‘Before familiarity can turn into awareness, the familiar must be stripped of its inconspicuousness.’
– Bertolt Brecht
When the news came in of tanks entering Turkish cities, army jets flying overhead, a president on Facetime exhorting people to take to the streets, my father was overjoyed. He followed closely, closely: his face pressed right up to the screen, peering at the newsreel, as he does now with his dimming sight. From time to time he would come find me wherever I was hiding out in the house, to deliver updates of the coup in Turkey with that mischievous small-boy smile of his, the one that crinkles his eyes up into half-moons.
My father is not Turkish. His only stake in Turkish politics is that his daughter moved to Istanbul two years ago. And now he was hoping that she – I – would not be able to go back.
It was 15 July 2016. I was in Cairo. I sought out my Istanbul friends online. One said that it was quiet in Kadiköy, but that nothing was clear yet; another posted panicked updates on Facebook, not knowing whether the sounds she could hear were low-flying jets or bombs.
I was relieved to find that Hazal was at home and calm, or trying to be. ‘I’m in bed and try to sleep and try to don’t let the fear in my body,’ she wrote. ‘It all sounds fire outside.’
Omer was in his house in the mountains. He had built it himself and called it Nefesköy, ‘breath village’, and was working on making it into a retreat for people who’d had enough of the city. I pictured the green expanse, his quiet eyes. A world away from where I now sat: Cairo, still pumping out its loopy medley of car horns and electro chaabi beats – this relentless, bleary-eyed city teetering on into the night.
I ventured a joke, trying to ease the tension as we waited. ‘Why is your coup taking so long?’ I wrote. ‘Ours was finished in a couple of hours.’
‘Because it’s not a coup!’ he burst out. ‘It’s theatre.’
I couldn’t get hold of Nilufer and Ercu. I know by now that the news tells you little about how things really are. I tried not to worry, assumed they were safe.
In the morning, it was over – whatever ‘it’ was, whatever ‘over’ means. There had been violence; people had died. I avoided the news.
I finally found Ercu online. He said they were safe at home in Burgazada, the island off the south coast of Istanbul where we live. ‘We’re with friends,’ he said, ‘which helps.’ They hadn’t slept. I pictured them in the garden, chain-smoking and drinking tea. I could almost feel the circles under their eyes.
Nilu came online. I just wanted to be there, silent with her, but how can you be silent together in a chat window? I wanted to know how she was, but I knew there were no questions or answers for that right now. Scrambling to type something, to hear something, I found the only safe question. I asked about their chickens, and about the newest addition to the family, a turkey chick that fancies itself human. ‘Baby turkey is very friendly walking in the room and playing with everybody,’ she replied, ‘but other Turkey is in a big shit.’
I first met Nilufer and Ercument two years earlier, shortly after arriving in Istanbul. They opened their cafe on the same day I moved into the neighbourhood: Kadiköy, an enclave on Istanbul’s Asian side – young and alternative, yet mellow and genteel, rimmed by the Bosphorus and the Marmara sea. Low-rise, pastel-coloured, with small quirky cafes, tea gardens overlooking the water and huge, gentle dogs snoozing on the pavements. Everywhere you looked there was a pampered Istanbul cat, the feline ideal of words like bask and preen. My house was all windows and golden light at sundown, and if you craned your neck from a side window you could catch a glimpse of the water; or, better yet, just walk down the road and in a minute you’ll be at Moda Sahil, the grassy seafront promenade, among picknickers and skateboarders, canoodling lovers and musicians strumming their tunes under the trees.
And so it was that I stumbled one day upon Naboo Café. I was walking down a backstreet – whose name, oddly, was Zuhal Sokak (‘Saturn Road’) – when I turned my head and saw a flash of green. I walked on, then retraced my steps: what was that? Down a flight of stairs, a long, narrow cafe, with a frame of green at the back. A bearded man sitting on a couch greeted me in near-perfect English, and the woman behind the counter, stirring something, gave me an almost conspiratorial wink. I walked through to the green: a garden courtyard, silent and secret, with trees and an old stone wall. I lay in a loveseat for hours, drinking sage tea, reading and writing. A few other customers came and went. Nilufer brought out slices of watermelon and passed them around.
