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Turkey protests: Erdogan trying - and failing - to herd cats

The Prime Minister's authoritarian streak extends to dealing with street cats

Turkish prime minister Erdoğan likes things to be clean.  He is a purity and danger man.  When police reappeared in Taksim Square early on the morning of June 11th, more than a week after they had been driven out of the area, he announced that the aim was to ‘clean Taksim’ and leave the fate of Gezi park in the balance.  But the promotional video for the proposed development – half of the area to the left of the park has already been concreted over - make it clear that he envisages an Ottoman style building surrounded by a sanitised piazza, and illuminated at night like a Saudi Arabian mosque. 

The ‘rags’ hanging from the Ataturk Cultural Centre and the ‘riff-raff’ camping on the square itself were to be removed.  The rags were the banners of every campaigning group in Turkey, along with some choice assessments of the prime minister’s character; they have now been replaced with two enormous national flags, and a much smaller one sandwiched in between and bearing a picture of Ataturk (this conflict is also a battle of symbolism, Ataturk’s stature now grudgingly recognised but, suitably for one who Erdoğan has described in public as ‘a drunkard’, diminished).

The riff-raff were the political organisations who had initially been in the park but who themselves had been asked to move outside – along with kebab and alcohol sellers - by the park organisers.  That – and the heavy police absence - is partly why the park on June 11th had the appearance of a leaderless, apolitical utopia, full of people reading, talking, singing, doing yoga, playing chess, painting, and giving lessons to schoolchildren.  During the three days I was there (8th to 10th June) it was almost as though a self-governing republic was coming into being, organised by the Taksim platform, and policed by Çarşi, the group of Besiktas football fans who are little discussed in the media but who are heroes to everyone who has taken part in the protests: ‘in case of emergency, call Çarşi’ is the cry.  

The groups on the square – camping as best they could on the tarmac - included trade unions and all possible variations on the People’s Front of Judea: ‘Autonomous Revolutionary Class Platform’, ‘Socialist Party of the Oppressed’, ‘Democratic People’s Federation’, ‘Socialist Democracy Party’, ‘United Struggle’.  The most curious was the ‘Anti-Capitalist Muslims’, with their slogan ‘all property belongs to God’.  They had a prayer tent and a carpeted area bounded by a rudimentary fence, and five times a day the revolutionary groups would persuade those nearby to respect the faithful’s need for silence. 

One of them described himself as ‘a communist Imam’, and he was one of those who were here because they know something of Erdoğan’s past and his present, having been a schoolmate and now being his sometime next-door-neighbour when the prime minister is in Istanbul.  The Imam thinks that, contrary to popular belief, when Erdoğan was imprisoned in 1999 it was not, as is commonly assumed, for reciting a pan-Turkic poem in which ‘our minarets are our missiles’, but for the development of land in the Belgrade Forest a few miles away, involving the illegal destruction of many trees. 

Street cats are everywhere in Istanbul; they lie on car roof tops, or bask in the sun on low walls; bars and cafes leave food out for them; they are the healthiest street cats in the world, and they bring pleasure and comfort to lonely old men, middle-aged women, students and children. What they do for a toilet nobody really knows or cares.  Six years ago when I first met him my father in law was overweight, unemployed, diabetic and depressed.  He was saved by the cats that live by the Marmara sea near his home.  He began to look after them, taking them food each day and then bringing them to live in his flat.  He now has five.  In fact, everyone here loves the cats.  Or almost everyone. 

Last year the Imam became involved in a dispute with Erdoğan’s security guards over the mysterious disappearance of street cats from the area, and then over the severe wounding of two of his own cats in his back garden.  He is convinced that the security guards are responsible, and that CCTV footage will demonstrate this.  So far the police have refused to allow him to see it.    

It is one thing to object to the depiction of living creatures, another to object to their existence.  When he was mayor of Istanbul Erdoğan mooted the idea of taking all of the street cats to the Belgrade forest (the part of it that still had trees) and leaving them there to fend for themselves.  The idea is almost casually cruel but it is not unprecedented: in the battle of the barracks/mosque/shopping centre/city museum Erdoğan has made great play of his knowledge of the city’s history, so he may know – he can now learn it from a prize-winning documentary from this year’s Cannes Film Festival - that in 1910 in the course of 3 months the Sultan, Talat Pasha, had Istanbul’s 30,000 street dogs rounded up and shipped to Hayırsız island in the Marmara Sea. Hayırsız translates roughly as ‘no good’, and it wasn’t for the dogs: with no food to be had they began to slaughter and eat one another.  Their terrible screams could be heard in the city more than 10 km away.  

For now the cats on the street remain, but since Erdoğan and the AKP don’t like the idea of losing battles with dignity – the Gezi protest is much more about the trees than people realise - they have settled, as they often do, for a second best, proposing now that nobody be allowed to own more than two domestic pets, with inspectors given powers to take away the surplus ones and put them down.  My father-in-law has vowed that if they come for his he will kill them.

If the speech he made on June 13th  (to the heads of local government, if you please) is anything to go by Erdoğan feels the same about the protesters as he does about trees and cats.  As the crisis approached its denouement, he told his audience that people had been delivering masks to the protesters in the park to protect them from the ‘bad smell’ of their own faeces.