A movement for society and self-improvement: Beşiktaş’ Çarşı ultras

A movement for society and self-improvement: Beşiktaş’ Çarşı ultras

“WE’LL SEE BEAUTIFUL days kids, we’ll see sunny days.” This isn’t the kind of song you’d expect to hear chanted at a football game, let alone by one of the most respected groups of ultras in the world. But this group have defied expectations and baffled social commentators for years.

Like most things in football, it all began with a dream. But unlike most other significant things in football, it was the dream of a history teacher – from Istanbul.

There are few images available of Optik Başkan, but the one that echoes well beyond his tragically short life is one of a man with his arms wide open, as if seeing the sun for the first time, embracing and embodying the agony and the ecstasy of the tumultuous life of a football fan in Turkey. This image has since become immortalised on scarves, banners and stickers – an image held with God-like reverence amongst the Beşiktaşlı.

Başkan, a pseudonym for Mehmet Işıklar, was a history and literature graduate from Istanbul University and a Beşiktaş fan from birth. He left his home of Istanbul for a teaching position in Ankara where his classes became legendary. To introduce himself and size up his students, he asked all Beşiktaş fans to raise their hands. He then rephrased the question to make it clear he was a Beşiktaşlı himself. The nervous ones now knew where they stood and it turned out a lot of pupils suddenly became Beşiktaş fans.

At the beginning of the week the class would be dictated by the football. If his club lost, it was a thoughtful and rueful affair. But if they won, the first part of the class would be a lecture on what happened on the pitch from his magic Beşiktaş.

Despite loving to teach, the long distance relationship with Beşiktaş proved too difficult. Known as a compassionate man and impressive teacher, the enthusiasm of his pupils wasn’t enough to keep him in Ankara, so he returned to Istanbul and to Beşiktaşİnönü Stadium. Every bit the stereotypical history teacher, with his thick-lensed glasses that gave him the name ‘Optik’, he had an intelligent disposition that was to change the face of the fanatical support that had always been present at Beşiktaş matches.

He attended games religiously before leaving, drum in hand he quickly rose in popularity amongst the club’s most devoted fans for his uncompromising energy and support and his wordy intellectualised romantic vision of the club. The black and white to him represented the duality of life, both as a football fan and as a man. Both sides he’d spend a lifetime trying to balance.

At the start the group was loose, but the leftist politics of Başkan inspired others to see him as a leader, even though he was insistent that there was no such thing in their group, named ‘Çarşı’. Beşiktaş come from more modest means that their city rivals, so have always had an appeal amongst the working-class and younger student groups that are often more radical in their politics.

Having a young and energetic fan base has helped the club endure as a representation of a part of Turkish society, providing an alternative to the two larger clubs. From the beginning, their anti-everything attitude started at themselves.

The name Çarşı comes from the marketplace near the İnönü. It’s a place where all cultures and backgrounds meet to conduct their business, barking and bartering to get the best price for their goods hawked at stalls around the main seating area. As a physical place it has always offered freedom, a liberty that is important to the Çarşı.

Read  |  Beşiktaş: Istanbul’s third club but Constantinople’s first

Istanbul has always been unsettled and in flux but manages to stand alongside Rome and Athens as one of the greatest cities in the world. When the Çarşı came together in 1982, the working-class members were isolated by a political system in turmoil. To understand the group, it is important to understand their context.

The right-left paradigm was prevalent in Turkish politics throughout the 1970s, preserved by the desire to maintain tension and uncertainty within the population. After the infamous coup d’état in 1980, the country was under strict military rule for the subsequent three years, during which time the group was born. They adopted the red ‘A’ of anarchism for their logo as a symbol of dissent – a move less to do with football than with a tongue-in-cheek jab at the overbearing government. It was the members of the Turkish working class – the small business owners, artisans and teachers that felt this blow the hardest. The people that give the city its energetic atmosphere were being swept away.

They adopted the red ‘A’ of anarchism for their logo as a symbol of dissent – a move less to do with football than with a tongue-in-cheek jab at the overbearing government. It was the members of the Turkish working class – the small business owners, artisans and teachers that felt this blow the hardest. The people that give the city its energetic atmosphere were being swept away.

