Last Wednesday, around 5pm, I made a serendipitous detour. I had gotten off the bus a stop too early, engrossed in my flashcards. I climbed a flight of rainbow-hued stairs, this afternoon populated only by a languorous herd of cats. When I rounded the corner, I emerged onto the narrow hillside avenue that traces the backbone of Sanatkarlar Park. A young boy was swinging on the otherwise empty playground; beyond him was a steep vertical drop that separated us from the din of the main street.
I paused at the railing. Before me was an open panorama of the cleft between two continents: on my left, the sleek high-rises of Asian Istanbul, and on my right, the entrance to the Golden Horn. The Turkish flag fluttered crimson on the tip of Gülhane Park and the hatted pavilions of Topkapı Palace peeked out from a thicket of green. Ahead, ferries skated at diagonals across the mouth of the Bosphorus.
The ‘asr azan sounded from Nusretiye Camii below. Its gold flourishes glistened sharply in the late sunlight.
I was hardly alone in this moment of placid brilliance. Behind me was another narrow, slightly cracked flight of concrete stairs. Stacked one atop the other were a young couple, limbs droopily intertwined, two middle-aged men in work clothes, a grinning drunk with his collection of bottles, and a huddle of hipsters in large round glasses and cut-off jorts, bobbing coolly around a portable speaker. There was no reason for any of us to be there but the contemplation – planned or unplanned – of beauty.
Had we sought out this idyllic place because it was a moment of tragedy? I hadn’t, no. I had only gotten off at the wrong stop. Perhaps, then, I only imagined a muted solidarity beneath which lay a sense of impending doom, fear that the previous night’s attack was yet another omen of worse things to come.
The night before, three suicide bombers struck the departures terminal at Atatürk Airport. I was asleep when it happened, and I first learned of the attacks from the anxious text messages I received when I woke up. It was the second terrorist attack in Istanbul in the month since I arrived.
I was making breakfast when my roommate, who is Turkish, paused outside the kitchen. “Things are getting really bad here,” she said, then went to leave for work.
I walked to the bus stop at Beşiktaş Meydanı as usual, waiting for the 559C to Etiler. Subconsciously, I found myself investigating the people with whom I shared the street. Could I perceive something different in their steps, their expressions? What does the day after look like on the faces of the 14 million people who have all just heard the same bad news?
The bus was crowded as usual. Were the passengers a little on edge? The driver sat on his horn, cursing taxis stopped in the bus lane with more impatience than usual. When the bus overcrowded, a man buried in the aisle shouted to a distressed woman trying to force her way on to calm down – everyone, he said, was stressed out today. At least this is what I imagined he said: the only word of his Turkish I understood was bomba.
I arrived late to a lesson on disaster vocabulary. Patlama – explosion – was written on the board, followed by saldırı, attack. This will be useful, our teacher said. Zarar görmek. Ölmek. Yaralanmak.
Now a week has passed, and the airport bombing is no longer front-page news, even here. Once again, it is easy to forget to be afraid.
Because I study the Middle East, and often have had occasion to be there, people frequently ask me if I am scared. (On Friday night at an Istanbul bar, Syrian friends – friends who have sought refuge here from war — asked me the same question. Bewildered by the persistent news from the United States they asked: Aren’t you afraid of all the guns in America?)
Those of us in this milieu often talk of safety. But fear is largely unspoken: instead, we frame our conversations in the more practical language of risk assessment.
For Americans my age, the seminal public event of our early adolescence was 9/11. We hardly remember a time when we were conscious of the wider world yet the possibility of waking up to an attack was unimaginable. It has always been imaginable. When I woke up last Wednesday to news of the airport bombing a few miles away, my half-alert subconscious drifted again to the disquiet and confusion of that morning, my first week of sixth grade: the sound of lockers slamming and one of my classmates shouting, “We’re going home early!” Although it would be another five years before my first trip to a Middle Eastern country, it was that week that my way there began. It had nothing to do, however, with 9/11. On September 10, we had had to submit our topics for our year-long country report, and in a typical commitment to obscurity, I chose Kuwait.
Danger, in other words, has always lurked beside my interest (historical, political, linguistic, cultural) in the region. But only in the last few years, as I have made my own decisions about where to go and what to do there, have I had to face it honestly.
Among those of us who are not victims of war and circumstance, but choose to live, work, or study in places that seem more dangerous than the average (this is highly subjective), there are four archetypes: the Fearmonger, the Cool Guy, the Statistician, and the Psychologist. At different moments, perhaps even in the same conversation, I have been all of these. Inhabiting these personas helps us allay our fears and rationalize our decisions.
The Fearmonger keeps a scorecard of doom, racking up reasons to be terrified and places to avoid. He imagines himself and everyone he knows as walking targets for all kinds of nefarious acts. He issues ominous warnings, often gleaned from the State Department’s travel warning notifications. (“Do not gather in public places. Do not go to popular attractions. Keep a low profile.”)
Cool Guy is Fearmonger’s antithesis. Cool Guy is young and brash, and scoffs at the slightest mention of danger. Cool Guy knows nothing bad will ever happen to him, and will insert himself into any number of dumb situations to prove it.
The Statistician trades in lurid probabilities. He reasons that the chances of being hit by a car are greater than those of falling victim to a terrorist attack. The chances of being shot at home in one of our country’s routine mass shootings are greater. If we are not afraid to go back, we should not be afraid to stay.
The Psychologist imagines himself in the shoes of evil-doers. (Terrorism is by no means the only reason to be afraid, as the state-sponsored murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni in Egypt, for example, has shown; but it is inevitably what scares us most.) Where would I strike next? He wonders. What time of day? He is preoccupied with assigning landmarks strategic value.
In the end, none of these four truly reconciles himself to danger – not even the Fearmonger. Paradoxically, perhaps, it looms larger from far away. Sitting at home, we wonder whether our decision to go is foolhardy. But once the decision is made, that anxiety recedes. It is only at exceptionally fleeting moments that I have truly considered it – in the momentary frightened silence when the iftar cannon fired outside the bar where we were celebrating the 4th of July, or with the impulse to Google Map the distance (3 minutes’ walk) to the site of a recent suicide bombing one evening as I crossed Istiklal Street. In the last few weeks, I have been to three recent bombing sites – the one on Istiklal, near Sephora; the Blue Mosque, in Sultanahmet; and the plaza outside the Great Mosque in Bursa. At each place, the memory of bloodshed has already been swallowed by the hum of everyday life. I am not sure whether I wish for reminders as assurances of vigilance, or whether the swift return to normalcy is a relief.
An image from my trip to Tunis this January sticks in my mind. One day, we went together to the Bardo Museum, the site of a gruesome attack ten months before. We were virtually the only visitors in a space intended for hundreds. Halfway through our tour, we wound our way up narrow stairs that overlooked the parliament building directly adjacent to the museum. In the middle of a smallish room, our guide gestured to two display cases. One had a delicate sculpture inside, while the other was empty. Neat bullet holes, perfectly round, had pierced the cases, leaving spider webs of cracked glass. My stomach churned at the thought of the earlier visitors who, following the same route through the museum, had come across these displays. They were contemplating the artifacts when gunmen burst in and shot them.
It was an especially effective memorial, I thought, silent but direct.
Our guide seemed eager to move on, to draw our attention back to the impressive mosaics for which the Bardo is famous. Later, left to wander on our own, I could not find my way back to the room with the bullet-riddled glass.
In Istanbul, as in Tunis, an insurmountable cognitive dissonance reigns. Am I afraid? Only when I remember to be.