Impressions of autonomies: Istanbul

But hope is not enough for me.  I no longer want to listen – I want to sing songs …

The scars of Istanbul’s self-inflicted wounds run deep and its self-mutilation appears to know no respite. The centre of the rise and fall of three empires, the wounded prey of late 19th century european empires, the shore upon which waves of migrants broke in the 20th century, today the hunting ground of all manner of speculations and violations of Capital: the city testifies to all of this, but also to the enormous creativity and resistance of peoples who with great art and at times tragically have shaped islands and archipelagos of autonomy.

Like the wrestlers of older turkish oil wrestling, yagli güres, the struggle is long, never finished in a single joust. Each athlete seeks advantage in movements, holds, that aim to immobilise the other, but when victory seems assured, an astute gesture re-initiates the fight.

Whereas Istanbul’s ruling classes treat its people as so much fodder for exploitation and the city’s spaces as fields of enclosure and appropriation (the devastation of so much architecture and urban fabric are the marks of this war, today more brutal than ever), its working classes, its poor and marginalised underclasses, resist (building, squatting, working, buying and selling, all outside the law; in Istanbul alone, some fifty percent of the housing is informal, known as gecekondu) and create collective ways of surviving.

The poverty of Istanbul – say – defies description,
Hunger – they say – has ravaged the people,
TB – they say – is everywhere.
Little girls this high – they say – in burned-out buildings, movie theatres …

Dark news comes from my far-off city
Of honest, hard-working, poor people – the real Istanbul,
Which is your home, my love,
And which i carry in the bag on my back
Wherever I’m exiled, to whatever prison,
The city i hold in my heart like the loss of a child,
Like your image in my eyes …

Orhan Pamuk describes Istanbul at its most beautiful in the grey light of Fall twilight; a light that filters the city through mist, masking thus its harshness, its violence, its ugliness; like a patina in which all things seemingly dissolve into each other, into a single living being with the Bospherous as its heart, its pulse. In this, the city’s people may forget their melancholy, their hüzün. I cannot however but think that Pamuk overly reifies an individual sentiment to the status of collective emotion, like the fado of Lisbon: a kind honourable resignation in the face misery and oppression. Yet Istanbul’s landscape tells as much of defeat, as it does of defiance.

My words are of course those of a wanderer, taken to Istanbul for the less than noble motives of work, or what is called such in the “immaterial” economy of the 21st century. These then are the modest words of a far too brief testimony.

Turkey’s left has a long and deeply rooted militant history. But it is with the “Gezi-Taksim Commune” that we begin. If the occupation of Gezi Park (2013) and its immediate echoes throughout the country were brutally repressed, its resonances continue, fed by and flowing into pre-existing movements. Marxist inspired political organisations maintain a very visible presence in the city’s landscape, but it is the anarchist and autonomist movements that both surprise and inspire. In the neighbourhood of Kadiköy, since Gezi and the emergence of popular assemblies in various parts of the city, three political okupations have appeared, one to provide housing and two functioning as okupied social centres. As elsewhere, they have come to embody experiments in the autonomous self-management of urban spaces, contesting the logic of capitalism, as well as opening up to local organisations and initiatives of great diversity.

To cite but one example, the local “Food, not bombs” network has come to organise weekly collective meals at the okupied social centre Don Quixote/Donkisot, with food collected from/given by local markets. Similar activities have emerged elsewhere in the city, in some instances, working with immigrants.

In a parallel project in Kadiköy is the Komsu Kafe Kollectif, an autonomous group concerned, among other things, to collectively prepare (what you can pay for) meals, with the fruits and vegetables being provided for by an emerging network of urban gardens and a co-operative effort to associate local farmers with the Kafe.

The Komsu Kafe Kollectif manifesto:

We are a collective, this means there is no boss, no chief, no specialist and no hierarchy. All decisions are made in consensus and we care about all participants to be able to contribute equally to the decision making process. We will not accept anyone to be exploited.

As we believe that in the city we need more space to meet, talk and share, we understand the Komsu Kafe as a common space. Everyone and every idea non-authoritarian, non-discriminant, non-sexist, non-homophobic and non-transphobic is welcome and will be respected. With open minds and open ears we are looking for more communication to create a space without violence and abomination.

This capitalist system pushed us to measure everything with “prices”. But does a certain quantity of money meet the value we put to things in our life? When and to which amount something becomes valuable can only be decided individually. Instead of becoming owners and clients, let us share this experience and the responsibility to keep this place open. You decide the amount of money you can and want to give;

Komsu Kafe Kollectif is a contribution to alternative economy. This means that we are mainly trying to support the work of other collectives, local producers and solidarity networks. One of our aims is to enable new collective projects to come into life.

Let’s create solidarity and communication all together!

Anarchist collective cafes/social spaces already have a history in Istanbul. The Kolecktíf 26A self-manages two such spaces, as well as contributing to the production of the newspaper, Meydan.

The Kolecktíf 26A manifesto:

We are organizing our lives against the capitalist world order.

We live in times when the culture of consumerism that global capitalism imposes doesn’t leave us any other option but giving in. The capitalist hegemony reveals the fact that global companies have turned into cruel murderers that steal our lives. We are talking about a world order in which the madness provoked by capitalism causes human beings to become estranged from nature and reason to such an extent that killing animals is hardly a concern.

In such severe circumstances, adopting destructive practices to fight capitalism here and now involves reviving some old shared values. Such a model combines capitalist values with the destructive practices of everyday revolution (via direct participation).
The 26A collective produces, shares and enacts the vision of a new world today, here and now.

About the 26A Collective:

We, as the 26A collective, resist capitalism that alienates human beings by forcing them to take part in the economic and social exploitation through the spatial, practical and economic partnerships we create. In particular, 26A closes its doors to slavery and submission, supports the oppressed victimized by the economic exploitation and experiences a new model of solidarity. This model should be taken as the key to all anti-capitalist practices.

