As I lie sick in bed on this second day of 2017, I am reminded yet again that I used to be a writer. Sometimes I sketch out poetry in my head while traveling home on the ferry, and other times I grab angrily at my laptop and type something down quickly, out of fear, rage or longing – but it is just as quickly deleted and my computer used for more passive activities, such as news reading or movie watching. So much has happened in the past year here in Turkey, at times it just feels like too much to even think about, let alone write down and share.
My last post was from almost one year ago – after Istanbul’s first attack which would become one of many to come. A few months after the attack in Sultanahmet, another suicide bomber blew himself up on Istiklal in Taksim. A street which used to be so jam packed with people I’d have a panic attack just trying to get through it. Now the shops are leaving, the hotels and restaurants closing down. Now, it has become a mere memory of itself. The next big explosion was at Ataturk Airport, followed closely by a failed coup which brought this city, this country to its knees. This was the most terrifying. It made everything else pale in comparison. At the height of the night of 15th July, I stood on my terrace looking out at the darkness. A military helicopter fluttered above, as an F16 yet again broke the speed of sound – which feels more like your neighbor has just been bombed than a jet flying too close to the ground – a woman below me apparently agreed, as she began to wale in a fit of fear and terror. For a split moment, I felt I could slightly understand what the beginning of an air raid in WWII might have felt like, or one of the first months of the siege in Aleppo… thankfully it was just for a second. We woke the next day, astonished that we had actually slept at all. The coup had been put down but the arrests, purges and fear that has come sweeping in after will cause immense impacts on this country for years if not decades to come. Everybody has been made an enemy and nobody is to be trusted… you couldn’t make this stuff up. Every week there are more and more arrests – mostly academics, journalists, all marked as ‘enemy number one’. Foreign teachers have been detained, sent back to their countries without even being able to return home for their belongings. Why? There are no reasons anymore worth writing down. The truth no longer matters.
As summer came to a close, and the east continued to burn, and Turkey waltzed into the war in Syria, it somehow just all became normal. The ‘heightened’ security when entering public transit, the machine gun clad teenage cops, posted in strategic places across the city, the persistent warnings from the embassies. The closing of embassies and the propaganda that lay everywhere – it all just become normal. And so the autumn felt quiet, despite all the crazy that was swirling around, it simply felt relatively, quiet.
Then, in early December as I was reading at home, came another explosion. I jumped at the sound – did something just come tumbling down on my roof? No, it was somehow further, deeper… I knew this feeling… my heart sank. I ran out the terrace door, looked around. My neighbor (different neighbor this time) was doing the same. We saw nothing, I went inside and grabbed for my phone and waited. One minute, two minutes… then, “did you hear that?” “What the fuck was that?!” from all across the city and my fear was confirmed. Twin bombs had gone off outside the new stadium in Beşiktaş. It was aimed to kill police guarding a match that had recently let out. It killed dozens, 38 to be exact. One killed was a 19 year old boy, not a police, but a normal university student. His picture was plastered all over social media and it was hard to look at this boy. He looked just like so many of my students. It was his father’s words that affected me the most though. He is a professor and wrote a eulogy for his son that was heartbreaking and even in my broken understanding of Turkish, I cried as I read it. He asked for his son not to be called a martyr (which is what they love to call people who have been murdered here – the bridge where the coup started has been changed from the Bosphorus Bridge, to 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge. They are also calling the hill above the stadium in Beşiktaş “Martyrs’ Hill”). I couldn’t agree more with this father– this martyr word is absurd to me. These people, kids, have not died for any cause – let alone a religious one. They have been murdered, in cold blood, it’s as simple and terrible as that.
That Monday after the stadium attack, I was the most surprised by how my students’ response had changed. It had barely been a year before when a bomb had gone off in Ankara at a peace rally and I came to school to everyone wearing black, to impassioned speeches given by tear stained faces and protests, protests in anger at the injustice that was happening in their country. But a year later, when people were dying in their own city… the halls were silent of grief. It was spoken about in passing amongst students. They often write about the explosions as if they are something one just lives with now. They talk childlike about it. They want to leave, go to places like Norway, where bombs don’t go off… They used to talk angrily about these attacks, now they just look defeated. It kills me to see such spark disappear. These kids feel a different generation from the ones of Gezi Park, a mere three years ago.
A week later, the ambassador to Russia was assassinated by a religious fanatic at an art gallery in Ankara and two weeks later, after that was just a memory in the back of our minds, it was time to celebrate a new year.