I spent more time at the cafe over the coming days and weeks, and we became friends. Nilufer was a lawyer, Ercument a computer engineer; they had both, separately, quit their full-time jobs the previous year and started to explore what they wanted to do next. In this interim of wondering they met, fell in love and decided to open a cafe together. They found this old space, which had been an abandoned warehouse, the courtyard neglected and full of trash. They worked hard to clean it up, and slowly began to add furniture they had found in the generous dumpsters of Kadiköy.
The cafe had been open for a couple of weeks when I found it, and over the coming period, more and more pieces were added, shelves found and painted, lamps made, oddities hung. It was all a rather chaotic affair, with friends and customers helping behind the counter, dishes piling up and being washed by hand at the end of long nights, cooking done randomly and together; a place which attracted, Nilufer and Ercument being who they are a motley crowd – misfits and alternatives, punks and LGBTQI and Greenpeace kids, highschoolers and hippies and the local homeless; whoever, really – a bubble within the bubble of Kadiköy. Many people expressed what I had also felt from the start: that they felt immediately at home.
When people would ask me what I was doing in Istanbul, I would explain that I’m a freelance writer and translator, and I move a lot. I move intuitively, I would say: places call to me. I would say I like the familiarity of Istanbul, the ease with which east and west are enmeshed: hijabs and short skirts; calls to prayer from the minarets and beer in the supermarkets; clean streets with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings (which are sometimes ignored) – a system that works, but leaves enough room for a bit of chaos. People going places, yes, but there’s always time to meet, to eat, to linger, to drink those endless glasses of tea. I would cite the beauty of the city, too: the water everywhere, the ferries, the hills – some were still dotted with green – the pink-hued skyline, the old mosques, the impossibly impractical tiny glasses of tea on the ferry. The food was good (I especially liked the home cooking served at small lokantas) and even the language felt so accessible, as though I had spoken it somewhere before. How it felt almost like home, but thankfully wasn’t: it was more welcoming, more liveable and humane, lighter and easier on my heart than home.
The previous summer, on 30 June 2013, mass rallies broke out in Cairo to depose Mohamed Morsi, the first president to come to power after the 2011 Tahrir uprising. Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood puppet, was not – to my mind and the minds of those around me – a president who represented the ideals of our revolution. But when, in the wake of these rallies, the military announced its removal of Morsi and subsequent takeover of the country on 3 July 2013, it felt as though our dreams had been rendered stillborn. Tahrir Square, where we had chanted for bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity, now swelled with people singing pro-military songs and army jets spinning heart shapes across the sky.
It also became the site of a spate of sickening mob sexual attacks on women. During that week of mass protests, close to 200 cases of mob attacks, including rape, were reported. With the police and army ignoring or denying the existence of these attacks, a group of young volunteers, my sister among them, spearheaded taskforces to extricate girls and women from the grip of these mobs. I volunteered for two heavy days in this square that had become unrecognisable, until the mass rallies died down.
I am not sure where the rest of July went. Broken, I spent it at my sister’s, with two cats for company, watching in a blind stupor as our uprising morphed into something we could no longer find our footing in: a violent, polarized battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and military supporters. Anyone who now spoke out against the military regime was declared anti-Egyptian, a terrorist. The witch hunts began: tens of thousands arrested, mass death sentences churned out.
I left Cairo in the beginning of August, desperate for some air. I had been gone for ten days when I heard the news of the Rabaa massacre: at least 800 people dead as police and army ‘cleared’ a sit-in of pro-Morsi supporters. It had taken place two streets away from my parents’ house.
I was out of the country for two months, trying to put myself back together again. By the time I returned, I knew that it was time to leave Cairo.
I had a different place in mind; but in December, when I visited Istanbul almost by chance, on a quick trip, I realised this is where I had to be.
I arrived in Istanbul on 19 April 2014. The first months felt like one long exhale. I soaked everything up, made many friends. Wore dresses again, danced. I deactivated my Facebook account and avoided the news. I began to let my guard down, walking and breathing more easily in the street, as the shield that had hardened over four years started to melt.
