I’ve been told Istanbul is best at the winter, when a light snow coats its rooftops and skinny minarets reach into a dark sky, when the cobblestones are wet and the tourists are few. I do not know that place. Istanbul to me is a hot, relentless chaos that smells of salt and sour bread and fumes. Any possibility of a cold lingering fog over the strait dissolves under the loud summer sky; I cannot imagine it.
I come here every summer. Upon landing at Ataturk Airport, after bullying my way through customs, baggage claim, and the general anarchy that is Turkish travel, I am always greeted by the innocence of June or the blanket heat of July, and then by a taxi driver.
He’ll weave through the traffic in a way that inspires a futile desire for a seatbelt. He’ll use the exit lane and shrug that it really is just faster. He’ll ask where I’ve come from and why, if my mother is Turkish, she lives in the U.S. He’ll assume my father is American and he’ll be right. He’ll tell me then about his family of taxi drivers and the twenty-six-year-old son he lost to a car accident last month. He’ll show me his son’s photograph on a cracked mobile, rendering me a mumbling fool. He’ll shed a rogue tear. Then he’ll drive me in fits through the choked and tangled backstreets off the freeway, down through Besiktas on its main thoroughfare, left and past the old palace, and onto the winding road that borders that wide, historic strait, the Bosphorus.
It will glitter. The city’s magnificence and its chaos, blurring together just beyond that backseat window, will reveal themselves. And old Istanbul will remind me of other things — her best trick. The blurry expanse will recall train rides through France; the decay, New York; the old world charm, Prague. The jagged coast of the deep blue water, Asia opposite, will echo the California coastline by which I grew up. These similarities are ephemeral, but Istanbul will draw you to her wild beauty in the manner of other great loves: with a whisper that you belong to her.
And part of me does. But as I began to grasp the awesome history and become familiar with the whining traffic; just as I started to recognize the leathery faces of old men obscured by clouds of smoke at the tea house and memorize the clusters of Byzantine roads; as I made sense of my mother’s memories and my own began to surface, the ground below shifted. It was slow at first, a rumbling, then quickened. She’s pushing you away.
So I learned to seek out the fine details and dark contradictions of Istanbul’s face. People shove and crash and stare; no one is patient. A grim poverty ambles beside a gross wealth, bureaucracy runs rampant from the post office to the embassy, corrupt commercial construction obscures the skyline, impunity reigns. Racism and classism abound. It smells and men rule. You do not know her like you thought.
Still, I know the piece of Turkey that is dying. My Turkish half represents the trajectory of secularist nationalism from its inception. My great-grandparents were extraordinary liberals in the Ottoman era; their daughter, my grandmother, raised in the wake of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist reforms, breathed nothing but progressive secularism her entire life. Her daughter, my mother, sees the increasing Islamism that has become a cornerstone of Erdogan’s tenure as the end of Turkey, as do many other liberal and educated academics, intellectuals, artists, and politicians of her generation who now doubt, if not altogether deny, their future in it. “Turkey is finished,” one told me.
It isn’t. Many westerners ask me how Turks could be so blind to their own potential, or whyTurkey is turning its back on the liberal traditions and western allies pivotal to its evolution. Most of all, they wonder why it seems so loyal to an autocrat. Sometimes I too wonder. But to view the current shift within Turkey as an anomaly is a mistake, and to view it as the end of its history is an even greater one. Contemporary Turkey’s series of reactions –some knee-jerk, others more fundamental — to the past century is the swinging back of the political pendulum as a result of various imposing factors. People have lost their lives, others have been wrongfully imprisoned. More still will be executed. The wind that once blew comfortably in the westerly direction has turned the other way, and the minority status of Istanbul’s Eurocentric, secularist elites can be acutely felt.
As it faces war to the east, economic and political uncertainty to the west, ISIS’s devilish threat, and the violence of Kurdish separatists within its borders; a thick and embattled stream of refugees from Syria and growing xenophobia in its wake, Turkey is having an argument. “Which way forward, to prosperity?” it asks itself. Many answered by looking backward. Let us reach the heights we once did, they think, before secularism stole hold. The nationalists of my mother’s kind answered instead with disbelief or lethargy, and have lost their claim to the country. So secularist Turkey has been swiftly imperiled. These are the dimensions of its failure.
