Istanbul – It was one of those texts you get just before switching off the bedside lamp. I was expecting it to be a loving goodnight message from my husband, who was away on business. It wasn’t.
“Attack on Ataturk International Airport – Stay away from the area,” said the message from the French Consulate. I felt like my gut was being twisted expertly by some vicious hands. I couldn’t relativise. It was too close to home. I immediately imagined the scene of little girls with their pink carry-on bags excitedly walking towards the gate moments before their little bodies were mutilated. Then I visualised those same little girls in wartorn Syria. I couldn’t breathe. I really felt like the world was closing in on me, on us. I felt a pain.
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Right now, living in Turkey is difficult. Living in this world is difficult. I feel as though great big blocks of people – with all their individuality, hopes and fears – this vast array of diversity that constitutes humankind, are being hacked into like slabs of meat and cast in corners labelled “us” and “them”.
The thing is, in Turkey, this notion of “us” and “them” is centuries old. Turks understand that these are groups that wax and wane depending on the matter at hand. And they’ve learned that the only way to make sense of such identities is to be flexible, to connect, to mingle, to exchange, to blur, to exist in a grey zone where boundaries shift continuously and contradictions are overlooked.
But over recent years, these identities have been pushed and pulled, by forces internal and international, until people have been backed into a corner, the definitions of who they are oversimplified and diminished.
Another bomb, another climbing death toll. Then attacks elsewhere – in France or Belgium or some other place where many of the victims seem whiter and less Muslim – and the creeping realisation that “their” deaths are somehow more important. Some well-meaning journalists will write about the hypocrisy of that, about how unjust it is that Turkish deaths seem to mean less to the world because the West cannot relate to them – as though Turks can be squeezed into one neat box named “un-relatable”.
Then, you think, what now: Another black profile picture for Facebook? How many times will I have to revert to it? Will the significance of these attacks decline as they multiply?
I am sad and I am tired. Tired of worrying about my husband who is often on a plane, tired of having to measure risk factors on whether to take public transportation or not. Tired of wondering if I should take my children to school: Is it safe, is it appropriate, and just what circumstances would warrant not doing so when these attacks seem to be becoming more regular? After all, they can’t permanently stay locked up in the safety of our homes, surely?
But outside, in the streets and on the busses, at the school gates and in the offices, the mood is one of anger. The people are angry. They feel that they have been wronged, that they have become cannon fodder for others.
And in all of this, they are still misunderstood and misrepresented. They are afraid, they are frustrated and they are angry. But not only must they keep going, keep hoping, keep trying to feed their families, they must grip tightly on to their fluid, nuanced, flexible identities and hope that the world might just see them for what they really are.
They must try to keep this world and all its ugliness at bay just as they fear it might obliterate them.
Chloe Connell is a journalist who has been living in Istanbul on and off since 1992.