Sometimes people in Istanbul would ask me if I missed Cairo, if I felt homesick. I was always surprised, almost offended, at the question. I would try to explain that although my parents are from Egypt, and it’s the place I have spent much of my adult life trying to live in, coming back to then running away from, I’ve also been part of many other places. I would try to explain that Cairo is my nemesis. I could not explain that although it was supposed to be home, it was the place where I felt the most estranged. I could not explain the airlessness of this city, the smog and traffic and unbearable noise, the crowds and concrete closing in on you; the exhaustion you feel just being, the way it slashes any energy you might have – let alone ideas, or dreams, or capacities – into dust. The corruption that has scraped its dirty nails into every aspect of our lives, robbing the city, robbing us, of any semblance of a natural life. The grinding conformism, the lack of any sliver of space to live as oneself. Miss Cairo? What was there to miss?
The way we broke through the stagnation and stultifying apathy for a moment, broke through to say no, broke through as one. How we said no, millions of us, to a system that had estranged and disenfranchised us all; and, in one square, enacted our collective imaginary of a nation where we could all belong.
And then how we splintered, and were splintered apart. Until we became so fragmented and polarized that we could no longer speak. Until the system began to reinstate itself and to carry out its systematic elimination of any threat – through violence, arrests and torture and kidnappings and killings; through media manipulation; through turning people against one another – squeezing out of this land anyone who did not belong. As a graffiti in Cairo declared, if we cannot live in dignity and freedom on the face of this land, we are better off buried in its belly.
No, I did not miss Cairo one bit. For my first five months in Istanbul, I barely even thought of it.
I went to Cairo in September 2014. It was my first time back since I’d left. And it was during this 9-day visit that I began to realise the magnitude of what I’d been trying to leave behind. The enormous sense of loss, the aching void of this moment in our revolution set itself into my body. When I left Istanbul, it was still sunny and warm. By the time I got back, it was winter – rain, sleet, bitter winds – making me wonder how long I’d really been gone. By New Year’s, it was snowing. We celebrated at the cafe, but I left early and walked through Kadiköy, looking at the footprints of other people’s shoes in the snow.
On 17 February, one day after my birthday, there was a demostration in Kadiköy against a draft bill on ‘domestic security’, designed to expand the powers of the police. A journalist coming back from the demonstration started a snowball fight with friends, and one snowball hit a shop window. The shopkeeper came out and stabbed the man to death. Still ignoring the news, I overheard most of this from friends. I saw them angrily connecting the incident to ongoing official policy, including a speech made by the president a couple of months earlier to an association of shopkeepers and tradesmen encouraging them to ‘act as soldiers, police and judges’ where necessary. Nilufer and Ercu put up a sign on the door to their cafe that read: you can throw snowballs here.
We hadn’t spoken a lot about Gezi, the movement that had sprung out of their Taksim Square protests in the summer of 2013, but its presence was all around us. Not just in the attempts to regroup, the small, angry marches I sometimes saw around Kadiköy, or in the increasingly sporadic calls for protest in Taksim that were constantly throttled by heavy police presence. I knew that it was no coincidence that so many of the people I met were in the middle of a major life change. Like Nilu and Ercu, a remarkable number of the people I encountered were pursuing a different way of life, asking many questions about who they are and how they want to live, about what else is there.
I recognized these changes. Many of the people I knew in Egypt who had been involved in the uprising – including myself – had gone through a dramatic internal shift that rippled through surprisingly intimate aspects of our lives: our relationships with others, with family and partners and friends, with work, society, authority and the wider world. They happened on an individual scale, but after a while we began to recognize these as collective experiences: a sweeping inquest of ‘the way things are’.
