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The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 2)

Paving Stones and a Little Prince

Berkin Elvan, who died in March 2014 from injuries sustained during a demonstration in Istanbul the previous June, depicted as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "Little Prince."

Christiane Gruber


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part can be found here.

Under the Paving Stones

While the martyrs of Gezi were enlivened through slogans, demonstrations, street art, and ephemera, they also found a virtual resting place within the movement’s eponymous park. During the first two weeks of June 2013, Gezi Park became a veritable tent city.1 Within this thriving commune, a range of political, cultural, and artistic activities unfolded until the park’s occupants were attacked and its grounds emptied by a violent police takeover on June 15, 2013. During the weeks and months after the park’s emptying, dissidents attempted to retake Gezi many times. While their efforts remained in vain, they nevertheless were able to make smaller incursions into this green sliver of urban land cordoned off by security forces.

One of the ways in which they established their presence in the park was through the creation of temporary memorials to the Gezi martyrs, who thus became symbolically inhumed within the disputed soil.2 Here, tombstone-like posters bearing the photographic portraits of the deceased were stapled to small poles and planted into the grass. Acting like cenotaphs, these images named each martyr and praised his continued presence with the inscription “He is among us…” (aramızda…), with three points of ellipsis insinuating that the young men’s stories remained unfinished business. Through a simple punctuation mark, these martyrs remained present as if suspended in time and place.

CAPTION

Symbolic tombs of the Gezi martyrs, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 14, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Before and after the clearing of Gezi Park, individuals performed visitation to this symbolic “burial” site in order to mourn the loss of the young martyrs. During nighttime vigils, crowds congregated to stand and squat in contemplation, using Turkish-Islamic mourning traditions, albeit ones divested of scriptural references and prayer practices.

Upon approaching the makeshift graves of the martyrs, grieving protesters placed a variety of votive objects such as Turkish flags, candles, notes, and flowers (especially carnations) at the foot of the provisional headstones. At times, they interacted in even greater haptic ways with the memorial plaques by inscribing graffiti declaring each dead young man a şehit, or martyr. As a result, this tiny patch of reclaimed land served as a kind of salvaged space and sacred enclave within this verdant hortus conclusus in the heart of bustling Istanbul.

Much like other temporary memorials worldwide, including those that sprung up in New York City in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Gezi Park martyrs’ memorial should be understood as a physical and visual embodiment of public affect as well as the literal manifestation of public grief.3 In this resting place punctuated by nationalistic pride and defiant fervor, grief and mourning take on distinctly experiential and kinesthetic dimensions, which are reified by object-based biographies and interactions that combine into a larger “emotional epistemology.”4 Through their cultural codings, moreover, the things left behind perform important work insofar as they materialize and mediate ongoing relationships between the living and the dead. 5 As both memorabilia and aides-mémoire, votive objects and offerings establish reciprocal engagements, while the photographic depictions and enacted rituals around the deceased reveal how the concept of martyrdom in a contemporary Turkish conflict setting directly evokes religious language and practice even when these are purposefully embedded within a secular register. The martyr-figure therefore undermines the putative chasm between the realms of the sacred and profane, itself a divide that evidently should not be overdrawn.6

CAPTION

Flower offering to the Gezi martyrs attached to a tree, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, August 4, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

In addition to drawing upon religious vocabulary and practice, Gezi demonstrators also envisioned their efforts within a larger history of popular uprisings, in particular the Paris anti-monarchist insurrection of 1832 and the May 1968 protests and strikes by French students and workers. Through such revolutionary comparisons, the students and intellectuals who articulated the symbolic narratives and images of the Gezi movement thus proved especially conversant in French social and political history.

On the one hand, the events of 1832 form the background plot of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s novel, the 2012 musical-cinematic rendition of which proved highly popular in Turkey. Its song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” became a hallmark of the Gezi Resistance during summer 2013. Sung again and again in both English and Turkish, its lyrics urged protesters—those “who do not wish to be slaves again”— to stay strong, stand their ground, and join the fight.7

As the music of the people, the lyrics enabled protesters to envision a free life beyond the barricades: in this instance, the makeshift barriers against police attacks that were constructed of urban spolia along the roads leading up to Taksim Square.8 The ad-hoc choirs of Gezi Park thus sought to endow their efforts with a historical character, while simultaneously inviting crowds of listeners to sing along and join the cause thanks to the global appeal of a Hollywood revolutionary drama and its thunderous musical score.

On the other hand, besides citing the French uprisings of 1832 via their collective musical performances, Gezi demonstrators also made rhetorical reference to the May 1968 riots in France, the witty slogans of which are internationally famous. Most prominent among them are the declarations: “Il est interdit d’interdire!” (It is forbidden to forbid!), “La poésie est dans la rue!” (Poetry is in the street!), and “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (Under the paving stones, the beach!) Waxing poetic in the streets of Istanbul, Gezi resisters produced their own rhyming graffiti, recording them on the Tumblr site entitled “Şiir Sokaktadır” (Poetry is in the Streets).9 Moreover, after demonstrators tore up the bricks, cobblestones, and cement paving to erect barricades along the streets converging on Taksim Square, grit and sand rose from the ground up. Above, graffiti sprayed on the walls praised the discovery of a beach below with the exuberant exclamation: “Sous les pavés, la plage!” Without a doubt, the French exclamation “Under the paving stones, the beach!” praises the ironic beauty of tearing away at a city’s urban fabric only to discover a tranquil landscape lying underfoot. In this instance, destruction is likened to a beach escape of sorts, to Baudelaire’s famous poetic triad of luxe, calme et volupté.

