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Moment that mattered: Protesters occupy Taksim Square in Istanbul

A musician plays piano under the monument of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkey, as protesters gather to listen to his concert and police guard the area at the Taksim Square in Istanbul late Thursday, June 13, 2013. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a “final warning” Thursday to protesters that they must end their occupation of a park next to Istanbul’s Taksim Square, while rejecting condemnation by the European Parliament of an excessive use of for by riot police against demonstrators during an ongoing showdown. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

“I play my piano in major cities around the world and I’d been in Sofia the previous day. I saw images of Istanbul on TV and wondered what it would be like to play my piano in Taksim Square. I didn’t know the story behind the demonstrations, although later I understood that what started as a battle to save Gezi Park shifted to a demand for greater democracy. My art isn’t political, but I thought maybe I could ease the situation and help people to be calmer.

My first three days in Istanbul were among the best of my life. On the day I arrived I unloaded my piano in Taksim Square and this little girl came up to me. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked, as people gathered around me, confused. I started to play the piano and they all relaxed.

That first night I started at the edge of Taksim Square, but after I had been playing for an hour people grabbed my piano and carried it to the middle of the square. Then they got bolder and carried the piano to Gezi Park itself. It was amazing. The streets were full of people and debris from the battles between police and demonstrators and it was initially hard to find a spot for my piano. I was scared the police might arrest me, but I felt reassured because so many people surrounded me and quietly listened. People responded particularly well to ‘Ciao Bella’, an Italian political song sung by the anti-fascist movement during World War II.

My most powerful memory is from my second night. I started playing at 9pm and finished at 11am the following morning. There was this old man who saw me playing in the evening and stumbled past me the next morning on his way to work. He started crying because I was still there, still playing piano. It was very emotional.

On 15th June, I was taking my piano out of its trailer about 200 metres away from Taksim Square when suddenly I saw a huge crowd of people running towards me, followed by a
thick cloud of tear gas. I had my mask on but I still couldn’t breathe easily, so I started running with them. About 100 metres down the road I took refuge in a café and waited for the situation to calm down before heading back towards the trailer. I tried pushing my piano into Taksim Square but the police spotted me and confiscated it. I didn’t try to stop them, but after realising what had happened I started crying. I had no idea if I’d ever get my it back, but with the help of the German and Italian embassies I was able to retrieve it three days later. I felt hopeless without my piano. They were the worst three days of my life.

I think I had been able to help stop the police from clearing the protest site for a few days. The police can’t fight art and attack a piano player, an easy target who can’t just run away. So the only solution to empty Gezi Park was to seize my stuff.

The Turkish people are still fighting to be heard. Prime Minister Erdogan has to listen to everybody, not just his party base. He’s got too firm a grip on his people. After my time spent playing the piano and talking with people in Istanbul, I’m optimistic that things will change. The people will continue to fight for their freedom and eventually it will all be worthwhile.”

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