16 July 2016.

I’ve been in Istanbul for less than a week. We were on our way back from watching the sunset at the hidden corners behind the Grand Bazaar. In all honesty, it was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life. It overlooked the grand Mosques of Istanbul, the Galata Tower, outlining the architecture unique to Istanbul. If you look closely enough, you’ll see the Bosphorus Bridge – the bridge that links the European and Asian part of Turkey. The breathtaking view was one. But hearing, at that moment in time, the multiple calls for Prayer or the Azan playing loudly from the different mosques made the whole experience truly surreal.

It was on the minibus heading towards my campus that I first heard two locals saying something along the lines of “… coup?” “military coup?” in Turkish. I couldn’t understand much so I brushed it off. Maybe they were talking about the news abroad, I thought. But it wasn’t long after I settled down in my room that my phone began vibrating furiously. WhatsApp messages from the summer programme group chat flooded my phone.

“Is everyone at home or dorm now?”
“Is anyone in the city?”
“Please come back to dorm.”
“Please don’t go outside during all weekend.”

“Don’t go out.”

There’s a military coup, they said. Military—what?

I was shocked and in utter disbelief. I suppose growing up in Singapore made real world conflicts feel like a myth. It took me awhile to let that sink in. I started googling the news. By then, the airport was on lock-down. It finally dawned upon me that this was all real. It wasn’t just something I read on the Singapore news. This was real life.

I was only in my first week of the 3-week summer programme. What was going to become of that? How long was I going to be stuck in Turkey? As dramatic as it sounds, I briefly thought: Would I be able return to Singapore in one piece?

My family’s Whatsapp chat was mostly filled with prayers that the coup will end.  Many urged me to fly back as soon as I can. But I didn’t want to leave this place – not yet. Not when I barely explored the tip of the iceberg. Not when Turkey has so much more to offer. Not when I was just beginning to fall in love with this beautiful city.

17 July 2016.

The coup ended by morning. When I read the news after waking up, I felt relieved. It was all over, for now. Yet sadness lingered.

Over 100 dead.

Just a few weeks earlier, a bomb attack at Atatürk airport killed 45 and injured 230. Hasn’t Turkey had enough blood spilled on their lands? I never knew what to say to the locals who were visibly upset about the current situation. Sometimes I even felt guilty at the thought of being able to go back home – to a place as secure and stable as Singapore. This country and its people deserve so much more.

I found it ironic how we spent that very evening, before the coup happened, at a Café at Şişhane that was near a graffiti art that said, “Make Art Not War”. Ha. We also visited the Süleymaniye Mosque to which I excitedly posted on social media claiming that that was the first of the many mosques I was going to visit. That night, I don’t know if I could – or should, anymore.

Yet, there was a huge part of me which still felt safe there. Perhaps, it’s the way the locals seemed to move on and continue their daily life as per normal in the day (not that I think they have a choice). Or maybe it’s because I still found all these recent events hard to believe and unreal.

Istanbul changed overnight.

It was still the place I felt warmth in, still the same friendly locals going on their daily lives, still so beautiful – but so much has changed.

I’m glad I took a good look at Taksim Square before the coup happened. Post-coup Istanbul was coloured with Turkish flags hanging at every corner of the street. Literally. No street, no mosque, no vendor escaped the red and white Turkish flag. People started selling the Turkish flags, flags with Atatürk and Erdoğan, as well as t-shirts of the Turkish flag. The signboards were filled with signs that said “Hakimiyet, Millletinder” (Sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the nation).

Nights in Istanbul also got a little louder and more alive than before – celebratory rallies were held every night to commemorate the fall of the Coup.

I chanced upon one, by accident, 2 days after the coup. We had just finished a day of marveling over the famous Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and were on our way back to Şişhane metro station. We knew something was going to happen the moment the security guards in the nearby residence started to be on their guard. A few vehicles that were decorated with flags and I assume, political messages, were blasting loud songs as they passed by before the crowd started to stream in. Everyone was either holding a flag or had the flag wrapped around themselves.

Then the chants started. “Allah-hu Akbar! Allahu-Akbar!”.

I was surprised to see families with little children tailing the crowd. Some families left the rally earlier, while others followed the walk towards Taksim Square. I remembered feeling simultaneously fearful and excited that we chanced upon the rally. Fearful, because what better way for terrorists to attack a crowd than at a nightly rally that everyone knew was going on? Excited, because I promise you – you’ll never see this amount of dedication (they rallied every night!), patriotism or activism (whichever way you’d like to interpret it) in Singapore – at least not with your very own eyes.

20 July 2016.

On our way back home from İstiklal Caddesi, we chanced upon another rally. That night, there were as much rumors about the possibility that President Erdogan was going to give a speech at Taksim Square as there were of potential attacks there. We took the risk and headed to the area anyway, as we had planned to catch an Iranian movie at the German embassy. I didn’t like the idea of keeping myself cooped up (no pun intended) in my dorm when my time in Istanbul was ticking. The tight security and armed guys lurking around İstiklal Caddesi may be intimidating, but I was comforted by the normality of everything else in the area. Business was as usual. People still flocked the area to shop or for good food. I, for one, was glad that we settled in one of the shops in the area for a good meal that evening.

By the end of our movie, the stalls along İstiklal Caddesi were still bustling with people (I was informed that they only started opening till late night because of the rallies). It was still relatively calm and quiet when we were slowly heading towards the Taksim metro station. Then it began.

First, the vehicles. Then, they started gesturing and instructing everyone to clear the pathway to make way for the rallying crowd.

A large group of men led the rally. They had their arms locked with each other. Once the path cleared, the chants started. “Allah-hu Akbar! Allahu-Akbar!”. Then, what I assume to be firecrackers were heard. That one really gave me a good scare. The media’s portrayal of ‘allahu akbar’ as a line terrorists often used before blowing themselves or others up came to mind. Adding on to that, the sound of firecrackers – I must say, not the most comforting combination of sounds at that point in time.

Nevertheless, I felt a lot calmer once the crowd passed, seeing all the families, women and children tailing the rally. I wouldn’t risk having my family in an area that was constantly rumored to be the prime target of attackers, but hey, most of the rumors that were circling around didn’t come true in the end – at least not within the next 2 weeks of my stay.

Despite all the instability and uncertainties, Turkey or rather, Istanbul managed to steal my heart in just 3 weeks. It’s an experience I will never forget. It was regrettable that I had to cancel my plans to travel to other parts of Turkey due to the situation then, but my stay in Istanbul had been nothing short of amazing. I’m constantly fascinated by the richness of this city – its history that dates to the Roman, Byzantine empire; its uniquely Turkish culture; its diversity which was intriguing – especially with the recent influx of immigrants and asylum seekers; its food (you can never get sick of the kebabs and köfte here, nor will you get sick of the Turkish delights and oh, not to forget, Turkish tea!). Yet, there was also a strange mix of calmness and a tinge of sadness in the air – or perhaps resignation despite the instability here. It reminds me of a line in a poetry, which succinctly sums up how I feel about Istanbul:

“She is so beautiful
Yet so sad”

I honestly can’t wait for my next trip to Istanbul. No doubt, I will definitely return here. Hopefully in my next visit, in some way or another, there’ll be greater stability in the country.

Istanbul will always be in my prayers.

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