And though I didn’t follow the news and had chosen to turn my back on the political situation, I could see, and sense, that ‘the way things are’ here in Istanbul contained echoes of what I had left behind – and that these echoes were growing louder. Beneath the diversity I had admired was a simmering polarization; the regime was going to ever-greater lengths to expand its powers, to silence dissent and quash other ways of living, to manipulate different segments of society against one another, to isolate the elements that it perceived as a threat to itself. The city, too, was changing, and fast. The Gezi movement had started as a protest about the removal of a small park, one of the last remaining green spaces in the centre of the European side, to make way for a new ‘development plan’ that included a shopping mall and luxury flats, by a contractor with close ties to the ruling party. It was emblematic of the wider changes I could see in the city: an increasing commercialisation that was demolishing old buildings everywhere and devouring the remaining forests and green spaces; cranes, skyscrapers and strange futuristic towers on the skyline. There was a familiar sense of disillusionment, a fading of hope about things changing in a wider sphere. People too young to be cynical, to be nostalgic, were mourning an Istanbul they were losing.
In the summer, there was a brief reprieve. With a gathering momentum against the regime, a charismatic leader, and a campaign based on pluralism and minority rights, the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), a new party, had a surprise win at the parliamentary elections. Backed by Kurds and left-wing liberals and claiming to represent all marginalized sections of Turkish society, it amassed 13 per cent of the vote and was elected to parliament, thus denying the AKP (Justice and Development Party) its ruling majority for the first time in thirteen years. This thwarted Erdogan’s plans to rewrite the constitution and install himself as an ‘executive president’ with far-reaching powers.
We danced in the park in Kadiköy, a huge gathering, to the tune of Kurdish songs.
In the coming months, however, the AKP would manoeuvre its way back. The way they built their campaign on exploiting people’s fears – the drone of stability, stability, stability – was all too familiar. Even more chilling for me was the fact that the Turkish word, as I discovered on their billboards, was the same as the Arabic: istikrar, istikrar, istikrar. The very same word that had been intoned for years by the regime we had tried to unseat in Egypt.
And within weeks of the euphoria of the HDP election win, a deadly conflict between the government and the Kurdish organisation PKK flared up again in the east.
I was growing tired of the city, its beauty starting to fade from my eyes. Since my first visit to Istanbul, I’d had my eye on the Princes’ Islands – a group of small islands just south of the city. They were a short ferry commute, but a world away, from the busy mainland. There were no cars on the island, only horse-drawn carriages, pine and fig trees, and old wooden houses with flower gardens (and of course, this still being Istanbul, plenty of seagulls, cats and dogs). Ercu and Nilu had moved to the second island, Burgazada, in the spring, and in the late summer, I also found my home there: a small, sweet place huddled into a hill, overlooking an expanse of blue.
If Istanbul had given me a place to root, to feel safe for the first time in years, in Burgazada my roots expanded. After years of living in huge cities, I learned about seasons, including my own. Time stretched and I deepened into myself.
Nilu and Ercu started raising chickens. We walked in the woods, collecting firewood for the winter. We watched the migration of thousands of birds over the island – leylek. When I wondered what kind of bird that was in English, Nilu explained: ‘They bring babies.’
One night in the fall, at my house on the island, after a game of Taboo in a mash of Turkish and English that had us laughing until tears rolled down our cheeks, the talk turned. A friend of ours had gotten punched in the face by a man in the street, a stranger, who had blurted out something crazy about her being a woman and walking alone. This had happened in Kadiköy. Ercu said more incidents like this were happening – that they were sending people to terrorize and intimidate us. I balked at this, at my friend talking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. I protested that polarization, creating rifts and manipulating people against one another, sits at the heart of a shaky regime’s strategy. He argued that there was such a thing as ignorance, backwardness, brainwashing. He looked at me and said, ‘I just don’t understand how one person can do that to another. I need an explanation.’
As we put the dishes in the sink – a smear of chocolate, a skeleton of grapes, banana skins and peanut shells like whispers or dead leaves – I felt the air thicken, suddenly, as I found myself saying, in a voice that didn’t sound like mine: ‘You can’t change anything. You can’t make anything unhappen –’ I drew a breath, not knowing what words would come next, ‘but can we resist . . . the things we hate . . . without turning into them?’
And, that night, in the kitchen, Ercu asked me, ‘How long do we have until we turn into Egypt?’ As though Egypt was not a place, a country, mine, but a state, a condition from which there was no return.
