The first hours of the new year were wet and dark. In the streets behind Taksim, policemen shivered in navy jackets limp with rain. The occasional soggy Santa scurried past, seeking shelter in one of the squares of light that speckled the muted streets.
We, too, fled the tense gloom of the streets for warmth and light and dancing. Up a winding staircase to the third or fourth floor; just a handful of tables and a DJ in the corner, and tiny paper cups of whiskey. Outside the small window, neon reds and blues glimmered on the puddles that had drowned the cobblestones.
It had been cold for days without the grace of snow. Our toes swam inside our socks, never drying between one downpour and the next. For hours at a time, the electricity was cut. Shopkeepers on Istiklal Street invited customers to peer at their wares in darkness. I peed by candlelight.
It was time to turn out the lights on 2016, much of the world could agree. We clinked glasses and hoped for a 2017 that would, and could only be, better. But instead of erupting in fireworks, 2017 began with bullets. As we danced, people died.
Our night was just over when, around 3am, news came of the Reina nightclub shooting in Ortaköy. The swarms of police and their barricades of water cannons around the square had missed the mark. But what could have been done, really? Everyone there are more metal detectors, but their obvious inadequacy makes one feel less safe, not more. They are reminders of their own futility. (I walk through. I beep. I look around — does anyone want to search me for explosives? No? Okay, off we go.) I had passed the Reina earlier that day, riding the bus along the European bank of the Bosphorus. It is one of the prettiest routes in Istanbul.
Have we exhausted our ability to react? There is little that can still shock us.
The next day I left for Cairo. Here, also, hope has perished. The anniversary of the revolution is coming, but everywhere revolutions are over. Nothing will happen on January 25 this year; it’s better not to ask. Exactly five Januarys ago I bought a t-shirt in Tahrir Square that read “Hankammel el-Meshwar” — “We’ll complete the task.” It would be cruel to wear it now. Politics is spoken about in hushed voices and among friends. Civil society has collapsed. But most important, people are about to go hungry. Six months ago, when I was last in Egypt, it was 9 Egyptian pounds to the dollar and already falling; now it’s nearly 20. The comfortable middle class has found itself poor overnight, and as for the poor — what will they become?
Today was Orthodox Christmas, and I went to see Moulana. It ended with the bombing of a Coptic church in Cairo. Less than a month ago, ISIS claimed the bombing of a Coptic church in Cairo, and 27 women and children were killed. I felt instantly unsettled by the shocking resemblance to a real, raw wound. Did the crowd feel the same? It was too dark in the theater to know.
And so 2017 begins in Egypt, as in Turkey, not just with pessimism but unease. There’s no end in sight for anything – economic crises, political crises, security crises. In politics, hope and idealism are over. What there is to celebrate, with the coming of the new year, is private, personal, and among friends. People have come in from the streets to wait out a long winter where they can find tenderness and warmth.
I spent the first moments of the new year among my newest friends, the Syrians I met this summer while studying Turkish in Istanbul. Each of us had a turn to reflect on the year that had passed, one of particular tragedy for Syria, and to wish something better for the one ahead. If there was anything of 2016 worth keeping, it was each other.