Beyond the streets and walls of Istanbul, the maxim’s uncanny serenity also carried over to the tombs of the deceased symbolically inhumed in Gezi Park, whose photographic headstones were expanded with the Turkish utterance:“Kaldırım taşlarının altında kumsal var!” (“Under the raised stones, there’s a beach!”). Within this Turkish protest funerary setting, the French revolutionary slogan is tactically reconfigured to suggest that the loss of life can beget something new, better, and more peaceful. This “something else” may be the numinous promise of salvation in the afterlife, which lies in wait beyond the finality of physical death. It also suggests the cultivation of the martyrs’ continued presence within the deeds and memories of their tenacious mourners. Under the tombstones of those gone missing, the sands of time are dared to stand still for at least a brief moment.

And yet the burial plot did not last long; it was razed to the ground during further police incursions into the park. Swept along with other signs of the Gezi resistance, photographs of the martyrs, votive offerings, and other paraphernalia were discarded as if they—much like the protesters—had never been present at all. The pendulum between asserting presence (by opposition groups) and effacing all signs of dissent (by security forces and municipal cleaning crews) kept swinging in a tense and ongoing play of hide-and-go-seek. During the months of July and August 2013, when the park was cleared and cordoned off several times, individuals were still able to infiltrate the park and leave behind visual mementos of the martyrs, including offerings of red carnations placed in plastic bottles attached to Gezi Park’s trees. These funerary flowers often appeared as if planted in the ground, taking root and flourishing among the trees where the martyrs had once been symbolically laid to rest. Here, the soil beneath the grass is shown as where life begins, grows, and ends—a discursive tactic that aims to critique and delegitimize the AKP’s plans to level the park and develop it into a commercial hub.

CAPTION

Young protester tied to a tree, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 8, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

The practice of attaching flowers to trees also echoed the resistant performances of young boys who attached themselves to Gezi’s trees upon reentering the park. Trunk- and root-like in their intransigence and immovability, their refusal to budge was indeed a stubborn one. In addition, their columnar and partly denuded bodies provided an arboreal metaphor that depicts corporeal enracination as a process of claiming home.

To no small degree, this embodied performance animates Gezi’s preservationist agenda, itself a key contributor to the movement’s environmental aesthetic as it sought to reify and dramatize the interdependency between life and nature.10 Arguing for humans’ rootedness in the soil, these types of tableaux vivants place the spotlight on the issues of vulnerability and sustainability as well as the concomitant obligation to preserve and protect. The movement’s moral imperative and aesthetic are thus firmly rooted in a larger ecology concerned with the survival of all living organisms.

The alignment between human and plant life was carefully enunciated already at the onset of the protests. During the occupation of Gezi Park, some trees served as poles for the stringing of banners while others provided tent-like shade from the sun for the squatting occupants. Still others brandished makeshift signs reading “Tree of Life” (yaşam ağacı), as was the case for a large tree that marked the entrance to the park’s free library.11 Taking the “Tree of Life” analogy one step further, often the names of deceased individuals—include those of the Gezi martyrs—were affixed to the park’s tree trunks, a process by which the young dead were equated to uprooted saplings (fidan) that were denied maturation into adulthood.12

CAPTION

“Tree of Life” at the entrance of the free library, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 5, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

 

This martyrial metaphor of stunted growth proved central to the biopolitics of the Gezi Resistance, whose rhetorical and visual production frequently took up the questions of birth and death, especially since both human and plant life were deemed equally at threat during summer 2013.

Symbolically buried below the paving stones as well as contained with sand, soil, and trees, the movement’s martyrs thus gave rise to Gezi’s geopiety of political martyrdom—itself linked more closely to a love of nature and place than to Islamic religious belief and praxis.13

Gezi’s Little Prince

All the young men who died during the Gezi uprisings were aged 16 to 26, except for one: Berkin Elvan, who died on March 11, 2014 at the tender age of 15.14 Nine months earlier, when Berkin was only 14 years old, he had exited his home to buy a loaf of bread for his family living in the predominantly Alevi Istanbul neighborhood of Okmeydanı. Outside, demonstrators were clashing with police, Berkin was caught in the fray, and he was accidentally shot in the head with a tear gas canister, causing him to sink into a coma for 268 days. At the time of his death, his weight had plummeted to a mere 16 kilos (35 lbs.) Infuriated by the loss of this innocent young life that perished as collateral damage of police brutality—which was again left unaddressed and unpunished—the masses took to the streets once more in large-scale funeral demonstrations. In the packed streets, Berkin’s carnation-covered coffin floated in a seemingly endless sea of raised hands as various political groups, Alevis, and average citizens carried his portrait and banners while clamoring for the government’s resignation (hükümet istifa!).15 Through the boy’s death, the spirit of Gezi made a forceful comeback well after the major events of summer 2013 had subsided.

CAPTION

(L) Painting of Berkin Elvan by Gazi Çağdaş, Turkey, 2013-2014; (R) Elvan depicted as the “Little Prince” flying on a loaf of bread.

Although Berkin’s father stressed that his son was simply killed while fetching bread and thus was not a political actor or symbol,16 the young boy nonetheless quickly became a powerful martyrial icon of the Gezi movement. In protests and sit-ins, he was often analogized with the bread that he had gone out to fetch, costing him his life. Banners that were hung upon building façades and processed in the streets declared that both “children and bread are sacred” (çocuk ve ekmek kutsaldır) and that Berkin would not be forgotten. Loaves of bread became a ubiquitous emblem for this lost and ‘sacred’ young life: everywhere one looked, protesters carried this most basic life-giving food staple, pinned it to doors as a votive offering of sorts, and placed it respectfully at their feet as they declared themselves the new embodiments of this youngest member of the pantheon of Gezi’s martyrs.17 In demonstrations, too, protesters defiantly carried bread loaves and donned masks of Berkin’s likeness, symbolically reanimating and multiplying his presence through living crowds of walking and chanting similitudes.

