Life is so normal on the precipice of chaos.
Yesterday came and almost went like any other day. I went to class; I returned. I rode a crowded tram to Eminönü and hiked up to the Suleimaniye Mosque, gnawing a chocolate-filled poğaca. On a nearby open-air terrace with a spectacular view, I discussed Ottoman Turkish with a professor while sipping black mulberry juice from a mason jar with a curly straw. I drank my fourth cup of tea and sampled sickly-sweet baklava with my professor’s friends in Tophane. When darkness fell, I was back at my apartment, cheerfully debating worldwide prices for eyebrow waxing with my roommates.
Could this really have been only yesterday?
I dashed out around 8:30, late to meet friends for drinks and dinner in central Beşiktaş. We lingered for a while on stools outside Deep Sea, one of dozens of inexpensive bars and restaurants that cram the neighborhood’s alleys. The atmosphere was Friday-evening festive, ordinary. Around 10, we sat down to eat and were debating the merits of genuine ciğkofte when someone got a news alert. We all pulled out our phones. Twitter said the army had blocked the two main bridges connecting Europe and Asia. Maybe intelligence on a terrorist threat, I thought. We ordered. We had barely dipped into the pitcher of rakı when the news reports started trickling faster. Possibly a coup, the internet and text messages from my friends back home said; there might be a curfew. Our fellow diners also stared at their phones and murmured.
The music was still piping in the street; it was “Hey Jude.”
Naaaa-na-na na-na-na-na. Na-na-na-na.
We abandoned the rakı and kebabs and headed for home. It was just after 11. I did not see anyone in uniform in the streets, where some people continued to drink and lounge while others dashed homeward.
I joined my roommates in front of the TV. We didn’t move for hours. Was this expected? I asked my roommates, who are Turkish. Did I miss something?
We had no idea, they said. We thought Erdoğan had coopted the army.
My roommate went down the street to buy extra food and withdraw cash. The lines were long all over the city.
A sweaty-faced news anchor read a prepared statement. The army was taking over in the name of democracy. As the hours dragged on, we began to hear the drone of jets flying low and close overhead.
That sound was not new to me. More than anything else, it was the strident rumble of the jets that reminded me of Egypt and the coup they proclaimed. But there, three years ago, we had a few days to prepare. The morning of that coup, I had gone to buy food and see friends, passing an APC in the square waiting for orders. But here, it was too sudden and too incongruous with the normal day that had preceded it. What were we thinking? It was hard to think anything. We’d had no time to cultivate either foreboding or jubilation.
We watched as President Erdoğan, fresh from his family vacation in Marmaris, video-chatted on FaceTime from an “undisclosed location” with a news anchor. He called for his supporters to rush to the streets to show their support for the government. And they did.
Around 2am, we began to hear volleys of gunfire crackling like popcorn in the distance – perhaps on the bridge just over a mile away. We rushed to the window. Immediately there was a salvo of squawks and a flock of white seagulls scattered across the dark sky. The bullets, helicopters, and jets continued. Tanks still occupied the bridge.
The street outside was deserted but for a lone man lugging a bulging sack of junk up the hill. Like us, our neighbors hovered at their windows, and below us a trio of children lay out on the balcony. It was too hot inside.
At 3 I decided to sleep. But I had just drifted off, fitfully, when a thunderous explosion shook me awake. Our apartment quaked. I leapt out of bed yelling and ran into the hall. My flatmates, equally terrified, dashed out of their rooms and we convened in panic in the hall. We lingered for a few minutes, looking for a place in the small apartment where we could take cover from this disorienting nightmare. “Stay away from the windows,” we kept saying to each other. At that moment, it seemed inevitable that there would be more bombings and we had nowhere to go.
In the living room, we turned on CNN Türk. The army had taken it over. The live broadcast had been cut and the anchor’s seat was empty. There was chanting in the background, and some gunshots. We stared at the empty chair for a long time, waiting for the anchor and waiting for the next bombing.
Eventually I went back to sleep and didn’t wake up until 11. When I did, I learned that the coup had failed. The police were now arresting the army. No one looks over 25. Just over 12 hours before, the soldiers had thought they were rolling out for a drill. They were arresting the police, not vice versa. Now, these teenagers had laid down their arms and their helmets littered the bridge. The skies were quiet.
I went out in the late afternoon. Improbably, shops were open and public buses were running (for free). Already the violent pulses of the night had evaporated into a sweltering day-after. At the same time, this new normal veiled the deaths of more than 200 people a few hours before.
What next? If the coup exposed the instability of the current government, Erdoğan nevertheless benefits. Already he has purged over 3000 people from the army ranks – and nearly the same from the courts, the project he has long yearned to execute. Tonight, while he gave a public address here in Istanbul, the crowds chanted for the reinstatement of the death penalty. It is more complicated than simple binaries of secular vs. Islamist or democracy vs. authoritarianism. The army faction does not represent secularists, nor does either side represent democracy (elections aside). And for secular democrats who despise Erdoğan, both AKP and military rule are unpalatable. It cannot be only a blip: something more will happen, but what? When?
If last night’s jets, guns, and bombs were unimaginable yesterday morning, they are again tonight. The slam of a car door, the crunch of trash thrown into the dumpster, the fuzzy hum of two neighbors talking across the street – these are once again all there is to hear.