Saturday, 1 June 2013

Freedom in Three Languages

Photo courtesy of Bulphoto

The Greens' rally in front of Turkey’s Embassy in Sofia on June 1, 2013

I had all excuses to miss the news from Istanbul on May 31. I would have never ever learned that it is the international smoke-free day, should I had not spent most of the past ten years trying to defend a law that bans tobacco smoking in public. Together with a bunch of heartened people, and backed by Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropies I had had moderate success, but it was exactly that day when a newly elected member of parliament was filing a bill to have the total ban evoked. This added two citizen protests near Parliament and a live TV show appearance to the already packed international day celebration schedule. So it was not before mid-day on June 1 that I actually comprehended the news of what was going on in Turkey. It was chilling.

The beginning was disturbing, but yet non-surprising: Gazi Park, the last green spot in downtown Istanbul, had been destined to disappear under yet another shopping mall construction. How similar to what we have been struggling against in Bulgaria for the past 15 years – to little or no avail. This is why I felt instantly sympathetic to the news that citizens had gathered for a sit-in protest near Taxim, the heart of modern urban Istanbul, and that authorities had tried to crack it down. But the rest was simply shocking. It went beyond my understanding of the egalitarian might of the Turkish state and its not too developed sense of democracy. Protesters attacked by the police. Tens injured. A few killed. Tear gas and water cannons used against peaceful demonstrators.  What was going on?
I knew it without even reading the article in the Guardian, whose title read something about a Turkish “spring.” The only piece of news I read fully was about Turkish army top bras resigning en-mass in order to avoid being tried for treason. The crippling islamization policy of Prime Minister Erdogan was trying to cut off the head of the army: the strongest pillar of Kemalist ideas of egalitarianism and secularism in the country. Protecting Istanbul’s last green area had symbolically turned into a fight for protecting the secular state and liberal democracy for Turkey’s liberal and democratic people. That is why Erdogan’s police force had unleashed its repressive power on them. They needed help.

"We are all in the streets of Istanbul now"
Internet has this amazing quality of cutting distances. “We are all in the streets of Istanbul now” I wrote in the status field. Indeed, half hour spent in front of the laptop had made me feel as if I was there with them too: friends, former colleagues, former journalist and environmental activist friends of mine.  People I have worked, had fun, loved, and – most significantly – shared values with, were now being chased, beaten, wounded, hit by batons and water streams, killed. I hope not! I sent messages to Yasemin, a green activist, one of the finest women I have ever met, and Nafiz, the Turkish version’s editor of my magazine, some 10 years ago. Nafiz wrote back: “I am here in the square,” he wrote: “no time for interviews.” Then he passed on to me the Avaaz petition, calling upon Erdogan to stop violence. I signed it and shared it. But was this enough?

Not really, the answer came. I could do more than tap on the keyboard. There is a real world out there, with real people, and real politics in it. And Turkey has an embassy in Sofia. So there I had to go. And not alone. I called Petko Tsvetkov, my old time friend and villain within the environmentalist movement of Bulgaria: “Do you know what’s going on in Istanbul? Zelenite need to call a protest in front of the Turkish Embassy immediately.” It took him three seconds to check with whoever was around him – other leaders of the Greens, I supposed – they have this habit of hanging all the time together. “Yes, let’s do that” the answer came. This is what I like about Zelenite, or ‘the Greens’ – a tiny new political party, but with the heart and reflexes of the genuine civil movement that most of its members come from. Five minutes later the event was up on Facebook: civil presence in front of the Turkish embassy, in solidarity with the pro-democracy and pro-environment protesters in Istanbul.

At 6 pm sharp I am in front of the Embassy. I see a crowd of about 100 people, holding placards. Unbelievably many participants for an event that was scheduled just a few hours earlier. A line of about 10 policemen hold them a few meters away from the building. As I cross the Vassil Levski Boulevard I spot Nicky – one of the few old timers among BTV’s cameramen who still remember my previous life as television news-reporter and chief editor. I know he will do good job with camera work. But what about the reporter and the editor? BTV, Bulgaria’s largest private network, has become notorious over the past years for manipulating news against the Greens. 

I move on to the demonstration. Participants’ faces seem unfamiliar. My worst nightmare is that anti-Turkish nationalists may overtake the rally.  I enter the crowd and understand everything: these are not the usual protest crowd of Zelenite. These are Turks, young Turks who study in Sofia. They joined the protest in front of their country’s embassy. Then I look around and see Petko, Bobby, Georgi, Sirma, Damyan and a few other familiar faces. So it worked – we have a Zelenite rally backed by the Turkish expats, who, as I understand, have been on the streets protesting through the day.

I reach for the megaphone, which stays unused by then. “We are here because our friends and colleagues, the green activists in Istanbul, as well as all free-minded people, are being attacked, wounded and killed by the police in Istanbul,” I begin. All eyes turn to me. I turn to the embassy, which stands seemingly empty and lifeless in front of us. “We are in front of this building as human beings and citizens of a European country, to address the ambassador and the government of Turkey, and demand the immediate termination of police violence on peaceful protesters and the citizens of Istanbul.” I look around my Green friends, asking them to continue. They all refuse – I am convinced they are simply scared by the perspective of public speaking. Even Bobby, the most experienced speaker among them, pushes the microphone away.  I then announce that Zelenite have initiated this event not only because the events in Istanbul were triggered by an environmentalist action, but because the crackdown on protesters, the media black-out, the fact that only foreign media provide unbiased reporting, is similar to our situation in Bulgaria. This is when a man shouts behind my back. In Bulgarian. “What Zelenite? We want no political parties here!”