No doubt due to his youthful innocence and ideological inculpability, the ways in which Berkin Elvan was envisioned as a martyr diverged from the visual and rhetorical strategies that were employed for his older counterparts. Instead, his photographic image was produced into childlike images and drawings, in which he is often sanctified as a gentle angelic being outfitted with miniature fluttering wings. In other cases, he is shown levitating as he slumbers on a loaf-shaped pillow while the artist and viewer extend wishes that this sweet child sleep in eternal peace. In such graphics, Berkin is shown as both saintly and ethereal as he flies somnolently towards the heavenly realms—a religiously-inspired trope clearly insinuating his ascension, resurrection, and salvation in the afterlife.

Despite these varied graphics, the most widespread visual eulogy consisted in the likening of Berkin Elvan to a little prince. The much-beloved protagonist in Turkish translations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel Le Petit Prince proved an especially powerful paradigm for this young martyr.18 Indeed, a flurry of images showed Berkin as Gezi’s little prince, topped with a golden crown and wearing a wind-blown scarf as he floats on a loaf-shaped planet while traversing the star-spangled skies. The most circulated image of this type also included a short poem reading:

Uyan be küçük prens.

Herkes sana acıktı.

O sevdiğin fırında,

Taze ekmekler çıktı…

Wake up, little prince.

Everyone is hungry for you.

In that bakery which you love,

Fresh loaves of bread have come out…

These brief verses plead for the young boy’s reawakening so that the pained hearts of his family, relatives, and mourners can be consoled. To entice him even further, the petitioner promises to give Berkin a freshly baked loaf of bread, itself the quintessential symbol of life and sustenance. And finally, the stanzas and the story they tell have yet to come to an end; rather, both endure in the portentous ellipsis dotting the image’s lower right corner.

CAPTION

(Top) March in honor of Berkin Elvan, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, April 20, 2014 (photo credit: Y. Çakır); (Bottom) Graffito reading “Their hearts (are made) of stone / My eyebrows (are made) of birds / My name is Berkin Elvan,” Cihangir, Istanbul, August 1, 2014 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Although written in a simple and straightforward style, Saint-Exupéry’s novel aims at a mature audience. It exposes the many shortcomings of adulthood and extols the purity of youth, even when it collapses upon itself. A number of the tale’s moral lessons appear directly relevant to Gezi’s own boy-martyr who, like Le Petit Prince, is said to have fallen softly to the ground like a tree and then lives on forever in the stars.19 Moving closer to one of his key messages, Saint-Exupéry warns his readers that: “One must protect lamps well because a gust of wind can extinguish them.”20 Like the novel’s little prince, Berkin, too, physically dies and disappears like the forests and parks razed to the ground under the AKP’s watch; he, too, is analogized to a light whose radiance was blown out by a premature death; and yet he, too, is thought to ascend into the celestial spheres and live on in the star-lit galaxy.

Both Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and Gezi’s Berkin thus embody the beauty of youthful innocence as well as the adult urge to return to simpler, less violent times. Whether in a real or fictional setting, Saint-Exupéry’s final thought rings tragically true: “I’ve lived a long time among adults. I’ve seen them from close-up. That has not improved my opinion much.”21

Beyond these princely metaphors and adult misfortunes, Berkin’s thick black eyebrows were his most distinguishing feature and so were put through a process of allegorical reproduction as well. In a number of texts and images, his eyebrows were compared to birds in mid-flight such that, for example, we are told that this olive-eyed child went to fetch bread and then flew away like a bird. In street graffiti, individuals inscribed his presence in urban space via an affirmation spoken in the first-person singular:

Onların kalpleri taştan

Benim kaşlarım kuştan

Adım Berkin Elvan

Their hearts (are made) of stone

My eyebrows (are made) of birds

My name is Berkin Elvan.

In this instance, Berkin’s presence and name are reasserted in public space through the voice of his self-appointed brothers and friends, who draw a series of antitheses that contrapose the stone-cold hearts of the killer police with the seraphic qualities of Gezi’s youngest martyr-prince.

The End of a Prelude

As these few examples among many highlight, the young males who lost their lives during the Gezi uprisings were conceptualized, envisioned, and commemorated through a variety of rhetorical, artistic, and performative practices. Although not killed in the path of God (fī sabīl Allāh), as the qur’anic paradigm sets forth, they were nevertheless called şehit—a term also used in a more profane context to indicate a person who died for a cause and not in vain. The deceased were likened to brothers and friends (kardeş and arkadaşlar), thus uniting leaderless crowds with divergent goals and grievances into a living multiplicity sharing in the sacred bonds of fraternity and solidarity. As brothers in the crowd, protesters attempted to bridge the division between the self and the other—that is, to embody a larger and more cohesive resistant body politic—by creating a rapprochement with the deceased, whom they symbolically inhabited and proliferated via waves of visible bodies. Without a doubt, these oppositional multitudes still must be reckoned with today.

In these contentious gatherings,22 demonstrators also created an esprit de corps through omnipresent pictorial assertions, in which photography in particular served as a powerful instrument of recording and witnessing presence. While photographic images were manipulated and captioned in an array of charged ways, what remained consistent was the use of such images as concrete, tangible, and thus “real” objects. In this regard, John Tagg notes that: “What is real is not just the material item but also the discursive system of which the image it bears is part.”23 Thus while the Gezi martyrs may not be ontologically present today, they certainly remain very “real” as the affective incarnation of a resistance movement the outcome of which remains to be determined.

