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Turkey Just Had Another Terrorist Attack. Here's What It Feels Like as a 'Soft Target' There.

Istanbul Narrative
by Rob Chursinoff Jan 12, 2016

“You haven’t heard?” Zeynep asks.

She is the cordial, levelheaded young woman who manages the rental apartment we stay in. Her frizzy brown hair is died green at the tips. She speaks fluent English, learned, she tells us the night before, from watching Friends.

My friend Daniel and I look at her blankly and shake our heads. “A terrorist attack in the capital,” she says.

It’s Saturday evening, October 10, 2015. I’m a Canadian visiting Europe’s largest metropolis — Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, formerly Byzantium, an ancient city of 14 million once ruled by sultans and emperors.

On this journey I experience two firsts: my first time in a Muslim country, and my first time being anywhere when terrorism strikes. For Canadians, terrorism is still something that happens to other people. Our ‘skin’ has not been toughened in the face of hostility, extreme or otherwise.

“You might not want to go out tonight,” Zeynep says flatly, calmly.

A brisk wave of fear washes over me. I suddenly feel vulnerable, as if we’ve escaped the consequences of a powerful earthquake, but are now resigned to awaiting its inevitable, destructive aftershocks.

I look over to Daniel. Is he thinking what I’m thinking? Do we stay in…or go out anyway? Do we give in to fear, or fight the psychological trauma of terrorism?

* * *

Earlier that day — meandering amidst a crush of people crossing between Karaköy and Eminönü on the Galata Bridge; camera-touting tourists; women wrapped in red, blue, and black hijabs; serious men in suits having serious cell phone conversations; young lovers laughing, holding hands — we sensed nothing out of the ordinary.

Men line the railing of the bridge, tending fishing rods, waiting patiently for a catch. Among them a lone woman wearing a pink hijab decked with a white ball cap tugs at her rod, which bends slightly with promise.

Across the Golden Horn, colossal, millennia-old mosques with grey domes dominate the skyline, their rocket-like minarets reaching for heaven. Waiting in line at a kiosk for a Bosphorus tour ticket when an eerie, nasal wail begins filling the air. An old, slightly hunched man muttering in Turkish unapologetically elbows me and butts in front as the muezzin’s voice spreads across the city like an air raid siren. I stare at the sky; the call to prayer hovers. I forgive the old man.

Things are different here.

* * *

Daniel and I are getting ready to explore the Istanbul night when there’s a loud knock on the door.

Zeynep steps into the kitchen to inform us that two suicide bombs at a pro-Kurdish peace rally 450km away in Ankara have killed over a hundred people and injured hundreds more. The attack is the deadliest of its kind ever on Turkish soil and comes three weeks before a national election.

“You might want to stay in tonight,” she warns.

I’m alarmed, disappointed. Daniel looks as worried as I do. “Is Istanbul a target, too?” I ask after a moment.

“I don’t know, but there will be protests against the government. You don’t want to get caught in the middle. If you do go out avoid Taksim Square and Istiklal (avenue).”

“Why would there be protests against the government when it was a terrorist attack?”

“Because some people think the government is involved somehow…I don’t know.”

To me Zeynep seems unusually calm relaying all of this. How is this possible? If a tragedy of this magnitude happened back home my voice would be animated, inflected with concern, arms gesticulating in solidarity with this concern.

I want to ask her if her calm demeanour is because by now she’s accustomed to the country’s patchwork of political turmoil and ethnic strife? I especially want to ask her, how is it that the government is involved? But I don’t get a chance.

“Just be careful.” She says. “The riot police here are violent.” She turns to leave. “It can get very dangerous very fast.” She says, rushing out the door.

* * *

The metal gate clanks shut behind us as we step out onto the cobblestone in front of our apartment. Across the street three cats slink in the shadows, a scooter buzzes past, a man holding hands with two laughing children walks toward us. I expected muted streets following a national tragedy. All seems normal to me.

In Canada, had terrorist bombs killed dozens of people in Ottawa, not only would our capital go into immediate lockdown, so too would Toronto and Montreal, cities hundreds of kilometres away. In fact, heavy police presence would be felt across the country. NHL hockey games would be cancelled, Niagara Falls, the CN Tower, Old Montreal, and many other popular attractions would close.

