The Saga of July 15

Last weekend Turkey marked one year since its failed coup, a year that has been a gift to President Erdogan and a curse for democracy.

I was not in Istanbul on the anniversary, but in Midas’s city, Midas of the Golden Touch. The Phrygian Highlands lie between Istanbul and Ankara, east of the small city of Eskişehir, and this was where the legendary Midas is believed to have lived, as well as his father Gordias – the mastermind of the Gordian Knot destroyed by Alexander the Great.

Midas’s glitzy reputation, we learned, came from a local method of treating textiles to produce something like gold lamé. The Phrygians, one senses from the few traces they left behind, enjoyed a good party. Draped in lamé, they sent off the dead with a tempting brew of wine, beer, honey, and saffron – the crusty residue of which was buried with them. Gordias’s tomb is the oldest standing wooden structure in the world, a cool chamber buried beneath a grassy mound in a now barren countryside. Gordion, his capital, one of the sites we visited, was discovered in the 1890s during the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad Railroad.

Facing the crude historicization of the present, we sought refuge in the halcyon days of the seventh century BC. But we hadn’t missed the 15th of July altogether – olmaz. Over the last month we’ve witnessed a steady acceleration of commemorative propaganda, the transformation of public spaces into fantastical billboards marketing the failed coup. Stars Wars-esque images and bolded slogans adorn every bus stop and street corner in the city. “15 Temmuz Destanı – Şehitlerimiz ve Gazilerimize Saygıyla” they scream, “The Saga of July 15: With respect to our martyrs and warriors.” These are government billboards, of course, erected by the President’s office and the municipality; they are anti-coup, not pro-coup. What they are celebrating is the public response to President Erdoğan’s call to the streets that night; and, by association, the anti-democratic steps that the government has since taken to suppress dissent in the name of patriotism. The battle, as it appears in the artist’s renderings and in official narrative, pits “the people” against shadowy terroristic elements in the army – and all around us.

A few weeks ago, the lively Beyoğlu Street Festival in Taksim Square was given a change of clothes, becoming overnight the 15 Temmuz Festival. Musicians played all night in honor of those who died suppressing the coup, and screens flipped through the winning entries in a nationwide commemorative photo contest. Banners throughout the city announced democracy marches converging on major squares. The phone company alerted us that we would receive extra minutes on July 15, and the President informed us that public transportation would be free. All, we were reminded, was because of, and to honor, Turkish democracy.

The cognitive dissonance that has defined much of my experience in the Middle East over the last five years or so is powerfully present in this beautiful city. This sense of contradiction has in fact felt so familiar that I’ve wondered if I have much new to say.

Hundreds of journalists are imprisoned and tens of thousands of civil servants have lost their jobs. Hunger strikes, justice marches. Eight professors from my university, jailed. Even Wikipedia has been banned since March.

But there is still the blinding turquoise of the Bosphorus, dyed by psychedelic phytoplankton, and crisp yachts bobbing at the shore with names like Zeynep, Kaderim, and Şanselize. Fishermen stacked shoulder to shoulder along the boardwalk, waiting for their catch of çupra or levrek. Lavish breakfast tables spread with olives, tomatoes, cheese, and bal-kaymak. Crowded bars in the narrow streets behind Istiklal Caddesi, with sweaty dance floors and frosted brown bottles of Bomonti Filtresiz shared among friends. At night, fireworks erupting in red and green and purple. There are still art exhibitions and concerts, outdoor movies and barbecues in the park. The summer is bright.

Routine makes us comfortable with a state of crisis. As foreigners, we are guaranteed, for now, a safe distance, from which the political crisis can be a constant topic of conversation without real danger. We watch myths being manufactured with a clinically critical eye. We mock their shallowness knowing even as we do that even the hollowest of myths can harm.

* * *

When I began my PhD, a professor gave us a piece of advice, which came back to me as we were scraping through a hillside of hollyhocks and mullion at Midas City, searching for an ancient cistern. Most works of history begin with an important date, or sometimes even an unimportant date: “On March 15, 44BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated…” And so on. We can be elegant with these entrances, but rarely do we shake ourselves free of them. “For God’s sake, how boring, find another way to start!” this professor said, and his advice was duly recorded in our notebooks.

Such beginnings are dull, but Turkey’s rapid mythmaking points to something else. Already I can’t remember what the name of the July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge used to be (only 12 months have passed). Already that day, such an ordinary day, has grown to monumental stature in collective consciousness, even for those of us who lived it as it was. How many future historians will begin their works “On July 15, 2016, …,” and so much else will be forgotten.


* **

Here are a few photos from the commemorations:


This image is the image of heroism.”  “#Together, we’re really nice.”  – A billboard in my neighborhood for one of the main cell providers, showing President Erdoğan appearing via FaceTime to urge his supporters to go to the streets and resist the coup.



Near Kabataş. A long line of glossy rotating billboards bearing the slogan of the anniversary and a scary image of a Special Forces red beret.


Banner advertising a democracy vigil at Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa Square in Beşiktaş, beginning at 11:30pm.


Formerly known as Beyoğlu Festivalı, now with a makeover. Taksim Square.


Billboard erected by the President’s Office with an artist’s rendition of events on the (now named) 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge – specifically, a confrontation between angry people and the soldiers who carried out the coup.


Boğaziçi University basketball court. Usually it’s more common to see posters for the socialist club or reminders of liberal journalists’ hunger strikes, but this is of a different breed. The images are of the damage caused by the coupists. The slogan on the left reads “The house is a rental, but the nation is ours!” and the one on the right reads “It never occurred to you that the person across from you would strike you!” You never imagined, in other words, that the army would rise against you.


Ice cream bar authoritarianism. This billboard has nothing to do with the coup attempt, just a harmless lady tasting a Bravo bar. On the back side (and also in white and red, in the background), however, are coup billboards. Normal/not normal.