This is the curse of apolitization. Decades of broken promises, conformism, lack of principle and outright corruption have made people hostile to political parties and politicians, whose only purpose has seemingly been to gain access to power in order to capitalize on it. Paradoxically, after a certain point, this sense of detachment from politics has in fact been encouraged by mainstream parties, who could always rely on their firm electorates and abundant budgets to get re-elected. This is what has just happened weeks ago, on May 12, when the political status quo reproduced itself, in spite of anti-systemic protests and unrest that shook Bulgaria for months. Neither Zelenite, nor other new parties could make the 4% threshold and enter Parliament. 

Part of the reason for this failure is that Zelenite, as well as other small parties, have been unable to show their name and organizational identity at demonstrations and protests, bowing to the general sense of disillusionment with political parties. I have a different view: it is precisely because political parties have failed to engage with the real issues, face the public, call demonstrations and rallies, that society has started seeing them as hallow, useless, spineless money-driven structures. Zelenite need to change this image if they are to get recognized as carriers of new air of citizen-based politics. So I turn to the guy and speak into the microphone: “Zelenite are the one political party who cares to stand against the terror in Istanbul. That is because Turkey’s environmental movement is in the core of the protests there, and we have to support them.” The guy is puzzled by my resistance, but also by the fact that I hold the loudspeaker - voice is power. He opens his mouth and starts shouting loud “Unity! Unity!” Others from the Greens join him and soon everyone start chanting together: “Unity! Unity!”

Languags and tears 

I turn to the Turks then, who seem much more agitated and willing to express. “Will you speak?” I ask them in Bulgarian. They pass a piece of paper around, trying to scribble a speech. One says that that they are waiting for the translator.  Smart boys and girls, they have been quick to learn that using Turkish for a public statement in the capital of EU member Bulgaria, with its almost 1 million of native Turkish speakers, is still taboo. Traditional historic propaganda and more recent nationalism take Turkey and Turkish as its permanent target, with authorities and main political parties mostly turning a blind eye.  But here at the rally we are not nationalists, and these are no local Turks from the remote areas of southern and northern Bulgaria, I remember, these are students from Turkey, who came to Sofia for cheaper but good quality education. I never knew there were so many of them. “Speak in English then! Doesn’t anyone of you here speak English?” I change the language. They hesitate. A girl asks back in English: “Of course we all speak English, but... is it OK?”
Of course it is OK. Local languages divide us here in the Balkans. English connects us. English is the language of modernity. Of the West. Of Europe, and its commitments to tolerance, human rights, freedom. The language of money, not least, pouring from Western companies and from Western donors in this region. I know that the use of English carries subconsciously the notion of all these from the time 15 years ago when switching the language of correspondence was my usual trick for tuning down indigenous animosities. The girl reaches for the microphone and starts speaking, while I am holding the megaphone for her:  “We are here because of our friends, mothers and fathers back home, to show that we know what is happening back home, and will not let go” she starts with a strong clear voice, in perfect English. The cameras and photographers focus on her. She then speaks long, often interrupted by applause. Other Turks help her out with tips what she should say, and she does. When she comes to “it is not only the protection of nature that is at stake, it is our rights, our democracy, our freedom, because we are the free young people of Turkey, we are the Kemalists!” Did any other Bulgarian understand the point that she just made, I am wondering? 

The meaning of freedom and the meaning of Kemalism in a country where a religious conservative e majority grants political power to an oppressive and greedy regime through the means of with the help of formal parliamentary democracy elections. How similar to what we are having here in Bulgaria!  I realize that I am getting emotional. Yes, this is why I am here too, for nature, democracy and freedom in Istanbul. And in my country.  And elsewhere around the world. Then the Turkish girl  turns to the Greens: “We thank you, Greens, thank you for being here with us, and showing us that you care!” A hot wave across my stomach, up my neck, and towards the eyes: that strange almost forgotten feeling from the childhood. It feels like I am about to start to cry.

Big men don’t cry, though. I bow my head as low as I can, so that the wetness in my eyes does not betray me in front of the cameras. The girl keeps speaking for another minute or two, enough for the traitor tears to subdue. Then I take back the microphone: “You probably all heard the word that was used just now: freedom! It is all about freedom of people, or citizens, here and there in Istanbul. In Bulgarian it sounds like svoboda. So let’s say it out loud: svoboda!” The speaker girl next to me is the first to pick it up. Then the whole Turkish crowd chants as one in Bulgarian: “Svoboda! Svoboda.” After a while they look at each other, and shift to Turkish: özgürlük! The boulevard echoes freedom – in Bulgarian and Turkish language together. This is history, I think to myself. My voice starts trembling again. I feel proud, and desperate, and happy at the same time, to have witnessed this moment and been part of it. I can hear the Turks and the Greens make plans for another demonstration tomorrow. My time is over, and I have a train to catch back to Budapest, leaving in an hour. A give up the megaphone to the Turks, make a few photos, and walk away quickly.

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