by SUZY HANSEN
Hansen, on a terrace in her Istanbul neighborhood. The author arrived in 2007, and the city was in a liberated, optimistic, even raucous mood.
For nearly a decade, Istanbul had been a magical place for journalist Suzy Hansen—a cosmopolitan refuge and a welcoming home. Then the violence began.
On the day last March when a man blew himself up in the middle of Istanbul, I was at home. I heard the blast as I sat at my desk; it was nearby on Istiklal Avenue, where I walk every day. On the night in June when ISIS attacked the Istanbul airport, I was having dinner at the new Soho House, in a nineteenth-century Italianate mansion that was once the American consulate. My first thought was that it would make for a brilliant second target, and I quickly scanned the perimeter of the terrace for an escape. In the early hours of the military coup in July, I joined a line of Turks snaking out of my local deli and stuffed water bottles and beer cans in my pockets, preparing for the long night ahead. (“Are you sure you don’t need three packs of cigarettes?” the deli worker asked a customer as I left.) I watched live footage at home of the army firing on Turkish civilians—and when fighter jets flew low over the city, I took cover in my bathroom.
I am not a war correspondent. I never dreamed of watching history unfold on the front lines, or bearing witness to atrocity, or learning the difference between the sounds of a mortar and a car bomb. I chose to live in Istanbul because when I arrived the city felt like a refuge and then, very quickly, like home. Over the last decade I have become so attached that I am still momentarily confused when people ask me if I plan to leave. Istanbul has been the place I have felt safest in my life.
In 2007, when I was 29, I won a fellowship that sent journalists to the country of their choice for two years. I had grown up in a proudly provincial Jersey Shore town, believing that New York was the most daring place I could escape to. But some time after I arrived the mood of the city began to bother me. New Yorkers’ curiosity and compassion in the wake of September 11 had dissolved into a frenzy of decadence. The spiking stock market, the luxury towers crowding the skyline, the $50 grass-fed steaks on every menu—in retrospect, my decision to move to Turkey was as much about getting away from New York. I suspected there were many things that I did not understand about the rest of the world.
I arrived just as Istanbul was entering its own Gilded Age. There was a palpable feeling during this magical period that the East was leaving the West behind. The Constantinople-era buildings of Beyog˘lu, the central neighborhood where I found an apartment, were still dusty and dilapidated, with cats peeking out through broken windows, padlocks rusting on doorknobs, eerie men smoking in unlit foyers and scaring me to death. But people from all over the world were moving in, transforming what had become a kind of haunted city into a place of thriving boutiques, restaurants, hotels, and art spaces. Even the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who had long meditated on the country’s state of melancholy, expressed optimism about the future. European and American tourists invaded; Istanbul topped all the travel lists. An Islamic conservative prime minister and president were running the country after decades of state-enforced secularism, yet the city felt liberated—even raucous—and there was a gleeful defiance in the air. Istanbul was a rejoinder to the West for doubting the Muslim world’s many possibilities.
I loved Istanbul instantly, from the moment my first airport taxi merged onto the coastal road and passed the oil tankers cruising through the Sea of Marmara, a view so beautiful I couldn’t believe they had put a highway next to it instead of waterfront condos. I loved the romance of the Bosporus and the rose-gold glow of its sunsets. I was charmed by the old-fashioned ferries that shuttled back and forth between Asia and Europe, the horse-drawn carts piled high with carrots and onions, the dinners of vegetables soaked in olive oil, even the smell of burning coal in the winter. But after a year I knew it was an expat’s mistake to love a country only for its beauty or its food or its exchange rate. If I was to make Istanbul my home, I would have to define my affection beyond such superficialities. Did I love the country’s nationalism, its obsession with honor, its xenophobic soccer chants? Not really. In the beginning, it was the sense of engagement I missed in New York, of being in the middle of the world. Young people here seemed more concerned about politics, about the painful history of the region, even seemed to have a greater belief in democracy and human rights, mostly because they still had to fight for those things. By the end of two years, I had road-tripped through the dark-green mountains of Turkey’s east and taken vacations by myself on the Mediterranean; I’d rooted for Turkey’s soccer team during the Euro Cup and shouted along at countless political protests. Dating wasn’t easy—even Westernized Turkish families remained fairly traditional, and many men my age had married; upper-class Turkish women warned darkly that I would have a hard time finding someone egalitarian enough for me, and I was not brave enough to go on dates barely speaking the language. But I had a group of friends, a daily walk, a view of the famous Old City from my bedroom window. I decided to stay.
