When travelling, there are a few risks one can manage. A bout of Delhi belly can be avoided by not having a salad (or by accepting the inevitability of trotters; after all, doing nothing is an alternative). Being mugged in Rio de Janeiro can be averted by not looking like a worthy target. But how can you manage terrorism? Short of giving in and staying home, I don’t think there is a solution.
On Saturday, 19th of March, I was taking a picture of two old cars up a slope on Kuzguncuk, a quiet borough on the Asian side of Istanbul, before a crowd of three cats, two sleeping stray dogs and a man leaning against a van, busy scratching his balls. At that moment, I got a text from my brother. “A bomb went off in Istanbul, on Istiklal Caddesi. Watch out”. I look around me, at the three cats, two dogs and man – still busy rearranging his testies – and realised a couple of things.
Firstly, that I lived in Galata, some 200 meters from Istiklal. Secondly, that – even though I’d been in places where crime was rampant, or where the weather was potentially assassin, or where riots were in full swing – this was the first time when I was in the same city where a suicide terrorist had just taken his own life, and killed others in the process.
Now, hear me out. I don’t want to portray myself as some sort of intrepid traveller, the sort of person who pens “Here I am, amidst the rumble of bombs”, because if I did I’d be nothing more than a pretentious bullshitter. I was in Istanbul, and so were another 14 million people: as far as risks were concerned, this was hardly a beach landing in Stalingrad.
Yet, I couldn’t shake off a strange feeling. Sure, there were concern and fear. The odds of crossing the path of a suicide terrorist were quite slim, but at the end of the day you only need one to send you to the Pearly Gates before you had the time to say “Aw fuck”. And hadn’t I walked through Istiklal that very morning, at eight, on my way to Besiktas? Later that day I’d have recognised, on the websites, the shops where I’d briefly stopped, and an advert that I judged monumentally idiotic. Now here they were, background to a street littered with charred rubble and bodies that the newsagent had mercifully pixelated out.
However, it wasn’t just concern. I couldn’t stop being bewildered, as it sometimes happen when things you only read about become real, in-your-face. In facts, up until that moment I had only read, or heard, about suicide terrorists: and now there I was, standing in the same city where this had happened. Looking back at that day it feels academic, but the psychological effect was intense.
I walked down the steep hill and came to stop in a small park, nothing more than a clearing in the housing texture where a slide, a few carousels and a couple of benches had been placed besides the Bosphorus. Cargo ships cruised before my eyes and, further ahead, a police helicopter buzzed above Beyoglu. That’s where it must’ve happened, I thought.
Out of sheer laziness – I had walked about 15km that day – I took a bus to Üsküdar, just half a klick along the way. Hang on, wasn’t it what all the so-called-experts suggested not to do? Avoid large gatherings of people. Avoid popular places. Avoid mass transport. Avoid mass transport. I’m definitely not good at avoiding being blown up.
Once in Üsküdar my phone rang; it was my host, checking on me. Shamshod queried my well-being, sighed with relief when I told him my whereabouts, and suggested I returned home for today. Then he added “It’s terribly sad”, and hung up.
I sat on the waterfront, unsure of what to do. My plan was to walk down the seafront to Kadiköy, Moda perhaps, but in fairness I didn’t feel like it. The day had started on very different auspices, and now what happened sort of took the joy, the sense of expectation, out of it. I found myself heading to the jetty for the ferry to Eminönü. Avoid mass transport.
A man talked to me in Turkish. I couldn’t understand a word, but the opened pack of fags was enough of a giveaway. He wanted a light. I shrugged, and replied in English. “No, I don’t smoke”. He answered back in English, and we got into a bit of a chat: he was a Turk Cypriot, he had lived in Saudi and he had once been in Italy to see Rome play Galatasaray with his uncle. What happened in Istiklal was sad, so sad.
We shook hands, and parted ways. I boarded the ferry, a new and charmless concoction that also featured flat-screen TVs on the main deck. A news bulletin was going on. I escaped upstairs, outside.
The helicopter was still hovering above Galata and Beyoglu as we made our way across the Bosphorus. Below me, couples still took selfies and youngsters still threw morsels of simit to the seagulls trailing in our way, but I felt a palpable sense of sombreness hanging above our boat. Two Turks out of two, of those with whom I had been in touch, described what happened in Istiklal as sad. They didn’t refer to Daesh, or to the Kurds, but just said sad. As if they’d suddenly become understated Brits.
The fact is, I thought as our ferry went on, they were right. This wasn’t a heroic, selfless act of sacrifice. No one jumped in the building ablaze to save the crying boy. Here, a man approached some unsuspecting people, and killed them, whilst taking his life with them. What was he, or she, hoping to achieve? What sort of twisted logic told him that killing strangers on the street would be good? Istiklal might be quiet for a few days, probably, but sooner or later it’d fill up again with shoppers, and with youths singing Turkish folk songs with cymbals and violins, as it was on the previous evening. Who would remember him, or praise his act?
I made land in Eminönü and, not knowing what to do, boarded another ferry, an old one this time, to Kadiköy. Topkapi receded in the sunset whilst the vapur chugged towards Asia, and I tried to make sense of the day, of what happened, but found out that I couldn’t. You can’t really make sense out of folly.