Are The Protests In Turkey Really About A Park?

Weekend Edition Saturday Host Scott Simon talks to award winning Turkish novelist Elif Shafak about the nature and deeper causes of the protests in Turkey, which erupted two weeks ago.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We have to remind ourselves now, the nationwide protests in Turkey began with a small group of people who were protesting the government's plans to pave over a small park in Istanbul. Elif Shafak is an award-winning writer who divides her time between Istanbul and London. We spoke with her yesterday, and asked her how what began as a kind of modest stand to protect a city park broadened into nationwide protests.

ELIF SHAFAK: It started as a peaceful sit-in. You know, people had gone there with their tents and with their guitars and their camp was raided by the police at dawn, set on fire, the tents. And then the protesters were subjected to teargas and pressurized water. When these images were circulated in the society and in the social media overall, lots and lots of people who would consider themselves apolitical, you know, they took to the streets in their anger, in their frustration. And after that, things escalated.

SIMON: I made a note of a slogan, I gather that was graffiti, that you mentioned in a piece you wrote, somebody apparently had scrawled: You banned - you meaning the government I guess - you banned alcohol, we sobered up."

SHAFAK: Really, humor was amazing. It's still very strong. One of the slogans said: We are already emotional people. You did not need to use pepper spray to make us cry. But the interesting thing is they were scrolling these graffiti exactly at the time when they were running away from the police.

SIMON: Ms. Shafak, I guess the world sees these pictures and wonders if this is some kind of a Turkish spring. What's your feeling?

SHAFAK: I do not call this a Turkish spring or a Turkish summer for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, because Turkey is very unique, if I may say, in many ways, given its historical background and social fabric. It's a society in which the history of Westernization, modernization and secularism and democracy, all these important factors run very long, deep.

You know, we started Westernizing in maybe 1789. I wouldn't compare Turkey in that sense with several other Middle Eastern countries. They had different experiences. And we have to remember, we might be critical of the government but we have to remember that this government and the prime minister was elected via fair and free elections three times.

However, the government has to see the mistakes they have made because one of the main problems was, although it's a very popular government, they have relied more and more, especially in the last years, on the 50 percent that have voted for them, in the meantime alienating, distancing the remaining 50 percent who have not voted for them. So now people are seeing this reality. And in that sense I think it is an important turning point.

SIMON: Do you find yourself, if I might use this word, excited about the prospect for some kind of change, wary? What?

SHAFAK: I have been very worried this week, to be honest, because I'm someone who's very critical of all kinds of polarization and we are very, very polarized. One of the things that I find hardest in Turkey is to be an individual and to remain an individual. If there are any positive things I see in the government, I want to be able to say it. If there are negative things, I want to be able to say that at the same time, you know, without belonging into any camp. This is very hard in Turkey. I don't think this black and white duality is healthy for society.

SIMON: The Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, speaking with us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHAFAK: Thank you. My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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