We were supposed to watch fireworks by the Bosphorus, closing out the year on the edge of Europe. We walked to the seaside, near the Besiktas pier, where thousands commute continent to continent every day. The ferries leave the old city behind; the skyscrapers grow small, until they are as thin as minarets.
We were expecting a big and flashy display. But all we saw were a few sparks in the night sky from boats passing by, from houses tucked into the hills of Istanbul. Apparently, the fireworks were cancelled for safety reasons.
There were a bunch of us: mostly Syrians, one Tunisian, a Pakistani, a Canadian, and two Americans. A motley crew that could come together in a city like Istanbul. On our way here, riding the tram, the Syrians had broken into an Arabic song I couldn’t understand. The other passengers took videos of us.
As the homemade fireworks go off around us, snaps and pops in the distance, a friend mentions how the sound of fireworks remind him of gunfire in Syria. I don’t know what to say. I never know what to say when one of my Syrian friends tells me how bad things are back home. I furrow my brow and say, really? I try to imagine what the sound of gunfire must be like. Is it just like fireworks?
About two hours into the new year, a gunman attacked my neighborhood, Ortaköy. He is still at large.
Besiktas, the district that houses Ortaköy, was the scene of another attack just weeks ago. Two explosions rocked its football stadium, killing dozens, mostly police. I felt the impact of the explosions, a deep rumbling sound in my ears. I went to a makeshift memorial site a few days later to find somber faces in the night rain, laying wreaths, notes, and the colors of their favorite football teams. It’s a cruel fate for a people, a city, not to mention the same district, to have to repeat the ritual so soon.
It’s also a strange thing to see the name of your neighborhood streaming in international news channels. Ortaköy. It took me a while to get the name down just right: a hard O sound, followed by the softer Turkish ö, more like eau in French. A year and a half in, I’ve grown to love my neighborhood. It means “middle village” in Turkish, and it’s home to a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, all within walking distance. In the summer, it’s filled with Arabs eating baked potatoes and waffles; I’ve seen just as many miniskirts as niqabs. Reading the names and nationalities of the dead—Saudis, Lebanese, Tunisians, Canadians, Turks—I can’t think of a more fitting place for these disparate individuals to have come together than Ortaköy, a village between continents, a place where the devout and the secular brush elbows.
Shortly after Twitter caught wind of the attack, the Turkish culture wars broke out online. Self-described secularists lashed out at Islamists, railing against conservative media for decrying New Year’s celebrations. On Friday, a sermon was issued by the state religious authority deeming the festivities ‘illicit.’ Conservatives retorted back with claims of Islamophobia and the irrationality of blaming the religious. There was even talk of a CIA plot to weaken Turkey.
If social media is any kind of barometer of sentiment, it seemed like the attack was designed to provoke a nation that was already deeply divided. After the coup attempt, there were real attempts at solidarity, a brief kumbaya moment for the competing factions in society. Conservatives, secularists, and nationalists stood side by side in non-stop rallies, flag-waving into the night. But the summer of unity has since turned into a bitter winter. Turkey has become a place where attacks have become so common that it’s hard to make sense of what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. Amid the desperate search for answers, only paranoia and conspiracy remain.
I ring in the new year to the beat of a drum and a dizzying horn that had me locking pinkies with friends and strangers while dancing in a circle. After the stroke of midnight, we get something to eat. We laugh, chat, and talk politics.
The Tunisian and the Syrian start a debate: the Tunisian brings up the example of her country, now 10 years behind economically, she says, though you can say anything, write anything. The Syrian cautions her, saying that his people slowly gave up their rights to the state from the ’70s onwards until they couldn’t anymore. He hopes Turkey doesn’t suffer the same fate. Another Syrian jumps in, saying it’s a false choice to choose between the economy and freedom.
We try to refresh Twitter to see why Ortaköy is on lockdown
We leave the restaurant. My boyfriend and I are ready to go home, and a friend of ours tags along. We’re standing at the edge of a busy intersection. It’s about a quarter to two, and the road to Ortaköy is closed to vehicles. Police cars filter in. Cops wave away traffic as quickly as possible. One officer suddenly stops, banging on the hood of a car to keep it moving. Their sense of urgency disturbs us.
Suddenly there is a rush of ambulances, tens of them in rapid succession, followed by armored vehicles. As we walk along the main road to Ortaköy, we notice we’re the only ones headed in that direction. A steady stream of revelers, drunk and distraught, leave the other way.
We walk, a bit scared, trying to refresh Twitter to see why Ortaköy is on lockdown. The authorities have a habit of shutting social media in times of distress. My boyfriend manages to Google translate a tweet in Czech and we finally learn of the attack.
Perhaps I sensed something was amiss when the day started off with my Turkish class playing a word association game starting with the word for war. We spent several minutes coming up with words I could only learn by living in Turkey this past year, words like assassination, ceasefire, coup, coup attempt, putschists, injured, wounded, dead. I have difficulty conjuring up the word for nurse, and even umbrella at times. But those words related to war, they’re on the tip of my tongue.
After we’re done with war, we associate words with peace. We say things like freedom, humanity, calm, tranquility, agreement. We’re given an assignment for next week: we have to connect the words to write an essay. I scribble them down so I don’t forget. I note the portrait of Atatürk above the white board, his eyes darting off to the side.
I think about my reasons for staying here, for taking Turkish lessons, for immersing myself in the culture and history of this country. After a coup attempt, after every social media shutdown, every whiff of tear gas, after my neighborhood is turned into a crime scene, why would I put myself through the ordeal of living in Istanbul?
It has become a ritual with my friends and family now after every attack: I send a flurry of texts and messages to say I’m okay, don’t worry about me. It’s programmed into me, to reply promptly.
Come back, some say. I don’t want to. At least, not yet.
To some, I’ve described Istanbul as a drop-dead gorgeous girl who turns out to be insane. It’s hard to leave a place you’re attached to, especially a city like Istanbul. You’re alive in a way that’s hard to find anywhere else. You meet people you can’t meet at home. It scares you, threatens you, challenges you, and seduces you. You wonder if your love affair is doomed. It’s like all your friends are begging you to peel away, to break up for your own sanity. But you resist. It’s hard to say goodbye to the physical pleasures of a city by the water, teeming with people and commerce and cats. It’s like the Besiktas slogan: hayat sokakta var, life is on the street.
At some point in the night, my friends and I commiserate over the decaying state of the world: of the rise of Trump, the violence convulsing the region, the leaders who cling to power at all costs. I wonder out loud, is there hope? My Syrian friend replies, yes, because I’m Syrian and you’re American and now we’re talking and we’re worried about the same things.
[Ed. note: article was updated to distinguish more clearly between Besiktas District and Örtaköy neighborhood]