I didn’t tell Ercu, though Nilu knew, about what had happened a few days earlier.
I had just landed back in Istanbul from another visit to Cairo that had left me depleted, wrung out like a rag. I remember getting on the bus from the airport to Taksim, and then walking through the square with my backpack, thinking You made it. You went to Cairo and you came back in one piece. You’re okay now. You’re here. I remember taking the yellow microbus, getting off at Kadiköy, and walking to my friend’s house where I would be spending the night because I had missed the last ferry to the island. I remember marvelling at how safe I was feeling, how much I simply dropped my guard, just like that, a load hoisted off my back, just because I was now in Istanbul and not in Cairo – when I noticed someone walking behind me. I glanced back and it was a man. He was smiling. I kept walking. I will not get paranoid about this. After a moment I looked back again to check and he was not there, and then I realised he was not there because he was on my left side, and suddenly his face was in mine and he grabbed me from behind, his hand was on my crotch, and he whispered something in my ear in Turkish that I didn’t understand but I understood, and I realised that the street was empty, that there was nobody else around and it was 2 a.m., the fact that this was Kadiköy, Istanbul, meant nothing now, that there was a man and his hands were on my body and there was something unhinged in his eyes, and I began to struggle and to shout and I managed to land a blow on his face and he drew back for a moment, stunned, then yelled something and struck me on the cheek or chin and then, suddenly, loosened his grip and began to hurry away, disappearing down a side street.
In the coming hours and days I could not stop thinking of how, just moments earlier, I had been thinking I’ve made it back from Cairo, I’m in Istanbul, I’m okay.
When a suicide bomb ripped through a rally calling for peace between the armed forces and the PKK in Ankara on 10 October 2015, killing over 100 people and injuring over 500 more, the deadliest in Turkey’s modern history, I was at a writers’ residency in Canada. I stared at the picture of the young people at the front of the rally, their hands still conjoined, ducking as they felt the impact of the explosion, engulfed by billowing red and smoke.
When a bomb exploded near a metro station in Istanbul on 1 December; another at Istanbul’s second airport on 23 December; and when a suicide bomber detonated his device on 12 January 2016 in the middle of Istanbul’s tourist district, I was in Lesbos, Greece – this island that had become a gateway through which hundreds of thousands of refugees were pouring since the summer, in their attempt to reach a safe haven. In November, I’d read that there was a desperate shortage of Arabic-speaking volunteers, and I put myself on an overnight bus to Ayvalik and made the short ferry crossing to Lesbos. The plan was to be there for just one week, then return to my life in Istanbul. I ended up staying for two months, staring into thousands of faces looking for my own.
On 19 March, when another suicide bomb ripped through the center of Istanbul, Istiklal Street, minutes away from Taksim Square, I was back home in Burgazada. I left the house. I walked through the streets of the island, looking at the Istanbul skyline across the water. I watched the trees turn, their newest leaves a thin, translucent green, the fragrant mimosa and the cherry blossoms in bloom.
I thought I was fine, immune to all these things by now. I chatted with a friend on the phone, made dinner plans for the next day. I cooked, tried to work a bit. But as night came I felt an encroaching sense of loneliness and unease. I felt a pressing need to be with close friends; I wished Nilufer and Ercu were here. But they had decided to head into the city – to head, in fact, to the site of the bombing. A party had been planned for some time at a friend’s place in Cihangir, just a couple of streets away from where the bomb had struck. Nilufer texted me that the party ‘will be small and sad’, but they had decided to go. I pictured the two of them, wearing their coats against the wind, striding through the empty metro, the empty streets: their own resistance.