After the military takeover, wages and salaries were frozen, state-owned industries were privatised and the military withdrew and violently opposed the rights of workers to strike and meet collectively out of the workplace for many years. All of this devalued the currency and destabilised the country’s infrastructure.

Where there is no law, some is always established. The structureless freedom and camaraderie of the Beşiktaş fans was both an escape and a way for the citizens’ voices to be heard as part of a united front – not as workers, nor directly political. Although when government death squads carried out planned hits on left-wing intellectuals and trade union activists, any act of solidarity like this was a political statement and they always stuck together.

On one occasion, when a member of Çarşı was unjustly arrested after trouble at a match, Başkan went to the local police station with 80 others and peacefully sat waiting like a vigil until their friend was released. The statement was clear: we are the one part of society who’s spirit you will not conquer. The right-wing military leaders, in power the years before and after the coup, decided to annihilate all left-wing opposition. But they overlooked the last place these kinds of people still gathered in Turkey – football matches.

Early meetings would take place in open-air parks or the eponymous marketplace to arrange flags, banners, songs and buses for their upcoming fixtures. Turkey is roughly three times the size of the United Kingdom, but that didn’t stop the fans travelling wherever their beloved black and whites were playing.

Istanbul’s most famous son, Orhan Pamuk, reminisced of his city as an almost cyclical series of Pyrrhic victories: ‘’For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy or (like all Istanbullus) making it my own.’’

The coup was just another addition in a series of passing defeats that have punctuated the city’s travel guides and literature since the Ottoman Empire. The Çarşı were often forced to fight fire with fire, but sometimes ice would do the trick. Everywhere they went, they brought a righteous rage. They also brought smart, satirical humour.

The logo of the Çarşı is itself not entirely serious. With their motto of ‘Anti-Everything’ and an anarchist ‘A’ in the logo, the semantic incoherence means that the group never take themselves too seriously. When the world went into shock over the death of Michael Jackson in 2009, the group paid a witty tribute with a banner dedicated to the man ‘who lived half of his life in black and half in white’.

Read  |  A World of Ultras

In Turkey they represent defiance, but their main priorities are on the park with the players and the honour of the club. It is this undying love that pulled them together in the first place. Before every match, when the players are warming up, the fans will shout on the players one-by-one. No matter what part of the warm-up the player is engaged with, they will run over to the fans, home or away and applaud each other, raising their hands like the emblematic eagle’s talons of the club’s crest, their symbol of war. The fans welcome the players into the bosom of the stands with a singular powerful message – we are one.

There was a time when Samuel Eto’o was facing regular racist abuse at his clubs, having bananas thrown at him on the pitch and fans wailing monkey noises from the stands. This appalling treatment struck a chord with the Turkish group, so they painted some signs and marched with them, holding them high in their stands, ‘Hepimiz Eto’o’ or ‘We Are All Samuel Eto’. This is one of the displays that put them at odds with the preconceptions of football ultras. They looked after their own, their neighbourhood, and even the causes of others if something clashed with their belief system.

Their good-natured behaviour doesn’t stop at football though. The group gathered to give blood to Kizily, the biggest humanitarian organisation in Turkey. The donations took place before a match against Fenerbahçe, leaving the fans with no questions as to whether the derby would a bloody one.

Outside, to persuade other fans to join in they had a huge sign reading, ‘OUR BLOOD IS FOR KIZILAY, OUR ORGAN IS FOR FENER.’ A contemporary classic, with almost as much poetry as their beloved Nazim Hikmet Ran, a poet that fans celebrate annually by gathering together and reading his work aloud.

It’s no surprise that the group born at a time of nationwide conflict would react if they saw the same thing happening again. Çarşı’s ideological leader Optik Başkan passed away in 2007 from a sudden heart attack, but the Çarşı’s romanticism meant that he became a martyr for a cause, not a casualty of a war. It was perhaps in his spirit that, after a few quiet years that saw the Çarşı disappear, they would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the first Molotov cocktail that was thrown in 2013.

The Çarşı had been quiet for a while, still present but not in the way they once were. A letter written by prominent member Alen Markaryan in 2008 addressed the notion that the supporters group were beginning to be seen before the club. But by 2013, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was on his way to creating a presidential dictatorship in Turkey. Istanbul’s parks and squares, the places that people gathered to talk freely symbolised democracy, the very symbol that Erdoğan wanted to destroy.

