Returning to Turkey

Reflections on witnessesing the Turkish coup.

Art: Michael Lotsaris

You never forget the first time you see a refugee. The eyes. Her eyes. She sat on a curb in the back streets of Istanbul. Far from her homeland of Syria, there in person and not through a Facebook feed. She cradled her child with one hand, and reached outwards towards nothing with the other. I still remember her hands; weathered and alien, they spoke for themselves. Despite the fact I couldn’t stop looking, she was invisible. My cousins pushed me onwards to the famous bazaars and markets.

The variety of the markets is astonishing. Spices collected from each corner of the world, the scent of Turkish coffee ready to serve. Mosaic lanterns – a mixture of tradition and modern design – hung above us. A confronting question hung there too. It’s hardest to avoid the question in Taksim Square, the site of a bombing only weeks before.

I had imagined brushing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others, a place where the bodies of tourists and locals could intertwine. Now it was almost empty. It’s not easy to forget a terrorist attack. And when you walk over the exact spot where the attack occurred, each step you take becomes a cautious one.

Our bus was winding its way through the beautiful foothills of Amasra back towards Istanbul when we heard something had happened at the Bosphorous bridge – the bridge that connects Europe and Asia in the capital. By then, we were already programmed to assume it was a terrorist attack. We sigh and watch on. The woman beside me causes a scene, leaving the bus, crying that there was no way she was going to Istanbul. It was a military coup. We realised then that history was being written. At the bus terminal, we witness lines of people cancelling tickets to Istanbul and Ankara. We go to join them.

“You must stay in the terminal,” we’re told. “The gendarmerie are blocking the roads.” We sat, sipping Turkish tea and answering phone calls into the early hours of the morning. Some children slept on their father’s laps, others lay on newspaper as their mothers waited anxiously. The television glare reflected off drained eyes.

The moment we could, we sped home. I remember the summer air blowing through my hair as we rushed down empty streets. When we returned to my cousin’s house, safe and undamaged, we heard the beginnings of pro-regime protests. They held those red flags like they were extensions of their skin. On the other side of my room, there was a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president. We fell asleep to the sounds of chanting.

It’s said that news makes us feel the world is closing in around us, but we aren’t the ones that are trapped. I woke, and later left. Nothing changed for those who remained.