I had been in Cairo for three months when the news came in of a military coup attempt in Turkey. I had arrived in April, intending to stay for just a month-long visit, but when my father announced that he had finally found a kidney donor and that his long-awaited hope of a transplant was imminent, I stayed. And despite the hospital visits, the round upon round of tests, the chaos and lack of clarity and endless excuses from the hospital and doctors that kept us waiting and waiting again when everything seemed ready; despite my panic about my father going through such an undertaking in Egypt, despite seeing up close this decrepit system in slow collapse and feeling my heart clench with the fear of what it might do to one I love – something new happened this time. When I gave in to the fact that there was nothing in this situation that I could control – nothing to be done but be here with him – nothing I could offer except patience and companionship, something eased. It was my fourth visit to Cairo since I had left, and for the first time, I began to feel a deep, unexpected fulfilment at being in Egypt – like there were pockets of myself that I didn’t realise had lain empty all this time. To be immersed again in this language and society, to understand everything and to be understood, to be – for better and for worse – in the thick of things; to be suffused again with this incomparable, unconquerable Egyptian humour. To be with family, to be with so many beloved friends – I thought nearly everyone had left, like me, but it turns out it’s not so easy or clear-cut. Some had stayed, others had left and come back, or were coming back at intervals; still others were leaving now, in these waves that were taking us away from and back to this place that, I began to realise now, we could never really leave.
And despite life growing ever-harsher in the city, the economy tanking, the pound in freefall, prices skyrocketing, the crushing weight of everything, the news a never-ending deluge of disaster, the propaganda machines continuing to spew out an absurd fairytale narrative of progress; despite a state that continues to terrorize its citizens with ongoing arrests and torture and death sentences, despite the increasing mania of Sisi’s speeches – or perhaps because of all this – I noticed how remarkable it is that once you step away from the news and move around the city you could still see, despite the hunched backs and worn-out eyes, some people smiling, clowning around, falling in love, doting on their children, watching them grow, doing what they can to keep going. I noticed things that I didn’t know were so familiar, things I had resisted thinking of as part of me: the sweeping sandstone color of the city, the way old ba’al delis always stink of gebna roumi, the fragrance of small-leafed mint in bitter black tea. Like the title of that poem by Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet, ‘Things I Didn’t Know I Loved’.
Nilufer and Ercument decided to get married in the late summer. I landed in Istanbul two days before the wedding, to be here with them, and to sort out all the things I had left hanging four months earlier. I was preparing to return to Cairo for perhaps a longer spell, especially as my father’s surgery was still subject to interminable delays.
Though Cairo had been generous this time in unexpected ways, I knew that I was also exhausted. I noticed how hunched my shoulders were, how wary and watchful I was of everybody in the street; the shield that hardens invisibly around my body in Cairo had suddenly become perceptible.
When I arrived at the cafe, Nilufer was there. I walked into her arms for a long hug. Thinking back to those early slapdash days, I was amazed at how it all looked now: glasses and dishes lined up neatly, everything calm and running smooth. It had been over two years since I first walked in here.
The next morning, I took the ferry to the island. I walked into my island home. I put my bags down and looked around, at the desk, at the bed, at the jars on the kitchen rack, as though testing something. I listened to the sounds outside: the seagulls, the crows, the wind in the pines. I looked out of the windows into the blue. White sails in the water, and ferries crossing here and there, leaving a wide ribbon of split sea in their wake. For some reason I could not see the beauty that had moved me so in all the months I had spent here. After four months of Cairo, I felt ill at ease, almost hemmed in by the silence.
Preparations for the wedding were underway: a do-it-yourself affair in a tea garden right next to the couple’s house, against a backdrop of the bay and green hills.
Throughout the arrangements and during the party, I was still walking around hollow. For the first time, I felt left out of group conversations: though I usually understood enough to follow, and often got translation from friends when I didn’t, I was suddenly frustrated at not being able to understand everything, to be inside the flow, to get the jokes quickly enough to respond.
I didn’t want to be alone, and I didn’t feel like being with a lot of people. So when Nilufer and Ercu suggested going away together to an island in the Aegean Sea, I jumped at the idea. A group honeymoon, we joked.
The mountain goats, the soft clamour of their bells as they ramble over rocks and shrubs: we slept to that sound at night. The dramatic silhouettes, angular hills of dry brown and olive green. Fig trees, their fruit overripe and burst. The wind flapping our tents like plastic bags, water crashing against the cliffs. On still nights, the sky a sheet of stars.
Gökçeada is the westernmost point in Turkey, six hours south of Istanbul by car and another one-and-a-half on a ferry that is often cancelled in the winter when the seas are too rough, leaving the island cut off from the mainland for weeks – as Ercu told me with relish. They were looking for land here.
