As a research group, we were concerned with Istanbul’s economical, cultural and social transformation into a global city over the past 50 years as well as the various effects of this transformation. During our travel to Istanbul Nora Kühnert and Anne Patscheider conducted field research on squatting in Istanbul. The political controversies regarding common usage of urban space in everyday life as well as the political struggles stemming from immense changes of social life culminating in the Gezi Park protest in 2013 were the most obvious links between the projects that they visited.

By the changing shape of the Istanbul skyline, the rapid growth of production within the city since the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) rose to power in 2002 is easily visible to the city’s inhabitants. Over the past two decades, Istanbul has undergone a neoliberal restructuring process. 1 Progressing globalization and digitalization have not only turned the city into a site absorbing surplus value – an epicenter of the accumulation of capital – they have also formed a new urban space in which traditional national spatial arrangements engage with those of the global digital age. 2

As a research group, we were concerned with Istanbul’s economic, cultural and social transformation into a global city over the past 50 years as well as the various effects of this transformation. During our travel to Istanbul from May 23, until May 31, 2014, we conducted field research on squatting in Istanbul. The political controversies regarding common usage of urban space in everyday life as well as the political struggles stemming from immense changes of social life culminating in the Gezi Park protest in 2013 were the most obvious links between the projects we visited.

In reference to David Harveys’ “Rebel Cities”, we call people’s occupation of Taksim Square “their right to the city” 3. In our field research, we intended to explore the political intentions of The Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi, a squat in Istanbul German leftist magazines focused on, calling it a “follow-up movement to Gezi.” 4 We asked ourselves in which way squatting in Istanbul is connected to the 2013 Gezi Park protest movement and how it relates to neoliberal politics and urban transformation. Our first associations were with squatting forms to be found in European countries such as Spain or Greece familiar to us. There, activists occupy houses in order to live in them. Reading David Harvey helped us understand the Gezi Park movement. Therefore, we presumed that his theory might also be of help in grasping squatting in Istanbul. Hence, we strove to comprehend the possibilities and difficulties connected to squatting as a resistance practice: 5 for example, we were concerned with the composition of squatting groups as well as their political aims and demands.

Mind Map: Our Field. Göttingen, 23.6.2014 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne

Mind Map: Our Field. Göttingen, 23.6.2014 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne


We conducted our main research at Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi. This social center was set up by a network of squatting groups in Istanbul as well as related political agents encouraged by economical processes beyond the squatting scene. We hoped that brief stays at Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi, the Caferağa Dayanışması, the Komşu Kafe and Samsa Bay, participant observation and guided interviews would provide insight into the inner configuration of Istanbul’s squatting scene. We interviewed people involved at the time of our research, asked them to draw mind maps of the squatting scene and questioned them about its constellation as well as their opinions on perspectives of resistance in Istanbul. In order to get an overview of the connections and networks of the squatting scene, we extended our fieldwork to interviewing a political activist who was a member of the 1970’s leftist movement. We also added attending lectures by Tuna Kuyucu 6 and Biray Kolluoğlu 7 at Boğaziçi University on neo-liberal politics in Istanbul and its effects on urban transformation and the social life in the city.


  1. 1 Kullouğlu, Biray/Candan, Ayfer Bartu: Emerging Spaces of Neoliberalism: “A gated Town and a Public Housing Project in Istanbul”, in: New Perspectives on Turkey 39 (2008) fall, pp. 5-47, here p. 5.
  2. 2 Sassen, Saskia: The Global City – The De-Nationalization of Time and Space, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: verso books 2012.
  4. 4 Umul, Fatma: “Istanbul-Yeldegirmeni. Wir sind alle Don Quijote”, in: AK- Analyse und Kritik. Zeitung für linke Debatte und Praxis 590 (2014), (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 In the field of European Ethnology, the term “practice” is used to describe a certain way of investigating cultural phenomena. Classifying squatting as a resistant practice, we took a look at the past of resistance in Istanbul and how it is presently done in daily situations in the squats. Our definition of resistant practice refers to Henri Lefebvres and denotes an active or resistant intervention in the social production of space challenging the dominant production of space and temporarily creating a space of its own in opposition to it.
  6. 6 Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Tuna Kuyucu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Commodification and Country Ownership in Istanbul, May 26, 2014.
  7. 7 Lecture by Assoc. Prof. Biray Kolluoğlu at Boğaziçi, University Istanbul, Department for Sociology: Global City Istanbul: Urban Transformation and ‘Gated Communities’, May 26, 2014.

As a result of successful education and health politics in Turkey during the 1930s, the infant mortality rate declined and population increased. After the Second World War, the distribution of work opportunities led to a massive migration of Anatolian peasants to Istanbul. Due to a lack of housing, copious so-called gecekondus were “built over night,” resulting in sprawling urban growth. 1 Based on a specific customary law remnant of Ottoman times, those who were able to build a shack overnight could stay and live on that exact spot of land. In Ottoman times, all land belonged to the Sultan; individuals could only attain usage rights if they used it in ways benefiting the Sultan and paid taxes. 2

From the beginning of this migration wave until the 1970s, gecekondus were not only built to satisfy existential needs such as the necessity of a place to live, but also constituted political tools displaying inequalities between migrants and long-established residents. Gecekondu neighborhoods operated via informal markets and through networks of kinship as well as local relationships devoid of governmental regulations. They gained the solidarity of the middle class, the leftist movement and syndicates 3. From the 1980s onward, the value of gecekondus increased due to the increasing scarcity of space caused by growing urbanization. As investors and state administration became aware of this process, they offered the land occupiers the opportunity to expand their houses, to rent or to sell them. From that moment on, the gecekondu neighborhoods were no longer merely a means to satisfy the migrants’ existential needs, but became an opportunity to join the formal market and accumulate capital 4. A political protest in form of land appropriation by gecekondu owners thus became obsolete for those able to ascend into the middle class. 5 The new elites of Istanbul often call this form of material production a unique urban disaster. Orhan Esen claims it to be a resource of collective experience for Istanbul’s citizens, calling it self-service urbanization. 6

Since the 1990s, various districts are more and more affected by gentrification: Because of immense increases in rent, the “established” inhabitants are often forced to move out of their districts. 7 When visiting Istanbul, we took a guided tour through the city lead by Ayşe Çavdar. She showed us to the borders of the district Tarlabaşı and explained the district’s transformation during the past two decades. Among Istanbul’s districts, Tarlabaşı in particular is inhabited by transnational migrants from Africa and Asia as well as marginalized groups like Kurds, Roma or transsexuals. While it was spared from drastic changes during the 1990s, it has become a so called “regeneration area” since 2006. The Çalık-Holding was assigned to conduct a large-scale construction project designed to replace the old, often decayed buildings with modern ones. As the present inhabitants are unlikely to be able to afford the massively increased rents, they will presumably have to move away. The buildings not being demolished may also become items of private speculation resulting in drastically rising rents and the eviction and displacement of minorities as well. 8 


