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Springtime in Istanbul

Life changes in the midst of terror.

Ozan Kose/Getty Images

In Istanbul, April is the loveliest month. With the last of winter behind them, locals can indulge in numerous entertainments that herald the arrival of spring. The International Istanbul Film Festival kicks off at the beginning of the month, bringing tens of thousands of people to theaters, as well as numerous side events, ceremonies, and parties. The swift rise in temperatures brings with it a change in mood: men and women flirt, on streets and in the offices of Istanbul firms; alcohol is consumed, sales of concert tickets rise; and what we call keyif, a carefree state of pleasure and happiness, settles in. 

But not this year. This April, most people in Istanbul are preoccupied with what seems to be a struggle for survival. This is what happens when your city achieves a new status as a target of global terror.

There is an awful sense of impending calamity in the air these days. In March, an ISIS militant detonated his suicide vest roughly a hundred meters from Atlas, the theater where the Istanbul Film Festival opened. It was the latest in a spate of terror attacks, which were followed by a flood of horrific images of the carnage on social media. All of this has unsettled the culture industry. Concerts were suddenly canceled. A contemporary art exhibit at the famous Aksanat Gallery, ironically titled “Post-Peace,” was ominously shut down at the last minute. 

As a result, extraordinary security measures were in place at Atlas’s home on Istiklal Avenue on April 6, the opening night of the film festivalTo watch Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special we had to pass through security guards stationed at the theater entrance, who were trying to figure out whether we were genuine cinephiles or bloodthirsty terrorists. Inside the theater, I was shocked to see how few people had made it to Atlas, in stark contrast to the sold-out premieres of the last 34 years. I spent my youth trying to find tickets to festival screenings for which the competition is famously fierce; now, appearing at the podium, the festival’s director reminded us about the dire state of affairs in the country, and announced that there would be no parties or special gatherings organized by the festival this year.

On March 19, the ISIS militant began tracking a group of Israeli tourists as they left their hotel. At Istiklal Avenue, he waited for his victims to have their last meal. Then, as they left the restaurant, he stepped into the throng and detonated his charge. Soon after, Turkish social media was filled with uncensored images of his torn body.

Even before this attack, the psychological well-being of Istanbulites was not in good shape. Only six days earlier, a group of university students waiting at a bus stop in Ankara were killed when the Kurdish guerrilla group TAK (an offset of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) detonated a car bomb, killing 38 people and injuring 125 others. Eight weeks prior to that, in Sultanahmet, the heart of Istanbul’s tourism industry, a Saudi-born ISIS militant exploded his suicide vest near a group of German tourists, killing 13 and wounding 16.

The cumulative effect of such events has been life-altering for Turks. Imagine undergoing two bombings in New York and one in Washington, D.C., in less than four months. That will give you a sense of how we feel about the things that have happened here this year. 

Then there is the issue of what could still happen here. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage, a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel on terrorism The Secret Agent, will remember the havoc produced in London as bombs meticulously planted by the film’s villain start going off. In our privileged position as viewers, we see where the bombs are; characters in the film, however, lack this vital information. In Istanbul, the anxious expectation of a new bomb has placed us in the position of Hitchcock’s characters. Every other week a new announcement is made about the existence of a bomb just about to go off in one of Istanbul’s public places. Only the terrorists are in the privileged position of knowing where those bombs are.

Locals agree that foreigners have better intelligence. The American Embassy has issued numerous warnings about imminent attacks in Istanbul; the latest, issued on April 9, warned of credible threats to tourist areas, “in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul.” This faint clue to the possible whereabouts of a terror attack is somewhat reassuring, leading people to take mental notes: “Avoid public squares and docks and you will be fine.” (The Americans had successfully forewarned the Ankara attacks.) Israel, meanwhile, called on its citizens and tourists to leave Turkey “as soon as possible.” This warning, featuring no specifics, came across as much more ominous. 