Alternative Facts & Official Histories: Trump’s America/Sisi’s Egypt

On Monday I returned to Trump’s America, a self-declared bastion of “alternative facts,” falsehoods clad in a negligée of truth. I missed the inauguration, but many Egyptians did not. Hardly a day passed when I was not asked my opinion about our new president.

“Obama – khalas,” said the old man baker who never sleeps, as he weighed my little bag of cheese buns. “Trumb!” (There’s no p in Arabic.) I grimaced. The baker’s “Trumb!” was not gleeful; he, like most Egyptians who asked me about the election, think Trump is bombastic, erratic, and arrogant. His inauguration speech served only to further America’s reputation for national narcissism. In short, most reactions to Trump I encountered in Egypt can be summarized as: “So, uh, what happened, guys?” – followed by “We get it, he’s kind of like Sisi.”

Egyptians know what it feels like on the other side. They also know that when it seems bad, it can get much worse. There was no women’s solidarity march in Cairo on January 21, because there are no marches in Cairo anymore. Hope is hibernating. At home, the New York Times dismantled the new administration’s remarks on inauguration turnout with a headline that plainly labeled them “false claims.” In Egypt, hardly any independent media is left. The president’s claims can never be false, even when they are far from true.

Truth has worn several disguises in Egypt over the past six years, and when new facts are crafted, old versions of history disappear – rapidly, it turns out. One evening last week, I went to Madbouly, one of downtown Cairo’s old and venerated bookshops.

“Do you have My Journey with the Muslim Sisterhood?” I asked the clerk. He looked uncomfortable and mumbled something to his colleague. An older guy – the manager, maybe – who was sitting in the back of the shop called me over.

“What do you want with that book?” he asked me, raising his voice.

“It’s for the research of an Egyptian friend who is studying in Turkey,” I added defensively.

“Turkey! That explains it – they’re extremists. They’re all Ikhwan.”  Taken aback, I reiterated that it was for a friend’s academic thesis. Why should need to justify my request for a book at all?

“Well, we’re finished with the Brotherhood. They’re done,” he sneered. “We don’t want to hear anything about them ever again. So we wouldn’t have a book like that.” (Neither, as it turned out, would any other bookstore in Cairo.)

The bookseller lectured me on the evils of extremism. But then he paused:

“So – Trump!” he announced, suddenly in a better mood. “Strong guy!”

The bookshop manager also saw something of Sisi in Trump, but unlike most of the Egyptians I spoke to, he was a fan of both. Trump didn’t know much, he conceded. But what mattered was that he, like Sisi, projected Teflon confidence in himself. Both men, he believed, would exterminate “the extremists” (the Muslim ones, that is) at any cost.

As I was leaving, I glanced at the front shelf by the door. It was lined with a series of thick, academic-looking volumes that unfolded in detail every permutation of the CIA, the Jews, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s collective plots to destroy Egypt and the Arab world. I thought about the recent arrival of Breitbart and Birtherism to the White House. Conspiracy theories and official histories are symbiotic. When a plurality of voices flatten into a monochrome, conspiracy theories seep into official histories, becoming convincing because they cannot be challenged. They blossom in the voids left by the vapidity of official narrative.

In Egypt, no site of historical memory is more insipid than the 6 October War Panorama. Built in 1989 (the ubarak era), the Panorama is lodged amid an endless zone of monumental yet uninspiring architecture – mostly military officers’ clubs, halls, and parade grounds. (Next-door is the ostensibly more enticing yet equally grim-looking International Bowling Center.) 1973 is remembered in Egypt as a spectacular victory, an ingenious comeback after the 1967 defeat that humiliated Nasser and lost the Sinai. This museum, which no Egyptian friend I asked had ever visited or cared to visit, tells the story in a three-dimensional rotating panorama show. It is the army’s history, as told by the army.

Outside the theater there are two lines of tanks: Egyptian on one side, Israeli on the other. A young soldier named Walid walked us through, explaining that he would be finishing his service soon and wanted to go back to working as a swim coach.

“You know what I love about America? American democracy,” he told us. Then, hardly pausing, he gestured toward the Egyptian tanks. “Ours are Russian-made. The captured Israeli ones? All American.”

One of us remarked that these days, Egypt’s army is receiving massive shipments of American weapons (and aid).

“No, no – it all comes from Russia!” he insisted. “Really, I promise.”

My friend Miriam and I were the only two in the panorama show, amid dozens of empty velvet seats. As the narration played and we spun slowly in the dark, Walid chatted to me about his career plans, parental pressure to marry, and his desire to travel. He asked us if we enjoyed the show, but seemed glad it was over. Teslam el Ayady (“Bless These Hands”) was playing when the lights flicked on.

May those hands be safe
May the army of our country be safe
 As life took us for a loop
A voice filled with kindness said
May our hands be severed from our bodies
If they touch Egyptians!
Said a real man [son of a real man]
We swear you fulfilled your oath!

It wasn’t the the battle cry of 1973, but the hymn of Sisi’s presidential run, 41 years later. The song was released in the summer of 2013, just after the coup, and features images of Sisi in his signature dark glasses greeting fans, interspersed with footage of military training exercises.

The compression of past and present is a key tool in history made to serve the state. The 6 October Panorama is a memorial not to history, but to the army as an institution and to its top commanders – those from whom today’s president has inherited his power.

