This was going to be the light-hearted account of a long weekend in Istanbul. It certainly had all the initial hallmarks. There were the unintentional double-entendres of restaurateurs (‘Hello Bruce Willis. I look forward to receiving you later’), the T-shirt-worthy mantras a person needs in order to successful navigate a street vendor (‘No I’m not Russian, nor do I wish to buy a carpet’) and the lost-in-translation street signs (‘Place of Male Ablutions’).
Despite what later unfolded my lasting sense is of a culturally and historically rich city populated with warm, welcoming people.
‘The Blue Mosque’ was the obvious starting point for our adventure – huge, majestic and stunningly beautiful. In between prayers tourists are permitted to enter. Islamic design is based on symbols and patterns, and never on people or discernible objects so as not to venerate them as idols. With that in mind I experienced a strange washed-out sensation as hundreds of people took off their shoes, filed into a place of worship and immediately started taking copious photos of themselves.
‘You know what would make that picture better? You not being in it.’
A glorious day was spent taking in the city’s fineries – an underground basilica containing the giant upside down head of Medusa, a church that had been burned down and rebuilt three times over the centuries and the grand bazaar marketplace filled his silk, spices and trinkets, Turkish coffee, Turkish street food, hecklers and bustle.
In the early evening we took a ferry across the Bosphorus and found our way to Taksim Square and to an underground eatery. Some people at the next table ordered an interesting looking drink. We asked them what it was and they offered us some. Introductions were made and a six-way conversation developed between my friend Romain (French), Sofia and Nora (Swedish and German), Fatih and Mustafa (Turkish and Kurdish-Turkish) and myself (English)…
At which point news broke that a bomb had gone off in the football stadium less than half a mile from where we were sitting.
Everyone in the restaurant started checking their phones and texting loved ones to say that they were OK. Shortly thereafter all access to phones and the internet were blocked by the government.
There then began the juxtaposing of six people from six different countries having an almost suspiciously convivial and multicultural night out against the unfolding of a horrific event and the locking down of a city.
I don’t want to create tension where there was none or inflate the sense of danger (that none of us felt!) As one of the Turkish men said: ‘It was more a feeling of creeping fascism and an erosion of rights.’ Everything was the same, but heavier somehow. Human nature being what it is we left together to witness people continuing with their shopping and drinking whilst nimbly avoiding armoured cars (and they witnessed us doing exactly the same).
At a cafe bar the waiter confirmed the current belief that 20 people had been slightly injured by the blast.
The European women attempted to lighten the mood by having a go at me over Brexit. After the obligatory apology I quickly disarmed them with a liberal quip (‘When your drinks arrive I will drink them, but I will expect you to pay.’)
Across the table things were a little more serious. Romain asked Fatih what he thought of what was happening.
‘I’m afraid to get used to this,’ he replied.
To my mind it eloquently summed up how it is to feel powerless in a maelstrom of changing and disintegrating events.
Onto another bar where the pervading rumour was that things were much worse than had been reported before the blackout – at least a few people dead – maybe as many as 40 injured. ‘They were targeting the police,’ someone informed us. ‘They will blame the Kurds,’ said the Kurd. ‘They always do.’ They discussed the new far-right leader and talked of how the land was changing for the worse. We also did the duplicitous dance of holding conflicting emotions in our heads at the same time. Nora invited us to Berlin. Fatih spoke of opening a bar in Barcelona, and I told a story of going to Frankfurt zoo drunk and talking to the gorillas (which I considered to be top banter, but which caused Sofia to literally and figuratively fall asleep as I was talking).
That the two Turkish men were from different backgrounds was important. They joked that each was to blame for the current (and past) troubles. One of them became momentarily annoyed with the other for his insinuations before returning to ribbing and mild mockery.
At our last stop we learned that the death toll had risen yet again (the final count was 38 dead and 166 injured). It was a little after 2am. Outside people were still laughing and haggling. It was suggested that we go to a place that stayed open till dawn. To my English body clock it was still relative early, but places that usually stayed open were now closed.
We said goodbye to our new friends and took a taxi to Sultanhamet – a district that was eerily silent. A few hours later we were awoken by the morning call to prayer.
At the airport security was noticeably more stringent than on arrival. In the departure lounge we met two people who’d been on the outbound flight – a child psychologist and a PA escorting her Turkish father-in-law to a wedding. We did the thing people do in moments of heightened reality – felt around the edges of the horror, talked of how close we were to it (The psychologist had jogged past the stadium an hour beforehand) and spoke with exaggerated fondness of pedestrian matters back home.