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Walking Dully Along: A Dispatch From Istanbul

How mundanity reasserts itself after a terrorist attack. And another. And another.

Mustafa Ozer/Getty Images

A sparrow was sipping water from a half-filled glass in an Istanbul café Wednesday morning. Customers had their lunch outside, thanks to the warm weather, and chatted about the latest episode of Sherlock, screened hours after the terror attack on the city’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve, which killed 39 people. Two cats were fed leftovers; a stray dog watched the scene from a safe distance. The terror threat level had been raised as high as it would go, not only because of the Reina attack, but also a simultaneous attack in the capital Ankara that had been foiled at the last minute, not to mention many more that had been thwarted in the past month. But this did not at all seem like a city under threat.

How do Istanbulites do it? It is a hard trick to pull, this immediate return to normality. Some consider it an expression of powerlessness, but I find wisdom in the ability to counter shock with calm. After the suicide attack at the Ataturk Airport in June, the scene was cleaned of signs of chaos in a matter of hours. The shattered glass was swept away, airport personnel reopened their desks, baristas served overpriced Caramelattes to travelers—it didn’t really feel as if 45 people had died hours earlier. And yet those people were not trying to erase history. Living in the present moment, for them, was a form of defiance, not amnesia.

On Wednesday, Istiklal Avenue, the city’s commercial heart, was filled with its usual characters. The manager at my local post office asked whether I’d had a nice New Year’s. The waiter at the adjacent coffeeshop warned about the blizzard that was expected to arrive over the weekend. And the girl at the local bookshop discussed the wisdom of Lena Dunham wrapping up Girls this year. “If it was a Turkish series it would go on for another ten seasons, and they would still pretend to be girls,” I joked. “I know!” she said.

In the subway, students showed pictures of the parties they had attended, boasted of presents they had received, and bemoaned their hangovers on New Year’s Day. An elderly man gave a 50-lira banknote to the Syrian girl who walked barefoot through the carriage. At the next station, a small trio was playing Shostakovich. Two Japanese tourists filmed the performance but refrained from giving money. Screens above showed pictures of the night club attacker, who remains on the loose. He had apparently taken a video of himself with a selfie stick at Taksim Square a few weeks earlier.

headed to the swimming pool, where a friend was getting changed in the locker room. His family comes from the Black Sea region, known for the passionate conservatism of its locals. He talked about his irritation with New Year’s celebrations. “For me the new year begins at the end of March, man,” he said, “it begins with the arrival of spring.” He painted a picture of Anatolian cities where only a minority celebrated the New Year in the way Istanbulites do. He was loud, cheery, and half-naked. His Christian friends complained of a lack of interest in church service. “Nightclubs are full, churches are empty,” they told him. But then he surprised me, describing how he used to spend such nights in his twenties, partying until the morning. He had even worked for the club that was located in the Reina’s building before the Reina opened in 2002.

How to classify such people? Like many in this city, my friend defies categorization. At one point in his life he was into partying. Now he felt all that was behind him. I wouldn’t call him an Islamist but he is a believer in Allah. He has deep respect for his Christian friends, of which there are many in Istanbul, and criticizes New Year’s Eve celebrations because they are not Christian enough.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, people pointed fingers. Some blamed the rhetoric of conservatives like my friend, which allegedly turned nightclubs like the Reina into targets. Someone suggested annihilating Islamists en masse. Some hardliners voiced how cheerful they felt after the attacks, since it was the godless that were massacred. There are deep divisions in Turkey, and the Reina attack, like previous attacks, was designed to reinforce them. But on Wednesday, most people had returned to their senses. They recognized that division is the very goal of such attacks.

Istanbul’s shoeshiners have a great trick: They drop their brushes in front of pedestrians, and when the more goodhearted pedestrians return the brushes to them, they offer to shine their shoes. The mark, thinking this service will be on the house, readily agrees, and is surprised when he is asked to pay after his shoes are cleaned. Experienced locals see the brush falling from the shoeshiner’s set, and walk over it, as if nothing has happened. This is what we are learning to do in Istanbul this year.

Newspapers are filled with stories of suffering and loss. People are mourning. But the mundane routines of life ultimately reassert themselves. This is the pattern W. H. Auden observed in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Old artistic masters knew perfectly the “human position” of suffering, Auden wrote, “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” For terrorists, the Reina attack and others are steeped in martyrdom, but Auden knew that even this was no match for mundanity’s persistence. “Even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course,” he wrote: “Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

For many seeking to paint a picture of Istanbul these days, that master perspective has been lost. There is an unmistakable sense of Schadenfreude in some of those who view Istanbul’s tribulations from outside: To their eyes, Istanbul had become an unlivable hell, one that should be avoided at all costs. But this is also what terror desires: A dramatic change in the order of things. For those living in Istanbul, life went on. On Wednesday evening, a street lamp illuminated the road leading to the Bosphorus. A mother complained about her baby’s cough. And a young man, with a newly purchased book in his hand, lit a cigarette in apparent pleasure.