Even the first stirrings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, the subsequent crackdown in Egypt, and the war in Libya seemed only to boost Turkey’s image. Here was that rare Muslim democratic success story—the one hopeful city in a deteriorating region. Exiles and refugees arrived, adding to Istanbul’s regenerative cosmopolitanism; suddenly I heard Arabic everywhere on the streets, met a young Tunisian fashion designer in my local deli. I never worried that the violence they’d left behind would come here. For most of its modern history, Turkey had stayed out of foreign wars, and I was confident that that would continue. In 2013, at a wedding in New York, I laughed dismissively when a friend asked me if Turkey would get mixed up in Syria. A war correspondent who had actually been in Syria and seen the way the new violence dissolved borders looked at me in disbelief and walked away. I still had a lot to learn about the world.
Slowly the geopolitical landscape took a darker turn. By 2013, it had become clear that Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an, had been providing safe haven to Syrian militant groups that opposed Bashar al-Assad. Jihadis were flying into Istanbul and transferring to domestic flights to cities on the border with Syria. Journalists I knew met Syrian warlords for interviews in trendy cafés; Arab fighters did their shopping on the same gentrifying street where my friends and I bought our printer cartridges and ate gelato. Refugees arrived in numbers too enormous to control or assist, and took up residence on street corners, displacing entire neighborhoods. The chaos of the region caused Erdog˘an to fear a rebellion within his own borders, and so he started a war with Turkey’s Kurdish militants. In 2015, the first bombs went off: at a leftist gathering in the south, a rally in the east, and a peace march in the capital city of Ankara. No one agreed on who was responsible—was it ISIS, Kurdish opposition groups, the government? The uncertainty made the terror worse. And it came gradually closer: explosions in metro stations in distant Istanbul neighborhoods, then in the Old City, then on Istiklal Avenue. The reaction was a mix of fear, heartache, and detachment. Everyone in the city moved on so quickly after bombings that you yourself barely noticed how many had gone off. What I did notice was the increasing frequency of emails from friends at home: When are you getting out of there? Isn’t it time to leave? This is insane.
What do we mean when we talk about safety? A year ago, I began reporting a story in an unfamiliar neighborhood on conservative Muslims and the influx of Syrian refugees. My American acquaintances, even the tolerant ones, thought such a place might be forbidding because of its strict Islamic traditions: Many women were covered, some in black chador; some men dressed like imams. The area also was famous for drugs, mafia, guns, and thieves.
Yet it had not occurred to me to worry. In these old Ottoman neighborhoods, people rush by on narrow streets, engage in daily exchanges—of commerce, of greetings, of complaints. If you come up short a few lira at the deli, the shop owner insists you take your goods anyway, not because he is generous but because he knows that you have to come back. Everyone is up on everyone’s business, everyone is watching, and, of course, they were watching me, too. Little can happen to you when the neighborhood is an organism in and of itself, something that must be loved, fed, and protected.
