Sunday, July 10, 2016

Fear, flux, and forgetting

When suicide bombers staged a deadly attack on check-in counters at Brussels Airport in March, I wasn’t the only person to breathe a small sigh of relief over my local hub being Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, where all passengers and bags are screened at the curbside entrances to the terminals. Taking my laptop out of my carry-on and stripping off my belt and boots twice per trip suddenly seemed not a hassle but a boon.

But on June 28, that extra layer of security itself became a target for suicide attackers, who killed at least 45 passengers, visitors, and staff at Europe’s third-busiest airport. It’s not the first time Istanbul has been hit by terrorism in recent months, and it likely won’t be the last. But in this ancient, ever-dynamic metropolis, fear and forgetting are vying for supremacy – and both are changing the city in discomfiting ways.

I first passed through Atatürk Airport in spring 2001, arriving alone from the U.S. to visit an American friend who had recently relocated to Turkey. September 11 was still five months in the future and my passport, now bulging with extra pages, was nearly blank. My 15-year relationship with Istanbul that began on that trip has since gone through all the stages of a difficult love affair: infatuation at first sight, longing from afar, thrill of discovery, arguments, disappointments, rejection, new hope, repeated heartbreak, determination to try again. (Of course, since this is a city we’re talking about, these are all one-sided emotions, but, well, some relationships are like that, değil mi?)

Over the same period, trips to what was once a strange and unfamiliar airport – the first I’d ever visited alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language, its halls filled with an eye-popping array of the world’s people, carrying out their sad farewells, joyous reunions, and anxious or excited waits in a multitude of attires and tongues – had become grindingly rote. The travelers I know in Istanbul gripe about the long lines at passport control, the regular delays, the mediocre dining and drinking options (unless you have the golden ticket to the THY executive lounge), the high likelihood of having to be shuttled out onto the tarmac to board your plane, and the overcrowded gate areas, where holiday-makers and Hajj pilgrims alike spill out of the seats and onto the ground, turning aisles into obstacle courses of suitcases and sprawling bodies. Atatürk’s chronic overcrowding has been cited by the Turkish government as a reason for building a massive (and controversial) third airport on Istanbul’s remote Black Sea coast.

In recent months, though, a resurgence of political violence in the country’s Southeast and a handful of previous terror attacks in Ankara and Istanbul – including one on the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare İstiklal Caddesi, close to my home – had done what once seemed unthinkable: left Atatürk Airport at times feeling almost like a ghost town. The dramatic drop in tourism to Turkey has been as palpable at the airport as it has on İstiklal and in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, all places I love to hate for their chaotic crowds and crumbling, inadequate infrastructure.

But like misfortune befalling an annoying friend or relative you might complain about in private but never truly wish ill, seeing these places so subdued has been a burden rather than a relief. I can hardly enjoy the relative peace and quiet of an airport, a street, or a square when I know that the reasons for the unfamiliar calm are anything but peaceful, that the sheer excitement I once felt as a tourist to Istanbul must now be shot through with trepidation for anyone who still dares to visit our battered and beleaguered city.

Our city of chaos and endless construction
Within 12 hours of last week’s attacks, Atatürk Airport was back up and running, a fact that seemed to shock many who commented on social media about how strange it was to see passengers going about their travels amid bullet holes and debris. Others noted throughout the day how quickly the cleanup was proceeding, and how the city lacked a memorial like the public messages of grief and solidarity that quickly appeared in the Belgian capital after the Brussels attack.

After eight years living in Istanbul, none of this really came as a surprise to me. Ours is a city in constant flux, one being endlessly torn down and rebuilt. We swim in Bosporus bays in the shadow of bridge construction, dine on sidewalks next to torn-up streets, shop in grocery stores and underground arcades with exposed wires hanging from the ceiling. We cross construction sites on our daily commutes, squeeze past cement mixers, walk under rickety scaffolding, and go to art exhibits in crumbling buildings awaiting renovation. We search in vain for beloved bars and cafes swept away by the tide of redevelopment, and stand perplexedly in front of new neon signage, wondering how we could have already forgotten what so recently occupied the space where this brand-new shop now stands.

In short, we live with chaos and we live with erasure. And these days we -- like so many others the world 'round -- live with terrorism too.


Jay Artale (aka Roving Jay) said...

Great to get you insight into why Istanbul was up and running so quickly, you paint a vivid picture of modern-day Istanbul... thanks for sharing. Jay (Brit living in Bodrum, via LA)

The Turkish Life said...

Thanks, Jay, just my opinion, but your comments appreciated! Hope all is well in Bodrum. I heard it was mobbed during bayram, how do things compare to previous summers now?