Istanbul unraveled slowly for my brother and me, plucked as we were from our urban America into this enigma. My mother brought me here nearly every summer in childhood. Our connection to the country as children lived only in some remote understanding that this made up half of us. Istanbul is the home of centuries of our family but more recently it is where my grandparents met, both engaged to others at the time, and wed. My parents honeymooned in the same hotel, tucked in the crooked bay of Bebek, where decades later I sit to write. Here is where my brother and I grew up together in the heat, learning and losing the language, squeezed in the cheeks by disdained and distant relatives, jabbed at for our Westernisms by taxi men and waiters. This is where we forgot about that American world, for Istanbul was bigger.
In those years, my summers crawled by in the coastal town of Bodrum, where my mother spent hers as a girl. This town, named Halicarnas in ancient times, is the place of Alexander’s siege and Mausolus’ tomb; it’s an arid and quiet place lined with mandarin groves, and we ran barefoot between dirt roads and fishmongers, atop a great history. Bodrum is where we won adventures of independence among the rambling bougainvillea and hid first kisses from our parents. We raced from the dusty hills to the water, stray dogs at our feet.
In retracing the girlhood steps of my mother, I became attuned to echoes in the vault of my family history, and how they whispered explanations of her that she had neglected to share, unsentimental as she is. Mostly I gained the knowledge that our freedom — fostered in this kind of summer, this kind of childhood — had tainted our bloodline. Her mother and grandmother had convinced my mother early on of her right to independence, and she, in turn, convinced me. We were a strange line of uninhibited Turkish women.
My grandmother is called Belma. In youth, she was a crook-nosed beauty of high brows and sharp cheekbones to guide you, mercilessly, to blue teardrop eyes always enhanced by a cat-like liner. Old photos reveal an inconsistent woman who changed expressions and hair like clothes. As a singer in 1950’s Istanbul, she seamlessly morphed, over decades, within the city’s burgeoning artistic world — from lead singer and cultural attaché to wife of an American soldier to mother.
All of these transformations were captured in photographs; in fur on a rooftop in Paris and in a bathing suit at the sea; at a carousel in New York; at the base of the Pyramids on camel-back and among a street band in Cuba. In one, her band plays behind her; in another an actress she no longer remembers the name of and Conrad Hilton beam beside her. In several, someone catches her in the reflection of a mirror looking withdrawn, coy. Her hair is long then short, blonde then dark. She fit no mold.
There is one, though — a photo of a man’s hands sketching her in pencil — which revealed the most to her granddaughter. His feathery lines dictate a lifted eyebrow, closed but soft lips, an uncertainty in her eye. As impossible as the woman in those other photos is, here, I recognize her. This is the woman who sits before me now, peering out the loft window to Nisantasi, skin like old petals, eyes giving away that inherent trepidation.
My grandmother is half-myth. What I know about her I learned in adulthood, upon asking. As a child, she was merely my grandmother. The grandmother who visited us for months at a time from her ashram in India, reeking of incense and reverence for a long-haired guru; who set the kitchen on fire; who after school required my brother and I to eat two bowls of lentil soup before we could be excused; who walked with a hunch.
Failure to heed my mother’s insistence that I ignore her eccentricities allowed us some circular, but illuminating, conversations. I don’t know why I insisted on fighting with her. I suppose I wanted to understand her, and I certainly wanted her to understand me. Our biggest disagreement came when she insisted I stay a virgin so “you will have something to offer your husband.” I raged. There were others, though. God, for one. Her devout practice of transcendental meditation was another, required of us whenever we visited. Her insistence that she once saw my mother levitate off the ground during one of these sessions. Her belief, one summer in Bodrum, that a housekeeper’s shy son had an evil spirit. Her claim that the onion is a silent killer.
I knew she was sick, whatever that meant. I knew something plagued her mind. I knew therefore it could plague mine. So I began to tune out my grandmother’s lunacy and ask of her early life; I attempted to understand her. In the arrogance of grandchildren everywhere, I’d never asked who she was.
The histories, or myths, poured out. Photos and love affairs, recollections of old friends, old Cairo and Havana, old Istanbul. I attempted to verify what I could, but the stories would slur between legend and truth from each different set of lips. For a time, it bothered me. Then, I thought, I’ll just take what I’ll get.
Belma Goksu was born in Istanbul around 1933. Her precise age remains ambiguous because, like others in the era, her parents registered her with a front-dated birth certificate as means of protection. That way, when married off at 14 or 15, the girls were actually 17 or 18. This was one of the first gifts my great-grandfather gave his four girls. Despite her mother’s religious conservatism, my grandmother was raised uncovered, a privilege bequeathed by the man of the family. “No one thought like my father,” she told me. “We were free.”
