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Turkey’s Stairway to A Democratic Heaven

The crumbling, concrete street stairs in an Istanbul alley have become the latest battleground for the colorful pluralism of society and the “gray” authoritarianism of politicians in Turkey.

It was Aug. 26. After a four-day effort and using almost 40 kilograms of paint, Huseyin Cetinel proudly gazed upon his colorful accomplishment.

With the help of his son-in-law, Cetinel had managed to finish painting all 145 steps of the street stairs that link Findikli district to Cihangir, the bohemian neighborhood in Istanbul.

The 64-year-old Turkish retiree quickly found himself as an accidental hero of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community here.

He painted the stairs like a rainbow, unknowingly creating a giant gay flag. Social media, especially tweets by gays and lesbians who live in Cihangir, was abuzz with this local volunteerism toward beautification.

“I didn’t do it for a group or as a form of activism. I did it to make people smile,” Cetinel told the Turkish media. He had simply tried to beautify his own neighborhood, and he succeeded in doing more than that.

In four days, the previously overlooked street stairs turned into a tourist attraction. Hundreds of people visited it. A newlywed couple chose it as the setting for their wedding photos on the night of Aug. 29. Even professional models came to pose there.

However, in Turkey, well intentioned efforts such as those of Cetinel rarely go unpunished by the Kafkaesque varieties of the state and government.

On the morning of Aug. 30, locals were shocked when they woke up and saw that the stairs were gray again.

At first, it was a case of a whodunit: the municipality initially refuted claims on social media that authorities had repainted the stairs. In the afternoon, the same municipality announced that it had begun investigating to find out if its own officials ordered the repainting or not. And finally, that night, Mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) confessed on his Twitter account, writing that they had to repaint the stairs following complaints from some other locals.

Many Istanbulians perceived the local authorities’ move as a sinister fait accompli. “Are they accusing me of disturbing public order? We’re the public. They are our stairs,” Cetinel exclaimed. “The Turkish state was initially fighting the reds [Communists] and then the greens [Islamists]. Is it fighting with all the colors now?” one tweet asked.

The method of surreptitiously getting rid of the rainbow stairs in a “dawn raid” strikes a chord with many people here.

Three months ago, large mass protests in Turkey were triggered when a few municipal security officers quickly entered Gezi Park overnight and burned down the tents of young activists who were there to protect the trees on the eve of their removal for a development project. Gezi Park is within walking distance of the Cihangir stairs.

Either against the green of the Islamists or environmentalists, or the red of the left, or all the other colors, the Turkish state has always preferred shades of gray, even before the AKP rule.

Ankara, the town that the republic started developing as its capital in 1923, is now known for its Soviet-style, massive, gray buildings. From the 1930s to the 2000s, gray remained the favorite color of any government, whether right wing or left wing.

In May 2011, a Turkish nurse named Sule Yuksel Yilmaz won a memoir contest organized by the Turkish Medical Union. Yilmaz’s story, based on her real-life experiences, was about how the municipality had opposed her after she laboredly painted the public clinic that she worked for in rainbow colors. “This is not the color of the state,” the municipality officials had told her before painting the clinic in gray again.

The tension between Turkey's multilayered, polyphonic society and the unilateral, black-and-white state seems to be approaching critical mass faster than expected, mostly because of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s polarizing personality and the unpreventable effects of social media. Civilians of all colors feel stronger against the state of the gray now.

Thousands of Turkish tweets, including one by the famous cartoonist Serkan Altunigne, pledged to repaint the stairs in rainbow colors soon. A “crowd-painting” event is planned in Cihangir, while some mayors of the main opposition have announced that everybody is welcome if they want to paint the stairs in their own districts.

Tugce Ozel, a Gezi Park activist and chief marketing officer of a digital marketing company, told me, “The world says 'enough' to gray.” She is an organizer of an event on Sept. 1, the International Day of Peace, where thousands of Turks are expected to hold each other’s hands to send a global message of tolerance. The stairs of Cihangir will be one of the venues.

Meanwhile, Demircan tried to turn the tide by saying that the colorful stairs project is actually a good idea. “If you have such projects, please contact me. If our citizens accept it, we can realize it [by issuing a permit]. My vote will be ‘yes,’” he tweeted.

More surprisingly, municipality officials organized another “dawn raid” in the early hours on Aug. 31. They painted the stairs once again in the colors of a rainbow. But, as if reiterating the state’s “gray addiction,” they added a non-rainbow color to the stairs this time: black.

Many local AKP politicians, such as Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas and Demircan, have taken a more reconciliatory tone in an attempt to stay in tune with their constituents, especially on the eve of local elections — 2014 will be the year of three elections in Turkey.

However, it is not easy for Turkey’s local colors to be represented in such a centralized system.

A few hours after authorities repainted the street stairs in gray, Turkey’s all-powerful Erdogan resorted to his defiant rhetoric again, yelling out, “You pro-Gezis, you started off with 10 trees, didn’t you? I wonder if you ever planted a tree anywhere.”

As universities — the main source of political dissent — are about to start classes again and middle-class citizens are returning from their summer vacations, are these colorful stairs destined to be the first symbol of a turbulent autumn in Turkey?

It all depends on who will unify what, and who will be allied with whom.

The day that the US Supreme Court announced its historic verdict on gay rights in June, I was coincidentally in San Francisco in my capacity as a journalist. I went to the Castro — the LGBT capital of the world — and covered the celebrations there.

Jack Sale and Owen Stephens, a gay couple, surprised me there when they said they had followed the Gezi Park protests on social media, and saw that the LGBT community was also there with their rainbow flags.

“Look around,” Stephens told me, “Don’t you see all the heterosexuals here celebrating with us? Don’t you have all these people at Gezi from all ideologies, all colors?”

In the end, the AKP — as a covert coalition government — is a rainbow itself, combining various right-wing movements as well as some liberal, leftist elements. “The Gezi spirit” is a coalition, too, although it is non-hierarchical and decentralized, unlike the AKP.

But how can the AKP succeed if it keeps waging war on all colors? Isn’t it too many enemies, even for a political genius such as Erdogan? Isn’t “all for one” stronger than “one for all” in the long term?

Emre Kizilkaya, an Istanbul-based journalist, is the vice president of the Turkish National Committee of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. On Twitter: @ekizilkaya

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