Istanbul protesters hunker down with yoga and books

By Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - In Istanbul's Gezi Park, yoga practitioners stretch and students read in a makeshift library - a statement of their intent to stay on after a week of protests.

At night demonstrators taunt riot police from beyond barricades on the streets around Taksim Square. Those in its Gezi Park hold sit-down protests and discuss Turkey's future.

High school teacher Aylin Erkan helped set up a library among the greenery, shrugging off intermittent rain and the tear gas that drifts over the tree-lined park from nighttime clashes.

"This is our effort to show we're settled here, this is a sign of our permanence. We won this spot and we're staying," said Erkan, 33. Nearby, people picnicked on the grass while office workers strolled around taking photos.

The protests began last week after trees were uprooted for a redevelopment project which envisages building a replica Ottoman-era barracks, possibly to house a shopping center or museum and luxury apartments. They have since widened into an unprecedented show of defiance against the government.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who wants the project to go ahead, has rejected changing the plans to redevelop one of central Istanbul's few green spaces. The plans include knocking down an opera house and building a mosque.

"If a building is going to be built, it shouldn't be a shopping center but a library. I know that's a romantic idea but isn't this whole protest a romantic idea?" Erkan said.

The books, arranged on shelves laid on breeze blocks below a tarpaulin, range from left-wing philosophy to author Dan Brown. With contributions from individuals and bookstores, the number of books has swelled to more than 5,000.

Photocopied maps of the park's amenities, including a cinema, are posted to trees. Workers from the left-wing BirGun newspaper distribute free issues that contain a daily "Resistance Supplement" covering camp news.

Yoga is being taught in the park, a network of concrete paths laid out with flower beds. Seventy-year-old plane trees rise above bustling Taksim Square to the south.

Before the effort to save the trees began last year, Gezi Park, with its dry fountains and small patches of grass, had few admirers. Years of neglect had left it decrepit, and it was mainly populated by unemployed men sleeping beneath the trees.


Some 60 students rolled out colorful yoga mats on a shady patch of ground for an hour of vinyasa yoga, led by Chris Chavez, 42, a yoga instructor from Los Angeles who plans to hold classes each day in the park.

"This is about people coming together to make change, and yoga is all about transformation. I also wanted to introduce some normalcy into a very chaotic, stressful situation," said Chavez, who keeps his hair in two long, black braids.

Deniz Yildiz, 26, a chemical engineer and yoga adherent described herself as "apolitical".

"Everyone thinks yoga is about an inner journey, but this protest is an opportunity to make a difference all together," she said, as striking members of a teachers' union marched nearby and shouted, "Government, resign."

A dozen or so doctors and health workers provide first aid, with supplies coming from pharmacies or in larger donations from businessmen who back the protest, said Cenk Unver, 38, who volunteers as a security official at the makeshift clinic.

At lunch, people queue for a free hot meal of beans and rice. Other stands offer savory pastries and biscuits, a range of teas and instant coffee around the clock. Protesters have set up cigarette donation boxes, and volunteers, mostly schoolchildren, collect rubbish.

Local traders are doing brisk business selling rudimentary paper masks that protesters hang around their necks and wear in the evening when tear gas fills the air.

"We don't know how long this will last. Every morning we wake up at 5, prepared for a raid, and by 7 if they haven't come, we know we have one more day," said music festival organizer Ergun Nasuhoglu, 32, who runs the free tea stand.

"Sometimes I think, maybe it won't end. But even if it does, we will come back," he said.

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Writing by Daren Butler; editing by Janet McBride)