Her mother, Emsal (a Quranic name), was raised in Ottoman times. A woman whose husband often consulted with her on their business dealings and political ideologies, she was unusual, and reared her children unsentimentally. She was not the doting Turkish mother; she did not fawn over her children or their small accomplishments. She did not complain, pious though she was, of her husband’s insistence that their daughters be uncovered. It was the direction of Turkey’s progress, he told her, and also requested that she remove her hijab. She did. Belma remembers her mother rather solemnly; she regards her with a distant kind of fondness, as if she can claim no part of the woman who bore her. “I have few words about my mother,” she said.
Istanbul then was small. It was made up of dirt roads and only 800,000 people (today, the population reaches 14 million). Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of independent Turkey, died when my grandmother was about five, in 1938. Two decades earlier, at the end of four centuries of Turkish rule in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire had disintegrated rather unceremoniously and Kemal was put in charge of disbanding the remainder of the empire’s forces. Instead of following through on his charge, he led the army to declare a Turkish state and, after two years of clashes with the Greeks, Turkish sovereignty was attained. Bitterly destroying Armenian and Kurdish hopes for independence in the process, Turkey was proclaimed a republic in 1923, with Kemal as president.
So began secularist Turkey. Kemal abandoned all legacy of the old empire, believing instead that the future prosperity of Turkey would come from a transformation into a modern European state. Sharia law was replaced by a new legal code based on a variety of European systems. The constitution was secularized, and laicism was established as one of the six cardinal principles of the new state. The caliphate was abolished. A Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic origins of Ottoman Turkish and, in 1935, surnames were introduced as in the European model. Kemal took Ataturk, meaning “Father of the Turks.” Though Kemal’s extraordinary ascendancy over his people brought sweeping secularism on the back of the former empire’s Tanzimatreforms, the Turkish people were far from renouncing Islam.
What Ataturk meant to Turkey cannot be understated. His statue adorns nearly every public space, his photograph every shop and most households, his ideology shapes schools and identities. Millennials have tattoos of his signature. His portrait decorated each bill of the old lira. He maintains a legendary status as the savior of post-empire Turkey, the creator of its borders, the arbiter of its future. A favorite story among Turks recounts the campaign at Gallipoli, where Ataturk was spared death when his pocket watch stopped a bullet meant for his heart. An octogenarian family friend recently recalled meeting the storied man in childhood, as his father was a military commander. The six-year-old Metin shook Ataturk’s hand, said hello, and then turned to his father and said, “You said he was a great man, father, but he is so small!”
“There was freedom then,” my grandmother told me this July as the call to prayer at the Ottoman-era Tesvikiye mosque began nearby. Its minaret and the golden script bordering its eaves were once the highest point in the neighborhood. Today, it is dwarfed on all sides by glass high-rises and luxury condos. Its imam has one of the most beautiful voices in the city. “Now, it seems, there is no freedom.”
They tell me my maternal grandparents met at a party in Istanbul. Belma, the socialite, Charles, an American soldier on assignment in the Black Sea region, two hours from Istanbul. He spent his weeks gathering radio intelligence for the U.S. Air Force from Bulgarian Russia and his weekends in the fast and otherworldly city. I’ve been told that the witness at my grandparents’ wedding was a Turkish spy, a man who went by the name of “British Kemal,” and who was caught in London because of the way he drank his coffee. “She used to tell me these stories,” my mother said, “when we were young.”
Everything about Belma was scandalous in her time: her skirts and the way she flitted about the world, making her way, working independently to see it. Her profession, and the hours she stayed out in the night, an unaccompanied woman. The friends she kept, the parties they had, the alcohol they drank, the words they used. It was a scandal at the time for a Turkish woman to marry a foreigner, and an American one at that, and the newspapers printed stories calling her virginity into question. She kept the clippings.
When her father died, my grandmother was in New York, starting her nuclear American family. My uncle was four, my mother just born. Belma’s sisters and mother had not told her that her father died for fear of upsetting her new American life, an arrogant stoicism which forced her to reconcile with his death two years later — in the same letter that she was told her sister had also died, in childbirth. Stricken, she moved the family back to Istanbul on the next ship. They moved into the Nisantasi building her father had bought for his family — a floor for each daughter — and took up the apartment he’d just vacated. Her mother Emsal left for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, an ultimate relinquishing of her husband’s ideologies, now gone with him. My mom and uncle were raised in that apartment, where my grandmother still lives today, where we sit now. His family name still adorns the limestone threshold.