The end of the year came in much like that of the previous year, wet. We had rain for days and power cuts across the city. Nobody really knew or knows why. Some report weather, other the lack of energy in Turkey and others still point to conspiracy in the government. Take away the power and people don’t pay as much attention to what the rulers are concocting… this is Turkey, after all. People were excited to begin a new year – say bon voyage to 2016. Perhaps 2017 would make up for the disasters of Brexit, Trump – the terror that was running rampant across Turkey and so much of the world. But sure enough, not even two hours after ringing in the New Year in Istanbul, the radio in the taxicab I was riding in reported a massive shooting in one of the most popular nightclubs in Istanbul. I instantly raced through my intoxicated brain to think if I knew anyone who was going to be there. It’s one of those places, everyone’s been, goes to. It’s the place to be seen in Istanbul. By the time I got home there were 35 dead and I fell asleep in tears. The next day I watched my Facebook wall in awe – half the posts were of joyous celebrations as people from all across the globe rang in the new year – the other half were heart retching cries of anger, disbelief – “we are in the middle of a war, why are they killing us like this?” Images of the Bosphorus neighborhood I know so well, still dreading I would find out I knew one of the victims. This year was not starting out like it should. We wanted to be celebrating and instead we were again, mourning and afraid.
A day later, the list of dead has not been released. A lot of misinformation and confusion. The shooter/shooters are still at large. There was another shooting at a mosque last night…. Nobody died, I don’t think. I am home, with a cold, but coworkers at the university I work at say, all is normal. But this is not normal. I get emails and messages from people I haven’t spoken to in years, checking in, making sure I’m ok. Making sure I’m not dead? This is not normal. But, it has become the norm. When does it stop? And why am I still here, you may ask. I ask myself that question a lot. And the answer is never a straightforward one. I have a Turkish husband, which makes it harder to just pick up and get on a plane – even though he does have a ten year visa to the US and so technically we could very well do that. I’ve lived here for six years – this country has – for all the good and bad – become my home. My job is here, friends are here, my life is here. And then I think of Obama and his red line with Syria. And I realize we have done the same with our life here in Turkey. For years we’ve tried to give ourselves a ‘red line’ – something that if crossed, would be our sign to leave. When we no longer felt safe, when there were bombs going off in our city. But here we are, after many lines crossed later. We are getting attacked from within the country and from without. The acronym no longer matters, the reasons all the same – to create fear and chaos. Some blame Islam, some blame the Turkish government, others the US. It doesn’t matter, not really. The end result is all the same, death and the normalizing of atrocity and blood in the streets. I have argued it’s not just Turkey, and I’m right, it’s not – but the rise of events here is making that argument pretty weak, I know. I’m exhausted, I feel rundown. My soul hurts. The optimism I had last year after our first terror attack is gone. You see, this city infests you, it grows inside you – all the beauty of it reaches deep within you and grows roots. This beauty is what you try to gravitate to in times of darkness – but what happens when the darkness becomes all encompassing? Does it block out the light? What happens when those roots become toxic and turn to rot? Do they relinquish their hold on you, or do they hold you tight – with promises of a brighter tomorrow?
I watch the sorrow in my husband’s eyes as he loses his country. As his way of life slowly gets snuffed out from so many angles. Yes, we can leave this city, this country, but it will always live deep inside us – the beauty which draws us to its beaches and the darkness which we will, sadly, carry with us always – for him, so much more than me. Yes, we will leave, to a Trump America, I suppose. For whatever that will bring. When? That, I am not sure. But if this past year isn’t enough to push us past that red line, I fear we have much more suffering to go.
On that somewhat dreary note, I want to just say that even though this past year has been a difficult one, and the present year is looking to not give us much reprieve – I want to point out that there is still so much beauty to be seen, felt and shared. I was married in the midst of all this, the light in the dark of this morose year. It was a beautiful ceremony back in Colorado. The sun sparkled, the green overpowering. There was even a rain shower, which was somehow as magical as it gets, driving up the windy mountain roads in a wedding dress. I have an amazing family who support me through their unending fear of us living here, two wonderful bags of fur that provide great entertainment into the wee hours of the night, great friendships which without would make life so much grayer and overall a life I love immensely. We are lucky to be here – the world needs us to shine in these times of darkness and confusion. Life is not easy – or simple or easily understood and neither should it be I suppose. It’s the difficult times that make us truly appreciate the light. I see so much suffering in the world, and mine pales in comparison. We are still the lucky ones, next time you are at your wits end with it all, try and remember that. And here’s to 2107 – give us all you got – as we are still, unbroken… a bit battered and worse for wear, but resilient.