A few weeks before my visit to the Panorama, I wandered into a temporary exhibition at a public museum just off Taksim Square, in Istanbul. “News, 1916: What Was Happening in Our Country 100 Years Ago?” the exhibit asked. Of course it wasn’t Turkey in 1916, but the Ottoman Empire: the elision is largely the point. 1916 was the year of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli. The exhibition followed the Ottoman army from Anatolia through Arabia to Libya, marshaling a slew of interesting newspaper articles, diaries, and letters to document both life on the battlefield and the attitudes of the patriotic media at home. Mostly in Turkish (i.e., not intended primarily for foreign audiences), the accompanying text used carefully chosen language like “our soldiers’ victories” and “the sacred motherland.” If the Ottomans had clearly lost a battle, the focus shifted from military glory to the brutality and immorality of the “infidels.” The exhibit underscored the Islamic identity of the Ottomans through World War I, something the Islamist AKP government has been keen to do, as well as the continuity of Turkish identity and institutions from the late Ottoman period to the present. (Atatürk was determined to sever ties to both.)

In the last room a jarring surprise awaited. The walls were hung with posters of people’s faces: on the right, “Our martyrs of 1916” and, on the left, “Our martyrs of July 15, 2016.” The latter referred to last summer’s failed coup; these were the faces of the soldiers who died putting it down. What, if anything, do the Ottoman soldiers who died at Gallipoli have to do with the Turkish soldiers who died on the Bosphorus Bridge? Does this strange pairing give profundity to the deaths of our own time or relevance to those of another?

Back in America, I wonder what histories will be mustered to support the “alternative facts” the new administration holds dear. I don’t think Trump himself has much interest in history – it usually involves reading books – even to use it irresponsibly. But because the past provides evidence against the falsehoods of the present, it too will become a battleground.

I Am Still Not a Spy

“Bismillah,” the reading room monitor announces loudly, holding a glass bottle of Coke to her lips. “In God’s name.” She downs the Coke.

I am the only person in the reading room of the Egyptian Geographical Society today, and for some reason the lights have been turned off. I am huddled in my coat and scarf (no heating in Cairo) at one of the long tables, partitioned with bookcases from the grand assembly hall with its rows of unoccupied wooden seats, high ceilings with arabesque geometries, and crescent crest of the Egyptian monarchy.

The monitor pulls a notebook from her desk drawer and comes over to my table. She asks me if I want to buy it for 10 pounds, about 50 cents. The cover image is of an indeterminate cartoon animal, captioned “DOGHY” in capital letters. At first I demur, but later buy it anyway.

Meanwhile, the copy guy, Hassan, comes to sit with me. We start by stapling my copies together, but within a few minutes he has taken a seat and we have addressed the topics of familial relationships in America, the frequency of my communications with my parents, my PhD stipend, and rent in Boston. There is nothing unusual about discussing these things with strangers in Egypt.

Not long after, another employee, Intisar, comes around to tell me that the director of the Society is in his office today, and asks if I’d like to meet him. (We’ve bonded already because she has a fake “Chloe” handbag, as do I. We may well have bought them from the same string of knockoff shops off Talaat Harb.) As it happens, I had emailed and sent His Eminence a WhatsApp message a few days earlier, but received no response: again, this was no surprise. I know well by now that attempting to communicate in advance with someone you’d like to meet is likely to be met with silence: but show up in person, and anything is possible. Never has anyone said “I’m sorry, you should have called ahead.”

It’s my third day in the Geographical Society, and I’ve now been offered a 15-day permit I didn’t know existed. I’m a little sad, however, because this means less time with my new friends, the security guards at the entrance. The Geographical Society is inside the Parliament complex, and therefore anyone who wants to use the library there or visit its Ethnographic Museum has to go through the same screening as someone with business in the Parliament. (Not surprisingly, the museum doesn’t get many visitors.) In any event, by Day 3, after quite a long time perched on the movie-theater seats strung along one side of the gatehouse, I know the names of the guards, where they live, their work and travel histories, their opinions about Donald Trump (not Egyptian politics, of course – wrong time, wrong place), one guard’s difficulty in renting an apartment amid the inflation crisis, and whether or not they want to leave Egypt. I have built rapport with one guy by speaking French: he was in diplomatic security and traveled around Europe. They are all thrilled that I attended my friend’s wedding four years ago in Shubra, a distant part of Cairo. When one of the Geographical Society guards comes through, he scolds them for holding me too long: “She’s our friend! Why are you giving her a hard time?!”


These are the moments that make working in Egypt rewarding. Every success is built on personal relationships. They require time and a willingness to discuss one’s personal life, not paperwork and planning. This is the bright side of wasta, “connection.” Wasta can be extremely useful or horribly infuriating, depending on whether you have one or not. If others have wasta and you do not, life feels very unfair. But if you have the wasta, or can create it by shooting the breeze with whoever needs to issue you permit X — that’s another story. The edifices of the state seem impenetrable – until you drink tea with the people who make it run.

I had not intended to spend my trip at the Geographical Society, though I was quickly becoming fond of it. When at first I planned this trip, it was to work in the National Archives, Dar al-Watha’iq al-Qawmiyya. I soon discovered, however, that the three-month waiting period for an official permit from State Security had lengthened to nine months. I had to look elsewhere.

Finding documents is not easy. The state speaks mostly in silences, and these are hard to hear, harder still to trace. I cannot write a paper in which I state: “I could not answer these fundamental questions because it takes 9 months to (maybe) get a permit and, well, who can wait that long?” In the absence of documents, it is tempting to sew up an argument around the holes created by bureaucratic hurdles, because they do not tell an exciting story. But it is critical to expose silences, even when they seem the result of routine procedure. We should excavate the reasons for their existence, how they came to be and why. What are the casualties of these silences? The gaps in knowledge they have obscured?

In working on my current project, a study of the relationship between scientific exploration and the state as seen through Egypt’s vast Western Desert from the 19th century into the early 20th, I have encountered two kinds of silences. The first is the general silence of the official archive, created by the difficult conditions for accessing documents. The second is generated by special sensitivities about the place about which I have chosen to write and about certain key types of knowledge – most notably, maps – to which it is linked.