In a very real sense, the martyrs of Gezi put individual faces to raw facts. They also embodied the media maxim of “keeping them honest” through a post-mortem retaliation via images, words, performances, and physical bodies warning Erdoğan, the AKP, and “its” police that they will be held to account. Using legal lingo fitted within a discursive framework of inclusivity, Gezi protesters inserted these young dead into a larger civil contract in which law—and not religion—is praised as reigning supreme over one and all. The resistance movement thus aimed to cultivate moral lessons about what is just and hence beautiful, in the process conjoining ethics and aesthetics to create a remarkable array of images that extol, above all, the right to life and liberty under the protection of secular law.

The author wishes to thank the Guggenheim Foundation for having granted her a fellowship during the 2015-2016 academic year, at which time this essay was written.

 

CHRISTIANE GRUBER is Associate Professor of Islamic Art in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research interests range from medieval Islamic art to contemporary visual culture. She has authored two books on Islamic texts and images of the Prophet Muḥammad’s ascension and edited several volumes on Islamic book arts, ascension texts and images, and visual and material culture.

 

  1. At the time, Gezi Park was nicknamed “Democracy’s Atelier” and the “Taksim Commune.” See Christiane Gruber, “The Visual Emergence of the Occupy Gezi Movement, Part Three: Democracy’s Workshop,” Jadaliyya, July 8, 2013, republished in Anthony Alessandrini et al. (ed.), Resistance Everywhere: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey, JadMag 1.4 (Fall 2013), 33-36.
  2. For the makeshift graves after the park’s reopening, see “Gezi Parkı’nın ortasına sembolik mezarlık,” T24, July 9, 2013, and on their removal by security forces on July 30, see Nilay Vardar, “Police Seizes Grave Stones, Detains Homeless in Gezi,” Bianet English, July 20, 2013.
  3. Erika Doss, The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards A Theory of Temporary Memorials (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), 11 and 19; and for a further discussion of public memorials and mourning, see idem, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  4. Doss, The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials, 12.
  5. Kristin Ann Haas, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 81.
  6. Silvia Horsch, “Global Martyr Practices and Discourses: Entanglements between East and West,” in Sasha Dehghani and Silvia Horsch (eds.), Martyrdom in the Modern Middle East (Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2014), 224; and Matthew Evans, “The Sacred: Differentiating, Clarifying and Extending Concepts,” Review of Religious Research 45/1 (September 2003), 32-47.
  7. For a June 13, 2013 performance of the song in Gezi Park by the “Bums’ Chorus,” see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11gpjMwJBUI.
  8. On the Taksim barricades, see Christiane Gruber, “Islamic Architecture on the Move,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 3 (2014): 258-259; on Gezi’s “art of the barricade,” see “Barikat Sanatı,” Experimental Design Machine, June 8, 2013; and for aerial footage of the barricades before their removal by police, see Jenk K, “Taksim Gezi Park Streets, Signs, and Messages,” http://vimeo.com/68207051.
  9. See http://siirsokaktadir.tumblr.com/archive.
  10. For an overview, see Carlson, “Environmental Aesthetics,” in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 423-436.
  11. On the Tree of Life, see George Lechler, “The Tree of Life in Indo-European and Islamic Cultures,” Ars Islamica 4 (1937): 369-419.
  12. Umut Özkırımlı, “Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body,” in idem (ed.), The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey: #occupygezi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 89-102, 96.
  13. On geopiety and topophilia (love of place and/or nature), see Yi-Fu Tuan, “Geopiety: A Theme in Man’s Attachment to Nature and Place,” in David Lowenthal and Martyn Bowden (eds.), Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geosophy in Honor of John Kirtland Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 11-39.
  14. Painting available at http://mednuce.com/en//files/news/thumb/91aaaa44be.jpg.
  15. For the protests on the occasion of Berkin Elvan’s death, see Jenna Krajeski, “Grief and Outrage in Turkey,” The New Yorker, March 14, 2014; Daren Butler and Parisa Hafezi, “Death of Turkish Boy Hurt in Protests Rekindles Unrest Across Country,” Reuters, March 11, 2014; “Funeral of Turkish Boy Berkin Elvan Brings Thousands to Istanbul Streets,” The Guardian, March 12, 2014; and the video “Protests in Turkey: Dispatch 2,” March 15, 2014, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UugNst-g3zo#t=50.
  16. Jamie Coomarasamy, “Turkey Clashes: ‘My Son Died Buying Bread,’” BBC News, March 12, 2014.
  17. For a discussion and images of Berkin Elvan and bread symbolism, see Zeynep Tufekci, “A Loaf of Bread, a Dead Child: Turkey’s Protest Cycle,” Technosociology, March 22, 2014.
  18. For a collection of graphics of Berkin Elvan as “Our Little Prince,” see “Bizim Küçük Prens’imiz,” Radikal, March 12, 2014.
  19. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (Paris: Gallimard, 2007 [1943]), 109-112, especially 112: “Il tomba doucement comme tombe un arbre.”
  20. Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince, 98: “Il faut bien protéger les lampes: un coup de vent peut les éteindre…”
  21. Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince, 11: “J’ai beaucoup vécu chez les grandes personnes. Je les ai vues de très près. Ça n’a pas trop amélioré mon opinion.”
  22. This expression borrowed from Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  23. Tagg, The Burden of Representation, 4.

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The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 2)

Paving Stones and a Little Prince


Christiane Gruber


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part can be found here.

