An Accidental Tourist During the Attempted Coup
Night, July 16
Someone’s made a mint selling Turkish flags. Taksim Square teems with people waving the red banners emblazoned with the white crescent and star.
It’s Saturday night and I’m standing where Taksim meets Istiklal Street, the main artery of Istanbul’s nightlife. Back down Istiklal, there aren’t the usual packed crowds clogging the thoroughfare. Most restaurants and bars down the alleyways shuttered early and so the bored, stir-crazy, or curious hang to the sides of Istiklal, giving a wide berth to supporters of the AKP, the Justice and Development Party, which holds a majority in Turkey’s parliament. Answering their Prime Minister’s calls (and texts) for demonstrations during the failed coup the previous night, the people ignore rumors about military retaliation or ISIS while the country is still reeling.
The energy is a mix of joy and rage, which, I suppose, is what victory looks like. Men climb the Republic Monument and raise their phones to the air with the flashlight apps on. The crowd follows suit and the bobbing points of light dance with the roiling flags while a man shouts pro-AKP rhetoric through a speaker. The people shout praise of Erdoğan, the Party, and its Islamist principles while denouncing the military and foreign interference. The only thing I don’t need interpreted for me is “Allahu Akbar.”
The coup is over. The AKP has retained power and decidedly won the battle for the immediate future of Turkey. The only thing still up for debate is just what the fuck actually happened.
Night, July 15
En route home to New York after a two-week trip in Turkey and Georgia, I flew back for one more night in Isty, as the expats affectionately called Istanbul. The plan was to stay with my journalist friend. We’ll call him Pablo for the purposes of anonymity. Like most everyone I know in Isty, he lives in Cihangir, a liberal, expat-heavy neighborhood five minutes walking from Taksim. It used to be an artsy, economically diverse area but has since received the Williamsburg treatment and now it’s full of expats.
I got to Cihangir late on account of a two-hour line at passport control made longer by shameless line-cutters eager either to start their Eid holiday or get the hair transplants for which Turkey is famous in the Middle East. I set up shop with my bag at a sidewalk cafe on Akarsu Çıkmazı, a street lined with restaurants and bars, a block from my friend’s place. I ordered a large Bomonti, the local malt beer, and a quinoa tabbouleh, to offset a week of khinkhali and khachapuri in Tbilisi.
Pablo showed up as I was finishing. We hugged it out and settled in for some bullshit and beer. It was Friday night in Isty—not a bad way to end a trip.
The street got quiet. Nearly everyone sitting along Akarsu was checking his or her phone. Pablo’s phone buzzed. He read the message and, without looking up, said to me, “I hope your flight’s not out of the Asian side.”
It wasn’t, but I knew Pablo was serious. Isty is a place you go to for friends, large breakfasts, sweaty beer bottles, and dürüm shacks. Istanbul, on the other hand, is a two millennia-old metropolis forged by the sobering realities of history and often-bitter socio-politics.
“Why?” I said.
“Tanks on the Bosphorus Bridge.”
My mind ran through scenarios: ISIS attacks on the Asian side; surprise military exercises; Kurdish army moving north […]
Up and down the sidewalk people hurried to pay their bills.
Pablo got texts from his friends working the late shift at the TRT office near Ortaköy, a neighborhood up the Bosphorus. “Fuck,” he said. “There’s a coup going on.”
“So the tanks are to protect the city?” I asked.
“No, the tanks are part of the coup.”
We expected the internet to go down any second. (Killing the Comms should be SOP for a competent coup. When that didn’t happen, it should’ve been a huge red flag.) I chased down the waiter to pay with a card to avoid eating into my cash. Who knew how long it’d have to last? As I came back out to grab my bags to head to Pablo’s, the chop of helicopter blades filled the air.
News on social media did laps around the major outlets. Tanks and soldiers on the bridge. Tanks at the airport. Soldiers in Ankara, the capital. As we hit Pablo’s apartment, he got texts from colleagues telling him soldiers were storming the TRT offices in Istanbul, seizing phones, and shutting down broadcasts. Twitter and Facebook were blocked. We switched on our VPNs. Pablo locked down his apartment with two sets of doors and five bolt locks. We streamed Al Jazeera on TV and had several laptops out.
