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Istanbul, the Day After

If this city knows how to do anything, it’s how to move on.

Istanbul residents walk in the streets near Taksim Square after an attempted military coup in Turkey. (Kemal Aslan/Reuters)

Glancing at the to-do list on my desk that I’d scribbled just hours before, the scrap of paper seemed to have appeared from some alternate universe too banal to be believed.

Set alarm for 6 a.m. Take out the trash when I go out for an early-morning run. Bring some money to buy fruit for breakfast on the way home.

Cowering on the entryway floor at 3 a.m. as jets roared past, their sonic booms shaking the building and threatening to break the windows, hadn’t been part of the plan.

Istanbul, the city where I’ve lived since 2008, has been targeted by multiple terrorist bombings since the beginning of the year. So when the first reports started to come in on Twitter Friday night of soldiers and tanks on the Bosporus Bridge—lit up like the French tricolor to honor the victims of the horrific attack that had occurred in Nice scarcely 24 hours earlier—a serious security alert seemed like the most logical explanation. Hearing helicopters circling overhead, a common sound during protests past, didn’t seem all that surprising either. Nor did my Facebook and Twitter feeds slowing to a crawl: Turkey is well-known for blocking social media or “throttling” the Internet during tense times.

The early suggestions that what might actually be happening was a military coup seemed initially like wild online speculation, or perhaps a bit of wishful thinking. There are still some factions within Turkish society that see the armed forces in their self-styled role as guardians of the country’s secular democracy.

Even once the military announced that it had taken control of the government, at first no one seemed to know what to think or how to respond. Some tried to put on a brave face. “We are safe. In the pub. The pub has shutters. Come to the pub?” one friend wrote on Facebook. “Note to self: Never attempt a detox during a military coup,” another joked. Others started trying to make their way home from wherever they’d been spending their Friday night. Long lines formed for people to withdraw cash at ATMs and a steady stream of customers flowed in and out of my corner shop, toting away large bottles of water, packs of toilet paper, and plastic bags full of provisions.

Then came news of skirmishes after government officials called for people to take to the streets, a message repeated from the minarets of mosques. The noise of their loudspeakers crackling was eerie at an hour when even non-Muslims, so accustomed to this sound’s role in the city’s daily sonic fabric, knew it wasn’t time for a call to prayer. The unmistakable sound of gunfire emanated from nearby Taksim Square, center of mass protests in 2013 that had likewise made every moment feel acutely vivid, but in a way that was thrilling and full of promise. This wasn’t like that.

The persistent ping of messages on Facebook, full of “Are you OK?” enquiries from around the world. A call to speak to a news station back in the United States about what was going on. The rumble of a low-flying jet. And then on the CNN Türk live broadcast, an announcer reporting that the station building was being occupied by military troops.

My Internet connection flickered on and off. When it came back, there were empty chairs at the newscasters’ desk. Off-screen, sounds of fighting, screaming, shots fired in the station. And then out in the street, the rumble again, louder and louder this time, until a massive explosion shook the walls and rattled the windows, sending me diving into the windowless foyer, covering my ears against the still-thunderous noise. On my laptop, the sounds of struggle at the CNN Türk building continued. My windows stayed intact. Others in the neighborhood weren’t so lucky. A friend consoled his young son, woken from his sleep by the ruckus, telling him the sound had just been a car backfiring.

Like many others here, I stayed up until the sun started to rise, bleary but too anxious to sleep. The street had gone quiet and the news was reporting that the government was back in control, not that that was much consolation. No matter how the night ended, we all knew a rocky road lay ahead for Turkey.

The sound of birds chirping themselves awake soon after reverberated even more loudly than usual in this city where weekend mornings are typically rare moments of respite from incessant noise. The stillness continued later into the day than usual, the air free of the pounding construction, honking horns, and shouting voices that I would normally be thrilled to be rid of for a few hours. Under the circumstances, though, it was an uneasy quiet.

A police vehicle parked beside the Republic Monument at Taksim Square in Istanbul the day after an attempted coup. (Kemal Aslan/Reuters)

By the latest count, at least 265 people are reported to have died in clashes across Turkey overnight.

After the June 28 attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, many outside observers noted how quickly the facility was back up and running, seeing admirable resilience in how flights were once again arriving and departing a mere 12 hours after suicide bombers killed at least 45 people. But as discomfiting as it is to see typically packed places nearly empty, the firm insistence here on a rapid return to “normality”—with little time for mourning or reflection—is almost equally so.

Two large water cannon and a row of TV news vehicles remained stationed on Taksim Square when I passed through this afternoon. Handfuls of young men were taking each other’s pictures near the square’s central Republic Monument as they waved Turkish flags. A few cars drove by, their occupants honking and waving the red-and-white flag out the window. But otherwise, the city seemed almost back to business as usual. Many stores were open, people out shopping and strolling. The sun beat down hot enough that the newly installed marble benches on the vast concrete plaza were scorching to the touch.

Few if any traces remain in Taksim of the summer days and nights three years ago when the half-renovated square heaved with protesters. The storefront down the way on İstiklal Caddesi, in front of which at least five people were killed in a suicide attack in March, has long been refinished, with no memorial allowed to linger.

Even when nothing tragic or dramatic has happened, Istanbul is a city always remaking and erasing itself, with green spaces and old buildings regularly razed for malls and new housing developments. The Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minority communities that dominated Istanbul’s commerce only a century ago have nearly vanished from its population. This is a city where the fortunes of empires have risen and fallen over and over and over again. An event like last night’s—no matter how momentous it seemed at the time, or how serious its future repercussions—is just one page in its long, tumultuous history.

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