It has been a trying week.
I flew back from France to Istanbul on Monday. It was difficult to leave this time; I’ve not been back since January. Then I wasn’t quite sure how long it would be before I got back to visit, but I figured it would only be a couple of months. This time, for a number of reasons, I left quite sure I wouldn’t be back until December.
But as I got off the bus from the airport and started making my way back to my flat, the streets of Istanbul – of Kadiköy more specifically – infected me as they always do with a sense of welcome and calm…this very big city that feels like so many small towns squeezed – sometimes uncomfortably – tightly together. It was late and I was tired. A 15 minute walk is nothing too terrible, but I was weighed down with the fatigue of a 14 hour journey and 50lb (23kg) of luggage on my back.
Still, there was a gentle breeze at my back coming in off the sea, the seagulls were painting their lovely white streaks across the night sky, and the streets bustled with folks going and coming or sitting on the terrace drinking tea and smoking shisha, and within minutes I found the familiar spring to my step. In spite of the distance between C and I, in spite of the distance separating me from the plateaus and volcanoes of the Haute Loire that make my spirit sing: enough was right with the world. Things would be okay.
On Wednesday we learned that the French Embassy in Istanbul had cancelled any festivities related to 14 July, French Independence Day, due to security concerns. On Thursday night in Nice, these threats came with terrible pain and suffering to fruition, sending aftershocks – and a distinct message around the globe: there is no limit to the sadistic creativity with which those who wish to inflict fear and suffering will do so.
As soon as I got back into town my friend O and I agreed to meet for dinner at hers on Friday. Exhausted from a hellish week of 12-hour days tying up the planning for an intensive 10-day workshop with our partners from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iraq, I arrived 20 minutes late to her place, likely looking as drained and lifeless as I felt. O wasn’t doing much better: she works in a community centre delivering support to Syrian refugees, where she’s tasked with gathering their data and working with individuals and families providing psycho-social support and the myriad referrals they need to health, education and social services generally.
Conversation with O is easy; from the moment I walked in we weaved through the frustrations of our week, the obstacles we’re facing at work, the state of the country, and eventually the state of the world. Sat at her dining table in the stifling heat with a benevolent occasional breeze coming through the windows of her 6th floor flat, we found our eyes filling with tears until they sporadically dropped into our pasta, contemplating the helplessness with which the citizens of the world are now forced to watch all semblance of logic and compassion disintegrate around them.
Her phone rang.
O was in the middle of an interesting story. “It’s my brother – I’ll call him back.” She carried on, but before she finished her phone rang again. “Hmm – he never calls twice like that. Let me just quickly take this.” O took the call – obviously speaking Turkish. Her voice raised – not necessarily cause for alarm around here. But then she stood and went to the window, her pitch rising. Then she went to the sofa and lay down, crying into the phone. I couldn’t process – had someone died? She came off and told me what happened. She used the word coup. I messaged my colleagues.
Within a matter of seconds their messages started rolling in. We were to stay indoors. A curfew was in place. The bridges were closed between the Asian and European sides of the city. Streams of revelers made their way down her street, which links the bar district to the port, walking quickly, their heads down, focused on their mobiles which were like so many candles passing down the dark path. And of course we were glued to the live streams on our own phones, coming through as many news sources as we could access.
O has space in her flat for overnight guests, which was lucky because I couldn’t leave. We tried to find some peace, finishing the bottle of wine she’d opened for dinner and playing a disjointed and distracted game of Scrabble. Then planes began flying quite low overhead; cars began honking. More news came in, and pieces of the puzzle – which you’ll understand as well as we do if you’re following the news – began slowly coming together.
It was late…nearly 2. We decided to try to get some sleep. Then the muezzin began singing from the mosque. We stood at O’s window. “Why are they making the azan (call to prayer) now?” she asked frantically. That’s not the azan, I replied. 6 months of life in Istanbul makes one quite familiar with that mysterious, beautiful (and sometimes annoying, depending on where your ears’ attention is focused at that moment) song. “They’re singing in Arabic. No one will understand! What is he singing?” I’d received intel from work that the government and the mosques were doing this. Working in tandem to call the citizens out to the street to rise up against the military.
The night proceeded in much the same way. It was hot and the air was stagnant. No breeze from the open windows, but a legion of mosquitoes made themselves at home in its place. We both tossed and turned, I going to her room once in the night, she coming to me once as well. We slept little and fitfully.
The following day involved my colleagues and I sorting out the logistics of our cancelled workshop – months of work and mountains of inspired planning put indefinitely on hold – and trying to make sense of what is happening while keeping movements to a minimum, buying the necessary provisions and making contact here and abroad to confirm safety.
At one point in the small hours of Saturday morning, trying to distract ourselves, O and I reflected on our relationship to this extraordinary place. When I came to Istanbul, I told her, I was immediately struck by the feeling of coming to a good friend’s home. Metaphorically, I felt I could go to the kitchen of this city and pour myself a glass of water, use the loo without permission. Su casa fue mi casa. “We have a word for this,” she said. Teklifsizlik. Literally translated, this makes no sense: “unemployment offer” is the weird Google translation of the two root words in isolation. But together it’s translated as “informality”. Of course, that’s a cold English word for a warmth that can only be translated via experience.
I have never felt outside here. Of course there are as many – quite probably many more – conundrums I haven’t found a way to comprehend. This country’s history is riddled and blessed with some strange brew of academia, military, culture wars, a profound grey area between religious fervour and political ambition, and a seemingly endless struggle to arrive at what it means to be Turkish. Still, there is a humanity in Istanbul that exceeds that of any city I’ve ever had the pleasure or pain to call home. I remind myself daily – sometimes several times a day – when I happen upon some totally unsolicited act of kindness around me, to never, ever take this for granted. Istanbul has been, for me, a landscape painted in the hues of all that is wonderful about how humans can be to each other.
I cannot go into my feelings about what is happening here now; of course, I have them. I have very strong opinions about what is happening. But it is neither my role nor my right to vent those opinions, outside of conversations over çay or beer with colleagues and friends, and the climate is not conducive to political opining on social media anyway…I’ll leave that to the journalists, with the ongoing prayer that they find the courage to speak truth to those of us dependent on their words to understand what is happening far away…or in the very cities we inhabit.
The conflicts raging in this and other parts of the world, the tragedies that strike suddenly in Nice or Dallas, or those that are happening every day in Syria and Nigeria and the inner cities of the United States, must not lose their significance in the face of those to come. In the meantime, gentle readers, know that I am well and safe, and the struggle for a more compassionate world continues.