  1. 1 Cf. Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 35.
  2. 2 Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 37.
  3. 3 Cf. Erder, Sema: “Where do you hail from? Localism and networks in Istanbul”, in: Keyder, Caglar (ed.): Istanbul. Between the Global and the Local, Boston, MA: Rowmann& Littlefield 1999, pp. 161-173, here p. 163.
  4. 4 Cf. Erder, Sema: “Where do you hail from? Localism and networks in Istanbul”, in: Keyder, Caglar (ed.): Istanbul. Between the Global and the Local, Boston, MA: Rowmann& Littlefield 1999, pp. 161-173, here p. 164.
  5. 5 Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 41.
  6. 6 Esen, Orhan: “Learning from Istanbul. The city of Istanbul: Material production and production of the discourse”, in: Esen, Orhan/Lanz, Stephan (eds.): Self Service City: Istanbul, Berlin: b_books 2006, p. 33.
  7. 7 Gottschlich, Jürgen: “Gentrifizierung in Istanbul. Raus mit allen Underdogs“, in: taz, June 11, 2012!95032/ (last accessed July 2015).
  8. 8 Gottschlich, Jürgen: “Gentrifizierung in Istanbul. Raus mit allen Underdogs“, in: taz, June 11, 2012!95032/ (last accessed July 2015).

People are “sick” of the undemocratic government interventions in the urban space since 2002. Aside from the constantly growing role of TOKI, a look at the changing skyline of the city makes apparent that “Istanbul has undergone a neo-liberal restructuring process over (more than) the past two decades.” 1 Biray Kolluoğlu and Ayfer Bartu Candan found that the privatization of urban governance 2 leads to social and spatial segregation for both the wealthy and the poor. While the affluent suffer from “urban fear”, feeling the need to seclude themselves from the city in order to be safe (for example in gated communities), the impoverished are isolated and marginalized. 3 All inhabitants of Istanbul can observe new forms of urbanity emerge from neo-liberalization processes in their everyday life. “Megaprojects,” regeneration areas and gated communities are connected to normative ideas about how and by whom urban space should be used. The authoritarian urban renewal evoked protest in 2013, when excavators started to demolish trees at the Gezi Parkı, a park near Istanbul’s most central square, Taksim. The plans to demolish and redesign the public Gezi Parkı and the adjacent Taksim Square became obvious and were being conducted without official permit. The plans revolved around rebuilding historic military barracks from Ottoman times that were supposed to contain an upper class shopping mall. 4

Mind Map: Taksim Square. Berlin. 23.3.2015 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne

Mind Map: Taksim Square. Berlin. 23.3.2015 © Kühnert, Nora; Patscheider, Anne

During the Gezi Park movement from the May 27 until June 15, 2013, a massive amount of people gathered in the Park and on Taksim Square to occupy and save the area from being demolished. These events led to mass protests all over the country, for example opposing police brutality and Erdoğans rule. According to estimates, a total of three to five million people from all over Turkey protested for almost two months. 5 Before Gezi, the leftist movement had been weak, which is why every activist we spoke to expressed surprise at the massive participation. Resistance in Istanbul was weakened due to three military coups in 1968, 1971 and 1980. Interviewing various activists of Gezi led us to realize that this protest was more than just a response to the recent restrictions by the AKP, e.g. alcohol prohibition in public. For many participants, it was a way to criticize the destruction, privatization and commodification of the public space by the projects named above. In addition to that, protesters demanded democratic rights in opposition to current tendencies to re-Islamize everyday life and strove to defend collective rights against increasing and persistent state repression.

The peaceful occupation of Gezi-Park  ©

The peaceful occupation of Gezi-Park ©

Understanding Gezi with Reference to David Harvey

David Harvey, basing his theories on Henri Lefebvres (Hyperlink) ideas concerning the “Production of Space,” 6 states that in neo-liberal, capitalist societies, citizens often do not have the opportunity to participate in shaping their city. As a global city, Istanbul is characterized by the constant need to find profitable terrains for the production and absorption of excess capital. Thus, urbanization is organized alongside notions of profit orientation and maximization. 7 As Harvey puts it, the effects of the latest forms of urbanization change who can afford to live in a city and how this life is shaped. Living in the city becomes a consumer good for wealthy people, which in turn leads to processes of expropriation and displacement for the less privileged. Thus, inhabitants are being deprived of their right to the city not only concerning spatial matters but also in regard to social aspects. 8 To resist these processes and to put an end to those dynamics, people need to become aware of all of the existing contradictions in order to reclaim their right to the city. The main political goal Harvey suggests is simple but radical: democratic control of the production and usage of surplus value. 9

As Harvey puts it, neo-liberal policies commodify and enclose “commons”, e.g. common property, common knowledge and common resources. The re-democratization of these commodities can be achieved through anticapitalistic critique and political actions, e.g. urban space appropriation of streets, a square or even a building during a protest. This new form of urban space usage can be called creating a “common”. 10 The necessity of deploying “commons” was often emphasized by most of our participants when asked what the occupation of property meant to them. As it intervenes with the social production of space, it is possible to “read” the occupation of urban space as a resistance practice. To take back their “right to the city,” people occupied urban space.


  1. 1 Kolluoğlu, Biray/Candan, Ayfer Bartu: “Emerging Spaces of Neoliberalism: A gated Town and a Public Housing Project in Istanbul”, in: New Perspectives on Turkey 39 (2008) fall, pp. 5-47, p. 5.
  2. 2 Privatization of urban governance means the increasing participation of the economical private sector in urban politics of Istanbul.
  3. 3 Kolluoğlu, Biray/Candan, Ayfer Bartu: “Emerging Spaces of Neoliberalism: A gated Town and a Public Housing Project in Istanbul”, in: New Perspectives on Turkey 39 (2008) fall, pp. 5-47, p. 5.
  4. 4 Guttstadt, Tayfun: Çapulcu. Die Gezi-Park-Bewegung und die neuen Proteste in der Türkei, Münster: Unrast Verlag 2014, p. 15.
  5. 5 Guttstadt, Tayfun: Çapulcu. Die Gezi-Park-Bewegung und die neuen Proteste in der Türkei, Münster: Unrast Verlag 2014, p. 15.
  6. 6 Henri Lefebvre coined the historical term “abstract space” describing a concept of space dominant over others. He states that urban spaces of world economy, global communication technologies and knowledge production show a tendency for homogenization. Because space production is also the social product of a social process, it offers possibilities of resistance in people’s everyday social practices as well as of a utopian differential room. For further reading, see: Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, transl. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford/Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1991.
  7. 7 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, pp. 27-26.
  8. 8 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, p. 51.
  9. 9 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, p. 58-59.
  10. 10 Harvey, David: Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London/New York, NY: Verso 2012, pp. 58-598

After the Gezi Park protests were put to an end in the summer of 2013, people started to get together in local neighborhood parks and founded so-called neighborhood “forums.” Some protesters wished to maintain the often-mentioned “Gezi spirit”: They wanted to keep discussing political demands or ways of organizing amongst themselves. At this point, the slogan “Everywhere Taksim – Everywhere Resistance” was established beyond the borders of Turkey. As the year passed and the weather grew too cold for these weekly assemblies, the activists of the “Yeldeğirmeni solidarity (Dayanışması)” forum in Kadıköy started discussing the option of occupying an empty building.


Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi

Stemming from these forums, “Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi” (Don Quijote Social Centre) came into existence. The property concerned had been abandoned for many years. It was considered suitable for an occupation as a result of its ownership rights being disputed. In the beginning, the newly formed community came together to renovate the shell of the building. Everybody involved worked voluntarily, often in addition to a day job or studying. In the meantime, two weekly assemblies were formed to discuss issues concerning the social center or political activities people were interested in. Apart from the assemblies, people got together to socialize, eat together and play games but also to do workshops or plan political activities. The property is spacious enough for art exhibitions and graffiti. On the upper floor, participants installed a give-away or sharing shop and experimented with indoor gardening. The main reason for occupying the building cited by the activists was to reinforce neighborhood solidarity. Another aim was to reorganize and reshape social space in a way “commons” are created.

Komşu Kafe

The Komşu Kafe Collective is an autonomous, self-organized café in Kadıköy  existing since summer 2013 and, like the Don Kişot social center, was opened in the “Gezi spirit.” Naming the café “Komşu” (English “neighbor”) emphasizes that everyone is invited to participate. In the manifesto, Komşu Kafe is described as a common space due to a perceived citywide lack of such space. In the café, everyone shall feel equal and autonomous at the same time. Every person is free to go behind the counter to prepare hot beverages for themselves or for others and people are free to pay whatever they can afford. The Komşu-Collectivistas see their concept as a contribution to an alternative economy undermining the capitalist system.

Samsa Squat

Several former Don Kişot activists no longer supporting all decisions regarding the social center in the Duatepe Street decided to squat in another building in Kadıköy near the Sali market. The start of their disagreement was a padlock installed at the social center’s door. In the eyes of some squat activists, this was a mechanism of exclusion creating hierarchies. Furthermore, the activists meant to create a place that was more than a social center: A squat as known in various European cities such as Barcelona, Milan, Athens, Amsterdam or Berlin, a squat to not only have political meetings in but also to live collectively. The squat was called Samsa, after Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafkas “The Metamorphosis.” The name was chosen as a reference to the Don Kişot Social Centre named after Miguel de Cervantes’ novel. One of the founding members of the Samsa Squat told us he wanted to live his life as far as possible outside of “the system.” To him, this meant resistance in everyday life: not being part of consumerism at all. He and many activists of the Kadıköy squatting scene want people and neighbors to organize every aspect of their life by themselves in form of a direct democracy. Therefore, concepts like “solidarity”, “neighborhood” and “autonomy” as well as “collectiveness” are important, constituent parts of their political approach, which can be described as “creating commons”.


Samsa Squat, Kadıköy, Istanbul ©

Caferağa Dayanışması Mahalle Evi

The Caferağa Dayanışması (Caferaga Solidarity) is another squatting community center in Kadiköy. When the after-Gezi activists of the Yeldeğirmeni Solidarity Forum decided to occupy the building, it was abandoned and in need of an enormous amount of renovation. From the squat’s facebook page and blog posts, we gathered that it had been evicted by the Turkish Riot Police on the 9th of December 2014. A report of the events can be found via the following link:


In Istanbul, we did not discover just one squat but a whole squatting scene. The squats in Kadıköy were rarely used as places to live in. Participants told us that they do try to learn from squats in Europe like in Spain or Greece, but that Istanbul’s squats mainly function as neighborhood forums. They are autonomous social centers of their respective neighborhoods. Through the squats, volunteers get in contact with their neighbors to brainstorm and discuss problems emerging for example from urbanization policies in Istanbul. In addition, the social centers are places to spend time together. They are meeting points for activists, (Erasmus) students, artists or employees exchanging political ideas and concepts of practices. Due to one of the participants, occupying houses in Istanbul is not about taking over new places to live but rather about creating a space for your own way of living and thinking. The activists want to establish squatting in Istanbul like in Spain and Greece and say that they want to learn from the experiences made in these countries.

(Im)Possibilities of neighborhood forums and resistance practices in Istanbul

All activists we interviewed mostly referred to Harvey, Hardt as well as Negri and described the squats as an attempt of “commons” materializing the goal of reclaiming urban spaces. Like occupying Taksim, squatting can be read as a call for the right to participate in Istanbul’s spatial and material development as well as an attempt to resist neo-liberal politics, gentrification and expropriation connected to Istanbul steadily developing into a global city, which is kind of a “brutal place” 1 to live in. In a recent publication called “Cool Istanbul – Urban Enclosures and Resistances” based on a conference in November 2013 related to a DFG-funded project, Aras Özgü provided an outlook on the future of upcoming resistance in Istanbul. He emphasized

“that Gezi Park protests brought an important novelty to Turkish radical politics […], the protesters reclaimed the urban commons that had been taken from them.” 2 Squats in Istanbul are an actual continuation of radical politics of similar importance and intentions. By creating a place that connects subversive artistic politics with radical practices, they are facing a great number of challenges: When asked about the squatting scene’s perspectives, participants active in Don Kişot Sosyal Merkezi emphasized the fact that political commitment while studying or/and having a job required a lot of energy. Everybody is working at their neighborhood forums voluntarily; most of the participants are students, artists or middle class workers. Most of the time, there is not even enough energy available to discuss the different political aims while also maintaining an everyday life as a precarious worker. Establishing contact with recent migrants or minorities living in highly conflict laden neighborhoods and the articulation of their interests in the city could not be achieved in full. Thus, in order to generate solidarity, the activists focused on the direct needs of the neighborhood instead. Again, the goals of those marginalized by neo-liberal policies and the global city such as transnational migrants and minority groups could not be included in an established form of political commitment.

The various legal changes to the status quo alter the way the global city Istanbul develops in such a drastic and rapid way that even the squatting of buildings cannot impede. If the Yeldeğirmeni or Kadıköy districts become more profitable for private or public-private investors in the future, the political desire to clear the area of subversive, anti-capitalist projects like cafés or neighborhood forums will develop. It is questionable whether the new forms of solidarity present in the Kadıköy neighborhoods will spread to other districts and generate a wider movement of people searching for and building different forms of non-profitable relationships within capitalist society due to the rather small numbers of people committed to squatting.