My mother, Ayse, left Turkey at 18. It was 1981. The country was reeling from a decade of internal armed conflict — fueled by the Turkish military in a “strategy of tension” to create a cause for intervention — and a successful coup restored order to the unprecedented political violence upending the country. The military amended the terms of the new constitution by referendum and democracy was ushered swiftly back in by constricted and controlled elections, in the Turkish way.
As progressive as Belma was in her time, she was still an age behind Ayse who, at fourteen, fell in love with a would-be physician four years her senior. They carried on and my grandmother threatened to have the young man jailed if they did not marry. At the time, the Turkish state ID allowed two marital status options for women. My mom’s read: “Virgin.”
In the photographs from the wedding, my mom looks the fifteen-year-old child she was, albeit a happy one. “We never lived together. We got married and then I went home with my parents,” she recalled. “Then we traveled, we went to the U.S., and we were totally free.” They ended their relationship four years later and, eventually, my mom married my black American father in possibly the only act more rebellious than my grandmother’s marriage to an American a generation earlier. Truth be told, my mother is the kind of person who would’ve left wherever she was at 18, who would’ve married audaciously, who surrounds herself with people and places unlike her. She jokes that it is the nomadic “Ottoman blood” that drives her but, likely, it is simply her sense that the world is a wonder, and is fit for her to run about it.
Today, her childhood neighborhood Nisantasi is a fine district of luxury shops and restaurants, some stuffed down narrow corridors, others gleaming on wide and manicured streets. Settled by a 19th century sultan as hunting grounds, Ottoman monuments and inscriptions decorate sidewalks once traversed by large communities of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Levantines. Lottery vendors occupy corners, promising glory. Beggars mount store stoops. Garish traffic reflects the sun’s wrath. There is a man who idles his days on the corner of Tesvikiye Street who knew my great-grandmother, who watched my young mom and uncle make mischief, who can fix anything you bring him at his modest cart.
The family building has been sold except for that top floor apartment. Sitting here, in the pane-glass den from which my great-grandparents overlooked a different Istanbul, my grandmother and I have just finished negotiations on the manifestations of God (“He is within you”). Dozens of men gather for prayer in the mosque courtyard below, looking older than they are — eyes deeply set, skin like fingered page corners. They sit under the gilded fountains and smoke; wash their feet in the spouts of the mosque and finger their beads. It is the month of Ramazan so the days are hushed.
Thirsty street dogs amble between them, swollen and scarred as if picked at by the crow’s claw. A covered woman in a lab coat crosses before a man with his newspaper in the shade of the camii. People are wearing leather jackets in June and Syrians are begging for change, their children or siblings at their hip. Dirt below their toenails, they are scrappy, insistent, and have an unreachable history in their eyes. They’ve learned enough Turkish to beg. A piled-on motorbike flashes by and backfires. Suddenly, the imam calls out, loud and crackling. Allah u akbar. The air fills with the consuming tremble of his voice. The buzz of the speakers, the lyrical pitch of the imam, pulls us east.
In the distance, across crowded hills and a sliver of the Bosphorus, a mosque is going up. It can be seen from almost every point on the European side of Istanbul, and is being constructed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Rivaling only the glorious 17th century Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque, Erdogan’s also has six minarets stabbing into the sky. It is rumored that he has built his tomb inside, like a sultan.
When I went to Taksim Square in June of 2013, it was like seeing rats being chased out of a maze. The square and its surrounding streets, like arteries of a heart, were choked with grey smoke and layers of police shields colliding with schools of protestors. They waved flags, they chanted for revolution. Then prime minister, Erdogan rapidly and forcefully suppressed the movement, which had begun as a sit-in environmental cause and erupted into nationwide protests expressing widespread grievances with the government — from the its encroachment on the country’s secularism to its censorship of the press. Eleven died, thousands were injured.
The police loitered in every narrow crook. By the time I saw it, the square no longer boomed with the rebellious rallying cries I’d heard on the news. The protests had been almost entirely gassed out and most parts of the square were closed off, more closely resembling a post-apocalyptic military zone than a symbol of democratic triumph. But the government’s violent authoritarianism was still a shocking disgrace, police dominance in the arteries was still being challenged, and people were still showing up.
Every night, we watched the broadcasts in rapture as protestors marched up to the plastic shields of police, as they were sprayed and ran. At dusk, entire neighborhoods came alive with the clamor of pots and pans being slammed together outside of windows and in the streets, an act of solidarity with the movement. My aunt and I went into the garden each evening, hitting our pots with a wooden spoon. One night as we ate dinner along the Bosphorus, the traffic beside us clogging the road for miles, people waved out of their moon roofs hitting pots, laughing in a frenzy, yelling “The revolution, the revolution!” We smiled at them and sipped our raki.
