It was Saturday. The weather was chilly and cloudy, an early spring morning in Istanbul. I stood on the corner, munching on bread, trying to figure out where I wanted to explore this day. Just your average Saturday morning that you often have while traveling and wandering. It wasn’t even noteworthy to photograph; places I had been so many times before, a stop in transit to other destinations.
But it wasn’t ordinary. It was different and I probably won’t forget the details of it any time soon.
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I had spent much of the morning chatting with my friend Suzanne in Georgia trying to get some ideas on where to go. I had been to Istanbul several times before so many places were not new to me, and I was continuously looking for new streets to walk down. She had lived nearby my hotel a year or so previously and was a wealth of knowledge on the city. I noted some places and hurried out of the hotel that morning on a mission to everywhere and nowhere. Making my way to nearby Taksim Square and to Istiklal Avenue like I had done on so many mornings before.
The alacrity in my step seemed to disguise my confidence in direction. I had crossed the square in record time and started making my way down the avenue to destinations unknown by path so often walked.
But I stopped mid-step about a block from the square. I realized that I was merely treading this well trudged path, one that I seemed to walk all the time, absent of deliberation. But I wanted today to be different, so I figured I would plan for a new neighborhood. Given my lack of knowledge I elected to turn around and figure out my destination.
I had spied those ubiquitous red carts out of the the corner of my eye, those hawkish simit dealers you find scattered among the city. I opted to substitute breakfast for bread. And being the frugal person I am I opted for the cheaper one, saving a mere few cents and finding myself back closer to the square, in easy strike of destinations in all directions. Waiting impatiently for the guy to serve me, I paid my fee and wandered back to the corner of the square, tucking myself tight in the corner to avoid passersby and problems.
Now for those who don’t know Istanbul, Taksim square is a large central square, always full of commotion, people, and police. The police presence a mainstay of the city, large police buses, and barriers waiting for trouble and protests that more than occasionally find their way here. It is what I love about this area, and what I love about cities, the gathering of people, the centrality of location.
I was standing searching on maps for my plans, still well before mid-day and well before the bustle of the area comes to full fruition.
There is so often commotion in the square, it is hard to know what is noteworthy and what is not.
There seemed to be a loud commotion going on around a man nearby me, around the police barriers and slightly closer to the square. There was a group of people surrounding him, I couldn’t tell if they were fighting or trying to help him. You think I should know, but my view was obscured by a mass of bodies and my lack of Turkish preventing me from understanding the exchanges.
And so I munched away, eating my slightly stale bread (serves me right for going frugal) losing interest in my phone and trying to understand what was happening nearby. At one point through small opening in the mass of humanity it looked as if the man or a man was on the ground struggling. Was the man ok? Was it a medical emergency or where the people they fighting with him?
The crowd grew larger and I continued to snack, craning my neck for a better view. I am no medical professional nor am I versed in local understanding, and another person would only hinder the situation. So I kept my distance trying to ascertain what I could from my location. I opted away from photographing it, for if it was a medical emergency, I didn’t want to simply be a voyeur into someone else’s misery.
But yet the moments still moved quickly, I continued to watch, and wait, oblivious to if there are dangers or problems. Soon it seemed police were there, at first just an officer or two, but later on it seemed to be more and more police. I saw police showing up with larger and larger caliber and I knew this was not ordinary. The police trying to move people away but the crowd getting larger instead.
It wasn’t long before more vehicles starting pulling into the scene. Larger ones this time, armored ones. Ambulances sirens seeming to screech above the other noises in the square.
You’d think I would have figured out something serious was up earlier. However there are always police in the vicinity, the large presence a poor indicator of issue.
I had messaged Maya letting her know something was going on in the square, still unsure of what it was, but knowing that it was beyond the realm of usual.
Suzanne scoffed off the idea of issues, given how often police circle around. Maybe it was a protester, or some other ‘normal’ problem that punctuated local business. It wasn’t until I mentioned the arriving helicopter, that she figured I was right in my assessment.