  1. 1 Meister, Franziska: “Interview mit Saskia Sassen: ‘Die Global City ist ein brutaler Ort‘”, in: Die Wochenzeitung 25 (2012), (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Özgün, Aras: “The Value of Art and the Political Economy of Cool”, in: Özkan, Derya: Cool Istanbul. Urban Enclosures and Resistances, Bielefeld: Transcript 2015, pp. 35-61, here p. 56.

In his research Mathias Fiedler illuminates the situation of refugees and migrants in the, so called, transit country Turkey. He did several in-depth interviews in Istanbul – some as a follow-up to his research he did for the project “Bordermonitoring Bulgaria“. Latest informations were collected afterwards via telephone and social media.


As I walked through the streets of downtown Istanbul, I saw a young man with a child sitting on the curb, begging for money. In the proximity of the big shopping street İstiklal Caddesi as well as in other parts of Beyoğlu, I noticed more people doing the same. As I could read on self-made signs positioned on front of them, many of them were refugees.

Often, children and other family members were begging for money 1. As refugees told me, some of them slept in the street, in parks or in abandoned buildings. After the outburst of the Syrian civil war, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reached to 1.7 Million in April 2015 2 –one year before, the NGO Mazlum Der had already registered around 300.000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul 3.

For a long time, there has been no guaranteed refugee-status in Turkey for people coming from non-European countries due to the so-called “geographical limitation“ 4. In April 2013, a new “law on foreigners and international protection” 5 was passed by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly with the geographical limitation remaining in effect. Nevertheless, there are many people in Turkey who, having fled (civil) war or searching for a better life, are awaiting resettlement. Others transit the country in search for a way into the European Union.

Migrants in Turkey who want to apply for asylum have to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Ankara or – since 2013 – at the Association of Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) 6. The registration constitutes the precondition to being resettled into another country. After registration, most migrants are not allowed to work. The state decides where they are permitted to live; often, it is in small satellite cities. As few migrants want to stay there, there is a constant flow towards the bigger cities. Syrians were seen as ‘guests’ until 2014 7, not as ‘refugees’ according to Turkish law. They cannot register at the UNHCR for resettlement. Until today, their status is unclear and seen as temporary 8.

From time to time, protests against refugees in Istanbul arose. A bigger protest took place in August 2014, when around 300 Turkish citizens clashed with the police and windows were broken in the suburb of İkitelli, Küçükçekmece 9. This was not the first agitation against Syrian refugees in Turkey. In July 2014, similar incidents took place in the cities of Kahramanmaraş, Adana and Gaziantep. In Antalya, the Governor’s office asked more than 1.500 Syrian refugees to leave the city. The office justified the issued notifications with accusations of “social and economic tension” as well as damaging the tourism industry 10. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, mayor of Istanbul, came up with the idea of deporting the begging refugees back to camps in south of the country 11. There, the situation is problematic for many refugees. As I was told by people that had visited or lived in these camps themselves, one can find the inhabitants of whole villages that fled from war together in a camp.

We met François, 12 a long-term refugee activist from Ruanda, who has been living in Istanbul for many years. As he tried to explain the protests against Syrian refugees, he stated:

“Of course Syrian people are getting such kind of small jobs, then they get small money, and then maybe Turkish people, they will not, you know. Turkish people when they get salary, they need big salary. But Syrians, because they want to survive, they will take all kind of small jobs and then young Turkish people think that Syrians are stealing jobs from them, such kind of things.”


  1. 1 For more information see Sauter, Dieter: Syrische Flüchtlinge in der Türkei – Betteln, Teller waschen, Müll sammeln, in: WOZ 49 (2014). (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 European Commission. Humanitarian Aid for Civil and Protection: Eco Fact Sheet: Syria Crisis, April 2015, (last accessed July 2015)
  3. 3 Kirişci, Kemal: Syrian refugees and Turkey’s challenges: Going beyond hospitality, Washington/D.C.: Brookings Institution 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Kaya, Ibrahim: Reform in the Turkish Asylum Law: Adopting the EU acquis? CARIM Research Reports (2009) 16, European University Institute, Robert Schuhmann Centre for Advances Studies, pp. 2-4, (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 The whole law is accessible via the Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Interior, Directorate General of Migration Management: Law No. 6458 on 2013 on Foreigners and International Protection, April, 4 2013, available at: (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 Ibid., p. 9.
  7. 7 Schläfli, Samuel (2016): Interview with Şenay Özden: (last accessed May 2016).
  8. 8 Ibid., p. 14.
  9. 9 For more information, see “Turkey protest in Istanbul over Syrian refugees”, BBC News August 25, 2014, (last accessed July 2015); N.N.: Tension rises as Turks allegedly beaten up by Syrians, Today’s Zaman, August 25, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  10. 10 Baş, Kenan: Antalya Governor’s Office orders Syrian refugees to leave province, Today’s Zaman, December 24, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  11. 11 Istanbul may place Syrian refugees in camps, Al Jazeera July 16, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  12. 12 I have changed the name of every interview partner in this article.

A reception center for unaccompanied minors is located in Kadıköy. We went there with a young volunteer student also active in the Don Kişot squat. At the center, he held language classes. With one of the young refugees, an Afghani named Sirus, we held a longer conversation. Having already lived in the house in Kadıköy for several years, he recently received the admission for resettlement to the United States. He seemed to be a little bit nervous while probably also glad about the chance to begin a new life. He was told that he would get an UNHCR plastic bag in order for the responsible people to recognize him at the airport.

Sirus told us that he lived in the accommodation with about 120 children and teenagers and that not everybody would find a place for resettlement. As an unaccompanied minor, you are allowed to live in the facility, but as you turn 18, you immediately have to leave the building. He told us that when this occurs, the young adults very often become homeless because they cannot afford the rent for housing. He said that life is very difficult without a working permit or other kinds of help. Many people have to ask their relatives in other countries to provide money for them. If that does not work out, people are without a home, again 1.

Resettlement is not easy to achieve in Turkey. During my stay in Turkey, a hunger strike of dozens of Afghans took place in Ankara: They were protesting in front of the UNHCR in order to attain working permits (for Turkey), resettlement and non-discrimination of Afghan refugees. Some of them decided to sew up their mouths 2.

Like François mentioned to us:

“Because I can say that UNHCR system is overcrowded. Now I am talking about refugees and asylum seekers. The system in UNHCR is crazy. I think that they don’t process the files very quickly. So you see people staying and waiting. You go to UNHCR, you apply. You have your free interview. And to hear from them, you have to wait maybe from six month to one year and then when you are like you get accepted and then you have then to wait for an embassy or a country that will host you. That will take another six [months] or one year again. So, you will see that the length of awaiting here will take from one sometimes to four to five years.”