For the past year, since moving to Burgazada, we had been talking about our next step: moving farther away from the city and creating something new together. I was surprised that this was the place they had finally settled on. Though it had a wild, almost desolate beauty of its own, Gökçeada seemed to me a strange place, a testament to its unsettling history. A Greek island until the Treaty of Lausanne had granted it to Turkey in 1923, the entirely Greek population – though technically protected under the treaty – had been, by many accounts, forced into exodus by a campaign of state-sponsored intimidation, including closure of schools and confiscation of lands. Ercu said they had even created an open-air prison, releasing convicts from the mainland onto the island. There was still a couple of perfectly preserved Greek villages perched on hilltops, all winding cobblestone paths and white stone houses wrapped in bougainvillea; along with newer, concrete constructions at the foot of these same hills, where villagers from some of Anatolia’s most conservative regions had been given government incentives to relocate. One afternoon, we wandered through Derekoy (‘Stream Village’). Once the largest village on the island, it is now a ghost town of abandoned stone houses, some half in ruins, many still standing and eerily empty, mountain goats peering down at us from top-floor windows.
Why this place? The winds felt harsh and unforgiving, the soils stubborn (as an old Greek neighbour said when asked about a piece of land next to his: ‘You can grow salt here, or gunpowder’) – not to mention the uneasy history.
The day we arrived, as we sat on a rock looking out over the hills, I asked Nilufer how she felt here. She replied, without missing a beat: ‘Far from government. Far from city.’
When I returned to Istanbul, its beauty was suddenly so alive in my eyes again. I went for an impromptu breakfast picnic with Hazal and some of her friends at a community garden in Kuzguncuk. Turkish breakfast is a shared, lavish affair of small dishes, broken with bread and bitter black tea. That morning we had olives, nuts, cheeses, eggs; tahin-pekmez; plum tomatoes, cucumbers, arugula and mint from the garden; and home-made mulberry jam. Though I didn’t know anyone else there apart from Hazal, the company was easy and warm that generous Sunday morning, as it so often seemed to be for me in Istanbul.
I remembered how out of place I had felt when I arrived last week. I realised that part of me had been holding back, almost willing myself to feel like an outsider, as though guarding my loyalty to Cairo. I had to return soon; I didn’t want to slip back into feeling at home here.
At a laughing, playful catch-up dinner with a group of friends an evening later, the mood changed when one, arriving late, talked about how she had got lost on the way, missing the turn-off to the Bosphorus Bridge because it had been renamed the ‘15 July Martyrs Bridge’.
Suddenly the table was heaving with a tight and angry discussion. Everyone was talking about the purges of schoolteachers, the closure of entire schools, the printing of a new schoolbook about the triumph of democracy on 15 July – the day of the ‘thwarted coup attempt’ – the changing of syllabi to incorporate this landmark event, the implementation of an annual national holiday, the construction of history before our eyes. I couldn’t follow everything, but I recognised enough.
I had noticed, on the way back from Gökçeada, that the name of Istanbul’s main bus station had been renamed the ‘July 15 Democracy Station’. I’d seen the large new banners on the streets and ferries, which read, in an aggressive red font: ‘biz milletiz turkiye’yi darbe terore yedirmeyiz!’ (we the people will not allow turkey to be eaten by this terrorist coup!). I had read a bit, more than I could handle, about the state of emergency that had been imposed since the ‘coup attempt’ to give the president greatly expanded powers; about the purges of tens of thousands of schoolteachers, the closure of hundreds of private schools, charities and foundations; of scores of radio stations, publishing houses and newspapers; the firing of the dean of every university, state and private, in Turkey, and the travel ban on many academics; about the arrests and suspension of tens of thousands of soldiers, judges, and public sector workers; about the cancellation of the passports of 50,000 Turkish citizens.
But at dinner, it was not the words that I followed, but the way the faces around the table changed – how they had hardened and compressed into a collective expression that I recognized: a fearful, defiant, helpless, furious sense of loss.