His phone buzzed.
“What’s ‘putsch’ mean?” he asked.
“You know the Beer Hall Putsch? The Nazis?”
“From the German word for a ‘strike’ or ‘hit,’”
“It’s just another word for ‘coup.’”
Martial law had been declared by the coup.
I got texts from family and friends, but my assurances about my safety didn’t do much to offset the barrage of opportunistic sensationalism on Fox News and CNN. I’d have told them to watch Al Jazeera, whose coverage was comparatively informed (but I may as well have told people to tune into Al Qaeda, for most of them would never trust anything with an Arabic-definite article).
The coup was one of those situations that American news isn’t set up to handle. Much like most of the post-Arab Spring MENA and Central and South Asian world, there weren’t any clear good guys nor bad guys that fit easily into Western political archetypes. In other words, things were complicated. U.S. broadcast news doesn’t do complicated. We want someone who’s ostensibly fighting the boogeyman du jour: Islamism, Communism, vegetarianism, etc.
But as with Mubarak in Egypt, Erdoğan represents a paradox in the U.S. news, an Islamist party that was democratically elected. This short-circuits the American brain (which, regardless, has a dubious record of recognizing the legitimacy of democratically elected governments abroad). Sure, Turkey is fighting ISIS (sort of) and it isn’t on great terms with Russia (less so lately), but it’s also full of, well, Muslims. A military uprising can’t be condoned when it unseats a popularly elected party (except when the U.S. State Department decides to do just that), but what about when that party partly owes its electoral dominance to a terrorist attack many suspect the party itself caused to rile up calls for security and conservatism? The attempted coup, however, is suspected of being organized by Gülenists, an eponymously named Islamist ideology whose earthly leader resides in exile in eastern Pennsylvania. In other words, the story, by U.S. standards, is messy.
The military sieged the AKP headquarters and declared a curfew. Pablo and I took stock of the food situation. His fridge contained: three bottles of Efes and a three-week-old pizza in its original delivery box. We had a jug of potable water and, in my luggage, I had an assortment of local Georgian food I’d picked up on the way out of Tbilisi—specifically, an array of cheeses and a 750 mL bottle of chacha (Georgian grape vodka that will strip the first layer of skin off your esophagus).
We weighed the positives and negatives of venturing outside despite the curfew. My own phone was buzzing with updates from a friend down in Bursa. He was giving me paraphrased translations of Turkish social media. Many liberal Turks were already calling the coup a charade orchestrated by Erdoğan. From a safety perspective, this was encouraging. However, police and civilians were starting to clash with the military up by Taksim. Motives were a topic for speculation, but the sounds of helicopters overhead and crowds shouting in the distance were real.
Not long before midnight, curiosity got the better of us. We packed bags with chargers and power cords and laptops. Pablo wanted to get to an apartment several blocks away, where a bunch of photo- and video journalists he knew had congregated. We’d stick to the side roads.
Outside, it was empty for a Friday, though corner shops were still open and the occasional person was milling about, acting fairly blasé about the whole thing.
Still, we became hyperaware of the glow of headlights around corners and the squeak of brakes. I got startled whenever I heard a motorcycle or scooter whiz past toward the demonstrations.
We reached the building and his friend buzzed us in. Up the stairs in her apartment, half-a-dozen journalists and their Turkish friend who translated for them sat around a table, staring into laptop and smartphone screens while smoking cigarettes, sipping beer, and seeing who could get updates most quickly. Their main goal was to angle for work: photographs, news statements, interviews, whatever they could use to sell their expertise. After all, this was why they hung around Istanbul, to be at all times within reach of the next travesty. They were in the business of Shit Going Bad.