Later, it turned out that François himself had already been in Turkey waiting for his resettlement to another country for many years:

“Ya, so we have so many cases also who, ah you know, ten years, ya. Over ten years.”


  1. 1 For more information on the situation of young refugees in Turkey, see Trimikliniotis, Nicos/Parsanoglou, Dimitris/Tsianos, Vassilis: Mobile Commons, Migrant Digitalities and the Right to the City, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian 2014.
  2. 2 For further information on the strike in Ankara, see Speri, Alice: Afghan Asylum Seekers in Turkey Are Sewing Their Lips Together in Protest, Vice News May 9, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

In the district of Tarlabaşı, one may find the Mutfak 1 (kitchen), a meeting space were one can partake in cooking for the poor of the neighborhood or organize counsel, language courses or other support for migrants and asylum seekers. The project was founded by people close to the Migrant Solidarity Group (Göçmen Dayanışma Ağı) Istanbul. Due to the gentrification process in that area which has been taking place for the last few years 2, more people able to pay higher rents are entering the housing market. The area has two faces with run-down houses, drug sellers and prostitution on the one hand and, on the other hand, renovated or newly built houses, nice and clean people to be seen in the street as well as on the signs adorning the construction sites. For people with no or low income who used to live there before, the situation is getting more and more difficult. It seems that a social space – like the Mutfak – is really needed in this area to support marginalized people and people in precarious situations. The solidarity kitchen tries to bring together different people from various backgrounds. It is well known in the quarter of Tarlabaşı and visited not exclusively by refugees and asylum seekers.

Outside, I met with Hassan, a Syrian refugee I later brought in touch with people from the Mutfak. I knew him from a hotel in Edirne where he had told me that he and his friends had almost drowned while trying to cross the Evros on a boat. The group of 5 young men lost the boat in the water. Afterwards, they tried to survive in the middle of the Evros on a little island consisting of trash and wood onto which they could luckily save themselves until they were rescued by a fisherman. Many people have drowned trying to cross the Evros River. In 2010, for example, the UNHCR reported three people drowning in May and 16 people drowning in June 3.

Hassan concluded his and his comrades’ situation as follows:

“We thought that we will arrive fast, but things were turning against us.” 4

Finally, they were rescued by a man with a little boat that brought them to the Turkish Border Police. With a friend, he was taken to Edirne Detention Center. Afterwards, the police decided to take them to Istanbul in a bus convoy along with many other refugees, but Hassan and his friend Ahmed managed to escape from the bus.

“They brought us with these buses. They said, yeah that actually you will have to be back to Istanbul. And actually when we arrived here, the signal. You know my friend, he is my friend, he just pushed the the the, you know, there’s a button there in this bus. He pushed the button and the doors opened and we start to run out.”

Later, Hassan told me the reason why he and his friend wanted to escape:

“Actually we don’t want to go back to Istanbul, because you know, we don’t have anything to do even in Istanbul.”

Although their escape was successful, a few days later, Hassan and Ahmed decided to go back to Istanbul because they were not able to make it to Europe.

Refugees using the boat and trying to cross the sea or a huge and dangerous river must be seen as a consequence of operations undertaken in cooperation with the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (FRONTEX). These “joint operations” of border guards from different European countries take place at the border between Greece and Turkey 5 as well as the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. In both cases, the governments decided to install fences. In Bulgaria, a big part of the Integrated Border Surveillance System (IBSS), financed by the EU, is almost complete. Therefore it is, for the most part, not possible to cross the border on land. People escaping war try to cross over the European borders nevertheless. Several weeks after my visit in Istanbul, FRONTEX reported that the poll of detected Syrian refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria or Greece had increased again 6. In August 2014, the Bulgarian police detained 63 refugees in a boat in the Black Sea and in the beginning of November 2014, a boat with refugees sank in the Black Sea near the Bosporus 7. At least 24 people died 8.

When I met Hassan in Istanbul at the end of May 2014, he had already been working illegally in a bar to earn some money. But again, things changed to the worse for him. He told me that he had been working the whole month of May without getting paid. Hassan recounted that, when asking the owner of the bar about his pay, the owner asked him whether he was “for or against Assad”. Hassan immediately answered the question with: “Of course I am against Assad“, whereupon the owner replied: “Then I cannot pay you.“

I went to a bar with a friend of Hassan’s who used to be a Stuart for Saudi Airlines. The friend told me he lost his work permit for Saudi Arabia with the start of the Syrian crisis. Hassan described his own life as a life of crazy ups and downs. He and his friend still thought about going to Europe. After some weeks, Hassan decided to move to Bursa and, after that, to a little town in the mountains in order to work there.


  1. 1 For video impressions, visit the Mutfak’s website (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Bourque, Yessica: Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification, The New York Times July 4, 2012, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. the press release: Sixteen people drowned attempting to cross the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece, UNHCR, July 1, 2010, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Interview with Hassan on May 2, 2014.
  5. 5 For more information, see Booth, Katherine et al.: FRONTEX. Between Greece and Turkey: At the border of denial, FIDH/Migreurop/EMHRN May 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 FRONTEX: FRAN Quarterly. Quarter 3, July-September 2014, Warshaw 2015, p. 23, (last accessed July 2015).
  7. 7 Leviev-Sawyer, Clive: (2014): Bulgaria Detains 63 Refugees on Boat in Black Sea, Independent Balkan News Agency, August 18, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  8. 8 Cf. Migrant boat traversed entire Bosphorus without being detected before disaster, Hurriyet Daily News, November 4, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

Queerstanbul – Aspects of love, gender and sexuality inside daily life of LGBTIQ*

The research project is part of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and formed up to an exhibition project. Funded by the program “Kreativität im Studium”, the Integrationsrat Göttingen and the University of Göttingen the group visited Istanbul once again during the Pride Week 20014. The results of the research were shown in Göttingen during an exhibition in December 2014. 

Text by Susanne Klenke and Laura Stonies

Shortfilm by Margaux Jeanne Erdmann


The district Beyoğlu is situated in the center of Istanbul’s European side. By the end of the year 2012, Beyoğlu had nearly 250.000 residents. İstiklal Caddesi, the largest shopping street of Istanbul, starts at Taksim Square and extends about 2 km to the historic narrow-gauge railway station Tünel. In side streets off İstiklal, shops, bars, cafés and restaurants sit close together. Every day, a dense mass of thousands of people flows over the asphalt until the early morning hours. The queer center of the city lies here. Thus, in one of these side streets near Taksim Square, the oldest gay bar of Istanbul, “Morkedi/Café de Paris”, is located.

