When 14 UW-Madison alumni and friends, including alumna Kathy Ayers Dwyer Southern and her husband, Hugh, signed up to travel to Istanbul June 3–10, 2013, they could not have predicted that in addition to seeing historic architecture such as Hagia Sophia and shopping in the Grand Bazaar, they’d also witness tens of thousands of Turkish protesters taking to the streets in support of free speech and their nation’s secular traditions after learning of a government plan to bulldoze their beloved Gezi Park to make way for a shopping center or museum in tribute to the Ottoman Empire.
So when the Southerns found themselves with free time in the tour schedule, they knew without a doubt that they must explore Gezi Park and nearby Taksim Square to better understand the people standing up for their rights. Here, Kathy shares her powerful story of what this nation’s struggle has meant to her.
“The question of democracy is alive and well in Turkey.”
We were not just in Istanbul; we were part of what was going on. And what made this experience so great were the people who gave us context around the conflict.
[AHI tour guide] Dilek has lived in Istanbul her whole life and is terrifically knowledgeable about her cultural and the country’s social history. So in addition to our daily lectures, we had the opportunity to really talk in depth about this very complicated place.
Every day, we received updates, first, from fellow travelers who were reading online reports or watching BBC and CNN … the American/Western point of view. Then, Dilek would give us the Turkish perspective because she was at Taksim Square most evenings. The difference? As often happens in the press, even here in the United States, the news media tended to cover the most explosive scenes, so feeds often showed police with water cannons. But for most of the time we were there, Taksim Square and Gezi Park were calm, peaceful places — joyous even, filled with people talking about their democracy. A broad range of the people of Turkey are deeply committed to their democratic process and maintaining a secular state. The freedom to discuss and protest are things we here in the U.S., including Wisconsin, take very seriously.
Often in restaurants or shopping in the Spice Bazaar, I’d ask shopkeepers what they thought of the protests, and found that everyone had a deep pride and understanding, and was very aware of what was happening. This was not an elite event for intellectuals. People had immediate opinions on the protests, and really broke into two camps. Some said the demonstrations were bad for business and scared off tourists. But I found the majority — restaurant owners, vendors at the Grand Bazaar, cab drivers, a guy selling dried fruit — would say that while business has fallen, it was good to be having the conversation. They’d say, “This is what democracy is about.”
And a number of them participated. The press often characterized the protesters as students, but while that’s certainly who slept there, otherwise it was middle-class people who’d go there at the end of the day to show their support for democracy. They have a pride in democracy that was very moving.
I never felt unsafe. I was in Taksim Square only in the afternoon, not in the evenings or when any police action took place. But I chose to be there, as a person who believes in democracy, and I always felt absolutely safe.
By the end, there were hundreds and hundreds of tents, covering the entire area. The people assembled street signs, free lending libraries, a children’s park, trash pick-up, free food and water, and health care and medical support. I knew we weren’t in Madison anymore when I noticed vendors in Taksim Square who always had fresh watermelon or tea service.
The people were always dancing. From the music to the food, it sometimes had a festival quality to it, but right underneath, it was clear what this was really about. By the time things became rough, people were sad and angry … but early on, there was a deep sense of pride in being able to demonstrate like this, in knowing it was part of who they are. I was so impressed at their willingness to be there as long as needed.
This is a battle for what Turkey stands for, a core issue. And a lot of brave, wonderful people are there from all backgrounds saying, “This is my country, and I’m going to stand up for it.” It’s an extraordinary demonstration of what it means to be a democracy.
These are important discussions, and the way you learn who you are — through freedom of speech.
Gamze is a woman who is changing her own world. She’s the owner of a restaurant where our alumni tour group dined — THE hot restaurant in Istanbul and some of the best food I’ve had in the world. We talked through each course, and she told us that while her businesses were very much being hurt by the protests, she was deeply in support of what was going on.
When Gamze opened her first of three restaurants, she was one of the first people in Istanbul to have hired women as waiters. She’s an extraordinarily successful businessperson, and she’s living the question of democracy — fighting the traditional role of women in her society, fighting for individual rights.
Since returning to America, we have been in touch. She addressed a recent email to me “Darling Kathy …” and that came from this tour. I have a friend for life, and thanks to technology, we’re just an email away.
Sometimes I do feel bad being here in the U.S., instead of being there. But by having this conversation, putting my perspective out there, it’s one way of sharing in what our brothers and sisters across the globe are going through, and standing up for what we believe in.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m so thankful for it.
It really relates to my years at Wisconsin, because I happened to be here in the late ’60s, during a time of turmoil at the university as well. That changed my life in a positive way and made me aware of the gifts we have in this country, and the importance of standing up for them. Wisconsin is a progressive place and should be proud of its strength. My experience in Turkey really reinforced all of that and made me proud.