“That’s new,” she messaged.
The square and the streets continued to fill with people. I wanted to try to photograph for posterity but I was concerned with opening my backpack with the tenseness of the situation. Vehicles were careening in every direction and police were leaping from armored vehicles carrying large weapons.
“Explosion!!”, the message read as I looked at the message in disbelief and worry. I looked around in panic. She had clearly heard the news before I had.
People have been asking me after the fact if I heard the sound of the blast. I did not. Possibly I could have if I wasn’t so focused on other events going on. But there are always so many things going on in the square. Even if I had, I wonder if my mind would have realized it was a blast or if it would have simply moved on to other stimuli.
“Second bomb” another message alert bleated through my phone. I was panicked. Had another one exploded…where? It is not unexpected that a second blast would occur. Or maybe the police had found another bomber and stopped him. This news turned out to be false, but at the moment it was more than real.
Were we safe? Or in the interest of self preservation, was I safe? Could there be other bombs? There is always the notion that another bomber would explode when security and emergency personnel arrive on the scene. I was stuck here on the corner, up against a police barrier with no knowledge of where to exit towards. Clearly this was an epicenter of activity and if I were to run, which direction would be safest? Vehicles and people were arriving and leaving in all directions around me. No one seemed to know specifically what to do, and I had to constantly scurry to avoid being run over by vehicles as they hurried past.
At one point a fire truck nearly ran me down only to decide to park directly next to me. I could not see a fire and the occupants seemed to not know where they were needed most.
A few folks later told me I was stupid for how I stayed in place, not running away when I could. You’d like to think you’d know what to do in a situation. You’d like to think you’d know how to react, but without foresight of knowledge it’s hard to really know how to respond.
The square began to fill and the police began to shutdown the surrounding areas. We kept getting pushed further and further out and while I wanted to go, I didn’t really know whether I should instead stay. My hotel was near here, and I really didn’t now where else to go. Lost and yet completely aware of my surroundings.
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I have a hard time writing this post. People died and it is hard to talk about a situation where while I may have been close, I wasn’t really involved. I don’t want to feel that I am profiting off disaster, off the terror of a nearby situation. But I also didn’t want to ignore my story too. And if I’m to tell it there is no other way but from my perspective.
It wasn’t until a bit later as more news developed that I got more insight into the attack. Five people dead and a score more injured. It could have been so much worse, but apparently the bomber was “spooked” for some reason and took his life early. He exploded on a less populated area of the street, seemingly not close to anything particularly “special”, so likely it was not his probable target. The news reports stated he had meant to blow up further down the street, closer to the square. Closer to where I was standing at those moments. That last bit not lost on me.
My mind as it is apt to due ran through the situation for every possible scenario. My work as an analyst and an engineer pushing me to constantly dissect every moment.
- What if I had not stopped when I did?
- What if I decided to keep going down the street instead of turning around?
- What if he wasn’t spooked?
- Where there other people involved that warned the bomber off?
What if…what if…what if…
There is no good that can come out of these thoughts. No new insight that could have avoided or induced disaster. You want to shut your mind down, realizing that there is no point in hypotheticals. You feel ashamed to admit to yourself that you are glad that the person took his life earlier than he had planned. Realizing the terrible thoughts in being glad someone else is the victim that could possibly have been yourself.
Was I scared?
In the throws of the situation I was more confused than scared. Your senses too become heightened, trying to process every moment and event that is circulating you. I became hyperaware of backpacks and bags following the attack, constantly wondering if the people around me were mundane or malevolent.
Why didn’t I leave Istanbul immediately?
Family and friends constantly quizzed me with my plans for staying or going. I decided to stay. There are a lot of reasons for this, some I can’t even really articulate to myself.