Homo- and transsexual people are more visible in Beyoğlu’s cityscape than in other parts of the metropolis. In conversations, homo- and transsexual persons stated that the public LGBTIQ* everyday life as well as the higher visibility of homosexuals and transsexuals in Beyoğlu stems from increasing internationalization mainly influenced by tourism. Several statements illustrate the downtown area’s specific atmosphere and status within urban culture. Compared to other parts of the city, a free and open life is possible and, furthermore, socially accepted.

“Downtown area of Istanbul is open minded. People are open minded. But people in Anatolya, Kapadokya, Pamukkale, people are not open minded! […] You can see all of gay man at Taksim square district and maybe you don’t recognized you can see all the lesbian in the streets as well. But we are talking about Taksim. Kadiköy, Shishane. But if you go to the suburbs like … you know. Not downtown even a man and woman […] cannot walk hand in hand. This is not only for gay people.” (CEO Pride Travel Agency)

LambdaIstanbul and Kaos GL (Ankara) are the biggest LGBTIQ*-Organizations in Turkey. Overall, 40 associations exist, e.g. smaller unions and college associations.

Since 2002, Lambda operates an office and a cultural center hosting regular meetings and events accessible to everyone interested. Even a small library devoted to LGBTIQ* topics is integrated into the center. After Lambda was registered as an association in the summer of 2006, the city government tried to prevent the opening in court. The local court drafted a resolution stating the lawfulness of Lambda’s closure. This verdict was rendered invalid by a subsequent Supreme Court ruling. It included a vague requirement that the club could and must be closed if Lambda was involved in activities encouraging homosexuality. This decision was communicated to the European Court of Human Rights. A decision is currently pending. 1

Kaos GL is a Turkish LGBTI* organization founded in Ankara in 1994. Since then, the organization has been campaigning for LGBTI* rights and organizing various activities in order to draw attention to the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans and intersex persons in Turkey. Kaos GL activists organized the first LGBT-March in the capital in May 2008. Under the name “Kaos Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Organization” they applied to be accredited as a non-governmental organization (NGO) at the Ministry of the Interior. The same year, the deputy governor of Ankara petitioned in court that the organization be banned due to its supposed inconsistency with the country’s morality laws. This was rejected by the public prosecutor. Since October 2005, Kaos GL is a legally accredited NGO. The activists also operate the Kaos GL cultural center offering cultural activities and events. Since its foundation, the organization has been publishing the quarterly magazine. It is the leading journal on LGBTIQ*- policies. 2


  1. 1 See the website of LambdaIstanbul: (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 See the website of Kaos GL: (last accessed July 2015).

Every year since 2003, the group “LGBTI Istanbul” has organized Istanbul’s LGBTIQ* Pride March. After modest beginnings with 30 participants in its first year, July 2013 saw thousands of homo-, bi- hetero- and transsexuals opposing Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and homophobia with Gezi Park-protesters in Taskim square expressing their solidarity. The number of participants increased immensely to 50.000 in 2013 and redoubled in 2014 with approximately 100.000 participants. The LGBTIQ* Pride March is considered the biggest Pride Event in South Eastern Europe. Despite this public expression of queer sexual identities, homo- and transphobia still pose a severe problem.

Pridemarch 2014

By 2014, various groups, individuals and organizations had gotten involved in the organization. In Istanbul, Pride Week begins with the Trans Pride March on Sunday and ends with the Gay Pride March the following weekend. The separate marches originate from Trans groups having been underrepresented in LGB contexts and not feeling accepted. Therefore, they demanded a March of their own. In recent years, the audience of the Marches mixed and many people attended both demonstrations.

At the end of May 2014, we travelled to Istanbul for the first time. During our week-long stay, we made initial contacts and gained first insights into Istanbul’s queer life. We met many different activists concerned with queer life, advocacy and resistance who let us into their life for a moment, told us their stories, eased our introduction to the queer networks of the city and were of great help in getting to know the city’s queer life.

The aim of our second research trip was to deepen established contacts and gain better access to the field. Pride Week provided us with a good opportunity to document the diversity of queer life and activism. This is how, in June 2014, we were part of the 100.000 visitors of Pride Week protesting, singing, dancing and celebrating for the rights of LGBTQ*. In the spirit of that year’s Pride’s motto, “Temas” (contact), we accompanied queer people in Istanbul, took part in forums, panels and workshops, interviewed, spoke to and debated with Pride visitors, organizers, hosts, artists and activists.

Programme 2014

Hormonlu Domates


© Queerstanbul 2014

As a form of public resistance to the media’s portrayal of LGBTIQ*, the Hormonlu Domates Homofobi ve Transfobi ÖDÜLLERI (“Genetically Modified Tomato Homo / Trans / Biphobia Awards”) was founded in 2005 and is organized by LambdaIstanbul. It is awarded to public figures that made homo-, trans- or biphobic statements in the media. The event’s name was chosen in reference to athlete Erman Toroğlu’s statement that genetically manipulated tomatoes would be responsible for people becoming homosexual 1.

The public award ceremony was held in June 2014 in the old cinema of the municipality of Şişli’s cultural center. Mademoiselle Coco chaired this event complemented by performances of queer artists. As a self-empowerment strategy of LGBTIQ* organizers and visitors, the recipients were first projected on a big screen. Their statements were played again during the nomination as a parody and deconstruction of the statements. None of the nominees appeared to accept the award.

Appropriation of public space (during the march)

Crucial elements of the marches were the rainbow and Trans flags. The participants were covering İstiklal Street in its length and whole width with huge rainbow flags, waving and swinging them. Besides these giant flags carried through İstiklal Street in a collaborate effort, so-called Lollipops, protest signs in the shape of a circle, contributed to the creativeness and detail-rich composition of the Pride March. As an act of protest, these Lollipops were also utilized during the marches to label and annotate certain objects such as the police’s water cannons, shops and stores along İstiklal Street and, for example, the entrance gate of the Russian consulate.

Furthermore, viewers and visitors gathered on the balconies, windows and rooftops of the surrounding buildings. Starting at Takism Square, the ending point of the Pride March was Tünel, where the artwork of artist Ayse Erkmen, a huge tower built in 1994, is located. Again, people ascended and decorated the tower with Lollipops and rainbow flags.

Agreement Erdogan Regierung


© Mehmet Gündüz 2014

There is an informal “agreement” with the municipal authorities that the state agencies not interfere with the demonstration. Therefore, the Pride March is the only demonstration not interrupted by police. This is also related to the strong interest of Western media and press representatives documenting the March and reporting on it. A young member of the organizational team old us:

“But the only demonstration they let is the LGBTI-Pride here in Istanbul. We think that international solidarity is the major support that we have. In Europe we have a strong network here so we can make our voices heard by other people in Europe. It’s like a pressure on Turkish government.”

