relationship to nature in the religious and mythological traditions of many cultures and across great spans of time. To take just one of many possible examples from the Bible in which trees and people are joined at the roots: “And he looked up, and said, ‘I see men as trees, walking.’”
This deep symbolic identification with trees was evident not just at the protest, but also at the memorial. The placard pictured above memorializing Ali Ismail, who was killed at Gezi Park, reads, “I was a young sapling called Ali, innocent child, my blood boiling. What was my crime that I was surrounded on all sides, my life extinguished?”
And on the banner: “Gnarled and root-like, a wizened old tree with strong ties. It will never topple—but it has already toppled.”
Replacing the felled trees with saplings and covering the site with a flower garden may have defused the protest for now, but this demonstration may signal a greater awakening about our imperiled relationship to nature, a coming to consciousness that cannot be easily co-opted or controlled. The top of Ali’s banner proclaims this change of consciousness as a fait accompli: “The Executioner woke up in his bed and said, ‘God, what a hard riddle is this? They increase as I kill them, but I decrease as I kill them.’”
Joe Lamb is the founder of The Borneo Project, a nonprofit organization working to protect rainforests and secure land rights for indigenous people. His collection of poetry, Sometimes Like a Particle, Sometimes Like a Wave, will be published this fall by Littoral Press.