They got texts and calls from places like BBC and Vice, which were looking for people on the ground. The phrase, “Don’t quote me by name” came up a lot. Turkey lately has become known for its suppression of free press. (Just recently, two journalists were handed prison sentences for reporting on Turkish trucks running arms into Syria.) No one was sure yet how the coup was going to go, and considering both sides didn’t seem enamored with foreign journalists, it was dangerous to stick your neck out.
We saw reports of gunfire in Taksim and the bridge, of bombs going off in Ankara, of Erdoğan being denied asylum in Germany and Iran, of Erdoğan reassuring people via FaceTime, of clashes at the airport, of Erdoğan and the AKP texting people to get out and protest the military, of the resultant gatherings in conservative, pro-AKP neighborhoods, where unarmed people squared off against tanks, of a jet knocking out one of the coup’s helicopters.
But the prevailing tension in the room was between a couple. One, a documentarian, had been talking with a news outlet about providing photos, but had just received word that they now had someone else in the field. That person turned out to be her boyfriend, sitting right next to her. The atmosphere went from bunker solidarity to unspoken Carverian resentments and passive aggressive recriminations. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know they were talking to you.” Every time she said it was no big deal, the unspoken “fuck you” became more apparent.
Early morning, July 16
At some point I noticed a sound I’d gotten used to in Qatar and on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It was 1:30 in the morning and the mosques were blasting the call to prayer, far too early or late, depending on your outlook. The surrealism of it was like a horror movie when you see a child at night in a playground, singing a nursery rhyme. “It’s a prayer but it isn’t the call to prayer,” someone in the room said. I later learned it was a funerary prayer. Some rounds popped off and glass broke nearby. We all got away from the windows.
Sporadic gunfire got closer and we wondered if the fights between the police and the military in Taksim were bleeding down into Cihangir. The news reported police and demonstrators had retaken Atatürk Airport, and Erdoğan was arriving to rally the AKP and its supporters. The Istanbul TRT office was “liberated” and many coup members were already in the custody of angry crowds who beat them in the streets. Turkish social media was saturated with claims of the coup being defeated. But of course that’s what the AKP would say.
News of an end had us a little stir-crazy. The documentarian suggested going outside. Her boyfriend disagreed, and this seemed to increase her desire to get out there. I knew it was stupid, but a part of me wanted to check out Taksim as well. Still, I owed it to my responsible side to voice my opposition. Pablo suggested we just poke our heads out to assess. Everyone else decided to go home and sleep. For them this was old hat, even boring, but I was wide awake. So, like an idiot, I joined the group going toward Taksim.
Small groups of Turks were heading back down the hill from Taksim. “You know,” I said, “in times like this, when people are all going away from the fighting, it’s probably a good idea to join them.” No one said anything and we kept going. Secretly, I was glad no one agreed. But gunshots fired off somewhere too close for comfort and helicopter activity picked up overhead, though we couldn’t see them. Our pace slowed as the noise of violence wafted down the road from the square. A Turkish man standing on the opposite sidewalk yelled something I didn’t understand, but his arms waving for us to go back was clear. The photographer and I looked at each other. The roar of a jet overhead filled the night and we hugged the wall of the nearest house. I nearly shit my pants when the sonic boom caught up.
“Very little upside to this venture,” I said.
No one argued in favor of continuing, perhaps thinking, as I was, that the military might bomb the square. The documentarian shrugged, as if to call the rest of us pussies. I was okay with that.
On the way home, Pablo and I took the side streets and stopped to buy some water and beer at a corner store where people were just hanging out. We should have bought food but we were too wired.
Right after we got back to Pablo’s apartment, the explosions started. Gunfire picked up outside again and the jets were more frequent. It didn’t sound like the coup was over, despite what the news was saying.
The Twitterverse confirmed the blasts we’d heard weren’t imaginary. Elsewhere, the news showed reports that the parliament building was bombed in Ankara, as well as the TRT office there.
When we heard the jets, we dropped to the floor. We hoped the rumbling was just sonic booms, but it couldn’t hurt to be careful. And then a jet came in really low and we felt a blast rattle the building from the street up.