Nevertheless the march was attacked by the police in 2015. 2

Minorities at the March

This example of a Kurdish Trans group illustrates that the Pride March provides a platform for demands for political and social recognition and to demonstrate ethnic and political identities. Moreover, it is a chance to call attention to intersectional discrimination.

Here, the demonstrating group used imaginations of traditions to contribute to and take part in the Pride March. By wearing clothes labeled as traditional such as hair bands in the Kurdish colors green, yellow and red, playing musical instruments like drums, using dance and sounds, they express their Kurdish identity. Using visual and auditory media, their transsexuality as well as Kurdish identity becomes visible, audible and, thus, noticeable. As the only demonstration in Istanbul tolerated without interference, the March provides minorities with the opportunity to call attention to their isolation and exclusion from mainstream society, to break the silence, to demonstrate resistance and to put their situation on the agenda.

Transnational solidarity relationship in the organization of Pride Week


© Mehmet Gündüz

Within the organizational structures of the Pride March, transnational relations play an important role. The demonstration receives support from Western European countries and their state representatives in Istanbul. For example, the British consulate raised the rainbow flag on the day of the Pride March. The Dutch and the Swedish consulates opened their gates for events and support the activists financially. A commercialization of the Pride Week, such as sponsorship of individual companies, though, is rejected by the activists.

“I mean these changes are happening really rapidly in a way because the movement is going for 22 years in Istanbul and Turkey as well. But at the same time these 22 years are efficient enough to finance any economic sources. But one point is really important for Pride: We are not taking sponsorship; we are not working with any firms. Non-profit-events are happening.”

LamdaIstanbul situated the onset of international solidarity, support, cooperation and assistance in the year 2007. (Homepage Lambda)

“It’s not only happening by itself in Istanbul, it brings all people from Turkey and Kurdistan. At the same time it is also a nice place as Pride to express your own existence from Iran, Syria and Balkan as well.” (Activists from the organization team)

There is no financial funding by the Turkish government. When inquiring about this in regard to the funding of the Pride Week, a young activist of the organization team told us:

“There is no aim that the government is supporting the LGBT-activism or the LGBT-social rights in Turkey. And also they have an open homophobia politic. Recently they shouted from the parliament that we are sick, that for Turkey LGBTI-rights is not important at all. […] We organized parties in our community. We gather people and collect funds for Pride Week. Other than that it’s mostly the European Consulates here supporting the Pride Week. This is how we gather funds actually.”


  1. 1 “Hormonlu domates yemeyin homoseksüel olursunuz.”, 2005
  2. 2 and (last accessed on July 7, 2015

During the Pride Week in June 2014, we met Merve C. at a discussion panel on “Sex Laboratory” Merve participated in as representative of the Trans Solidarity Networks. She invited us to her home the Sunday morning before the Gay Pride March and told us about her daily life, professional difficulties she was facing and how she earned her living as a sex worker. Also, she spoke about the Trans Movement and the significance it holds for her. The visit is documented in the short film “Breakfast at Merve’s” by Margaux J. Erdmann:


Judicial situation in Turkey

Only in 1988, a legal procedure for name and sex changes of transsexuals was established with the introduction of an additional paragraph to Art. 29 of the Turkish Civil Code. As a consequence, a person’s entry in the civil register can be amended after a “successful sex change“. 1 The starting point of this development was brought about by a transgender woman who had sex reassignment surgery abroad and then wanted to modify her civil registration entry.

Since 2002, Art. 40 of the Turkish Civil Code also regulates the pre- and post -operational procedures of a sex change: 2 Anyone wanting to change their sex may apply in person for the court’s permission of the sex change. For the permission to be granted, the applicant must be at least eighteen years of age and unmarried, must provide the official Health Commission with a report obtained from a teaching hospital stating that their “transsexual nature” makes a sex change absolutely necessary for their mental health and that the person concerned permanently renders themselves infertile. If the official Health Commission confirms that the operation corresponding to the permission granted has been accomplished, the court decides on adjustments to be made in the birth register. According to this legislation, transsexuals wanting to adjust their sex in the civil register are forced to provide a medical certificate certifying their sexual identity. This legally pathologizes transsexuality. The fact that the sex reassignment surgery necessary for a sex change is accompanied by mandatory sterilization is also to be critically considered.


  1. 1 Atamer, Yesim M.: “Türkei“, in: Basedow, Jürgen/Scherpe, Jens (eds.): Transsexualität, Staatsangehörigkeit und internationales Privatrecht. Entwicklungen in Europa, Amerika und Australien, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2004, pp. 74-79, here p. 74.
  2. 2 Atamer, Yesim M.: “Türkei“, in: Basedow, Jürgen/Scherpe, Jens (eds.): Transsexualität, Staatsangehörigkeit und internationales Privatrecht. Entwicklungen in Europa, Amerika und Australien, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2004, pp. 74-79, here p. 76

Lisa Szepan‘s text evolved as a result of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and is based on interviews with Syrian students, who had fled the war in their home country to survive and continue their education abroad. During the field trip in May 2014, the young men talked to the researcher personally and kept communicating through digital media afterwards.

Despite the active interest in the Syrian war, my interviewee’s reactions towards the recent Gezi-park protests were rather cautious, expressing the will to distance themselves from the events:

“Actually I did not come out, because I do not want to have any problem here, we are, we came from the war and we do not want to get more trouble here.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

On the other hand, a lack of understanding was expressed towards the notion of Turkish society feeling oppressed by the current government:

“Well, coming from a country such as Syria, I cannot see that how Turkish people oppressed. I don’t know, maybe from someone from Germany you can see it [laughs].” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

A similar perspective was taken on police violence during the 2013 upheavals:

“They said that the police was, was brutal. In what way was the police brutal [laughs]? Yeah, it’s funny for us, because they were shooting water at people? Oh come on, this is like very luxurious for us to shoot water at people. We get bullets, normally.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Against the background of still having family members in Syria living under life-threatening conditions, Gezi protests appeared to be an issue for the Turkish natives to my interview partners. There was a clear hierarchy of relevance with a focus on changing the situation in Syria and not in Turkey, which was mainly appreciated for its function as a loyal host. However, my interviewees expressed some skepticism towards the reasons the Turkish government had had for opening up its borders for Syrians so seemingly unconditionally.

The aim of the research project Street Art in Istanbul was to look at the diversity of art in the public space. The widespread use of art – from political purposes to aesthetic reasons – demonstrates the diverse ideas of artists and city dwellers to live with and within their city. Lea Stöver‘s research project is part of the seminar “Global City Istanbul”.