Continuing up the steep street, the medieval Galata Tower comes into view — since 1348 the Romanesque stone structure has stood sentry as the city’s lookout.

Twenty metres further on, just as we round a corner, Daniel and I walk straight into an approaching column of banner-waving protestors, exactly what Zeynep had cautioned us to avoid. We begin zigzagging through them but I quickly lose sight of Daniel. Young men and women march side by side with the elderly, and what appear to be entire families. Everyone is sombre with heads held high, many with fists in the air. They begin shouting slogans as I squeeze out onto the other side of the street. I spot Daniel watching from a safe distance — smart, I think to myself, considering that it was protestors that were targeted in Ankara.

* * *

Seated on the patio of a restaurant called Güny. My back faces the small square. I turn to watch groups of people strolling without urgency or seemingly any particular destination. Their presence on this night is reassuring, and perhaps a small declaration of defiance. But then a sizeable troop of riot police — armed with guns, batons, and shields — cleaves the crowd, stomping through in the direction of the protestors.

Güny is a popular tourist spot, in a popular neighbourhood; a stone’s throw away from one of the city’s most popular tourist sites, Galata Tower. Is being here right now the wisest decision? I wonder, looking around me.

“Do you want to switch places?” Daniel asks.

I shake my head. But it’s hard to erase thoughts of Islamic State sleeper cells, suicidal jihadis, café explosions, carnage. With my back to the square, I feel something I haven’t felt before in a European city: exposed, vulnerable, a potential “soft target.” In fact, I haven’t felt that way anywhere. Maybe I’ve seen too many biased, fear-mongering news stories, watched too much film and television with bloated terrorist plotlines. Or maybe it’s just the times we live in now.

Consolation comes when a tabby cat rubs and curls around my legs, and a moustached waiter brings me an Efes beer, and older Turkish ladies smile and clink glasses of wine at the table next to us. For now, all seems well.

* * *

On any given weekend day, three million people visit Istiklal Avenue’s bars, boutiques, music stores, galleries, bookstores, theatres, and restaurants. Choose to leave the evening throng behind, amble down any of the pedestrian promenade’s narrow tributaries, and one might come upon a club’s overflow: young Turks drinking, smoking, dancing, engaged in lively conversation under dim street lamps.

Tonight though, the only bar we find open is Kasette, a hip hole-in-the-wall at the dead end of an alley. By midnight bearded lumbersexuals with man buns, and plaid clad girls wearing felt panama hats have funnelled into the street party outside the bar. We all dance to Pitchfork-worthy beats. This could be Williamsburg, Shoreditch, Portland, or any number of hip places.

Amid the partiers Daniel and I meet a young architect named Izel: long black hair, full eyebrows, horn-rimmed glasses, warm smile, Turkish-accented English in a smoky Scarlett Johansson voice. She and her friends don’t discuss the day’s tragic events. No one we talk to does. In line at the bar I ask a local if he was hesitant at all to come out tonight because of the bombings.

“No, man, we can not live in fear!” He proclaims. Everyone at Kasette is seemingly there to party.

* * *

Whatever falls from the sky above, thou shalt not curse it. That includes the rain.
–Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul

The southwesterly Lodos winds have turned an initially sunny Sunday dark with rain. Today, the Istanbulites I talk to cast their curses not skyward but directly onto the country’s government. In the seaside neighbourhood of Karaköy, Izel, Daniel, and I escape a downpour at the stylish Dandin Bakery, a small café replete with natural sky lighting and shelves stocked with magazines on design and culture.

We discuss Izel’s disenchantment with Turkey’s president. I ask if the anti-government sentiment can be attributed mostly to the younger generations.

“Mostly.” She nods. “But my father, he is an engineer, he doesn’t like him, my mother, their friends, lots of people,” she says. “But tourists only see modern Istanbul. Fifty percent of the city voted for Erdogan…highly religious districts like Çarşamba in Fatih.”

Yeliz, an artist I meet at a bar later, bristles when asked about the bombing. She turns away and shakes her head. When she looks back at me she’s crying. The Ankara suicide bombs killed a friend. “Why weren’t they (the protesters) protected by the government, because they were pro-Kurdish? The government did it… it’s their fault,” she says wiping away tears.