That entire summer was electric with a sense of change, as if the winds of ten decades had been blowing in the direction of democracy and prosperity and, at last, Turkey had reached the threshold. All it had to do was seize the movement. Everyone you knew was protesting at Gezi, talking about Gezi, enraged with the president’s consolidation of power, engaged in their fight for Turkey. Erdogan had not won the majority in parliament and it seemed, for the first time, that the country was in fact awake to its own potential, its identity. Accusations of deeply disturbing corruption within the highest offices of government were surfacing. (By December, Erdogan himself was implicated in a “gold for gas” scheme with Iran.) The HDP, MHP and CHP, the leading opposition parties, would work together to form a coalition, Erdogan would be ousted and the world would soon come to Turkey, the gloried throne of a split world. Ataturk’s vision was to be realized.
Not long after this, Erdogan’s intention to tighten seal his grip on power became clear. The coalition yielded no unity and snap elections went in his favor by a sliver over 40 percent. The constitution needs changing, he said. Kurds are not a Turkish problem, he said. Those who were against me are traitors, he said.
The Gezi movement had no leader, no unified goal; the same variety that made it an organic democratic movement also meant that interests were too varied for meaningful action. Some took to the street but they did not unite under a single banner with conviction or concision. They were fighting blind. It wasn’t long after that that the entire movement took its last breath.
I spoke to a former economist and revolutionary about that moment of political awakening, and then, indecision. “The democratization we saw during Gezi was valuable, but limited,” he told me, asking to be called Mehmet for fear of retribution. “People thought it was enough, that ‘God’ would handle the rest. But first we must help ourselves, then maybe God will.”
A nostalgic twenty-six-year-old English teacher I met in July echoed that widespread reluctance to further the movement. “I’ll never see anything like that again,” she told me, and went on. “I would never do anything like that again. He will kill us.”
And so Erdogan’s fear became Turkey’s fate and the country began regressing. In his now fabled style, he purged the police force and began the restriction of all dissent against him. When I think back at this time, I remember most vividly how passionately people used to speak against him. “He is a dictator,” they’d laugh. “He is under the big American thumb,” they speculated. “He thinks he is a sultan,” they muttered. Reminiscing about Ataturk was at a high; secularism was the perceived pinnacle of success; protests were a liberating discovery, but no one seemed willing or able to take up the reigns, to control and direct the opposition.
In 2013, it seemed that any legitimate threat to Erdogan’s consolidation of power — intellectual leaders, protestors, artists, academics, philosophers — had all gotten so convinced of their European-modeled evolution. It seemed that they no longer saw the merit in understanding what was going on, what the majority of the country needed, what those masses saw in Erdogan. Surely, they were convinced, it will sort itself out. They sat at their dinner tables, smoked cigarettes, complained, and when they saw a mob with pitchforks and fire coming over the distant hill said, “Oh them,” and took a sip of raki. Earlier this summer before the attempted coup, some of them exclaimed, “Erdogan, a threat? Do you know what school he went to? He is nothing!” That lethargy, steeped in a classist arrogance, has sealed Turkey’s fate.
In the three summers since that one, autocracy has slowly materialized while democracy was eroded. Journalists have been jailed while their newspapers are shut down; police chiefs implicating Erdogan in corruption investigations were imprisoned, powerful generals detained. Erdogan’s 100-room fortress and six-minaret mosque were erected with taxpayer money; once-martyred protestors were forgotten; AKP-opposition members were subpoenaed in parliament. The unprecedented purges dismantled NATO’s second-largest military force, dishonorably discharging thousands of officers and soldiers, once viewed as the protectors of Turkish peace. Thousands of alleged followers of Erdogan’s sworn political enemy Gulen (once an ally, now exiled in Pennsylvania while Turkey attempts his extradition for allegedly planning the July coup), have lost their jobs in academia and government. Many have been forbidden from leaving the country. Non-violent convicts are being released early to make room for traitors.
“I have never imagined something like this,” people say now, with a suspicious glance over the shoulder. “Turkey is dying. He is our executioner,” one woman whispered to me as she closed her windows, peering to see if any neighbors were in earshot.
Erdogan played with the tension. Claiming history is ‘a compass shaping the future,’ the president used attacks targeting schools to mandate emphasis on the past. “History is not only the story of the past,” he said. Shrinking the secularist agenda that has dominated schools for decades has been Erdogan’s most frightening ambition. The prosperity of the old empire as his mantle, he began a campaign against the founding principles of Turkey’s democracy, using the strain of Syria, the terrorism of the PKK, and the dissent against him to justify an iron grip.