I had no intention to write something sensitive – my characters are long dead, the scientific texts I reference long outdated. But the more people are suspicious and secretive, the more I begin to feel suspicious myself. I am afraid to ask outright, except among friends, about the issues I have now learned are – often inexplicably – sensitive. So I poke around them, hoping for clues that will explain the purposeful silences. I want nothing more than to be straightforward in my questions, and I can be with good friends. But with others, I fear their suspicion shapes me into exactly what they imagine me to be: not a spy, maybe, but a dissimulator.

The question of spying haunts my work in the Middle East. The word has stalked me since I first came to do research in Egypt in 2012. It seems hard, sometimes, to reconcile this deep mistrust with the easy warmth of the guards at the Geographical Society or public officials at other institutions I have visited. The term “research” is itself a linguistic hot potato, a synonym for “report to the CIA.” Announcing oneself in any way related to “Middle Eastern Studies” is tantamount to declaring “Hi, I’m a clandestine agent of the USA, come to bring your country down.” History is less threatening, because it is for silly, boring people who read old things and are irrelevant.

Often the fear of spies cloaks itself in humor. I have been told by a friend that he had a friend in Egyptian security “check out my background.” I am frequently asked how my “reports” are going, and am called “ya gasosa.” How much credence should I place in these remarks? I feel a flicker of anxiety, and laugh. Or I used to, until an Italian PhD student was murdered and a close friend deported. In truth, the spy jokes are not funny. They are deeply distressing. I have tried to point out how many years I have devoted to studying the language, to living in the country and learning the culture. This, I have been told many times over, makes me only more suspicious. “We don’t understand why you like it so much,” friends tell me. “We’re so unhappy with it ourselves.” The only reason someone would spend so long in this country, the reasoning goes, is to exploit it, to lend our knowledge to a vast conspiracy to bring Egypt to its knees.

People like me, or Giulio Regeni who was killed, are oddities. We have money from foreign institutions to travel across the world to study societies that are not our own. There are no Egyptian counterparts sent with ample funds to study American society. The suspicion of students is also only one part of a much larger crackdown on foreign influence: thanks to restrictive new laws, most foreign-funded NGOs have shuttered. These days, few foreigners of the harmless kind are left: tourists in cargo shorts with deep pockets, headed for a camel ride at the Pyramids.

I have little sympathy for spy-mania that is founded in xenophobia or that cultivates hysteria. But a “spy,” at least in the eyes of some, need not be a government operative. Last month, a friend explained to me that “spy” can mean something more, a voyeuristic or instrumental way of obtaining knowledge about other people. Anxieties about making a country look bad are one thing, but anxieties about exposing people’s private lives – even unintentionally – are another. Those who have lived long years under dictatorships where invasive internal surveillance regimes are the norm are all too familiar with the possibility of compromising another’s safety, freedom, or life. The fear of spies can be rooted in intimate familiarity with the collection and abuse of information about people’s everyday lives. Where people fear the state, they fear it even in their own homes, from their own children. A child might hear her parents say something at dinner and repeat it the next day at school; her friend’s father could report it. People could fear me as they fear a child informant: innocent in principle, but dangerous.

Pure intentions are one thing, unintended consequences another. I take comfort in the knowledge that the people about whom I write are long dead, but even the dead have secrets. It is our responsibility to expose most secrets, but to keep others.

2017, Light in Darkness

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.

We Thought We Were Ready

We thought we were ready for a woman. Well, some of us did. A lot of America didn’t think so, and that hurts. It hurts because our country has chosen a brutish man who bragged about grabbing women’s pussies over a brilliant and supremely qualified woman who, I can assure you, has had her pussy grabbed. Because we all have, somehow. A lot of men, including those we count among our friends and allies, are blind to it. We have to scream louder. We have to look our friends in the eye and remind them that there is still sexism in America, and it hurts.

To the fellow student at Princeton who grabbed my ass and ran away as I trudged home with my heavy backpack after a long night of studying. To the student outside Dillon Gym who shouted out a cruel number. To the man who relentlessly harassed my friend at the grocery store where she worked as a high-school student, and the stranger who whispered disgusting words on a street corner, and the grown men who made my mom’s life hell when she was the first woman elected to our town council. And to women, too, because sometimes even we can forget: to my colleague who asked me where the rest of my dress was, and to all the women who chose to vote for Donald Trump. This is for you. 

I feel numb and weak. Unable to sleep all night, I have spent these dark hours behind my computer screen. I have been reaching out to friends in despair, and friends around the world have been reaching out to me in consolation. The people I know are wonderful. But in this moment it feels like we are so small. Yes, we are that liberal elite that Trump’s angry base has maligned, and no, we didn’t realize how much hate had twisted our country. This monster doesn’t represent me, and he doesn’t represent us. I realize now what it feels like to be in the minority. Not a racial, ethnic, or religious minority, of course, or the minority of Americans who are disabled or queer. Because for those people, waking up in Trump’s America is a much more horrifying nightmare.

I am crushed by the symbolism of this defeat. But because I am white, culturally Christian, well-employed, and a resident of that blue-hued Shangri-la of Cambridge, Massachusetts, I don’t fear for my physical safety. Many of my friends are not so lucky. It’s not a drill, and it’s not a joke. Among the messages I received from friends tonight were: “I don’t feel safe,” and “I had no idea so many people think I don’t belong here.” Meanwhile, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan is publicly celebrating. Why didn’t we realize there was something so ugly within us?

Traveling in the Middle East, I often speak with people who are critical of the United States. Coming from countries ruled by leaders they have not chosen freely, they understand that people and president are not one. I have always felt proud to say that regardless of American’s foreign policy, the best part of America is the diversity of its people. “Anyone can be American,” I have said again and again. Now I feel ashamed. It’s a sham: not everyone is welcome here. 

