Ten years ago on May 28, a group of environmentalists gathered at Istanbul's Gezi Park resisting the demolition of one of the remaining green spaces in the heart of this cosmopolitan city, Taksim square. Little did they know that their resistance would ignite country-wide protests far beyond the cause that triggered the protests in the first place and would become perhaps the largest acts of civil disobedience in Turkish history, an unprecedented affront to the government controlled by the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). It was a historical moment in Turkey. Despite police violence, excessive use of tear gas and water cannons, and the government's dismissal of the protesters as vandals and later as riffraff and sluts, protests continued for weeks until June 15, when police moved in to evacuate the park.
Scores of citizens were arrested as a result. The Gezi Protests emerged as a milestone in Ankara's journey towards authoritarianism. In addition to name-calling and insults, the ruling AKP government launched a crackdown against those it viewed as the culprits. Among them was Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist who was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to life in prison in April 2022. This year, on the tenth anniversary of the Gezi protests, millions of Turks will be heading to the polls to cast their votes for the next president in the second round of general elections which took place on May 14. The two candidates on the ballot are incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the candidate from the united opposition front (known as Table of Six).
This year, to mark the ten year anniversary of the protests, Global Voices sat down with Deniz Goran (not the author's real name), to talk about her recent book, “The Fugitive of Gezi Park,” which tells the story of Ada, a Turkish woman who leaves Turkey for London after being detained and interrogated over her involvement in Gezi protests. There she meets Lucian, a heartbroken gallerist. The two eventually fall for each other and, as Ada dreads the the verdict of her trial in Turkey, the book takes the reader on a journey of love, trauma, struggle, and much more.
Throughout our interview we discussed how Goran decided to include the story of Gezi protests in her book, perceptions of women and the overall state of women's rights in Turkey, domestic politics and what lies ahead for both Turkey and Goran.
Global Voices: Why did you decide to write your second book about the Gezi Protests?
Deniz Goran: After my first novel “The Turkish Diplomat's Daughter” was published, I left my job in the art world because I realized writing was what I wanted to do. I wished to devote my life to creating characters in other worlds. Around the time I gave birth to my son, the Gezi protests erupted. At that point I was already writing my second novel. It was set in the art world and centered around a young Turkish woman based in London who was desperately missing her homeland. I was very moved by the protests. I could not take part because I’m based in London, yet I was there in spirit. There was a lot of tension in Turkey before the protests broke out. Many people were unhappy and the decision to destroy Gezi Park became the tipping point. In a way it was magical, and I was very influenced by what came to be known as the ‘Gezi Spirit.’ To the extent that I decided to incorporate the protests into my novel. I had just become a mother and had a newly born baby to take care of, so it took a while to finish it. But that is how the Gezi Park protests essentially became a part of my second novel.
Both of Goran's novels center around strong female characters and their personal journeys. So Global Voices asked Goran, about her thoughts on what it is like being a woman in Turkey.
DG: There is a lot of shame attached to being a woman. I first arrived in Turkey from Sydney at the age of 11. As I went through puberty, the male gaze was everywhere, and I felt objectified. However, the desire expressed by men towards women was often not of the affectionate kind. It was aggressive and controlling. In contrast to this, when I was attracted to someone, I found out how it was deemed unacceptable, as a teenage girl, to openly express it.
Although I have been away from Turkey and that mindset for many years, when my first novel “The Turkish Diplomat's Daughter” was published and I was vilified for writing such a book, that suppressed sense of shame I had been carrying inside immediately rose to the surface. The shame one feels towards one’s body and sexuality is ingrained into you by society, regardless of the kind of background you come from. Having said that, sexism exists on some level, wherever you go, including in Britain. In my books I have drawn a lot from this aspect of womanhood.
Scores of academic work that was published in the aftermath of Gezi protests took a closer look at how women's activism really transformed as a result or how various symbols that emerged during the protest emboldened women across Turkey to speak up but also how, over the years under the leadership of the AKP, women's rights continued to deteriorate despite positive steps taken at the start of their time in the government.
Ada's character was also very much influenced by Goran's personal experience after the reaction to her first book:
DG: I was a Turkish diplomat's daughter and had written a sexually explicit novel. I believe my book was too much for Turkish media. The reaction I received soon spiraled out of control. I had assumed they could slander my novel, but I did not expect it would get so personal, that they would fabricate stories about me. It was a complete shock to the system. I was terribly affected by the experience. To the point that I developed generalized anxiety disorder. Yet, the experience led me to create Ada’s character, who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder which she develops after a night of interrogation. As a writer you use everything and so, as painful as it was at the time, my own personal struggle with anxiety also became something I drew inspiration from.
Gezi marked the beginning of harsher measures against civil society, the media, and opposition politicians. Years later, Turkey's ongoing political, social and cultural struggles, would inspire songs, films, memes but also draw further riffs among the society as a whole.
GV: When you think of Gezi protests today, as an artist, as a writer, who has been observing Turkey, what does it represent and what does the present day environment mean for Turkey's future?
DG: It is true that Erdogan took a more authoritarian stance after Gezi Park, but he was already displaying increasingly autocratic tendencies before the protest took place. Actually, this was one of the underlying reasons behind the protests. To this day, Gezi stands as a glimmer of hope for true democracy in Turkey. It brought together people from all walks of life. Seeing those very different strands join forces was amazing. The protests still represent hope for mutual tolerance which is lacking more more between different segments of the society today. Masses took to the streets across the country protesting for change, the movement is a milestone in the republic’s history. During the protests people expressed themselves with humor instead of violence. While Erdogan's policies are about fear and division, Gezi is the very opposite of that.
For many Turks, Gezi was also a point when they realized they no longer wanted to stay. In fact, a series of domestic developments, including the failed coup attempt, the purges that followed afterwards, the economic crisis, the inequalities and the rising unemployment, did force thousands of Turks to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Today, Turkey's brain drain extends to academics, intellectuals, journalists, engineers, medical professionals and many others who see no future in this country.
The challenges of starting anew in a foreign country does not seem to stop the “fugitives of the new Turkey” as Goran describes them in our interview from leaving. “There are many fugitives of the new Turkey I meet daily. It is nice to see my fellow countrymen and women but at the same time, I think nobody should have the right to do this. And it is really unfair. I am saddened by this.”
But we end on a positive note despite the grim picture. As Goran's describes, “it cannot go on like this. We have to always be hopeful, and must not give up, no matter what.”