In early June, a bomb killed 11 people in Vezneciler, central Istanbul, the morning after I arrived. Vezneciler is about seven miles southwest from where I slept and woke to find a notification on my phone that, indeed, the Istanbul my mother left at eighteen had returned to terror and grief. I rushed into a robe and sandals, still bleary, to find my aunt ignoring CNN, working on her laptop. She nonchalantly greeted me, Günaydın, and pointed to the coffee machine. I said, “But the bomb, what’s going on?” She said, “Oh, yes” as she sipped her coffee.
The violence is not all-consuming. It is an irritating buzz in one’s ear, a possibility with more randomness than the city itself. “We just go on living,” a family friend, Deniz, told me after that. “At first it was fear. These things have happened many times in Turkish history,” she said.
For months, Istanbul had been at a simmer. For many, it was the second time in a generation that bombs were going off with some frequency. Since the 1980’s, the Kurdish movement has remained a constant social and political tension. This summer, despite regular terror, the city was cool and choked with people; Istanbul moved so quickly that its direction might be missed entirely. Of violence’s varied effects on a people, in Istanbul it was notably the lack of its effect. I sensed my sheer mortality as I wandered between parked cars or through the busy streets, but fear wasn’t haunting me. It did not stalk me, or anyone else, as we ate by the water at orange dusk. We just continue.
Still, tourists were scarce and many locals wondered about the sanity of the ones who did come. Political conversations were held in a whisper, if at all. Neighbors fought and accused each other of drinking alcohol during the holy month. Music fans were beaten in one of the most progressive neighborhoods of Istanbul. AK-47s hang loose from military waists on the once-gloried Istiklal street. People went about their lives as resentment of the outsider, rage at his imposition, romanticism of “what once was” replaced the multiculturalist idealism of the past. The pendulum swings again.
In July, I went to Assos to find the hope of Turkey. The founder and director of an annual philosophical conference there, Orsan Oymen, is facing trial for “insulting” the president and I presumed similarly outspoken opposition to Erdogan might surround him in the form of professors, journalists, doctorate students, and their spouses.
When I met Oymen for the first time in Istanbul, he told me, “My family and colleagues are supportive. They came to my trial. But they don’t agree with what I am doing. They think I am too radical.” Oymen stands at a looming height but hunches his neck as if settling into a guillotine. He has a round face, sunken eyes, and a demeanor exuding both uncertainty and intelligence — humility. “It’s an honor for me,” he said referring to his trial in which he faces four years’ imprisonment. “I think if you’re not facing a prison sentence, there’s something wrong with you.”
I grew up in this group. Not this one exactly but ones like it, the cast of Turkish modernity. They subscribed to no one political ideology but secularism. Jazz drummers and poets, protest artists, curators, filmmakers and entrepreneurs, the occasional doctor — this was my mother’s lot.
Those characters did, in fact, surround Oymen, but their strong-willed opposition was only my imagination. Here sat a long table of international philosophers, colleagues, friends, the occasional sycophant, and their host. They held up their glasses in commemoration of Aristotle’s 2400th year, just down a steep cobblestone road, lined with wild lavender, from the ruins he once walked.
Four hundred meters from Oymen’s table — from the dry intellectualism, crowding egos, and promises to read each other’s work — another long table of the conference’s philosophers overwhelmed a different restaurant, discussing the mutual benefits and pitfalls of simultaneous oral sex. “If you want sex to be perfect, you’ve failed somehow,” a philosophy of art professor laughed. “My kids never heard of Rembrandt so I begin the semester with porn. You have to get their attention,” he reasoned, taking a sly sip, playing his part, “and work up.” They roared.
These were the young philosophers, in pursuit of doctorates and teaching at Istanbul’s universities. They argued over the dinner bill unabashedly, and delighted in their abandonment of the conference schedule’s rigidity. “We like to call this The Parallel,” Husein, a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate, told me as he ushered me to the end of the table.
The raki was passed around and poured, made murky with ice and water, then drunk in haste and cycled around again. Melon and feta lay wasted on the table. “Hillary Clinton is a fascist,” a quiet student playfully announced upon identifying the single American accent. His long fingers moved as spider’s legs wrapping a hashish joint, his tongue sealing its edges. Around the bonfire, a skinny-dip was suggested then announced and, soon, the table was abandoned then repopulated in a new order by damp skin and dripping hair. The night tumbled on.