In Istanbul, I saw the very same pundits and preachers and propagandists, the talking heads on television screens that I knew from Cairo. I recognised the same propaganda machines, the machinations of these decrepit regimes, as though they were all produced by the same factory – right down to newly minted national holidays and the renaming of bridges. I thought of how I did not continue learning Turkish with the same eagerness as when I first arrived, and wondered now how much it had to do with tuning all this out, with choosing my own world.
Over the past year, the tone of that question I was often asked, ‘What are you doing in Istanbul?’ had turned gradually from friendly curiosity to scepticism: ‘What (on earth) are you doing in Istanbul?’ (when you could be anywhere, anywhere else). Never more so than now. I recognized that too. The conviction that it is impossible to be happy here. That’s what I thought, too, about Cairo. I can see the same energy of discontent, mistrust of the other, deep fear and insecurity about the future and the irresolvable anger it knots up inside you, all burgeoning up in the city, like a mushroom cloud. But the truth is, I love this place and I can still see so much of its beauty. Is it because it’s not mine?
It seems that so many people around me in Istanbul are in motion. Many are moving to Kadiköy, driven further into the bubble. Others are moving out of the city and to the Princes’ Islands, or to smaller cities, towns and villages in Turkey. Several people I know have moved back to their home towns: understandable when their home town feels more out of the (possible) line of fire; more interesting when, like Hazal, it’s Ankara, which has also been hit by a chain of deadly bombings. She says being close to her family brings her comfort, makes her feel more safe.
Many others – those who can – are leaving the country. At dinner that night, out of the eight of us, four were about to leave: one to France with her husband, another to study in the UK, a third relocating to Italy; and then there was me, preparing to go back to Cairo within weeks.
Then there were those who were buying land and moving to the westernmost point in Turkey.
I am thinking about escapes. I tried to choose my own way through this place, to tune out the news because I wanted to know what else is there. Is it possible to create your own world? Can you create your life, your place, as so many people I’ve met, in Istanbul and elsewhere, have done? Spaces imbued with yourself, with everything you love and believe to be important? And how long does it take until this is pierced by the larger political ‘reality’? Or does it have to be seen that way? After direct confrontation has failed, and in the face of continuing violence, physical and psychological, could it be that finding and creating what we believe in – our counter-systems, counter-worlds – is not an escape, but rather the drive to engage with a deeper reality than what we are offered, a longer-lasting form of resistance?
Ercu and Nilu find their land. They call me and tell me they’ve taken out a bank loan and bought it, just like that. It’s in what used to be a little village, now completely in ruins, called Gajarado. A mysterious name that sounds neither Turkish nor Greek, and a running joke begins that they are now proud owners of land in Mexico. When they come back to Istanbul, they show me a video. Nilufer sits on the edge of the land, looking out over the valley. The camera pans over the land: brown and flat, with a single olive tree in the middle, like something out of a myth. You managed to find the only desert in Turkey, I joke. ‘It’s ugly but beautiful,’ Nilufer says, ‘terrible and wonderful.’ They’re crazy, I think to myself.
They want to raise chickens and grow their own food; and perhaps a community will grow around them too. There’s a house on the land, in ruins, but the original stones are there, and they want to rebuild it. It’s a good place for starting something.’ After a while, as weeks go by in Istanbul and on the island, as my Cairo-cynicism begins to wane, I begin to believe in their project. Being who they are, they will probably attract a motley crew. More people are already moving to Gökçeada. A friend buys land right next door to theirs.
In my remaining weeks in Istanbul I am sorting and packing, writing and thinking about all the things this place means to me. I wonder if, above all, because it’s a place going through such upheavals, I met so many people who were in the process of asking similar questions to those I am asking of myself, of my own life. And among them I felt at home.
I don’t know what awaits me in Cairo this time, how long I will stay and how it will feel; what will happen in these places, and in my own life, over the coming months and years. But I remember Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet who lived in Alexandria and who wrote a lot about homelands and unsettledness. His poem ‘The City’: ‘You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas / The city will follow you’, haunted me in all the years that I lived in Cairo. Thankfully, Cavafy, you were both wrong and right about that.
Photograph © Karsten Wentink