Tomorrow is July 15, 2017, and marks one year since the attempted coup in Istanbul. A lot can happen in a year. I’ve been away from Istanbul for almost two weeks, and have found myself reflecting a great deal on Istanbul, Turkey, and the events of this year. A lot has happened, times have changed, and Istanbul is not the same city I wandered around two years ago. This is what I wrote almost exactly one year ago, about the scariest night of my life, when I think we all knew that changes were coming.
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So a lot of people have been asking a lot of questions about what’s been going on here recently. So here’s my account of the military coup attempt that happened here on Friday night.
Well, to start off with, it was date night for me and my boyfriend and we were out in Taksim seeing a film (Tarzan… and I loved it in case you were wondering). We got out of the theatre around 11 pm and I noticed I had a couple missed calls from my boss (who I live with and acts like my Turkish mother). So I gave her a call back and she is asking where I am and am I safe … because the military has shut down the bridges and have taken over the country. She said to go straight home (my boyfriend’s home in Taksim, as I stay there on the weekends) and stay inside. Once I was off the phone my boyfriend and I made our way up Istiklal Street, feeling more than a little unnerved by Elif’s message, and yet, as we are looking around at the crowds on Istiklal, nobody seems to have a clue. It was as if nothing was going on, and we thought for sure Elif was overreacting. Nonetheless, we hurried home and got to reading the news.
It was true, apparently the military were staging a coup. So who was in charge of the country? At this point I honestly didn’t know what to think. I had no idea how seriously to take it, what this would mean, how worried I should be. What does a coup even mean for the general public? Or what could it mean for us? It’s not as though I, as a foreigner, even pay much attention to the politics here… How would I feel about having a different guy in charge? These were all things I was thinking at the time, and it really hadn’t sunk in. At this point, my boyfriend was thinking that it was just a small group of rogue military personnel blocking the bridges, so he wasn’t too concerned.
But we kept reading as the news reports kept coming in. It turns out it wasn’t a small group. It was a big group. And it wasn’t just Istanbul, it was Ankara too. They had bombed the parliament and presidential palace. They had helicopters, and tanks, and guns and tear gas.
Eventually my boyfriend was weary of looking at the news and suggested we go to bed. I tried to sleep, but by around 12:30 or 1:00 am I was hearing noises outside that didn’t sound normal. It sounded like gunfire. Every fifteen minutes or so I would hear rounds of gunfire. And I could hear the mosques calling out prayers for the dead. I could hear the helicopters overhead, and yelling outside the window. There were neighbors hanging out their windows listening, and down in the street below trying to figure out what was going on.
Some time later, I checked my phone again for news, and saw that our president here, Erdogan was urging the people of the country to stand up and fight for Turkey and their democracy. This explained the gunfire, and the photos now coming up on social media, and reports of tear gas fired into the crowds that happened to be just a street up from the flat I was in.
Again I tried to sleep, restlessly, until sometime around 3 or 4 am, when we were woken by what sounded like a bomb. The sound was so deafening, it could have been next door, and it shook the entire building. This happened several more times, a deafening boom followed by that sound an F16 fighter jet makes as it flies overhead at low altitude. I’d never before heard that high whistling noise the jets make, aside from in films. We were so sure they were dropping bombs in Taksim, and every time they flew by and we heard that sound, my whole body tensed at the thought of what might follow.
Now I know that the thundering crashes that shook the streets were sonic booms from the low flying jets. They shattered windows and shook everyone out of any sleep they might have had. They also scared the military out of their coup attempt it seems. At the time however, we didn’t know what the noises were. We didn’t know what was going on, who was shooting, who was bombing, who was flying the jets or the helicopters.
That might honestly have been the scariest night I’ve ever lived through. It wasn’t only that we thought there were bombs being dropped. It was the not knowing. Not knowing what was going on, who was in charge of the country I lived in, not knowing what the next day would look like, or if my friends were alright. And you know what my first thought was after the first sonic boom? I was so scared, and unsure, and I thought about how many people must listen to this every night. This was one night for us, and while the future is currently uncertain, these sorts of nights aren’t the reality for us here and now. But for some people, it isn’t one night, and it isn’t in a foreign country. It’s their home, their forever home, where they grew up and married and have children. Istanbul is my home right now, and I hope it will be for a very long time to come, but I didn’t grow up here. If I decided I wanted to go, I could be out of here tomorrow, and I would have somewhere to go. There wouldn’t be immigration forms to fill out and visas to apply for and the possibility that it even after all that, it all might fall apart and leave me homeless and penniless anytime. No, for me, it was one night, and if it was two nights or three I could just decide to go and buy a flight that day.
So in the morning, when Istanbul was quiet and sunny, I was grateful. I am still uneasy, I am worried and I am confused and sometimes I am scared. But I am also grateful. I am more grateful than I have ever been for the country of my birth, the place I grew up and the passport I have. I am grateful for my friends and family around the world, who I know would support me should anything happen. I am grateful that what happened on Friday night is not something I have ever known before. And I am grateful to the people of this country who fought for Turkey, and I won’t forget the ones who lost their lives doing so. We won’t know what will happen next, or what might have happened if the coup had worked, but we do know that there were enough men and women willing to support their government in an uncertain time. I’m not sure if things will get better or worse, I’m not sure how I feel about the government in power, and I’m not sure what changes are coming. I don’t think anyone is very sure about anything these days. But I’m alive and well, and for that I am thankful.
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I left Istanbul almost two weeks ago. And an hour before I left I had a conversation with a woman I have come to admire and care for. I had known her for a year and I had never known that she was so personally affected by the events of July 15th. She told me that day that her husband was one of the thousands arrested in the purges after the coup, detained, without cause, for the crime of simply being an intellectual. He was a writer, a professor, and while I never met him, I know that he must have been a good man if he was married to this woman. It’s been a year since that night, and it’s been almost the same amount of time since she last embraced her husband. It’s been 11 months since she spoke to him, 11 months since her life was torn apart; since men with guns broke into her home and confiscated his books and papers, as proof of terrorism. He had turned himself in, thinking as we all might have, that this was just the government being thorough, and that once they had a chance to investigate, things would be fine. He had been away from home presenting a paper, and looking back, I’m sure he wishes he ran when he received that phone call from his wife. I know she does. I can’t imagine the pain she must feel every day, not knowing what he’s going through, not being able to visit, and not being able to leave, because she would be leaving him behind. Unfortunately, she’s only one of many. Of thousands of wives, mothers, brothers, sisters, children who don’t know where their loved ones are or when they’ll ever get them back.
Since I left Istanbul, since I had that conversation, not a day goes by that I don’t think about the thousands of people that are just like him. The morning after the coup, things were quiet, and I couldn’t help but think that there’s always a calm before a storm. A year later, I have now seen the start of that storm, and it’s far from over. I can only have hope for all those like my friend, whose lives are forever changed; and faith that the people of Turkey are strong enough to withstand whatever this next year might bring.