Monday, August 15, 2011

The Day the Bars Died; Bring Beyoglu back to the People!

Bustling Social Center, Now Empty

It started a few weeks back। One night Istanbul’s municipality workers came and started to pull chairs out from under the customers on the sidewalk bars of the Asmali Mescit neighborhood। Then they gathered the chairs and tables and started packing them up and loading them on a truck and shipped them away and impounded, or for the ones that had a license they were ordered to clear their tables and chairs from the sidewalks। The customers, some regulars other just random, who were passing time enjoying a cold beer outdoors to combat the summer heat, left slowly and went home. Perhaps, they thought that this was a random misunderstanding over permits between the bar owners and the municipality. However, many of the bars had permits. For example, Badehane had all the proper licenses, and the owner Bade has ran her business tip-top for over the last ten years, closely following the municipality’s regulations. There simply was no reason to clear the sidewalk. Now, Badehane, the first indoor-outdoor bar to open in the neighborhood is in danger of closing. While the indoor section fills up in the winter, during the summer you cannot pay people to sit inside. It simply is not a part of the culture. Forget the indoor smoking ban, however nice and cozy the indoors is, it simply can compete with sitting outdoors on a small narrow road, under the shadow of 19th century classic buildings. The municipality’s unilateral action also took a huge toll on workers. Where Bade on a normal evening employed 7-8 waiters, now only one or two are needed to hold down the fort leaving the others with no answers to how they will pay their bills.

Well for those who that thought that the sidewalks bars were being closed to the dangerous overcrowding on the Asmali Mescit streets, they were wrong. Bars, such as Urban and Pia (and some restaurants that serve alcohol), which have served their customers for easily over a decade slowly had their tables and chairs collected. They were clearly zoned for seating and do not hinder pedestrian traffic. Then there were the cafes in the trendy Cihangir. Finally, save for the Nevizade street, or a few other places, many outdoor restaurants also had their tables cleared. For now, many of Beyoglu neighborhood’s have turned into practical ghost towns.

So, why the ban on outdoor seating? Well, the municipality has not really given any clear answer; it seems that this was a drastic attempt to control the abuse of sidewalk use by non-licensed cafes and bars. However, for the bars and restaurants which have abided by the municipalities zoning the ban has turned into a nightmare. Due to the fact that no real answer has been given however it has led many to speculate. One rumor that has spread that this started off first as a payback by an angry Prime Minister Erdogan who was humiliated by raising an alcoholic toast to him as his motorcade passed near the Asmali Mescit neighborhood. Another rumor is that this is directly linked to the fact that it the ban happened almost parallel to the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Others claim that the municipality had been planning a crackdown for some time, and it chose the month of Ramadan out of respect for the business owners. In other words, they believed that it was best to implement these changes during the month that is usually slow due to the many people fasting during the day and refraining from alcohol consumption at night, as well as the exodus of Turks to vacation spots on the Aegean and Mediterranean coast.

Badehane's Regulars Now Enjoy Their Beer on Cardboard Boxes

Whatever the reason, it should be clear that this rightly can be seen as an infringement on the lifestyle of Istanbul’s secular residents and the municipality which is controlled by the ruling AK party should be extra sensitive when it comes to decisions which radically shift the social status quo. As it is, this act by conservative bureaucrats in the municipality is seen by many as confirmation of the curtailing of secular freedoms and an increasing display of religious conservatism. Further, punishing those who have abided by the municipality’s zoning laws is taking a huge economic toll on law abiding citizens who have work hard to ensure that Beyoglu remains the charming place it is. In short, while I have not been able to attend the protests against the banning of outdoor seating, they have my full sympathy. For me, it is sad to see the streets empty of people and the shutters of businesses closing their doors for good due to a short sighted move by Beyoglu’s municipality along with the support of the Greater Istanbul Municipality.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Waking to a New Reality in Israel (and perhaps for Palestine?)

During the last year I have spent in Turkey and Israel, I have happily watched from the side as the Arab countries one by one started to break away from their oppressive regimes. Where I was not able to join these demonstrations, during my year away from the classroom I was proud to take part in numerous demonstrations both in Israel and Turkey. While I am citizen of Israel and not one of Turkey, I felt as if my participation was just as crucial in Istanbul as it was in Tel Aviv.