On Monday night, I was sprawled on the floor of the Hillary for President HQ here in Cambridge with at least 200 other supporters, calling voters in New Hampshire. I felt the same exhilaration I had 8 years ago, canvassing with Amina in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for Barack Obama until the final hour of polling. I bonded with the two women crouched nearest to me through nods and thumbs up. “We got this,” they were meant to say, “It means so much.” I watched the returns last night with three other women historians, my closest friends in my program at Harvard. We gathered with bottles of champagne, ready to toast the sound of the glass ceiling shattering once and for all. Instead, we cried together in the darkness. As historians we are trained to identify turning points in the sweep of time. At this moment, I want nothing more than to turn and run away. 

For the last few months I have been thinking deeply about purpose. I most admire scholars whose work is morally grounded in the contemporary politics of their societies. But I am a historian who does not write the history of my own place or my own people, so I have struggled to articulate my cause. Suddenly it’s clear. If November 9 marked the triumph of ignorance — the shepherd of hate and fear of those who are not like us — there is no time more crucial for history than now. “Our” history, whoever “we” are, and “their” histories. Good doesn’t always win, as last night has proven. But without history, we can be sure it never will. 

City of Things

I am finally unpacking the odds and ends of months away.

There are the phone numbers of the Georgian restaurant in the basement of a hair salon and the Palestinian writer from the Arab book fair, and of the Uzbek puppetmistress from the Bukhara modern art museum. A black and orange Bomonti coaster from a bar in Beşiktaş with the slogan düne-bugüne-yarına – to yesterday, to today, to tomorrow. Two-tone one-pound coins from Egypt. A tiny bottle of rakı from the 1960s with the spirits still inside. A cheap, grayish slip of paper stamped in blue from a black market moneychanger in Tashkent. An old Czech alarm clock with peeling blue paint. A 1970s primer on sex ed with a racy, hot pink cover from a book stall under the Sayyeda Zeinab metro.

Some of these objects I acquired on purpose, others carelessly. I don’t save every ticket stub or menu, so what I find when I open my suitcase at home is not a record of my trip. A whole week of sightseeing might be absent, but the Bomonti coaster preserves an unremarkable evening – perhaps a composite of evenings, I’m not even sure. Objects like this briefly conjure uncurated memories. Some I choose to keep, stowing the things away, and others flit across my consciousness this one last time before I toss them in trash.

For this reason, I take unpacking seriously. It’s the last stand of memories.

The first weekend after I arrived in Istanbul from Cairo, in a gushing thunderstorm, I went to Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. I had mixed feelings about the book when I read it a few years ago, and wished something would have happened in the middle 200 pages, but I was captivated by the idea of a novel and a museum unfolding simultaneously around each other. The museum is a house in Çukurcuma, the very house in which much of the book’s plot unfolds. Pamuk purchased it for this purpose. He imagined his characters’ lives unfolding within it as he collected the things they might have had there.

The walls of each room are covered in wood-rimmed display boxes. In each box Pamuk has staged real objects that correlate with episodes in the book: oxidizing wristwatches, glasses of rakı, cigarette butts edged with magenta. There are old photographs, yellow patent leather shoes, newspaper clippings from a beauty pageant held in the mid-1970s, and what the author calls with bitter-sweetness “the toys of now grown-up children.” Nothing is accidental, of course. But much of what the visitor sees are incidental objects that, in being saved, collected, and displayed, assume meaning. They come to embody a time, a place, a feeling. We need not have known 1970s Istanbul ourselves to experience the nostalgia they intend for us.

Through the memories of imaginary residents, I had an intimate introduction to the city where I would spend the next two months.

As I unpacked in Cambridge, I again found nostalgia in objects, this time my own.

In the museum’s audio guide, Orhan Pamuk tells a famous photographer that he likes his photos.

“You only like my photos because they remind you of your childhood,” the photographer says. “I like them because they’re beautiful,” Pamuk replies. Then, turning back to the visitor, he asks: Are beauty and memory truly separate things?

Objects become beautiful because they are also memories, and the ephemera of travel are like those of childhood. When you leave, you know the place will have changed when next – if ever — you return. You will not sit with the same people in the same places and speak about the same things, or if you do, it will not mean the same thing to you then as it did now.

Because of the afternoon I spent in the museum, I was more attentive than usual to objects in the weeks that followed. One Friday, a new friend took me to a junk auction in Fener. A historically Greek neighborhood and the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, its sleepy streets are now full of antique shops and quaint cafes. The auction was already well underway when we arrived. Potential buyers were crammed into folding chairs and spilled out into the street from the small shop whose windows were stuffed with costume fezzes, old typewriters, and record players that were not quite old enough to be cool. Someone passed around a tray of tea.

Satsat-saaaat….tim! The auctioneer cried out. Sold!

A Native American headdress affixed to a pair of elk horns hung on the wall behind him. The auctioneer brandished a fist-sized Ottoman pipe. Osmanlı, Osmanlı!, he intoned, coaxing the dealers sprawled out with piles of purchased junk in the front row. This was an old piece; it might have real value. The next item was a Polaroid camera, followed by a VHS tape of Fantasia and records of the mediocre ‘70s rock star Barış Manço. Then Islamic kitsch – a beaded square emblazoned with “mashallah” and hadith wall hangings, an Elton John collection, a copper pot, a plastic chandelier, a mirror made from a tennis racket.

It was a room of people charmed by the discarded objects of others, of traders in nostalgia. Why had the antler/headdress combo wound up a few meters from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch? Why does someone want the complete set of a faded Russian pop star’s cassette tapes?

