It had been a good day. I had taken a friend to my local hamam, where we had been scrubbed and rubbed and pampered. In the evening she had gone with me to the Syrian family who I teach English to, where I had taught job vocabulary to my eager teen students and led a memory game where my students had fun and got quite competitive with each. Now at home, I made some pasta and looked for a movie to watch online. I was in an arty mood, so thought I’d watch La Dolce Vita. Even though I’m a huge film buff, I’d never seen it. It seemed like the perfect night.
At the rate I’m going, I’m not sure if I’ll ever watch it.
The video was taking an unusually long time to load. My phone buzzed. It was my friend Caroline with this message:
“knew something was up cuz suddenly youtube was down – always the first sign of troubl]e in Turkey… so I check the news and see this….” with a link to a BBC article.
Every time something major happens in Turkey, access to social media and news is restricted, so we’ve learned to suspect something when the internet doesn’t work. My heart sank when I saw her message. Another terrorist attack? Please god no. . . I checked out the article and saw that the bridges in Istanbul were closed. That’s really weird, I’ve never heard of that happening before. Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, was on lockdown, but no clear reasons were given as to why. I changed the VPN on my computer, hoping I could get more news if the computer thought I was in a different country.
That’s how I found out that an attempted military coup was underway.
When I saw the words “coup”, I admit I was a little excited. I was watching history in the making! Those feelings of excitement quickly passed and I was left feeling unsure and a bit afraid. What does this mean? What exactly is happening? What should I do? I had no clue, and because my boyfriend was out of town traveling – out of the country in fact – I was all alone.
I messaged my sister in California. “Sooooooo there was a coup attempt in Turkey tonight!!!” At this point, I thought it was over and done. She and her husband quickly found the news for me and assured me that it wasn’t over yet.
Around midnight, about an hour and a half into the coup, my phone started blowing up. My cousins, friends, acquaintances I hadn’t seen in five years, it seemed like everyone was asking if I was safe and what the hell was going on. “Yes, I’m safe of course. Yes, it’s weird. No, I’m not sure what’s going on, I’ll keep you posted”.
12:30: My sister tells me that the military has taken control and has enacted martial law, meaning a curfew. So I am stuck alone in my empty apartment.
12:45: My Turkish phone rings. It’s my friend Bara, checking in to make sure I know what’s going on. Once he finds out I’m alone, he says he’s coming to get me and take him to his house. I am so grateful. I didn’t realize until then how much I wanted to be with others, to be rescued to some safe haven from this uncertainty. I throw some clothes and essentials in a backpack, and, heart in my throat, slip out into the night.
I was really nervous to go meet Bara. I didn’t know what to expect on the streets. Police enforcing the martial law? But when I got to the main road to his apartment, it was clear that no one in Izmir gave a fuck. It was 1 am, and the streets were far from quiet. There were long lines at the liquor stores, ATMs, and late-night bakeries as people attempted to stock up for the unknown.
1:00: I meet Bara on the street and we walk towards his house. Both of us are a bit tense and unsure, and very surprised when the speakers of a mosque click on and lilting Arabic rings out into the night. What’s this? It’s far too late for the call to prayer. After chanting, the voice speaks in rapid Turkish. I catch “saat kulesi” and “konak”. Bara translates, and says that the prayer caller is calling on the people to take to the streets and support their elected government by going to the square in Konak where the Saat Kulesi, the famed clocktower of Izmir, stands. Ten minutes later, we see one lone middle-aged man with a Turkish flag over his shoulder heading to the square. Later, we would see photos of the huge mob of people that gathered there that night, and in the resulting chaos the clock on the historic tower would be damaged.
Bara lives close to some friends of ours, a family of Syrians, so we went to their place. They welcomed me warmly and joked that I have now become the refugee and teased me for packing such a large bag. It was 1:30, and I was in good, albeit still nervous, company. Hasan, the eldest of the siblings, made me tea and special Syrian cheese and we talked in the kitchen, pausing to check our phones every once in a while. He told me how in Syria, they watched as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya all had their protests and revolutions and wars, followed by his own country. He spoke so casually, yet his words struck me. If things got really bad, my American passport would make it quite easy for me to leave. My Syrian, and even my Turkish friends, wouldn’t be so lucky.