26A has two locations in Istanbul that are run by volunteers who adopt sharing and solidarity as the guiding principle. The needs of the locations, into which the products of global companies are not allowed, are met by collective production.

Café 26A:

Café 26A is located in Taksim, the consumer’s mecca in Istanbul with its 6000 cafes and bars, and it has been run by nearly 30 volunteers for the past three years. The café serves food and drinks that are collectively prepared as an alternative to the products of global companies (coca cola, fanta, Nescafe, etc) without any concerns for profit. The network that is supported by international and local solidarity (coffee from Mexican zapatistas, tomato paste from antep, etc) is growing everyday. The café makes some extra money by selling these goods. Preserves prepared by volunteers can also be found on the shelves in the café. Occasionally, we organize feasts in order to prompt the culture of communion. 26A is also a social center where exhibitions, film screenings and public discussions are held. In addition to our own volunteers, other groups also regard the café as a meeting place.

26A Used Bookstore:

Another branch of the collective is the used bookstore in Kadikoy, Istanbul. The store sells books and magazines that have been gathered in two months at zero profit and it is also an experiment in the production and dissemination of knowledge. The store is run by 20 volunteers and is in solidarity with other bookstores and publication houses. 26A Bookstore circulates magazines reproduced by photocopy and also holds workshops and discussions in its garden.

The store, in which the collectively produced food is served, provides a quiet place for reading. We are growing the new world in our hearts, here and now, through share and solidarity. Through such spaces, 26A aims to dismantle the divide between “the everyday” and “the political” by organizing a total resistance against capitalist mode of living and relating.

Collective Volunteerism as opposed to the Hierarchical Division of Labor:

The 26A Collective does not distinguish between the servant and the customer and aims to show the efficacy of the principle of volunteerism in social organizations.
The Knowledge of Life is Essential

Capitalism points the power of knowledge as a lethal weapon at our lives. Through mechanisms of control, capitalism systematically tames and victimizes human beings by imposing strict rules. The alienated, lonely individual, under the illusion that she is happy, cannot escape the desperate order of slavery. Minds that have been uniformed by the educational system perpetuate the annihilation of creative perception and difference. As a result, knowledge becomes an ideological apparatus that serves the needs of power. The knowledge of life, however, is a journey that leads to the rediscovery of existence. This principle also provides a common ground for overcoming the disagreements among the volunteers of the 26A collective.

The 26A Collective is an expansionist, transformative and life-changing anti-capitalist cultural organization. In keeping with the demands of capitalism, human beings, nature and the lives of all organisms are commodified, branded and packaged. Today, everything is a commodity, everything is a product. We need to reject this view. These crazy times require an immediate action for an anti-capitalist mode of life. The 26A collective aims to enact a total anti-capitalist cultural organization. It will also provide an alternative experience of life in this country with its emphasis on expansion, transformation and change. In the anarchist Errico Maletesta’s words, “the oppressed masses who have never completely resigned themselves to oppression and poverty, and who today more than ever show themselves thirsting for justice, freedom and well-being, are beginning to understand that they will not be able to achieve their emancipation except by union and solidarity with all the oppressed, with the exploited everywhere in the world”.

Let the rage of the oppressed find its Life!

The 26A Collective of Communion and Solidarity

They’ve taken us prisoner,
They’ve locked us up:
Me inside the walls, you outside.
But that’s nothing.
The worst
Is when people – knowingly or not – carry
Prison inside themselves …
Most people find themselves in this position,
Honest, hard-working, good people
Who should be loved as much as I love you …

The physical end to the occupation of Gezi-Taksim has left profound sadness, bitterness, even desperation in the minds of those who participated in it. It is the passion of the stories told that overwhelms when the events are spoken of, of the days in which the State was suspended and new social relations created in its stead, giving thus rise to a people no longer defined ethnically, religiously or by party affiliation, but by the freedom and equality that gives birth to new ways of life.

Gezi-Taksim are today pacified; a peace born of conquest and held by police. But the masonry and steps of the Park bear witness still to the State’s violence. And in the rupture of history that was the occupation, a revolution was lived and still lives in all of those who continue to resist.

Old men stand about the corners of the fish and vegetable-fruit market of Kadiköy, with large, deep wicker baskets perched on their backs.  They stand looking about like dogs, waiting for a morsel of food to drop; in this instance, a modest payment for carrying the abundant shopping of those more “blessed” financially.  These men are humble, silent, but with an eye to the more weighty customers unaccustomed to carrying their food on their bodies.

I sometimes fell into thinking of the working classes and the poor of this city as like these men.  The rich of Istanbul may guard some of their wealth privately, but modesty is not their most pronounced virtue.  And the city, in its arrogant business towers and luxury hotels, its shopping centres or streets made so (Istiklal), in its hunger for land and building, the modern politics of enclosure is carried by the backs of so many.  The politics of autonomy born in part with Gezi-Taksim is the refusal to bend below this burden and the desire to create worlds beyond it.

Either people love you
Or they’re your enemy.
Either you’re forgotten as if you didn’t exist,
Or you’re not out of mind even a minute …

As long as you love
And love as much as you can,
As long as you give your all to your love
And give as much as you can, you are young …

My strength
Is that I’m not alone in this big world.
The world and its people are no secret in my heart,
No mystery in my science.
Calmly and openly
I took my place
In the great struggle.
And without it,
You and the earth
Are not enough for me.
And yet you are astonishingly beautiful,
The earth is warm and beautiful.

(The painting which introduces this post is by Yüksel Arslan.  All the photographs are by Ara Güler.  And the poetry, italicised, is that of Nazim Hikmet.)

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