In The Innocence of Objects, the companion to Pamuk’s novel and museum, the author includes a manifesto containing his thoughts on what the museums of the future should be like. “We don’t need more museums that try to construct the historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species,” he writes. “We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and more joyful.” He calls for museums on a “human scale.”

Finally, he writes, “the future of museums is inside our own homes.”

I am in my own home, my new home, unpacking my objects. Some of them I am throwing away. The garbage collector will pick them up on Wednesday morning. And some will find their way into my desk drawer or onto the shelf beside my bed, along with the things from other moments I have chosen to remember.

In the Museum of Innocence, there are many boxes that are not ready. Miniature curtains hang inside, waiting to be drawn. It is, several years after its opening and perhaps forever, an unfinished project. So is my little museum. The next time I unpack my suitcases, new memories will present themselves to me for review. Some will be chosen, and others will go out the next week, on Wednesday morning, with the garbage man.

Coup Two

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.


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. 

From Yogurt to Yoğurt: On Learning Turkish

I left home for a concert as dusk was falling. The blue-gray triangle of the Bosphorus, visible from the top of the steep hill where I live, slipped into the embrace of the apartment buildings and out of view. I was trotting down the narrow street at a giddy clip in a short, sleeveless dress – something I still struggle to remember is so normal after a year in Cairo disciplined me into fearing my own skin. The bakkal, a gray-haired man with a friendly mustache and a rotating wardrobe of polo shirts, called out to wish me a nice evening – “İyi akşamlar!” I was thrilled because it reminded me that I had come a long way since my first awkward visit to his small shop of staple foods on my first day in Istanbul.

That was three weeks ago, and beyond “merhaba” and a corrupted “teşekkürler,” I didn’t speak a word of Turkish. He doesn’t speak a word of English. I also wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bag the fruit myself or wait for him, which caused even more anxiety than my inability to ask. A neighbor showed up and my bakkal had him translate my produce-related inquiries. Before retreating into my new home across the street, I asked this friendly neighbor to explain that soon I would be back, and at that time I would speak Turkish. I doubt he believed me, given how evidently I was tethered to grunts and exaggerated gestures.

Now when I go I can ask for yogurt, or in Turkish, “yoğurt.” He must be impressed.

So I was on my way to a concert. At the bottom of the hill, I passed the local mosque. It is a compact nineteenth-century wooden building with turquoise trim and a little yard. Because it’s Ramazan, the yard was set with tables and plastic chairs for the nightly public iftar. The muezzin finished his call and the guests in the courtyard stirred to peel the plastic coverings from the dishes that awaited.

Soon I was in Taksim Square, meeting my friend at the steps to Gezi Park where construction equipment still stands poised to wreak havoc. The bulldozers and the protests have paused, for now. In the early darkness we walked a short distance down Istiklal Caddesi, once again teeming six months after a suicide bomber tore a rude hole in its crowds.

Inside the club, a bartender showed us to a high table at the front of the room, near the stage. Two friendly Turkish sisters visiting from Mersin were already there, and so began my aggressive yet painfully halting attempts to carry on a conversation above thumping warmup beats in a language I have studied for three weeks. Any conversation like this – an iconic experience of any new language learner – has high highs and low lows, underscoring both how far one has come and how very there is to go. Slouching over the table, I tried to snatch words and predict the sentences to which they belonged. I tried to divine whether I was being asked a yes or no question, or would need to concoct a real answer. I pulled out stock questions like magical rabbits. In my head, I heard my teacher’s voice, with the proper intonation, rather than my own slightly stilted imitation. I reminded myself that three weeks ago I would have smiled and grunted, as I did with the bakkal. Now, even if I came off as a kind of cute yet fumbling circus animal, I could try.

“Selfie,” it seems, is a universal language. This was something we could all get behind, so we ended the conversation on a high note as the band came on stage.

(Incidentally, it was a fantastic concert. Check out Kalben’s breakthrough single Sadece.)


I have come to Istanbul for two months to learn Turkish. After three weeks of, as it turned out, private tutoring, I’ve finished the first level. I’m studying the modern language, partly to learn it in its own right and partly to pave the way for an Ottoman Turkish class in the fall. Any mention of “Osmanlıca,” the Turkish word for the old language (notably not “Ottoman Turkish,” but just Ottoman, a language in its own right) elicits dropped jaws and eye rolls from Turks. “Çoooook zor” – Sooooo difficult – is a common refrain. And in fact it is weird to be in a country where essentially no one can read the language used here 100 years ago. We’re not talking Shakespeare; we’re talking inscriptions like “Mehmet built this nice fountain.” Yes, there are “Ottoman” hamburgers for sale and dolmuş drivers who tag their vans with the sultanic tughra to signal their political affiliations, but the alphabetic schism between past and present runs deep.

While Turkish is wholly new for me, my experience here has brought me to reflect on the other languages I have learned and how. Each time and place is a little different and nowhere have I shown up as clueless as I did this summer, but there is a warm familiarity to the routine. Learning a new language puts you in intimate contact with the mechanics of your own mind.

When noun cases or the imperative rear their heads anew, I think of other times and places where another piece of the linguistic puzzle was unlocked. “Akuzatif,” scrawled on the whiteboard in my classroom in an upscale neighborhood of Istanbul while I nibble on yet another bready simit, recalls a post-work evening at the Goethe Institut in Atlanta as well as the trepidation with which my class approached the “mansub” hurled at us by the final chapters of Al-Kitab in Ifrane, Morocco, in the summer of 2009. (There it was not simit but digestive crackers we downed by the box, purchased from the tiny campus store with our so-called “cash wallets” as an antidote to the chancy cafeteria food.)