Among them being that I knew other people visiting the city at the same time I was, had plans to spend with them, and couldn’t just flee and leave them here. I couldn’t just abandon them while I tried to seemingly run to “safety”. Strangely even with my proximity to the blast I was more concerned with their safety, worried when they didn’t respond to messages. Even knowing they were safe, far away from the blasts and the unlikelihood of immediate additional attacks I needed to constantly know they were ok. It helped to settle my frayed nerves and let my mind stay grounded instead of floating off into less productive avenues of thought. I couldn’t do that if I had left, and I would never have forgiven myself if something did happen in my absence. I couldn’t leave someone I care about so I knew if they were staying I would too.
But that is not the whole entirety of the story, which is probably a bit more complicated and one I’ve struggling with writing. Perhaps if you are curious and catch me in a café sometime you can ask to discuss.
Has it scared me off travel?
The short answer is no…
It is so easy to remind yourself that terrorists attacks are rare from the comfort of distance. When you read a news report it is so easy to distance yourself from the issues, from the problems, from the possibilities. But with proximity comes a different set of fears and thoughts. When you imagine yourself standing on the razor’s edge you come to realize how close disaster can actually be. For as unlikely as being a victim of terrorism may be, when you are close to it, you realize that in the end someone still ends up as those statistics.
But you can’t constantly worry about these things and staving off travel won’t guarantee safety. There is sadly no way to predict calamity in any aspect of your life. You can’t easily discern “safe” places from ones that are less so. It was but days later than another attack occurred in Brussels, one far more deadly and devastating. Brussels a city I had been through multiple times myself and not one I would have readily avoided.
And then as well I am currently stationed here in Saudi Arabia. It has been such a strange thing to explain to folks the safety of my current assignment in Saudi. Even though most people don’t realize, it is very safe, almost to the point of mundane. I joke the biggest issue we have on a daily basis is boredom. But Saudi as most people know is not a stranger to the news of terrorism. Some even within the same province I find myself, mere 40 minutes to an hour drive away. But an hour seems so remote in relation to a few blocks.
But even with increased news, the likelihood of dying from terrorism pales in comparison from other routine activities like driving. Saudi has one of the highest fatality rates in the world in terms of car accidents. Yet we don’t stop movement due to the statistics. We often place more fear into the sensational instead of the average even if death is likely to find you in the latter.
So what can you do?
Perhaps it is human nature to want to be able to control your destiny. Control your fate in all matters of life. I have often tried to will things my way only to end up clearly defeated and frustrated.
It is perhaps cliché to say that you need to just live…just go forth and do things as if you are not afraid. Terrorism’s goal is to strike fear in people and cause panic and poor responses. Cause us to shift into distrust and blame. While a certain level of distrust is healthy, too much is debilitating and destructive. And panic won’t help us solve terrorism, it will only prolong it. The real issues are far more complex and panic often causes us to react in ways that just polarizes people and situations more.
And travel is probably one of the best ways to start addressing some of these issues. It is easy to relegate someone as a “them” when they are far away, unknown, just some “boogieman” that haunts the programming of 24hr news cycles. Travel helps you recognize that there are so many shades of grey to the people and regions. That is is not just a “Muslim” issue, or an “Arab” issue, Eastern Issue, Western or any sort of generalization that fails to factor in complexities. And while the scope of such a topic is well outside this article, it is still important. It is only when you start to understand the issues that you can hope to solve them instead of simply just trying to fix the results. It is no panacea but it is certainly better than just assuming the world fits your stereotypes. For instance I thought I knew a lot about Saudi prior to coming out here; given that I have family that lives in the country and I had visited many years ago in my youth. But the number of surprises has not been lost on me and it seems regularly I find things that bust the opinion I built for myself. That is also a set of other posts that I will need to get around to as well. And yet when I tell people at home it surprises them and its hard for them to accept that things don’t match what they were told or made to believe and perhaps it won’t unless they see it themselves. And you can’t do that if you are too afraid to leave home.