Over the next few days I meet others who readily believe a conspiracy is at play in which government intelligence agents had a hand in the bombings in order to discredit the opposition and give Erdogan an advantage in the upcoming election. In Canada this would be inconceivable; akin to (now former) Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving the nod to some illicit agents to organize a terrorist attack in Ottawa in order to make Justin Trudeau and his front-running Liberals look weak, thereby stopping them from winning the October Federal election. And then blaming this attack on Quebec separatists.

Things are different here.

A day after the bombing in the capital I’d expect the Hagia Sophia, one of the country’s main tourist sites, to be teeming with extra security. Apart from bag check I don’t see another guard until we leave. I feel I should be concerned about this but by now I’ve started to align myself with the rest of the city — relaxed, keeping their heads up, carrying on.

Inside the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum I crouch next to a cross-eyed cat named Gli on a marble floor worn smooth by nearly 1500 years of worshippers and tourists reverentially treading about. Gli sits alongside a massive marble purification urn dating back to Hellenic Greece. He slowly closes his eyes. I bask in his piousness and imagine him as Emperor Justinian in another life, now reincarnated as Istanbul’s most famous cat, devoutly meditating on peace and forgiveness.

Meanwhile Daniel and Izel lay on the floor gazing heavenward. Towering 182 feet above is the glittering mosaic work of the Hagia Sophia’s sweeping, weathered dome. Blue-cloaked Mary sits on a throne, her feet on a pedestal, holding gold baby Jesus in her lap. Immense black medallions with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs, and Muhammad’s grandchildren inscribed in gold, flank them on columns just below.

Christianity and Islam coexist here in museum harmony.

Outside it’s still raining. Izel wants to take us to Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi for its famous meatballs. As we are about to cross Alemdar Street, she stops and sniffs the air. Chilli peppers apparently. I also sniff but detect only the faint odour of spent firecrackers.

“The last time I smelled tear gas was at the Gay pride walk,” she says. “But the smell reminds me most of the Gezi Park protests and that chaos.”

In May 2013 demonstrations against government corruption and police brutality broke out across Turkey. An estimated 3.5 million people took part in 5000 protests nation-wide. Eight people died and over 8000 were injured, most by police violence.

I think back to 2011 in my home of downtown Vancouver, and my stinging eyes and choking throat as I ride my bicycle through the tear gas aftermath of idiots rioting because their hockey team failed to win the championship. Shameful child’s play compared to the legitimate and deadly protests commonplace here.

“The riot police came with tear gas and water canons.” Izel continues. “We ran and tried to hide from them. It’s hard to believe when you are in that moment.”

“Were you afraid?” I ask.

“So many times I heard the police yelling, ‘We’re going to kill you, you motherfuckers!’ So yes, I was afraid. But it wasn’t a fear that could stop me from protesting. For the first time I felt like I am fighting for my rights and my future.”

In the two years since Gezi Park, the Erdogan government legislated brutal security laws that allow police to use live ammunition on protesters and detain citizens without charge.

* * *

Several days later I’m back in Canada where riot police brutality is very infrequent, religious extremism is abnormal, and terrorism as we know it today, is rare.

Things are different here. I can enjoy a concert at a popular music venue without looking nervously over my shoulder. I can sit on a crowded restaurant patio without positioning my back to the wall. I don’t feel like a “soft target” in Canada. And I hope I never will.

As I walk down the street to meet friends at a neighbourhood pub, I think of Istanbul; the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer five times a day, the impeccably restored Ottoman-era apartments flanked by their dilapidated kin, the trendy cafes and artisan craft shops, the barefoot men washing themselves outside of mosques with water trickling from ornate gold faucets in a ritual purification before prayer. I love how colossal and ancient and chaotic the city is. I admire the resiliency and passion of its citizens. I begin to miss Istanbul because it opened my eyes to the beauty of the Muslim world. I miss it because I don’t live there.

That certainly doesn’t mean I’ll only bask in the safety of Canada and avoid countries like Turkey, struggling to stay democratic, prosperous, and secure. If I follow Izel’s lead, I know, there’s going to be fear, but it’s not a fear that can stop me from going back. [/mn-postender]

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