Cevahir Shopping Mall, Istanbul
Cevahir Shopping Mall, Istanbul
Florence Aubenas

ISTANBUL - An electronic version of a Strauss waltz suddenly starts to play. In the small fountain in the center of the mall, some trickles of water start to sprinkle up, with blue and green spotlights illuminating the scene. All in rhythm.

Everybody freezes at the moment the spectacle begins: a group of men seated under plastic palm trees, a family about to enter a store, even the Starbucks clients are motionless, hot beverages and cakes stuck in their hands.

From the loudspeakers, the sound of the synthesizers is getting louder. The water from the fountain gurgles noisily in concert. Then, just as quickly, it all stops. The show will start again in one hour.

"Who would have imagined such magic a few years ago?" says a woman, enthusiastically. And she knows the show by heart. Every day, she comes to Historia mall, in Istanbul"s Fatih district. Usually, she doesn't buy anything, not even a snack.

"But, here, you feel the money running through the veins of the neighborhood," adds her husband. "When a mall is built, it means: we are in good health."

This one was built only three years ago. If Paris has only six malls, you have the choice of about 90 of them in Istanbul, and they all sprung up from the soil in just the past decade. The AKP, the governing party, has turned shopping centers into symbols. The most strategically located malls are even personally inaugurated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Wherever there is enough space, a mini building boom flourishes in a neighborhood. Potential buyers are assured that new apartment owners are offered "private access to the shopping arcades of the mall." Universities and medical services can also be found in these facilities.

"For a long time, when Europeans thought about the Turkish population, they imagined people riding donkeys," explains a civil servant.

"We were poor", she adds. She now has a credit card, something she couldn't have dreamed of a few years ago.

For the first time, some municipal offices were built adjacent to a mall. And soon, other official offices will be built inside. "You see, this is modernity, it's like Dubai," the civil servant insists. During her lunch break, she doesn't know yet if she will "buy something at Zara or eat sushi."

Tough choice? "Of course," she says.

Wrong time

A group of girls enter a Sakko store, a popular Turkish brand of scarves and ties. Their parents are happy to let them hang out at the mall, which is considered a clean and safe place. "To me, the mall represents freedom," explains one of these girls.

On a store window, there is a "National Shopping Day" poster. "This comes at the wrong time", a saleswoman remarks. Indeed. A mall project that was supposed to be built in Taksim Square over the last remaining green space has been tearing the country apart.

A few metro stations away, we are in another world. Shopping centers are no longer considered progress, but as a sign of alienation. In one month, the movement opposed to the new mall construction in Gezi Park has absorbed a decade of discontentment. A police crackdown, at least four deaths, hundreds of arrests, and a stock market crash has the world watching with trepidation.

The young people of Taksim Square who launched the movement against the government are opposed to the existing malls as well. In two locations, there were sit-ins that lasted for hours.

Slowly, the movement that began with a few people trying to preserve one park has turned into a mass movement, with a long list of demands.

One young woman explains that she borrows 2,000 euros a year to pay college tuition. A young man remembers he was with his friends at a café when the riots started. At one point, they wondered: "What about us?" They finally joined the movement and stayed two days in a row in Taksim, swept up in the adventure of it all. Then, suddenly, the boy felt he was waking up.

"What was I doing with these children of the elite -- I had to earn a living working at the mall?" The young woman now says the Prime Minister was right to intervene "strongly." Otherwise, how would it end? What if the construction stops and Turkey doesn't have the economic assets to attract German and Dutch investors? And what if the economy collapses? And if Turkey was becoming the next Spain?

Under the fake palm trees, the group of men are now standing and screaming. They are surprised to see foreign journalists. One guard is getting closer, asking us authorizations and permits. There is a sudden charge of electricity in the air. Apparently, we visitors are "agents from Iran and Israel here to destabilize the country."

With their cell-phone cameras, the clients of the mall are now taking photographs of the few Turkish who dared to talk to us. Everybody now has to leave the premises.

But as soon as we are escorted out, the men rush back in the mall. The electronic organs have again struck up the Strauss waltz.

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