Gezi Park was one of the last open areas in Istanbul, a city with a population of around 15 million people. The government, without any media or public debate, decided that the park would be turned into a mall or a museum. The peaceful protests at the start were disrupted by the heavy-handed police force. The tents that occupied the park as protest were set on fire and teargas cylinders were launched into groups of people. Very quickly the streets surrounding the park became dangerous.

The quick change in atmosphere galvanised the Çarşı who met and as the protests began to gain traction. They decided to regroup, not alone this time though, but by forming an unholy alliance with their eternal rivals, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe.

The protests initiated as a result of growing societal pressures from Erdoğan’s government to clamp down on individual liberty. Kissing in public became an offence and alcohol and social media faced tight clampdowns. These were the things that the Çarşı had always fought for – the right to express yourself in the face of adversity. When police brutality was employed as part of the process of the government’s fight, they were compelled to share their ‘expertise’ and help the country defend their dearly held values.

The three Istanbul teams became organised like guerrillas. Alongside the elderly stood the young, the gay, the straight, the left and the right. The population’s differences and the club’s murderous rivalries were overlooked as they spearheaded a campaign against the government.

Read  |  How Gezi Park brought together the ultras of Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş

It’s no surprise that the union of the three groups energised the protesters. This was being called the ‘Turkish Spring’ by most media outlets and it shared some similarities with its Middle Eastern namesake. In 2011, the arrival of Al Ahly and Zamalek fans in Cairo provided a much-needed boost and added experience for the protesters in Egypt that saw Hosni Mubarak being ousted from power. One set of fans would clash with the police in retaliation for brutality shown towards another club’s ultras.

The added momentum wasn’t quite enough to topple Erdoğan’s regime – something that looked increasingly likely to happen as the protests spread throughout the country, but it made the government rethink their clampdown. From there, the Çarşı has dutifully chosen to stick together. It’s now said that if people in the neighbourhood need help with something, they’re better to speak to them than the police.

The violence of the Çarşı is slowly becoming a footnote on the club, and this year is the first time in over five years that the fans have been allowed to attend an away match at Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe.

While the fans of Turkish football are no strangers to violence, it is internalised to the football community, not a malaise on society like the government’s police oppression. The use of humour and the off-the-park efforts of the Beşiktaş fans set them apart. Their war is a fair one, not only waged with others, but also with themselves.

Varying reasons are given for becoming part of an ultra group, but one of the main motives is solidarity. In Turkey, especially with the Çarşı, these groups are made up of former social-democrats, communists and leftists that had nowhere else to go. They are helping mobilise leftists politics in Turkey in a time that they are most needed.

Çarşı and their actions illustrate the legacy left behind by a country that has marginalised many of its groups and one man’s romantic idea of a different type of football fan. It’s hard to separate the game from politics at the best of times, and it could seem easy enough to mistake the Çarşı as a group of former leftists that enjoy football, but that’s just not the case. As their disbandment showed, nothing is above the club and nothing comes before their love of Beşiktaş.

Flags still soar over the heads of fans with images of Optik Başkan, ‘The Last Hooligan’ and the ideological forefather of the Çarşı. As much as things seem to have moved on, the threat and violence and destruction never seem too far away. Erdoğan’s conflict with the Kurdish community came to a head late last year as a bomb went off outside the new Vodafone Arena, allegedly targeting the police, killing 38 people. The unpredictable political situation surrounding them doesn’t look like it will stabilise anytime soon.

What the future holds for the country is impossible to tell, but given the threatening nature of Erdoğan’s recent comments regarding the West, he won’t have an easy time moulding the country to his own authoritarian image with the Çarşı still around.

As any Beşiktaşlı will tell you, it’s hard supporting their side at times. A turn in fortune’s over the past few years has seen the club looking their best in the past two decades, although the margins are slim and every match is hard fought. The fans’ and club’s struggles continue, both off the pitch against their oppressive government and on the pitch against other teams, week-in and week-out. 

The only thing that seems certain is that the Çarşı will continue to stand ‘against everything’ – forever and together, as long as club and country calls.

By Edd Norval  @EddNorval

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