Restaurant deals with its name during Taksim Square protest
It’s mid-afternoon Thursday, and all is quiet in Taksim Square. A few businessmen sit and enjoy coffee. Some light music plays.
There are no riots here. No high-pressure water hoses, no burnt out cars, no clouds of tear gas settling in thick fog over swarms of political protestors.
It’s quiet. It’s just a Midtown East Manhattan lunch spot, and the lunch rush is over.
Since May 26, Taksim Square in Istanbul has been the heart of protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, incumbent of 10 years, whose conservative governing coalition had decided to develop part of the area into a strip mall. In the weeks that have followed the demonstrations have evolved from an argument about tasteless development into a broader referendum on tone-deafness in parliament, and the growing religiosity of Turkish law. According to The Guardian, nearly 5,000 have been injured since the protests began, and thousands more have been detained. While only time will tell the full scale of these protests on Turkish society, it’s clear that, much as Tahrir Square was to the Egyptian Revolution and Zuccotti Park was to Occupy Wall Street, so, too, is Taksim to Turkish dissenters.
It is with some irony that the owners of restaurant Taksim Square in New York City are hardly aware that an eponymous movement exists.
Ramazan Oz, 22, manages Taksim Square at 1030 Second Avenue, between 54th and 55th streets. The restaurant – which belongs to his father, Ekrem – has been in existence for three and ½ years. As of three months ago, a second Taksim Square location has opened in Brooklyn.
The restaurant’s previous owner named it; they’ve just kept going with it. Oz hails from Hatay, a city in Southern Turkey that’s about as close to Baghdad as it is to Istanbul. To Oz, calling a Turkish restaurant Taksim Square is like calling an American restaurant Times Square. It just means “the busy square”.
“Nobody has said anything about it,” Oz says, when asked about the reaction from patrons. “I know there’s some protests, but the American people who are coming here, they never say anything. If anyone knows us, and asks how our family is… I say, well, everyone is okay. Nobody says anything, though.”
Rather than a travesty, to Oz the protests feel more like trivia. And perhaps it’s better that way.
Osama Yanis would certainly say so. The owner of Osama’s Coffee Zone in Columbia, Missouri for 14 years, Mr. Yanis’s life was upended after Sept.11, when locals made the coffee shop the focal point of anti-Arab sentiment.
He ultimately sold the shop, and it is called simply Coffee Zone. “It’s just a name,” says Yanis, the manager now.
Still, when asked if he had any advice for the owners of Taksim Square, Mr. Yanis had to give pause before answering.
“You know, we’re in the Bible Belt. We have lots of rednecks here,” he said. “It’s a whole different game, in New York people are more educated and they should know better.”
Back at Taksim Square New York, Ramazan uses his iPhone to look up what’s going on in Turkey. He’s shocked to read the extent of damage to the country, the amount of celebrities involved, and the fact that rival club football fans are coming together for something bigger than sport. He admits this is the first time he’s looked this far into it. A college student studying finance at the New York Institute of Technology, he’s been so involved in his finals that the news has all but passed him by.
Harun Tufanc, the restaurant’s chef, comes out and joins the conversation after preparing lahana dolma, a savory lamb-stuffed cabbage dish. The meal has a subtle, spicy kick, and the fleuron of garlic yogurt atop the tomato red sauce is a simple but elegant touch.
Asked about politics, Tufanc – who only arrived from his hometown of Istanbul five months ago – shrugs his shoulders.
“I know Prime Minister Erdogan. I served him lunch once,” he says. “Nice guy.”
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