The first emotion of language learning is paralysis. You are about to know some things, but you don’t yet. All you can offer when you have the misfortune of interacting with another human are grunts and smiles. This was particularly acute for me in Istanbul, since I started at zero. But it was also true when I arrived in Morocco in 2009 and in Egypt in 2012. I knew Modern Standard Arabic (to different degrees), but also knew enough to know that speaking it would be humiliating. Until I knew enough dialect to safely greet someone in the street, I often opted for silence.

Next comes amazement. Wow, you said something somebody understood! You are sure you’re making incredible progress because the simple strings of sounds you produce now sometimes elicit a response. For instance: on day 2 of studying Turkish, I went to the market. “Bal var mı?” I asked (“Is there honey?”). The clerk escorted me to the honey department. I felt like a million dollars. Of course, had the clerk responded verbally and asked me, for instance, what kind of honey I wanted, I would have been dumbstruck and probably slunk out of the store mumbling to myself.

In this phase, you are dazzled by your ability – increasing by the hour, it seems – to decode signs that just the day before were a jumble of symbols. After day 1, for example, you learn that “soğuk su” means cold water. Now, this should not have come as a surprise because it is plastered all over every little stand selling… cold water. But it doesn’t matter: suddenly the world is making sense, in chunks. You rarely notice what you don’t understand.

You walk to the bus stop in a daze, mouthing sentences like “Could you close the window?” and “This morning for breakfast I ate fruit and vegetables.” You assemble and disassemble suffixes, rehearse new rhythms, correct your own misshapen vowels. But if the opportunity comes to release one of your carefully constructed sentences from the silent cocoon of your internal dialogue, it flutters out crumpled and squeaky. You want to ask for a redo, but there are no redos on a crowded bus. It lurches forward and you lurch to the back.

While a sense of wonder never completely dies, you eventually begin to feel a little demoralized because you can say some things but you can’t say all things. You know enough words and grammar to think sentences and to plunge headfirst into them, but you constantly collide with what you do not yet know. You are no longer content to say “I want tea.” You want to explain why, today, you are not drinking regular tea, but rather have discovered that there are apple teabags in the kitchen and will be switching to that because it seems less likely to turn your teeth brown if drunk by the gallon. You get through the first part of your thought fine, if a little bluntly: “I don’t want to drink normal tea.” But you’re not satisfied. So you try on, silently or semi-silently, all the possible ways to distill the complex thought you want to express to its most essential parts. In Turkish, this process is compounded because the language uses a very different word order from English. Once you’ve cherrypicked words and grammar that might communicate what you want to say, you spend another five minutes reorganizing them into the correct format. You pause for a long time, giving the illusion that what you are about to say is of great importance. But you can’t give up, mostly because you still don’t know how to say “never mind.”

Yusuf Kamal’s Globes

In the lobby of Dar El-Kotob, Egypt’s national library, stands a tall wooden case whose glass sides have grown misty with neglect. Inside is a globe whose oxidizing plaque identifies it as a donation of Prince Yusuf Kamal.

I would have ignored the globe were I not stewing over a long wait for a photocopy, and had time to fritter away in the pale bowels of the library. The name Yusuf Kamal was familiar. I had written a paper on the Museum of Arab Art (now the Museum of Islamic Art) and quoted a passage from a 1915 report by its first Egyptian curator, ‘Ali Bahgat. In it, Bahgat bemoaned the lack of private donations (“Notes sur le musée arabe”). Yusuf Kamal was an extraordinary exception. A founder of Cairo’s School of Fine Arts, his bequest to the museum comprised the full contents of his lavish palace. The prince was also a benefactor of the Egyptian (Cairo) University, which aspired at the turn of the century to teach “fields of knowledge which [were then] neglected in Egypt, like the arts and humanities, history, and the higher sciences – subjects which elevate the individual and his community to make a nation great among nations.”

From 1903 on, and thus at the time of Yusuf Kamal’s bequest, the Museum of Arab Art was housed in a grand work of Mamluk revivalism (much in vogue at the time) in Bab El-Khalq. Its architect was an Italian named Alfonso Manescolo, one of many foreigners of that era who worked in and as the Egyptian state. Upstairs was the Khedival Library – the predecessor of Dar El-Kotob. Both remain, the museum on the ground floor and a branch of the library’s manuscripts collection above it. Today, however, Yusuf Kamal’s globes are melting – quite literally – into the sands of time. And in January 2014, a car bomb exploded outside the museum, targeting the Security Directorate next door. Thousands of artifacts cracked and shattered, casualties of a war in which they could not take sides.


The main site of Dar El-Kotob is on the Nile Corniche in the neighborhood of Boulaq, a 1990 concrete block disguised as a 1950s time capsule. This was my first visit, and without a State Security- approved permit for the National Archives next door, I had to limit my exploring to the library.

When I first walked in, no one took note. Finally, someone chatting near the entrance raised his eyebrows and wagged his head slightly, gesturing toward the question “What do you want?” “I’m here to conduct research,” I said in Arabic, feeling at once that this was much too obvious to state aloud and that the man found it highly unusual. I walked through a disabled metal detector and over to an unlabeled counter, where I scrawled my identifying details in the first of three thick registers. I handed over my passport and was presented with a torn piece of scrap paper.

“Write your name in Arabic please, and your address.” This done, I collected my badge and followed the man’s directions up the stairs. I was standing in a long industrial corridor. Puffs of smoke hung in the gray air. I strolled up and down, but saw only offices with barely legible placards. At last, someone noticed my confusion and waved a hand toward a narrow hall behind the stairs. Here was the periodicals reading room. Inside the nearly empty room, I approached a middle-aged man seated behind a wooden desk. Beside him there was a glass case with the day’s newspapers. The front page of each of the papers showed the smiling and resilient staff of EgyptAir, ready to continue their duties after the previous week’s crash over the Mediterranean. The headlines, invariably, screamed with exciting breaking news: “Sisi offers assurances that all necessary steps will be taken!” Al-Wafd, the paper of the dinosaur opposition, went one step further. The word “CONSPIRACY!” – in red – caught my eye. In slightly smaller type the headline continued: “…Of the great powers to destroy Egypt’s economy.”