Under the Paving Stones

While the martyrs of Gezi were enlivened through slogans, demonstrations, street art, and ephemera, they also found a virtual resting place within the movement’s eponymous park. During the first two weeks of June 2013, Gezi Park became a veritable tent city.1 Within this thriving commune, a range of political, cultural, and artistic activities unfolded until the park’s occupants were attacked and its grounds emptied by a violent police takeover on June 15, 2013. During the weeks and months after the park’s emptying, dissidents attempted to retake Gezi many times. While their efforts remained in vain, they nevertheless were able to make smaller incursions into this green sliver of urban land cordoned off by security forces.

One of the ways in which they established their presence in the park was through the creation of temporary memorials to the Gezi martyrs, who thus became symbolically inhumed within the disputed soil.2 Here, tombstone-like posters bearing the photographic portraits of the deceased were stapled to small poles and planted into the grass. Acting like cenotaphs, these images named each martyr and praised his continued presence with the inscription “He is among us…” (aramızda…), with three points of ellipsis insinuating that the young men’s stories remained unfinished business. Through a simple punctuation mark, these martyrs remained present as if suspended in time and place.

CAPTION

Symbolic tombs of the Gezi martyrs, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 14, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Before and after the clearing of Gezi Park, individuals performed visitation to this symbolic “burial” site in order to mourn the loss of the young martyrs. During nighttime vigils, crowds congregated to stand and squat in contemplation, using Turkish-Islamic mourning traditions, albeit ones divested of scriptural references and prayer practices.

Upon approaching the makeshift graves of the martyrs, grieving protesters placed a variety of votive objects such as Turkish flags, candles, notes, and flowers (especially carnations) at the foot of the provisional headstones. At times, they interacted in even greater haptic ways with the memorial plaques by inscribing graffiti declaring each dead young man a şehit, or martyr. As a result, this tiny patch of reclaimed land served as a kind of salvaged space and sacred enclave within this verdant hortus conclusus in the heart of bustling Istanbul.

Much like other temporary memorials worldwide, including those that sprung up in New York City in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Gezi Park martyrs’ memorial should be understood as a physical and visual embodiment of public affect as well as the literal manifestation of public grief.3 In this resting place punctuated by nationalistic pride and defiant fervor, grief and mourning take on distinctly experiential and kinesthetic dimensions, which are reified by object-based biographies and interactions that combine into a larger “emotional epistemology.”4 Through their cultural codings, moreover, the things left behind perform important work insofar as they materialize and mediate ongoing relationships between the living and the dead. 5 As both memorabilia and aides-mémoire, votive objects and offerings establish reciprocal engagements, while the photographic depictions and enacted rituals around the deceased reveal how the concept of martyrdom in a contemporary Turkish conflict setting directly evokes religious language and practice even when these are purposefully embedded within a secular register. The martyr-figure therefore undermines the putative chasm between the realms of the sacred and profane, itself a divide that evidently should not be overdrawn.6

CAPTION

Flower offering to the Gezi martyrs attached to a tree, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, August 4, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

In addition to drawing upon religious vocabulary and practice, Gezi demonstrators also envisioned their efforts within a larger history of popular uprisings, in particular the Paris anti-monarchist insurrection of 1832 and the May 1968 protests and strikes by French students and workers. Through such revolutionary comparisons, the students and intellectuals who articulated the symbolic narratives and images of the Gezi movement thus proved especially conversant in French social and political history.

On the one hand, the events of 1832 form the background plot of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s novel, the 2012 musical-cinematic rendition of which proved highly popular in Turkey. Its song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” became a hallmark of the Gezi Resistance during summer 2013. Sung again and again in both English and Turkish, its lyrics urged protesters—those “who do not wish to be slaves again”— to stay strong, stand their ground, and join the fight.7

As the music of the people, the lyrics enabled protesters to envision a free life beyond the barricades: in this instance, the makeshift barriers against police attacks that were constructed of urban spolia along the roads leading up to Taksim Square.8 The ad-hoc choirs of Gezi Park thus sought to endow their efforts with a historical character, while simultaneously inviting crowds of listeners to sing along and join the cause thanks to the global appeal of a Hollywood revolutionary drama and its thunderous musical score.

On the other hand, besides citing the French uprisings of 1832 via their collective musical performances, Gezi demonstrators also made rhetorical reference to the May 1968 riots in France, the witty slogans of which are internationally famous. Most prominent among them are the declarations: “Il est interdit d’interdire!” (It is forbidden to forbid!), “La poésie est dans la rue!” (Poetry is in the street!), and “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (Under the paving stones, the beach!) Waxing poetic in the streets of Istanbul, Gezi resisters produced their own rhyming graffiti, recording them on the Tumblr site entitled “Şiir Sokaktadır” (Poetry is in the Streets).9 Moreover, after demonstrators tore up the bricks, cobblestones, and cement paving to erect barricades along the streets converging on Taksim Square, grit and sand rose from the ground up. Above, graffiti sprayed on the walls praised the discovery of a beach below with the exuberant exclamation: “Sous les pavés, la plage!” Without a doubt, the French exclamation “Under the paving stones, the beach!” praises the ironic beauty of tearing away at a city’s urban fabric only to discover a tranquil landscape lying underfoot. In this instance, destruction is likened to a beach escape of sorts, to Baudelaire’s famous poetic triad of luxe, calme et volupté.

