When the December sun starts warming Istanbul, locals rush to the parks and shores by the city’s Bosphorus Strait, keen to erase any lingering depression from the previous week. I find Saturday mornings here especially uplifting: despite leading a precarious life as a freelance author, a walk on a silent, calm, warm Saturday morning fills me with a holiday-style sense of optimism. Throughout this difficult year, which has seen Turkey suffer 20 separate terror attacks, I could still find peace in the silence and joy of those places. But on Saturday, extremists blew up the intersection of three of my favorite walking places: this was an attack on Istanbul’s warm heart.
On Saturday morning I walked past the football stadium of the top division team Besiktas, and as I did so, planned to go to a pub with a friend who was on his way there for the day’s match between Besiktas and their rivals Bursaspor. The exact place where the car bomb detonated connects Dolmabahce Street, the site of the Ottoman Palace that stretches all the way to Besiktas, to Meclis-i Mebusan Street, the old locale of the Ottoman Parliament that leads to Karakoy and Cihangir, the city’s hipster neighbourhoods.
This attack was closely followed by the explosion of a suicide bomber in Macka Park, a place that lately became a favourite among locals who spend weekend mornings there bringing wicker baskets filled with sandwiches and refreshments and tote bags carrying newspapers and books.
The stadium had been rebuilt, and reopened as the Vodafone Area earlier this year (it used to be called the Inonu Stadium), and since then Besiktas fans had become an ordinary presence on these streets. During this month they often appeared in the very middle of my walks: Meclis-i Mebusan is quite empty on Saturday mornings but for joggers, flaneurs and lovers, and the passage from the stadium to Besiktas is populated by fans and riot cops sent there to protect them.
As I made it to the meeting point at around 9.30pm on Saturday evening, a journalist friend of mine was on his way from the stadium, so I ordered a large beer and started rolling a cigarette. When he arrived, I told him about an interview I had given to a “year in review” show on the BBC a few days ago, (the BBC’s new Istanbul studio is located a stone’s throw away from the bomb site), where I talked about the relative calm on the streets after the attempted coup against President Erdoğan on July 15, and my prediction that Turkey’s 2017 would be defined by debates about the new constitution more than anything else. Then the phone call came — friends and relatives asking about the huge explosion that was heard miles away from the blast site. I still remember hearing the sound of the 2003 al-Qaeda car attack explosions and feeling fear, despite being safely locked inside a room reading a book.
Only an hour ago I had passed by groups of people enjoying drinks and gossip in a crowded Karakoy street; now, as I made it back home, many seemed to preparing to leave, others immersed in their iPhones for the latest on the attacks. Sirens blazed on Meclis-i Mebusan, ambulance after ambulance travelling from the neighbourhood to the dark road that led to the place of the attack, where a huge smoke was rising in the air. People started walking faster; lovers checked in to ask for each other’s safety; on Whatsapp groups relatives recommended staying indoors.
The twin terror attacks had injured 155 people and killed 44, including 37 police officers. The attacks were claimed by the radical militant group TAK, an offshoot of PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The implications of the radical group’s attack for the sense of relative post-coup calm here will be momentous: Turkish military will probably kickstart a deeper military offensive in northern Syria in order to target militant camps and there will be much less appetite for a reasoned discussion surrounding the Kurdish question.
It was a terrifying end of the year warning to the people of Istanbul that they are not safe in and around their city. But, this is a people who are defined by their need for independence, pride and freedom. On Sunday morning I bought my newspapers and the new issue of Sight and Sound film magazine to take a walk to Macka Park, not really to seem defiant but just because it seemed like the natural thing to do. The December sun glowed even brighter than the day before.
The entrance of the park was empty, as it often is, but it couldn’t prepare me for the surprise that awaited me inside the park. It was almost noon and the air was wonderfully warm but the park seemed completely deserted. I walked in between the trees and patches of grass, remembering the struggle to find an empty space here on Sundays — all the joys of drinking, chatting and laughing in this wonderful green space throughout this horrendous year for Turkey.
Moments later a short lady in an old, torn green coat arrived, walked directly towards me and stopped a meter away. “Can you believe what is going on here, son?” she said. “I am addicted to alcohol and cigarette and rarely leave home but I just couldn’t stay indoors this Sunday. How did this happen? How did that car bomb reach the stadium? This is madness.” I gave her a cigarette and asked whether she was okay. “This is madness,” she repeated and walked away.
Kaya Genc is an essayist and novelist from Istanbul. His latest book is Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey (IB Tauris). He tweets at @kayagenc