“That’s no sonic boom,” Pablo said. It didn’t feel like one. We never found out for sure, though videos later surfaced showing ordinance going off by the river nearby.
The night went on like this. At some point around 5:00 a.m., I realized everything had gone quiet, but I kept hitting refresh on my newsfeed until 6:30, when I finally willed myself to sleep.
Midday, July 16
I woke up around 10:30 to a whole bunch of texts, WhatsApps, and Facebook notifications. After a half hour of assuring everyone I was not in danger and, in fact, alive, I threw some clothes on to see what the world looked like now.
It turned out it mostly looked like the old one. Pablo and I stopped for coffee. He was on his way to work and I was going to set up somewhere to get some work done and figure out how I was going to get home. At the café, the photographer was sitting with a finished plate of breakfast. There were some other expat journos Pablo knew at a table next to us. They talked about going to a pool somewhere and getting day-drunk. They talked about a party after.
I walked up to Taksim. I could already feel the sun battering my liberally applied SPF 70. At the square, passers-by hugged the shade. A few dozen demonstrators were still carrying on, but the scene was placid. News vans lined up across the square with their antennas pointing up in a line like barrels on tanks, but the crews were nowhere in sight. Some white freelancers filmed the paltry demonstration in an effort to get some day-after footage, but blood and destruction were conspicuously absent.
A local warned me not to go east from Taksim, where demonstrators, less sympathetic to Westerners, were gathering for the evening. I circled around some of the side streets to the north and west instead. There was some broken glass and detritus, but nowhere near the post-apocalypse I’d been expecting after everything I’d heard the night before. The widespread speculation that the coup had been a false flag or at the very least secretly encouraged by Erdoğan in order to solidify his grasp suddenly seemed plausible.
In the light of the morning, the coup seemed so ineffectual. If you were going to try to overthrow a government with one of the largest militaries in the world, wouldn’t you have planned better? It all seemed so half-assed. Still, it was hard to discount the dead (numbering 265), the bombings (particularly Parliament), the reports that Erdoğan narrowly escaped capture while on vacation when the whole thing kicked off. If, in fact, everything that was reported was true.
Night, July 16
British Air informs me I’m not getting out until Monday, though there are worse places to be stuck than Istanbul, even during an attempted coup.
After we leave the demonstrations, I meet up with friends in town and I meet more locals and expats and the actual nature of the coup is universally debated in whispers. (Criticizing Erdoğan will get you beaten or worse if the wrong person hears you.)
It’s only been a day, but like the anti-Erdoğan graffiti you’ll find on side streets, dissent is already being pushed to the margins. The purges have begun. Later, we’ll hear about the thousands of judges ousted from the courts and the thousands arrested in the military. Journalists and academics will have their leaves canceled. University administrators will be forced to resign.
The return to normality around Cihangir begins to feel forced.
Night, July 17
I meet another local friend for a beer near Istiklal. A group of AKP demonstrators loudly make their way up toward Taksim for another rally. The bar owner shuffles everyone upstairs as a precaution. People have heard about Islamists attacking people drinking outside. The feeling is that things are going to get ugly for secular life in Turkey.
Later, we walk back to Cihangir and he points out the international school he attended as a child here. Despite everything, I tell my friend that I was glad I’d come back to Istanbul, how great a city it is, and how it’s exciting, in its way, to witness history. He chuckles, “That’s because you’re an expat. Look around you.” I do. It is heavily English-speaking expats on a street, drinking beer and rakı. “It’s nice to visit or live here as an expat. It’s a different place if you’re from here. For a local, for someone from here, it may be a big city but it really feels very small.” He doesn’t live in Istanbul anymore.
I nod. Like a lot of people, he anticipates that Istanbul and its bubble of cosmopolitanism is going to burst, that the smallness of religious conservatism will crush secular republicanism. There’s little doubt in his mind whom the coup served. And, thinking on the demonstration in Taksim the previous night, seeing the flags waving and the people demanding nationalism, god, and order, I realize that even if Erdoğan didn’t have a hand in staging the coup, he couldn’t have planned it any better.