When I got to the top of the hill, I saw the police setting up barricades and pushing back a gathering crowd of onlookers. I started asking what had happened. My Turkish wasn’t very good, but I managed to latch onto and understand the word bomba. There had been a large bomb blast near the British consulate just off Istiklal Caddesi a few minutes before. Some people were dead, many were injured, and the streets were quickly filling with ambulances and police cars.
Istiklal and the surrounding streets were littered with glass. The cell phones were down, so I skirted the barricades and stopped by my girlfriend’s brother’s workplace, about 3 blocks from the blast, to make sure he was okay and to tell him I was okay too and to try to get word to my girlfriend, who would be worried about us.
I stepped back out onto the street and saw the police busily cordoning off the area, so I cut through their barricades and quickly made my way home. I’ve never walked over so much broken glass in my life. I think there was so much of it that I walked a half mile without my feet ever touching the pavement.
After that second set of bombings the city was definitely on edge. A single set of bombings it could write off as a one-time event, but two? For a couple hours that day people didn’t even know how many bombs had gone off around the city. At one point it was rumored there had been six. Later that day we learned it wasn’t six, it was just two, the one at the British consulate, which I walked past, and another one a couple miles north at the HSBC bank building.
In the days that followed, the Turks did a lot of soul searching. The United States was fighting a war in Iraq, one of Turkey’s neighbors to the south. Turkey and the US had been close allies for decades, so Turkey wanted to stand by its pal, but was this going to be the cost? Were things like this going to happen on a regular basis now? After years of relative peace and prosperity, was Turkey going to slide back into civil war and martial law?
I was confused, too. Did this mean I should go back home to the US, like some of the other Americans I had met were going to do? Would I have to walk down the streets of Istanbul now with teeth clenched, wondering if the next parked car was going to be the one with the bomb?
As nerve-wracking as the situation was though, I never gave serious thought to actually leaving Turkey. What captured my imagination more powerfully than thoughts of returning home was the idea of sticking around to see how the Turks were going to respond.
The next morning I walked back down to Istiklal Caddesi to check out the neighborhood. It was abuzz with people carrying brooms and trash cans and busily clearing the last of the debris from the streets. The sidewalks were not clogged with ambulances and police cars anymore, they were clogged with trucks delivering new panes of glass for the shops.
After a major bomb blast that brought death, blood, and destruction, the city was busy cleaning up so it could be fully operational again 24 hours after the blast. And what’s more, two days later a Turkish friend of mine was having a birthday party just a few blocks away from one of the blast sites, and the party was NOT cancelled.
The people of Istanbul did not need to know what was going to happen next. They did not need to know if attacks like this would become a regular occurrence. All they needed to know was that their world was a mess, and it needed to be cleaned up. They were showing the world that they were bigger than the men with the bombs. They were showing the world that they felt the fear, but would rise above it.
When I saw that that was how they reacted to an attack on their own soil, I fell deeply in love with that country and its people.
This is an excerpt from Matt Krause’s book A Tight Wide-open Space. In 2003 Matt met a Turkish woman on a flight to Hong Kong. They started going out, and within a year Matt found himself adjusting to a new life in Istanbul. A Tight Wide-open Space is about that adjustment — going through the culture shock, becoming one of the family, learning to love the country. The book is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and for the Kindle.