Beyond the streets and walls of Istanbul, the maxim’s uncanny serenity also carried over to the tombs of the deceased symbolically inhumed in Gezi Park, whose photographic headstones were expanded with the Turkish utterance:“Kaldırım taşlarının altında kumsal var!” (“Under the raised stones, there’s a beach!”). Within this Turkish protest funerary setting, the French revolutionary slogan is tactically reconfigured to suggest that the loss of life can beget something new, better, and more peaceful. This “something else” may be the numinous promise of salvation in the afterlife, which lies in wait beyond the finality of physical death. It also suggests the cultivation of the martyrs’ continued presence within the deeds and memories of their tenacious mourners. Under the tombstones of those gone missing, the sands of time are dared to stand still for at least a brief moment.

And yet the burial plot did not last long; it was razed to the ground during further police incursions into the park. Swept along with other signs of the Gezi resistance, photographs of the martyrs, votive offerings, and other paraphernalia were discarded as if they—much like the protesters—had never been present at all. The pendulum between asserting presence (by opposition groups) and effacing all signs of dissent (by security forces and municipal cleaning crews) kept swinging in a tense and ongoing play of hide-and-go-seek. During the months of July and August 2013, when the park was cleared and cordoned off several times, individuals were still able to infiltrate the park and leave behind visual mementos of the martyrs, including offerings of red carnations placed in plastic bottles attached to Gezi Park’s trees. These funerary flowers often appeared as if planted in the ground, taking root and flourishing among the trees where the martyrs had once been symbolically laid to rest. Here, the soil beneath the grass is shown as where life begins, grows, and ends—a discursive tactic that aims to critique and delegitimize the AKP’s plans to level the park and develop it into a commercial hub.

CAPTION

Young protester tied to a tree, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 8, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

The practice of attaching flowers to trees also echoed the resistant performances of young boys who attached themselves to Gezi’s trees upon reentering the park. Trunk- and root-like in their intransigence and immovability, their refusal to budge was indeed a stubborn one. In addition, their columnar and partly denuded bodies provided an arboreal metaphor that depicts corporeal enracination as a process of claiming home.

To no small degree, this embodied performance animates Gezi’s preservationist agenda, itself a key contributor to the movement’s environmental aesthetic as it sought to reify and dramatize the interdependency between life and nature.10 Arguing for humans’ rootedness in the soil, these types of tableaux vivants place the spotlight on the issues of vulnerability and sustainability as well as the concomitant obligation to preserve and protect. The movement’s moral imperative and aesthetic are thus firmly rooted in a larger ecology concerned with the survival of all living organisms.

The alignment between human and plant life was carefully enunciated already at the onset of the protests. During the occupation of Gezi Park, some trees served as poles for the stringing of banners while others provided tent-like shade from the sun for the squatting occupants. Still others brandished makeshift signs reading “Tree of Life” (yaşam ağacı), as was the case for a large tree that marked the entrance to the park’s free library.11 Taking the “Tree of Life” analogy one step further, often the names of deceased individuals—include those of the Gezi martyrs—were affixed to the park’s tree trunks, a process by which the young dead were equated to uprooted saplings (fidan) that were denied maturation into adulthood.12

CAPTION

“Tree of Life” at the entrance of the free library, Gezi Park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 5, 2013 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

 

This martyrial metaphor of stunted growth proved central to the biopolitics of the Gezi Resistance, whose rhetorical and visual production frequently took up the questions of birth and death, especially since both human and plant life were deemed equally at threat during summer 2013.

Symbolically buried below the paving stones as well as contained with sand, soil, and trees, the movement’s martyrs thus gave rise to Gezi’s geopiety of political martyrdom—itself linked more closely to a love of nature and place than to Islamic religious belief and praxis.13

Gezi’s Little Prince

All the young men who died during the Gezi uprisings were aged 16 to 26, except for one: Berkin Elvan, who died on March 11, 2014 at the tender age of 15.14 Nine months earlier, when Berkin was only 14 years old, he had exited his home to buy a loaf of bread for his family living in the predominantly Alevi Istanbul neighborhood of Okmeydanı. Outside, demonstrators were clashing with police, Berkin was caught in the fray, and he was accidentally shot in the head with a tear gas canister, causing him to sink into a coma for 268 days. At the time of his death, his weight had plummeted to a mere 16 kilos (35 lbs.) Infuriated by the loss of this innocent young life that perished as collateral damage of police brutality—which was again left unaddressed and unpunished—the masses took to the streets once more in large-scale funeral demonstrations. In the packed streets, Berkin’s carnation-covered coffin floated in a seemingly endless sea of raised hands as various political groups, Alevis, and average citizens carried his portrait and banners while clamoring for the government’s resignation (hükümet istifa!).15 Through the boy’s death, the spirit of Gezi made a forceful comeback well after the major events of summer 2013 had subsided.

CAPTION

(L) Painting of Berkin Elvan by Gazi Çağdaş, Turkey, 2013-2014; (R) Elvan depicted as the “Little Prince” flying on a loaf of bread.

Although Berkin’s father stressed that his son was simply killed while fetching bread and thus was not a political actor or symbol,16 the young boy nonetheless quickly became a powerful martyrial icon of the Gezi movement. In protests and sit-ins, he was often analogized with the bread that he had gone out to fetch, costing him his life. Banners that were hung upon building façades and processed in the streets declared that both “children and bread are sacred” (çocuk ve ekmek kutsaldır) and that Berkin would not be forgotten. Loaves of bread became a ubiquitous emblem for this lost and ‘sacred’ young life: everywhere one looked, protesters carried this most basic life-giving food staple, pinned it to doors as a votive offering of sorts, and placed it respectfully at their feet as they declared themselves the new embodiments of this youngest member of the pantheon of Gezi’s martyrs.17 In demonstrations, too, protesters defiantly carried bread loaves and donned masks of Berkin’s likeness, symbolically reanimating and multiplying his presence through living crowds of walking and chanting similitudes.

