“We don’t forget, we don’t forgive…”

"The ones who burnt Sivas are the one who drown people in gas." Kadıköy, July 2.

“The ones who burnt Sivas are the one who drown people in gas.” Kadıköy, July 2.

[Spanish translation here]

Istanbul, July 3

Dear people,

In a corner of the ‘Blue Mosque’ of Sultan Ahmed, I sit on the carpet, with my shoes in a plastic bag.  It’s one of those bags you use for fruit in the supermarket. At the entrance, a man rips them off from a roll and hands them out to the faithful.

I probably would never have come to this place if someone hadn’t taken me here, a friend of mine. She had to cover her shoulders before she went in, and in order to cover her hair she used one of the scarfs they give to the women who don’t already wear one. She doesn’t go to mosque usually. She doesn’t pray when the speaker calls for it. But she’s a Muslim. Of course she is. And her family has nothing to do with it.

This is one of the holiest spaces in Turkey, definitely one of the biggest. The carpet covers the space, the eastern side is reserved for prayer. Everywhere else there are people walking and gazing around, or sitting and whispering like we are. Next to us three black women in black dresses with black scarfs prostrate themselves in adoration. A little girl silently runs by.

My friend has lived for a year in Spain. One of the things that amazed her about the place, was that the people are “so religious”. She had noticed that many people go to church every Sunday to listen to a preacher. She noticed the strange rituals, the pantheon of saints, and the sheer amount of religious holidays, “for every little thing.” She had even encountered a priest who was eager to convert her to the “true way.”

When we get to discuss the different faiths, their views on the nature of god and his prophets, the mystery of the trinity, the concept of incarnation, suddenly, an outside entity brutally interrupts us. My phone. It’s not even my phone, so it took a second before I realized it was me who was being called. Loudly. Very loudly. When it dawns on me, I feel like struck by lightning. I grab the damn thing and kill it, without bothering to look who called. I glance around. We’re still here. The black women continue their prayers as if they hadn’t even heard. My friend reassures me. “Don’t worry,” she says. She smiles. And her eyes seem to add that “Allah is merciful.”

It’s funny. Where she noticed all the small differences between Islam and Christianity, I mostly noticed similarities. Underneath the rituals and the customs, there is the same dedication to one single god, and the same difference of opinions as to what this god exactly is, and how he, or she, or it, should be revered.

Like the catholics and the protestants and the orthodox and all the subflavours of Christianity, the Islam is divided into main branches of sunni’s and shi’ites, subdivided in other denominations. Sectarian violence is common for both religions.

Yesterday, there was a march in Kadıköy to commemorate the Sivas massacre, which happened no more than twenty years ago. The perpetrators were religious fanatics, the victims were mostly intellectuals of Alevi conviction, a local Anatolian blend of shi’ite Islam, also the most numerous religious minority of the country.

An Alevi cultural festival had been organized in a hotel in Sivas where some of the country’s leading writers, musicians and artists attended. There were tourists in the hotel, there was the personnel of course. A 23-year old Dutch anthropologist also attended the conference. Among all those people, there was one person in particular who had awoken the blind rage of those who were praying in a nearby mosque: Aziz Nesin, a master of satire, who had been a lifelong advocate of free speech.

“Death to the infidel!” the mob cried after Friday prayer had ended. Ardent traditional prejudice against Alevi’s brought out many a fanatic believer with forks and torches. They marched to the hotel and threatened to lynch Nesin for spreading atheism. Finally, they set the hotel ablaze, with everyone in it. The authorities, police and the army, did nothing to prevent it.

Thirty-seven people died in the flames of the Sivas massacre. Aziz Nesin was one of the few who could be liberated once a firetruck finally arrived. The authorities only acted afterwards. Dozens of people were arrested and tried for murder and crimes against the secular state. Some thirty people are still serving life sentences.

So yesterday tens of thousands marched from all over Istanbul through Kadıköy on the 20th anniversary, to let it be known that we don’t forget, and we don’t forgive. At the head of the march, there were black torches and photos. At a certain point I stopped to wait for the tail. I waited for quite a while.  After every banner and flag I could see more people coming around the corner. Finally I decided to go back against the current, until I came to the end. It must have been at least a kilometer. There were nationalists, anarchists, football fans, participants of the local popular forums. In short, the people of Gezi, singing their chants. For the occasion they added a very crude one, directly aimed at the religious inspired governing party of Tayyip Erdogan: “The murderers of Sivas are the founders of AKP.”

In central Beşiktaş, there is a modern statue of an eagle. For some time now, the local community has turned it into a monument of resistance. The eagle is covered with Turkish flags, images of Atatürk and inspiring words. There are empty shoes all around. There is even a small bookcase. Tonight, we passed there on the way to the Forum in Abbasaga Park. Someone had added a banner with photos. Someone else had left a brief message.

“Turks, Kurds and Alevis are brothers.”

Sivas march. Via @15MBCN_int.

Sivas march. Via @15MBCN_int.




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