In May 2013, I could not find any street art left from the protests. Rather, I found numerous white and grey spots indicating that using the materiality of the city had played a role during the protests. The street artist and expert M. concluded this as follows:

“And so many people just started taking attention to taking pictures of the street art, like oh this is really funny, this is really good, this is protest, this is, taking a picture with. So it really opened people’s mind, you can just put out what you are thinking on the street and other people react to it or taking a picture, sharing, commenting. So I think just not only Gezi Park of course but it has a huge effect as well to opening people’s mind to looking more to the walls. Because during that time not newspapers, not TV channels, they are not really broadcasting what’s going on, so people are actually getting the News from the social media, from different friends and stuff. So writing some stuff on the wall was really meaning a lot.” 1

Even if this “stuff” is mostly covered, you still can find stencils or murals expressing opposition to the ruling government and President Erdoğan. Mostly in Kadiköy I discovered stencils objecting to the official statements about the mining accident in Soma in May 2014. 2 Erdoğan compared the disaster to mine accidents in England in the 19th century and declared them to be common in this kind of business, to be fate. 3 During demonstrations in Istanbul and several other Turkish cities, people expressed their anger about these comments.

While taking photos of one of these stencils, a group of five men observed me. They were sitting on a balcony, facing this stencil.

I asked them if they could translate for me. One of them explained to me that it showed a boy who died during the protests. 4 Then he asked me what I thought about Erdoğan. As I was not sure about his opinion, I tried to answer very carefully – I rather wanted to know what he thought. He did keep me guessing, and stated: “He is like Hitler.” My nationality was already clear at that moment, so I guess it had some influence on the comparison he drew. For him, Erdoğan was a dictator since he oppresses every kind of opposition or disagreement to his politics. What was most interesting to me was that, as I was taking a picture of a stencil, people wanted to talk to me, to discuss, to share their opinion. Even if street art remains undiscovered or neglected by many people, this incident shows that “writing some stuff on the wall was really meaning a lot”, as M. concluded earlier.

"Freedom for Ali Can" © Lea Stöver 2015

“Freedom for Ali Can” © Lea Stöver 2015


These examples show that people use the techniques of street art in Istanbul to oppose against official statements and to express their opinion in the public space. Here, street art is political. These findings allow me to conclude that street art became a medium during the protests and was still used as such in May 2014. The high degree of anonymity and rapidness of doing stencils made this technique so prominent.

"Kader Değil – It was not fortune." © Lea Stöver 2015

“Kader Değil – It was not fortune.” © Lea Stöver 2015

"Iş Kazasi Değil, Cinayet! – It was not an accident, but murder!" © Lea Stöver 2015

“Iş Kazasi Değil, Cinayet! – It was not an accident, but murder!” © Lea Stöver 2015


  1. 1 Interview with M. on May, 25 2014.
  2. 2 I would like to thank Fulden Eskidelvan who helped me with the translation of the slogans.
  3. 3 Cf. Scott, Alev: “Erdoğan’s self-defence over Soma’s mining disaster was badly misjudged”, the guardian, May 15, 2014, (last accessed July 2015); Katrin Elger et al: “Soma Tragedy: Erdogan Faces Fall-Out From Mine Disaster”, Spiegel Online International, May 19, 2014, transl. Jane Paulick, (accessed 9 March, 2015).
  4. 4 As I learned later, the slogan says “Freedom for Ali Can”. Ali Can is a student who was arrested during the protests.

The idea of a research on the Erasmus programme and its manifestations in Istanbul was to ask why students from all over Europe chose Istanbul as their destination and how they are living in the global city. The project of Anna Schäfer and Laura Lamping highlights different perspectives of doing Erasmus in Istanbul: from the bureaucratic burdens of universities, to student’s romanticism of living in “the exotic East” and their ways of living between Erasmus Parties and protest movements.

The EU exchange programme provides students with many services. According to M., an Erasmus coordinator of an Istanbul university, a student receives help with everything from finding an accommodation to getting registered, finding the right courses and getting in touch with other students 1. In conversations with Erasmus students in Istanbul, different behaviors emerged. Some expressed contentment with the services the universities provide. Their enjoyment of partying made it easy for them to get in touch with other Erasmus students. At this point, it is useful to refer to Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of “social capital”. 2 According to Bourdieu, you benefit from your social relationships depending on your membership in certain group: Although you are away from home, you are able to establish a social network without bigger efforts. The interview with N., a German Erasmus student in Istanbul, confirmed this:

“That is the reason why you have these parties. You drink, you are not constrained anymore, you get to know many people and you are not alone.” 3

As Uğur Tekin points out, facilitating contact between Erasmus students is a strength of the programme as students can learn a lot about other cultures through contact with other foreign students 4. Nevertheless, there is also a stereotypical idea of the Erasmus Programme as reproduced on social networks like facebook. This notion focuses on the party scene for foreign students. Here, an adapted infrastructure including clubs offering Erasmus parties or trips only for foreign students comes into play.

On the other side, there are also Erasmus students not wishing be part of this apparently typical “Erasmus -behavior”. Rather, they desire to be part of political movements – in Istanbul especially the Gezi protests – or to be involved in other social projects, for example the migrant solidarity kitchen “Mutfak” in the district Tarlabaşi. This kind of commitment appears to be a way to get to know other parts of the city (the “real” parts) 5, to learn Turkish and to get in touch with “natives”; thus, it is also a way to learn more about other cultures. We talked to a (former) Erasmus student who had participated in protests connected to the Gezi-movement: They reported that there was a group of international students organizing political activism. This can be seen as an intentional distinction from party lifestyle: It is a distinction necessary for forming a(n) (group) identity. You see yourself as different and you want to make this distinction. 6

Nevertheless, it is not possible to distinguish two opposing sides; there are many different ways of being an Erasmus student in Istanbul. This research offers only limited insight into the Erasmus life in Istanbul based on our week-long experience. At the very least, it invites to reconsider the “Erasmus label” sometimes used derogatorily by people not being directly involved with the programme. It shows that image and reality are seldom congruent. 


  1. 1 Cf. interview with M., an Erasmus coordinator at a university in Istanbul on May 30, 2014.
  2. 2 Cf. Bourdieu, Pierre: “Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital“, in: Soziale Welt, Sonderband 2 (1983), pp. 190-192.
  3. 3 Interview with N., a German Erasmus student on May 28, 2014.
  4. 4 Cf. Tekin, Uğur: “Auswirkungen des Erasmus Programmes auf Universitäten und Studierende in der Türkei“, in: Pusch, Barbara (ed.): Transnationale Migration am Beispiel Deutschland und Türkei, Wiesbaden: Springer 2013, pp. 282-283.
  5. 5 The quotation marks should illustrate that there are no real or non-real parts. This refers to the concept of Orientalism: You search for the real “exotic” Istanbul.
  6. 6 Cf. Römhild, Regina: Ethnizität und Ethnisierung: Die gemanagte Kultur als Ausgrenzungsinstrument“ in: Anerkennung 13 (1998) 2, p. 4.