Until last year I lived in Istanbul with my husband. We’re both from Australia and we taught English at local universities. We had a great life, with wonderful Turkish friends like Hasan and Nurhan (not their real names.) On Friday nights in the summer, we went out to dinner with them.
On one such outing, we shared an enormous meal of fresh calamari and sea bass on the terrace of a secluded restaurant in Fenerbahçe, a neighborhood on the Asian side of the city. We could hear the sound of water lapping against a stone wall. As was our tradition, Hasan and I shared dessert. We were arguing over the last spoonful of kazandibi when Nurhan received a text message on her phone. It contained a single word. Darbe. Coup. It was 10pm.
Within minutes we were caught up in a throng of people trying to get home. Stuck in slow moving traffic, we listened to the car radio in fear and confusion as we heard that the coup was the work of a faction within the security forces. Outside the local military base I’ve passed by numerous times before, where I’ve seen soldiers get married and families picnic, heavily-armed soldiers with tanks stood guard. Our phones vibrated with hundreds of anxious messages, posts and tweets.
The coup was quickly crushed. But the transformation of my life in Turkey had just begun.
In the week after the attempted coup, I stayed close to home. I darted in and out of local shops only when necessary. Long conversations comparing the merits of different olives and cheese at the grocery store were replaced by quick exchanges of money and minimal eye contact. When I ventured out on one of the few buses that were still running, passengers were unusually polite. City residents, who typically had little regard for personal space, held themselves at a distance from each other. The relaxed banter of strangers was replaced by a watchful silence.
In the cosmopolitan neighborhood of Kadıköy, where I usually meet friends, grab dinner, and buy books, the streets were empty. Most stores were open but no one lingered in doorways, smoking cigarettes or laughing with friends and customers as was usually the case. My reserved and courteous butcher sported a mysterious black eye and refused to say how he’d acquired it. My spice merchant only shook his head in despair when I asked him how he was.
People protesting against the attempted coup in Istanbul on July 2016 — Photo: Depo Photos/ZUMA
A state of emergency was declared. The government announced that Fethullah Gülen, a former imam from Turkey who lives in the U.S., was the mastermind behind the coup. Thousands suspected of plotting it were arrested in Turkey. Anyone who had worked at Gülen’s schools or universities were either detained or placed on a blacklist, limiting their employment prospects elsewhere. Suspects were held without charge, newspapers were shut down and journalists were arrested. Despite the purge, people came out in droves to support the reinstatement of democracy. Every night, enormous rallies across the country celebrated the suppression of the attempted coup.
Our Friday night dinners with friends were abandoned. Communication was limited to cryptic messages on social media out of fear that an innocent remark might be taken out of context, leading to an unwelcome knock on the door. My husband and I were supposed to apply for jobs in the new academic year but dismissals in the education department meant all applications by foreigners were put on hold.
Suddenly, all the things I’d loved about living in Istanbul now seemed like liabilities. The passionate nature of Turks and the joyous spontaneity of living your life according to ‘inşallah’ — the belief that it’s up to Allah how things turn out — had lost its charm for me.
Even before the attempted coup, you could recognize the smell of tear gas in Istanbul. I’d become adept at analyzing when to walk in a different direction and when to run. I knew that anything I said in private could, and would, be used against me in ways I’d never previously imagined. But, cocooned in my comfortable life with wonderful friends, it was easy to ignore. Now that was no longer possible.
A month after the attempted coup, I left my apartment and my friends in Turkey, a country I’d lived in for nearly 10 years, to start all over again somewhere else.
I’m now in Portugal. It’s quiet and peaceful here but moving hasn’t been without difficulties. I’m in the process of finding a place to live, getting a job and making new friends. Loud noises still make me jump. When I see a police vehicle, I look for the nearest escape route.
I still long for my old life in Istanbul, despite everything that happened after the attempted coup. I know I’m lucky. I’m alive and, unlike many, I’m still able to choose what happens to me next.
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