No doubt due to his youthful innocence and ideological inculpability, the ways in which Berkin Elvan was envisioned as a martyr diverged from the visual and rhetorical strategies that were employed for his older counterparts. Instead, his photographic image was produced into childlike images and drawings, in which he is often sanctified as a gentle angelic being outfitted with miniature fluttering wings. In other cases, he is shown levitating as he slumbers on a loaf-shaped pillow while the artist and viewer extend wishes that this sweet child sleep in eternal peace. In such graphics, Berkin is shown as both saintly and ethereal as he flies somnolently towards the heavenly realms—a religiously-inspired trope clearly insinuating his ascension, resurrection, and salvation in the afterlife.

Despite these varied graphics, the most widespread visual eulogy consisted in the likening of Berkin Elvan to a little prince. The much-beloved protagonist in Turkish translations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel Le Petit Prince proved an especially powerful paradigm for this young martyr.18 Indeed, a flurry of images showed Berkin as Gezi’s little prince, topped with a golden crown and wearing a wind-blown scarf as he floats on a loaf-shaped planet while traversing the star-spangled skies. The most circulated image of this type also included a short poem reading:

Uyan be küçük prens.

Herkes sana acıktı.

O sevdiğin fırında,

Taze ekmekler çıktı…

Wake up, little prince.

Everyone is hungry for you.

In that bakery which you love,

Fresh loaves of bread have come out…

These brief verses plead for the young boy’s reawakening so that the pained hearts of his family, relatives, and mourners can be consoled. To entice him even further, the petitioner promises to give Berkin a freshly baked loaf of bread, itself the quintessential symbol of life and sustenance. And finally, the stanzas and the story they tell have yet to come to an end; rather, both endure in the portentous ellipsis dotting the image’s lower right corner.

CAPTION

(Top) March in honor of Berkin Elvan, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul, April 20, 2014 (photo credit: Y. Çakır); (Bottom) Graffito reading “Their hearts (are made) of stone / My eyebrows (are made) of birds / My name is Berkin Elvan,” Cihangir, Istanbul, August 1, 2014 (photo credit: C. Gruber).

Although written in a simple and straightforward style, Saint-Exupéry’s novel aims at a mature audience. It exposes the many shortcomings of adulthood and extols the purity of youth, even when it collapses upon itself. A number of the tale’s moral lessons appear directly relevant to Gezi’s own boy-martyr who, like Le Petit Prince, is said to have fallen softly to the ground like a tree and then lives on forever in the stars.19 Moving closer to one of his key messages, Saint-Exupéry warns his readers that: “One must protect lamps well because a gust of wind can extinguish them.”20 Like the novel’s little prince, Berkin, too, physically dies and disappears like the forests and parks razed to the ground under the AKP’s watch; he, too, is analogized to a light whose radiance was blown out by a premature death; and yet he, too, is thought to ascend into the celestial spheres and live on in the star-lit galaxy.

Both Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and Gezi’s Berkin thus embody the beauty of youthful innocence as well as the adult urge to return to simpler, less violent times. Whether in a real or fictional setting, Saint-Exupéry’s final thought rings tragically true: “I’ve lived a long time among adults. I’ve seen them from close-up. That has not improved my opinion much.”21

Beyond these princely metaphors and adult misfortunes, Berkin’s thick black eyebrows were his most distinguishing feature and so were put through a process of allegorical reproduction as well. In a number of texts and images, his eyebrows were compared to birds in mid-flight such that, for example, we are told that this olive-eyed child went to fetch bread and then flew away like a bird. In street graffiti, individuals inscribed his presence in urban space via an affirmation spoken in the first-person singular:

Onların kalpleri taştan

Benim kaşlarım kuştan

Adım Berkin Elvan

Their hearts (are made) of stone

My eyebrows (are made) of birds

My name is Berkin Elvan.

In this instance, Berkin’s presence and name are reasserted in public space through the voice of his self-appointed brothers and friends, who draw a series of antitheses that contrapose the stone-cold hearts of the killer police with the seraphic qualities of Gezi’s youngest martyr-prince.

The End of a Prelude

As these few examples among many highlight, the young males who lost their lives during the Gezi uprisings were conceptualized, envisioned, and commemorated through a variety of rhetorical, artistic, and performative practices. Although not killed in the path of God (fī sabīl Allāh), as the qur’anic paradigm sets forth, they were nevertheless called şehit—a term also used in a more profane context to indicate a person who died for a cause and not in vain. The deceased were likened to brothers and friends (kardeş and arkadaşlar), thus uniting leaderless crowds with divergent goals and grievances into a living multiplicity sharing in the sacred bonds of fraternity and solidarity. As brothers in the crowd, protesters attempted to bridge the division between the self and the other—that is, to embody a larger and more cohesive resistant body politic—by creating a rapprochement with the deceased, whom they symbolically inhabited and proliferated via waves of visible bodies. Without a doubt, these oppositional multitudes still must be reckoned with today.

In these contentious gatherings,22 demonstrators also created an esprit de corps through omnipresent pictorial assertions, in which photography in particular served as a powerful instrument of recording and witnessing presence. While photographic images were manipulated and captioned in an array of charged ways, what remained consistent was the use of such images as concrete, tangible, and thus “real” objects. In this regard, John Tagg notes that: “What is real is not just the material item but also the discursive system of which the image it bears is part.”23 Thus while the Gezi martyrs may not be ontologically present today, they certainly remain very “real” as the affective incarnation of a resistance movement the outcome of which remains to be determined.