This year it was clear that in Israel something was brewing; a marked increase in public dissent and the demonstrations by the left parties started to pick up momentum after years of falling in disarray. Yet, these demonstrations were a far cry from the massive ones Israel once knew where many demonstrations could easily attract 100,000 demonstrators; not to mention, the biggest demonstration in Israeli history, when 500,000 people came out in 1982 to protest against Israel’s active participation in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres (then about 1 out of 8/9 citizens). Then there was the massive demonstration where Prime Minister Rabin made his last speech only to be assassinated by a Jewish radical, which was followed by the solemn and massive demonstration to mark his murder. Following the second intifada, and the collapse of the Israeli left, the Second Lebanon War only managed to bring a few thousands brave souls out to the streets, followed by the embarrassing low turnout to protest Israel’s war on Gaza, in December 2008. If it had not been for Hadash, the Jewish-Arab left party, it seemed that the protest spirit would have almost completely dissipated. It was after the Gaza War that I decided to begin to write a blog out of pure frustration. Israel had changed radically since I had left for my PhD studies in 1995 and I needed a venue to express these views.

This leads us now to the recent protests in Israel which perhaps should be traced back to a facebook protest against the sudden increase of cottage cheese prices (yes!), which was well covered in the press a little over a month ago. This was followed by one woman who set up a tent on Rothschild Avenue (which is a sort of pedestrian park) to protest her being evicted after she could not afford to pay her rent. This one event set off a trend that has continued to grow ever since with people coming out one by one, setting up tents and calling for the government to deal with the rising property costs. With property prices so high, and rent skyrocketing, the reality young and middle age people go through in Israel to secure living arrangements is beyond belief. For many Israelis, living abroad even seems like a better and easier option compared to the reality of having three jobs just to rent a shabby apartment with landlords that just continue to raise prices year after year. Of course, while this protest first struck a chord with the middle class, it certainly has started to capture the imagination of so many poor people across Israel who live in a society where the gap between rich and poor is one of the highest in the world when put on the scale of western countries.

From the tent city on Rothschild which began almost three weeks ago, the momentum has grown and last Saturday night, after two consecutive demonstrations, the organizers of the tent city, together with a coalition of other groups making demands to the government, managed to bring out to the streets well over 300,000 protestors, with signs comparing the happenings in Israel to the Arab Spring such as “Egypt is here!” From doctors on strike to pensioners, from young professionals to the poor from the “neighborhoods,” from Bedouins living in unrecognized villages to academics who suffer on a daily basis due to the government’s neglect of higher education, the Israeli society has taken the initiative to at last take control of their destiny. Remarkably, when so many analysts were asking how the Arab Spring would influence the region, few could have imagined that Israel would be the one duplicating the Tahrir Square protests; like Egypt its citizenry too is tired of old rhetoric and corruption. The Israeli political establishment is being challenged and the people are voicing an overwhelming “no” to the dangerous American type of capitalism, which has been wholeheartedly adopted by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and previous governments. The current Israeli government is seeing that if they do not do something quickly the rug will could be pulled out from under their feet, with new elections on the horizon. Perhaps now, Netanyahu will see the true damage such divisive members of his parliament have caused; instead of focusing on the real issues, Netanyahu has been led astray by the anti-democratic Avigdor Lieberman who has set Israel on a dangerous track.

Now the major challenge of the growing campaign is to reach its goal of bringing a millions Israelis to the street on September 3. Until then they have to clarify their goals, unite the people, and make it clear that while questions of justice for Palestinians have remained on the back burner until now, true social justice for Israelis must include the recognition that the occupation needs to come to a screeching halt, and that a democratic Israel cannot exist as long as it continues to occupy Palestinian land and deny the Palestinian people their right to a nation. If the protestors in Israel reach this consensus, then the popular upheaval we are currently witnessing will force the Israeli politicians to work for a social state which keeps the welfare of its citizens at the top of the agenda, and to work with the Palestinians to usher in a new reality for all peoples of the Middle East.

Zaman focuses on my Haaretz Article (Turkish)

Here is a link to an article which translates almost in enterity m article which was published in Haaretz, which was entitled 'The Region's Only Democracy?" on 5 August 2011. Comments are welcomed!