On April 10, I walked out of my apartment in Taksim, near Gezi Park, and came across special police forces patrolling the streets, in place of the American tourists who normally wander the area. In the previous days, the Dutch and German consulates had been closed due to terror warnings that were interpreted by locals as bomb threats against Taksim. Trained to conduct anti-terror raids, the special forces look like GI Joe soldiers. That morning it was their duty to protect foreign diplomats from ISIS attacks. 

A few hundred meters away, in Taksim Square, celebrations were being held for the 171st anniversary of the founding of the Turkish police department. Helicopters buzzed in the air. Large batches of terrorism-related intelligence had been gathered by Turkey’s intelligence agency MIT in the past week, resulting in the closure of Taksim Square with barricades. As the square was transformed into the closed stage of a prospective battle between members of the special forces and terror groups, civilians found themselves in the role of anxious spectators.

Nowadays, in Turkish newspapers, guides are printed with the aim of helping readers spot suicide bombers in the subway or in a shopping district. One such story, published in the health section of HaberTurk, a national newspaper, was presented as an “everyman’s guide to spotting the suicide bomber.” The piece quoted clinical psychologist and hypnosis specialist Mehmet Başkak, who warned readers to be wary of people wearing loose, baggy outfits and large backpacks, and those with lines of sweat running down their faces who were breathing heavily. Because they carry bombs that weigh 18 kilograms and drug themselves before the attack, he said, militants tend to walk like robots. He also urged readers to look at suspicious people’s mouths to see whether they were mumbling their final prayers. Look at their hands and be alarmed if there are no hands on display. “If you can’t see their hands it is because they are probably setting the bomb inside the backpack,” Başkak said. Be suspicious, too, of people who smell nice. “They put on perfumes so that they smell good before meeting their creator. Those fragrances tend to be haci yagi [a flowery fragrance that contains musk and amber] rather than famous brands.” Another sign of a terrorist, according to Başkak, is a cleanly shaven face. Suicide bombers shave in order not to be recognized before the attack, he said. They can be easily spotted since the skin beneath the freshly cut beard is notably pale compared to the rest of the skin.

With such stories, it’s no surprise the people of Istanbul are in a mood of constant inspection. On narrow streets of the old city I have come across women carefully checking me out, trying to see whether my hands are indeed in my pockets and if the headphone cord disappearing into my jacket is connected to an iPhone or a ticking bomb.

The live-or-die necessity of being constantly on top of the news had made Istanbulites addicted to social media. To fight the addiction, I deleted Twitter from my computer, but this proved to be a careless move. The day after I severed ties with my Twitter timeline, I went to a night club called Coop. The club had been packed with youngsters only three weeks ago, when I went there for a concert by Turkish hip-hop group Tahribad-ı İsyan, whose fierce, political lyrics against the gentrification of Istanbul has touched a nerve among locals. But that day, when a friend of mine, the translator Richard Nazım Hikmet Dikbaş, was in the DJ box, there was nobody—and I mean not a single soul—inside the club.

The reason soon became clear, when a friend broke the news that had been circulating on Twitter for the past hour: An official-looking document was released warning people that bombs had been placed at a number of night clubs owned by non-Muslim Turks. That fit Coop’s description.

There is terror in Istanbul’s air but not everyone is succumbing to it. At the Midnight Special gala last week I ran into Cüneyt Cebenoyan, one of my favorite Turkish film critics, who had lost his sister, the esteemed archeologist Yasemin Cebenoyan, when terrorists placed a bomb at the patisserie of Istanbul’s Marmara Hotel in 1994. Also there that evening in 1994 was Onat Kutlar, one of Turkey’s leading writers and one of the founders of the Istanbul Film Festival, who was at the hotel to celebrate his wedding anniversary; he died from injuries a few days later. April may have lost its charm this year in Istanbul, but there are always people like Cebenoyan, who know the awful consequences of terror firsthand yet defy its intimidating power. There are institutions like the Istanbul Film Festival, which is a testament to the enduring legacy of a victim of the same terror. Springtime will come again, and there’s hope that Istanbul will be a different city when it does.