3:00: Another round of messages and calls, but this time on my Turkish phone as well. Zac, being out of the country and unable to get a hold of me, had posted on the Facebook page of our volunteer group for our friends to make sure I was alright and not alone. Clearly, no one in Turkey is sleeping tonight. I am touched by the concern of our friends on my behalf.
3:30: I excuse myself from the kitchen on the pretense of getting some sleep. Ayşe and Nusabe, the sisters, graciously give me their room, saying it’s too hot and they usually sleep in the hall. Finally I get in touch with Zac, and he and I talk for a long time on whatsapp. He said that it looked like the coup was failing, and we agreed that if anything super crazy happened I would take the ferry to Greece and that we’d figure it out from there. I promised to lay low for the weekend, and to continue to stay with friends.
Between my phone continuously going off and all the thoughts and emotions running through me, sleep was hard to come by that night. I finally put down the phone close to 5:00, but I think I only slept an hour or two. I felt scared about the coup and the uncertainty of the future, and more than a little depressed. Would I really have to take the ferry to Greece? What if I did leave Turkey? Would I go to Europe? The US? What would I do, live with my parents and go back to working at Sephora? How could I possibly leave my amazing friends, my adopted family, and my life that I’d built over the last six months?
The next few days were strange and hazy. I passed the time with my Syrian friends and Caroline, a Canadian woman who also lives in Bara’s building. Saturday the streets were very quiet. We joked that we had found ourselves in a zombie movie, at the moment when the protagonists are not sure if it’s safe to go outside or not. We decided to brave it and go to a huge Migros supermarket around 5 pm to stock up for the unknown. It was a surreal experience. The market was so big, and everything was so colorful. . . after being cooped up all day it was a sensory overload, and our sleep deprivation made us all a bit loopy and giddy.
Caroline had friends staying with her, two more Canadian women, that naturally wanted to enjoy Turkey during their stay, and I tagged along with them on some of their excursions. It was far preferable to being alone and staying inside. Sunday we went to Nazarköy, a village where they make the blue glass “evil eye” baubles that are popular all over Turkey. We had lunch and walked around the stalls. For the artisans, vendors, and tourists here, life appeared very normal. Life goes on. Work continues. I bought a necklace and a colorful scarf, figuring it may be my last chance for souvenirs from this country.
Monday I accompanied them on a boat cruise. These are very common around the Aegean and Mediterranean cities in Turkey, but I had never been on one. The boat leaves in the morning, sails around and stops at 3 or 4 different swimming spots before returning in the afternoon, all the while blasting loud Turkish dance music. The boats serve lunch, and vary in style and poshness. Ours was favored by trannies and included a Turkish drag queen floor show, which was amazing. Nothing makes you forget your troubles like an epic drag show! It occurred to me that I’d lived in Turkey for 6 months, and the only belly dancing I’d seen was done by a Turkish drag queen in a bleach-blonde wig and tropical Carmen Miranda outfit.
As I gazed around the boat at Turks lounging, dancing, and swimming, it seemed like nothing was amiss. I saw people that loved their country, passionately singing and movie to their music. I saw people that wanted to enjoy life’s simple pleasures like sunbathing and swimming in the salty, clear Aegean and forget their hardships. It was good to have that day, some space to just exist and enjoy.
After the coup, life in most of Izmir feels the same. Once in a while though, I catch a whiff of something simmering below the surface. People are tense, on edge, unsure. There are still nightly rallies at the square in Konak in support of the government. Thousands of people have been arrested, from the police to military to teachers. I don’t know what is going to happen in Turkey, or when, but I’m not sure that I want to be here when it does.
It is with all of this in mind that I’ve made the very painful and difficult decision to leave Turkey. In a few weeks we fly to Berlin for some summer travel, and I’ve decided that I won’t return from that trip. This leaves me about two and a half weeks to pack up my things, enjoy time with the beautiful friends I’ve made, and begin looking for work teaching English somewhere else.
I’m definitely sad to leave, and not ready. Timing is everything, and in the two weeks before the coup I had felt like my life here had finally come together. I was working hard and proud of what I was doing. Saying goodbye to that is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, it is bittersweet. I am hopeful for the future and open to the opportunities it will bring in wherever I end up next.
Good Luck and Happy Travels,