Carrying on Gezi’s Legacy, One House at a Time

By Kathleen Saylors (story) and Şaziye Gourley-Ozhayta (photos and video) 

On a picturesque street filled with cafes and bars, an old-timey barber shop and copious political graffiti, you’ll find a legacy of the Gezi Park uprising: one of Istanbul’s first illegally-occupied houses, or squats.

Welcome to Caferağa Dayanışması, a formerly elegant but now derelict house that about 20 protestors have occupied, in order to carry forth ideas generated during the summer of 2013: objections to the government’s aggressive urban reconstruction and gentrification practices; protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian style; and support for social diversity.

Melis Ozbakir is a communications student, and new member of Caferağa. She said the squat, named for the small neighbourhood within Kadiköy in which it is found, was formed since the Gezi Park protests, as a way to localize the momentum from the massive uprising.

“With Gezi Park, people started organizing for local issues, workshops and meetings. People wanted to say something for their neighborhood, so neighborhood solidarity was established,” she said.

Multimedia journalist Şaziye Gourley-Özhayta visited the squat, and spoke with members about their demands and plans:

A Novel Idea in Turkey

“Solidarity” is the word used here to describe a squat. Occupying a house to make a political statement that has a long tradition in Western Europe. But in Turkey, the concept is new. Caferağa is one of at least four squats established in Istanbul in the wake of Gezi.

The house is over 150 years old, and was at one point given by Turkey’s republican war hero and first modern president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to the first Saudi Arabian diplomat posted to Turkey. Since the diplomat’s death, the house has gone unclaimed, and is now state-owned,according to those staying there.

Ozbakir joined Caferağa to help develop Istanbul’s rapidly changing political landscape.

“We create this diversity. Geziwas like that: different people. Different groups.  We gave public forums for everyone, not only for one group or ethnicity or ideology. We say, ‘we welcome everyone here.’”

The squat is a positive influence in the community, said Turan Yildirim, a server at Café& Shop across the street, although integrating it has not been easy.

The area, in the leftist neighborhood of Kadıköy, comprises older well-heeled elites devoted to the ideology of Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic. “Diversity” was not often a part of that ethos.

“This is a more Kemalist neighborhood, with white Turks, who are middle aged and old residents,” Yildirim said. “The squat is embracing the minority, and the Kurdish minority. At first, they did not fit in.”

Beautifully Derelict

The building looks as if it would be at home among the painted ladies of San Francisco. Through the peeling paint and structural decay, you can see the bones of a mansion that must have been beautiful once.

Behind the formidable metal doors, the air is cool and damp.

The occupiers don’t live here, but use it as a base for neighborhood organizing and cultural activities.

“When we need something, we get help from the Kadıköy municipality,” said Ozbakir. “Officially they are not allowed to help us, but they do their best.”

Ekin Bozkurt was involved in the ecology movement that began the initial Gezi Park occupation. She joined the squat to look for the community of Gezi once more.

“Even the most politically uninvolved came together in Gezi with many others, and we shared a common ideology, and met each other,” she said. “LGBT voices and women’s voices came together.”

Now, the squat is home to a microcosm of Istanbul’s counter-culture: LGBTQ, feminist, anti-racist, and Kurdish groups gather to brainstorm for change in the post-Gezi social climate.

Gezi Park and its counterculture changed the landscape of Turkish citizenship, according to Defne Karaosmanoğlu, an assistant professor in the Department of New Media at Bahçeşehir University.

“Moreover, it has challenged and transformed the mainstream understanding of the environment, environmentalism, the public space and the youth in Turkey,” said Karaosmanoğlu. And it encouraged more civic participation: “People actually acted as active citizens.”

The best thing about Gezi, Bozkurt said, was the way it empowered ordinary people.

“After Gezi, we saw that even local-scale politics could create many bigger movements,” she said. “From a little spark to a big fire.”

Selma Ceyiz, who works at the Zebercet Secondhand Bookshop down the street, said the squat community reminds her of abygone style of traditional Istanbul neighborhood culture, with its sense of camaraderie and belongingwithout regard to social standing, profession or ethnicity.

“It’s like the old neighborhood system in Turkey,” she said. “Hospitality, helping out people who need help, getting in touch. It harmonizes very different people from different ideologies and age groups. When you are in there, you are just human.”

The squat has also improved neighborhood social life, even for non-participants, Ceyiz said.

“Now, at least, we know each other and we can say hello when somebody is passing by.”

Yildirim supports the squat simply because it gives the formerly majestic house a new lease on life.

“Caferağa brings life, people, and productivity into that old rotting house,” Yildirim said.  “For that alone, it has potential in the community.”istanbul buyuksehir tugra

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