Then a ponytailed Englishman who seemed to possess, in the three days of this seaside conference, little else than a black Speedo, brought news. He edged around the table to groups of four and five, his belly announcing him. “There has been an attack at Ataturk Airport,” he said with a slight lisp, his goggles fogging up on his forehead, “Twenty dead.”
Someone asked him to repeat himself so he did.
“Twenty now, fifty tomorrow,” his Turkish wife muttered, taking a sip.
And so the sobering came fast as one after another undug his or her previously buried phones to connect to the terror. With each strengthening signal, the facts unfolded in the candlelight. The phones hiccupped then clamored, and soon each somber face was illuminated from below.
Everyone knew someone who was there, at Ataturk, today. Or was she flying yesterday? Or is it tomorrow? Among the travelers were classmates, cousins, a brother, daughter, a professor, an ex-girlfriend. Doubt overwhelmed any thought at all.
“Just when you begin to feel settled, it happens again,” one woman, an editor, remarked between drags.
“And the worst part is, we are no longer surprised,” the quiet Khan said.
My mother calls. My brother had left for Ataturk a few hours earlier. “It’s all ruined,” she said. “They ruined it. It’s ruined.”
A week later, I heard the Islamic mourning song edging down a steep road, just catching me at the perimeter of the neighborhood. Beneath the birds’ pitch and the incessant hiccup of exhausts, its solemn hum passed through the morning air so faintly it could be mistaken for a memory. If one strains to hear it, the hum blends into a mesmerizing, hymn-like chant. It is a sala prayer at the local mosque; someone has died.
Weeks later, in the first hours of the failed coup attempt on July 15, pro-government leaders implored Diyanet, or the Religious Affairs Department, to rally Turkish citizens in solidarity with their leader and his democracy. By midnight, all imams in the republic were ordered to their minbars to deliver the sala prayer. Those who refused were arrested.
In the Ottoman era, sala prayers were used to announce battlefield difficulties or defeats. The voice of the revered imam was used as a force to calm and unify the people. Since the disintegration of the empire and establishment of secular Turkey, though, state-sanctioned sala prayer had not occurred until now. In a display of Turkey’s increasingly blurred boundary between religion and government, reports of men, even boys, taking to the street chanting for jihad soon surfaced. They screamed for democracy as they marched toward tanks, calling Allahu akbar. God is great.
Some of the leftist secularists of Istanbul who once prided themselves on being the lineage and legacy of the faction responsible for Turkey’s prosperity — its leadership of the east and proximity to the west — now cower in the shadow of Erdogan’s severity. They’ve become too comfortable –soft, and convinced in their cultural superiority, so that their understanding of the depths of the country’s turmoil is pliant, at best. Ironically, it is that separatist and racist mentality that has kept them from forming meaningful political alliances, with the Kurds for example. Many are leaving. The elite, intellectual, nationalist minority would rather abandon their homeland for something more suited to them than attempt to battle within it. The candle leaps into the flames.
We all thought it would be so much louder, the disintegration of our way. It would be a mass protest in a park or a bloody coup. But those fires were as quickly extinguished as sparked. Those who choose, or are forced, to stay will have to reconcile with this altered place; they are between worlds. Turkey’s illiberal democracy blossoms, and Erdogan has the support of the people.
Decades of secularist nationalist policy — resulting in the isolation of great numbers of Muslims who officially make up 99 percent of the population — is seeing forceful push-back. (Because the government only acknowledges three minority religions, and counts the rest of the population as Muslim, the actual percentage of Muslims is slightly lower.) More than fortifying new mosques and inciting Islamic fervor, Erdogan has also improved educational access for masses of people who are also now seeing access to improved healthcare and economic vitality. For most Turks, things are better for them since he came into power, not worse.
Erdogan’s own self-perpetuated myths thrive. The conspiracy against him as revealed by the coup attempt has strengthened his resolve, and he boasts a legendary story of escaping the mid-July attempt on his life by the skin of his teeth, despite rumors that he had vacated the Marmaris resort hours earlier. Rumors of U.S. betrayal go unchecked, an on-again relationship with Putin ominously looms, and he refuses to eliminate the death penalty for those found guilty of sedition. Recordings of Ataturk looking feeble and sounding slight are released more frequently than any other time in recent history; school curriculums are devoting more time to Ottoman reign. Turkey is being sketched with the ash of a fallen empire.
Sometime in 2001, my grandmother suffered a psychological break. It was discovered when my mother called her, and Belma talked to her as if she were a stranger. She kept repeating, “Who is this? Who is this?” and “Stop calling.” She didn’t recognize her daughter’s name or voice. She became irate.