“Sit down, sit down.” Maged, the employee, waved me to a seat. “Where are you from?” I told him. “Do you know Professor Lisa? Laura? Anne?” He cycled through the first names of other foreign women who had visited the periodicals room. “Okay, you know Samira?” he asked finally. I wondered if this was someone else with whom I should have registered. “Just call her.” After a moment’s pause: “You don’t have her number?” I caught a whiff of disapproval. Finally, Maged gestured across the room. “Just go over there and see if they have what you want on microfilm. If not, you can come back.”

The microfilm room had six machines lined up on one side, and drawers containing a full collection of Al-Ahram on the other. A broad woman in a navy blue niqab sidled up to me. “What periodical do you want? What year?” she shouted good-naturedly (at least I heard it as good-natured, given that I could see only her eyes, separated by a skinny cloth septum). Then she shuffled away, never to return. A man appeared and I repeated my request. I settled into a few hours of blissful squinting beside a bushy-bearded man who came to clean the microfilm machines with an old prayer rug.

Passing through the periodicals reading room on my way out, another middle-aged man now occupying Maged’s chair beckoned me over. “Do you have Facebook?” he wanted to know. I demurred. When I explained what I was researching (history), he was ardently disappointed. “Literature is better,” he told me. I assured him I also enjoyed literature and reeled off a few Egyptian novelists whose work I had recently read. He interrupted: “No, no — poetry, poetry! Did you know I’m a poet?” I didn’t. “You can find some of my books upstairs.” I promised to look for them. “Would you like me to write a poem for you?” That would be lovely, I replied.

I returned several times after that to Dar El-Kotob, each visit a little less mystifying than the last. Once, after swimming though vast empty floors, I arrived at the main reading room. I presented my credentials and again scrawled my details in a thick register. I was directed to a table of employees with old PCs whose job was to type my search into the digital catalog. Once we identified a few titles of interest, my searcher pointed me to another wooden desk flanked by walls of wooden card catalog drawers. There, a young man instructed me to write out the call information (number, title, location) twice for each book. I carried the forms to a huddle of men in the next room who, when they had collected enough titles, made for the stacks. The first several books I requested were missing, so this process took a few hours. As the room was fortified by concrete against the Nile breeze, inside it was an airless summer afternoon. The floor fans buzzed lightly and busts of Mohammed ‘Abduh and Avicenna returned my stare through foggy plexiglass. A loud meow emanating from the old card catalogs announced the arrival of a fluffy orange and white cat. It circulated among the patrons and retreated, ignored, from whence it came.

I discovered that the library held the handwritten diary of an Egyptian official stationed in faraway Siwa at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, the manuscripts room was dark and padlocked shut. I asked downstairs what time it closed. “It doesn’t have hours,” I was told. “Maybe 2, or 3, or 4.” Happily, the next morning I arrived to find it open.

The inner sanctum was an oasis of bright whites wrapped in a mammoth edifice of dim grays. Once I had the book in hand and little else to distract me, it was easy to forget the hurdles. But the greatest was yet to come — in the innocuous disguise of a photocopy request. Knowing that I had only a couple of days left in Egypt, I inquired with one of the employees and was directed to fill out the first of many forms.

It was Tuesday. “Come back next Monday for your copy,” an authoritative man told me. This was not going to work: I was leaving Thursday night. “Okay, you can come back Thursday morning then.” I returned Thursday morning. The employees exchanged glances and asked me to sit down, relax. No copy had been made. I didn’t want to relax, but my standing was making everyone uncomfortable. “Twenty, maybe thirty minutes, wait.” Thirty minutes passed; someone padded by with a tea cart. I asked again. “Just fifteen minutes maybe.” I waited; nothing came. The employees and I collectively fiddled with our cell phones. When someone finally arrived with a sheaf of papers, I wanted to embrace him. But my elation was premature. This was not the photocopy of my diary, but a new set of forms in quintuplicate for me to complete. Forms in hand, I climbed several floors to the cashier’s office.

The cashier was a no-nonsense woman comfortably enjoying middle age. There was an old radio on her desk and a small glass of tea. We didn’t exchange words, or at least she didn’t. She scribbled a long list of numbers on my stack of papers and spun her calculator around to show me the sum: 149 LE, or about $16. It seemed like a lot. She opened the wooden drawer of her desk to make change; it was bursting with bills. I flew downstairs with my multi-page receipt and proudly presented it to the manuscripts staff.

A little later, a man showed up with a CD – the long-awaited photocopy.

No, we were not done. He booted up his computer and proceeded through a virus scan. Then we sat down together and I filled out another form. At last, we carefully reviewed each scanned page of the document to confirm its presence, my hand poised over the disk drive impatient to eject.


Leaving Dar El-Kotob for the last time, I passed two of Yusuf Kamal’s globes. Like much of Egypt’s nobility, their owner left after Nasser’s rise to power and died in Austria in 1965. It is too simple to romanticize the historical moment to which he belonged. But his globes are more than stale relics of a genteel curiosity. As a traveler, collector, and amateur geographer, Yusuf Kamal brought pieces of the world to Egypt and pieces of Egypt to the world.

I collected my passport and stepped out into the street. Traffic on the Corniche was at a standstill and the Nile glittered under the heavy sun. I paused for a moment to take in the pregnant mid-afternoon stillness of this city of 16 million. Then I began to walk to Tahrir, leaving the last century behind.


(*The image is a page from a nineteenth-century science book that I happened upon in Dar El-Kotob.)