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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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