When my uncle Ali entered the apartment, he immediately figured his mother had been ill for a few weeks. The place was dark, the windows covered, food was stuck on the countertops. There was a pile of little pieces of wood on the floor, as if in formation to start a fire. Belma didn’t recognize her son. Her eyes were like deep purple pillows, sleepless.
My mom’s ex had indeed become a doctor and, because it is illegal to admit someone without her consent in Turkey, my uncle tricked my grandmother into immediately admitting herself into the hospital he manages. She was sent to a psychiatric hospital that night. Patients stared lifelessly down linoleum hallways and in dim sitting rooms; they’d been electroshocked. My mother called Belma’s assigned physician dozens of times over the first night of her stay to tell the hospital they did not have consent to administer electroshock therapy. “I got your messages,” the doctor assured her once she was able to reach Istanbul. He was entertained.
Belma will not recall this time now if you ask her to. She cannot remember it or does not want to. She often says it is the doctors who are crazy, and she is just fine. Her mental disorder hasn’t swallowed her, but it has darkened her world, diminished her in a way that has darkened parts of ours. I won’t strain for a metaphor, but in observing my grandmother’s illness and her reluctance to acknowledge it, I see a diminished Turkey. I cannot help but fear it.
A family photo reveals my grandmother as a girl, poised on her bicycle, coming down a dirt road. The Bosphorus hides in the distant left, undeveloped, practically barren. A faded smile lingers at her lips, loose strings of her braided hair blow east toward the water. She wears polka dots. The realization sneaks in, first nostalgic then melancholic, that this is the woman who sits before me now, black in places of her mind, in this small apartment that her family has come into and gone out of for decades.
A stubborn dust is starting to obscure a large photo in my living room of wooden boats and their men crowding the Bosphorus, taken by my grandfather in 1958. In it, I see a dark night coming over the city that I battled to favor; a repulsive patina is forming over my claims to her.
There must exist things more dramatic than a philharmonic orchestra performing in an ancient city in an ancient church during a summer tempest, but they don’t come to mind.
En route, I rode on the highway in a taxi. The clouds hung low and ominous, dark but still unbroken. We flew past the massive soccer stadium with skeletal glass high-rises overlooking it, desolate in their partial completion, seemingly abandoned. High up, where the wind must be sharp and cold, I saw two silhouettes standing on one of the balconies, 30 stories up. They are insane, I thought, but I can imagine the view.
Then hill after hill of forest trees began to blend into clusters of shanty clay and grey buildings, the sky hanging over them. The rattle of a huge Turkish flag hitting its post boomed over the rush of cars, declaring itself like thunder. Suddenly, a sheet of hail descended without any gracious warning, some pieces of ice even dropping through the window into my lap. It was a blinding wall that consumed us so suddenly that it took longer to slow down than to lose sight of the road. There was nothing but whiteness.
To the right I knew, though now it hid behind a thick fog, there was a rail and a sharp drop into a valley. Don’t go over, I told the driver, and began writing: It is white. The sky is flashing and then rumbling with the sound of thunder less than a mile away. The road is flooding quickly, the two back wheels of the taxi keep hydroplaning, and the water is racing down windows and streets and flipping off of tires in miniature waves. I tell the driver to slow down, a request I commonly employ here but that is never obeyed except in this one, remarkable circumstance. The hail ceases, suddenly as it started, and becomes a light rain. I roll the window back down and the air smells damp and unclean.
I arrived to the church at dusk and took my seat under the grand, if simple, ceiling. The church is full. The orchestra played loudly and even then couldn’t compete with the space, Hagia Irene. A faded gold cross is outlined on the domed altar above. The rest is simply stone and large pane glass window illuminated periodically by flashes of lightning challenging the fading of the light.
The soprano is a black American woman. The musicians behind her represent Turkey’s premier orchestra. The conductor is Austrian, and the audience, well, is anyone’s guess. It isn’t over, I think to myself. Here we are. East so seamlessly complimenting west, the storm outside silenced by instruments and thundering applause. My conviction seems shared by this room of people. We seem to be pushing back, staking our claim.
Afterward, the dank cobblestone streets lick the bottom of my shoes as I walk over buried relics and next to that museum which used to be a mosque which used to be a Roman cathedral which used to be Greek. I walk sidewalks made of stones laid by emperors and Crusaders; baths built by sultans for their legions of wives. I cross the backdrop of From Russia With Love and step past the train station where my grandfather first arrived, all those years ago, at the last stop on the Orient Express. I walk in the slippery darkness alone, for the old city was empty. I had never seen it so desolate.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.