In a very real sense, the martyrs of Gezi put individual faces to raw facts. They also embodied the media maxim of “keeping them honest” through a post-mortem retaliation via images, words, performances, and physical bodies warning Erdoğan, the AKP, and “its” police that they will be held to account. Using legal lingo fitted within a discursive framework of inclusivity, Gezi protesters inserted these young dead into a larger civil contract in which law—and not religion—is praised as reigning supreme over one and all. The resistance movement thus aimed to cultivate moral lessons about what is just and hence beautiful, in the process conjoining ethics and aesthetics to create a remarkable array of images that extol, above all, the right to life and liberty under the protection of secular law.

The author wishes to thank the Guggenheim Foundation for having granted her a fellowship during the 2015-2016 academic year, at which time this essay was written.

 

CHRISTIANE GRUBER is Associate Professor of Islamic Art in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research interests range from medieval Islamic art to contemporary visual culture. She has authored two books on Islamic texts and images of the Prophet Muḥammad’s ascension and edited several volumes on Islamic book arts, ascension texts and images, and visual and material culture.

 

  1. At the time, Gezi Park was nicknamed “Democracy’s Atelier” and the “Taksim Commune.” See Christiane Gruber, “The Visual Emergence of the Occupy Gezi Movement, Part Three: Democracy’s Workshop,” Jadaliyya, July 8, 2013, republished in Anthony Alessandrini et al. (ed.), Resistance Everywhere: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey, JadMag 1.4 (Fall 2013), 33-36.
  2. For the makeshift graves after the park’s reopening, see “Gezi Parkı’nın ortasına sembolik mezarlık,” T24, July 9, 2013, and on their removal by security forces on July 30, see Nilay Vardar, “Police Seizes Grave Stones, Detains Homeless in Gezi,” Bianet English, July 20, 2013.
  3. Erika Doss, The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards A Theory of Temporary Memorials (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), 11 and 19; and for a further discussion of public memorials and mourning, see idem, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  4. Doss, The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials, 12.
  5. Kristin Ann Haas, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 81.
  6. Silvia Horsch, “Global Martyr Practices and Discourses: Entanglements between East and West,” in Sasha Dehghani and Silvia Horsch (eds.), Martyrdom in the Modern Middle East (Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2014), 224; and Matthew Evans, “The Sacred: Differentiating, Clarifying and Extending Concepts,” Review of Religious Research 45/1 (September 2003), 32-47.
  7. For a June 13, 2013 performance of the song in Gezi Park by the “Bums’ Chorus,” see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11gpjMwJBUI.
  8. On the Taksim barricades, see Christiane Gruber, “Islamic Architecture on the Move,” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 3 (2014): 258-259; on Gezi’s “art of the barricade,” see “Barikat Sanatı,” Experimental Design Machine, June 8, 2013; and for aerial footage of the barricades before their removal by police, see Jenk K, “Taksim Gezi Park Streets, Signs, and Messages,” http://vimeo.com/68207051.
  9. See http://siirsokaktadir.tumblr.com/archive.
  10. For an overview, see Carlson, “Environmental Aesthetics,” in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 423-436.
  11. On the Tree of Life, see George Lechler, “The Tree of Life in Indo-European and Islamic Cultures,” Ars Islamica 4 (1937): 369-419.
  12. Umut Özkırımlı, “Occupy Gezi as Politics of the Body,” in idem (ed.), The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey: #occupygezi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 89-102, 96.
  13. On geopiety and topophilia (love of place and/or nature), see Yi-Fu Tuan, “Geopiety: A Theme in Man’s Attachment to Nature and Place,” in David Lowenthal and Martyn Bowden (eds.), Geographies of the Mind: Essays in Historical Geosophy in Honor of John Kirtland Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 11-39.
  14. Painting available at http://mednuce.com/en//files/news/thumb/91aaaa44be.jpg.
  15. For the protests on the occasion of Berkin Elvan’s death, see Jenna Krajeski, “Grief and Outrage in Turkey,” The New Yorker, March 14, 2014; Daren Butler and Parisa Hafezi, “Death of Turkish Boy Hurt in Protests Rekindles Unrest Across Country,” Reuters, March 11, 2014; “Funeral of Turkish Boy Berkin Elvan Brings Thousands to Istanbul Streets,” The Guardian, March 12, 2014; and the video “Protests in Turkey: Dispatch 2,” March 15, 2014, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UugNst-g3zo#t=50.
  16. Jamie Coomarasamy, “Turkey Clashes: ‘My Son Died Buying Bread,’” BBC News, March 12, 2014.
  17. For a discussion and images of Berkin Elvan and bread symbolism, see Zeynep Tufekci, “A Loaf of Bread, a Dead Child: Turkey’s Protest Cycle,” Technosociology, March 22, 2014.
  18. For a collection of graphics of Berkin Elvan as “Our Little Prince,” see “Bizim Küçük Prens’imiz,” Radikal, March 12, 2014.
  19. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (Paris: Gallimard, 2007 [1943]), 109-112, especially 112: “Il tomba doucement comme tombe un arbre.”
  20. Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince, 98: “Il faut bien protéger les lampes: un coup de vent peut les éteindre…”
  21. Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince, 11: “J’ai beaucoup vécu chez les grandes personnes. Je les ai vues de très près. Ça n’a pas trop amélioré mon opinion.”
  22. This expression borrowed from Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  23. Tagg, The Burden of Representation, 4.

The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 2)

Paving Stones and a Little Prince

The Gezi Martyrs and Visual Resistance in Turkey (Part 2)

Paving Stones and a Little Prince