That’s the feeling of security I’ve carried with me in Istanbul. For years I’ve left my purse, phone, or laptop at tables in restaurants when I go to the bathroom, and I’ve always walked home by myself late at night. I am comforted by the most ordinary community rituals: the groups of men lumbering up the hills after Friday prayer; the boys bringing tea on trays from a café to a deli employee; cats stretched across a coffee-shop counter; hipsters too respectful of Istanbul cat culture to disturb them. Once my 65-year-old mother came to visit and, while walking on the dark back streets of Beyog˘lu, tripped on the cobblestones and fell. The area had been empty; it was late at night. Before I could bend down to help her, seemingly ten men were at our side, as if they had been watching from the windows or sensed her pain through the walls. “Oh!” she exclaimed, more stunned by the reception than the fall. “Oh, my goodness! How nice. So sorry to bother you!”—a deeply American reaction to standard Turkish operating procedure of social obligation and reciprocity.
This is what the recent political unrest threatens to unravel—and my friends and I have begun wringing our hands. One thinks of moving back to Athens; a Turk married to an American I know is considering the United States. Another Turkish friend has become so distraught over her country’s politics—the persecution of dissidents, the war against the Kurds, the arrests of democratically elected politicians—that she has developed a mysterious illness and rarely wants to venture out of the house. Turks who do not support the government live ever more circumscribed lives. Many have fled the country, and many more are in jail. The only people moving to Istanbul these days are journalists, who can’t help expressing an unseemly excitement about all the new and grim prospects for work. Throughout my neighborhood, for rent signs hang in the windows. After the airport attack, the tourists stopped arriving completely, and rich Turks in their SUVs no longer “come downtown” either. Even a Starbucks has closed its doors.
The day before July’s military coup, I said goodbye to two American friends who had decided to move to Lisbon after fifteen years here. For them, the city had changed in ways they could no longer accept. They told me that the French consulate had issued a terror warning for Istanbul, and reflexively I wondered why we were sitting outside. Later that night, I saw on the news that a truck had rammed into a crowd in Nice. Twenty-four hours later, the military coup began. It seemed that enormous, horrific events were happening everywhere, and whether to leave Istanbul was beside the point—nowhere was particularly safe. A few months ago, just before seven in the morning, an apartment across from mine had a gas explosion, the force of which was so strong that shattered bits of glass blew clear across the roof of a mosque and into my own fifth-story windows. I was jolted straight out of bed and onto the floor. It sounded like a bomb. It didn’t really matter, to my rattled psyche, that it wasn’t.
I have begun to believe that a price one pays for living in an unstable place is a failure of imagination. I have had a couple of serious relationships over my decade here, but I am unmarried and have often thought about whether I want a child. My answer used to have to do with things like how much money I make, how much I like babies. Now I look out the window and am confronted with the world out there, the world I would be bringing a child into, one that often feels chaotic and bleak.
But all such calculations are speculative and to some degree irrational. They are about wondering if someplace would be better, some time, some future, will be safe. Many of us from the U.S. grew up believing security was our birthright. When that is threatened, our impulse is to withdraw or lash out. In Turkey I learned that the future will never be predictable and that mutual dependence in daily life is the truest form of safety. When I am confused about whether to leave Istanbul, I think about those tight-knit Ottoman neighborhoods and take my cue from the Turks, many of whom would never abandon the communities they have created, and who, like most of the world, don’t even have the extraordinary privilege of leaving.
A Turkish artist who recently returned from living in New York for ten years told me that it had been a difficult place for him. “The city is a grid, designed to get you from place to place quickly,” he said. “It’s a strange concept of time for me. I missed Istanbul, where I can look at something 600 years old and know it will always be there. There is something reassuring about that.” Being surrounded by history—what I craved when I moved abroad—does offer its comforts. When I wake up in the middle of the night and look out my living-room windows to a wide view of the city, I see the fourteenth-century Galata Tower brilliantly lit, a huge stone column that has survived all manner of war and atrocity. The tower is strong, permanent, and proud. And it is a reminder that far more important than plotting an escape is learning how to preserve and honor the life that we love—and to stay.
Author’s note: Since this essay appeared in the pages of Vogue, there has been more violence in Turkey, including the New Year’s attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, which killed 39. These events have been upsetting, but my plans to remain—for now—haven’t changed.