Fear in Istanbul

Istanbul is a city where I’m always on my guard. The hellish traffic and pedestrian-unfriendly roads, the leering men (in certain neighbourhoods), the jacked-up tourist prices, and the pickpockets and beggars have made their mark on my daily behaviours. In Canada, I can walk aimlessly; in Istanbul, I walk with purpose and don’t look around so as to look neither vulnerable nor approachable. In Canada, I look both ways before crossing; in Istanbul, my head rocks back and forth like a metronome before and during my road crossing. Right left – oh there’s a car, I’ll just stop here for a second in the middle of the road – good, he’s gone, okay now should I let this line of 20 cars go or should I stare them all down and dare them to run me over?

In Canada, I don’t watch my purse as it swings next to my hip; in Istanbul, I even hug it to my chest if I’m in a crowded place. As for men, I prefer to stay outside of tourist neighbourhoods so that people will tend to assume I am Turkish or not have the linguistic skills to approach me.

You get the picture.

The funny thing about this is that, although I am more guarded in Istanbul than I am elsewhere and have been a victim of many of the dangers of Istanbul (including pickpocketing, groping, rude too-persistent flirting, and many a near-miss traffic accident) I rarely feel personal fear. I feel annoyance, anger, fatigue, and self-righteous indignation on a regular basis. I even feel fear regarding the political situation in Turkey, and the eventual fate of the entire country and a few friends in positions of opposition to the most excellent president. Personalized fear about my own safety, however, is something I’ve rarely felt.

This time, things are different. Over the past year, Turkey has been the victim of seven terrorist attacks, two of which have occurred in Istanbul. And while I’ve written before about the importance of not allowing yourself to feel afraid when these things happen; that they’re statistically very unlikely to happen to you and so on, the truth is that I am more affected by my knowledge that they happen than I’d care to admit.

After the second attack on Istanbul two months ago, I started to have anxiety attacks while still in Canada. In a crowded bar thought, “The death toll would be huge if there were an attack right now” and be unable to be present with the people in front of me. In the subway, I would keep an eye on seemingly abandoned baggage as tightness mounted in my chest, at one point even leaving to take the next train. And after my initial excitement at riding the new Azur train in Montreal dissipated, the first thing I thought was, “That open design would make the death toll of a bomb a lot higher.”

The anxiety attacks became less frequent as my most recent arrival in Istanbul approached, I guess because it had been some time since the most recent terrorist attack. So I was unprepared for my arrival.

It started with the loud bangs. Istanbul is a busy city that produces many loud bangs. There are lots of things that can bang: trunks of cars, fire crackers, celebratory gunshots after a soccer game, garbage trucks, etc. Instead of immediately jumping to the conclusion that it was one of the many innocuous things that can go bang every time something goes bang, it always takes me a moment to shake off the conviction that it was a bomb.

A few days after my arrival I had to take the T1 tram to Kabataş. This is the tram that goes through Sultanahmet, where the first bomb in January went off. My first trip was uneventful, but as I approached Sultanahmet on my second trip, I noticed a young man to the left of me carrying a large suitcase. There was nothing about this man that indicated any danger. He looked to be Turkish. He was wearing a pair of sunglasses and had absurdly well-coiffed hair (absurd by Canadian standards; well within the standard of “normal” by Turkish ones.) I started to feel my chest tighten. As we continued along the route towards Sultanahmet, it tightened further. I felt a strong urge to get off the tram, but knew that if I did I would be not only late to my appointment, but would have capitulated to my fear.

I stayed on the tram but elbowed my way to the other end of the car in the hopes that, if the bag did blow up, I might stand a chance of being among the injured instead of the dead.

When I arrived at my destination, I could barely breathe. It took a half hour for the chest tightness to dissipate, and I was dogged by soul-sucking post-anxiety-attack fatigue. Later, I took the tram back the other way; the only incident was an American couple fighting awkwardly in the tram, assuming (I guess) that nobody around them spoke English. “I feel like you’re not respecting my friends right now.”—I know you feel that way, but I don’t want to stay up until 2 a.m.–“Yes, but I feel disrespected and ashamed, that’s how I feel.”

When I came to the next morning, I began to think about the anxiety attack again. Before leaving, many of my friends expressed concern about the possibility of terrorist attacks, and I reassured them (truthfully) that the chances of anything happening were low and that if I did manage to be killed at any point, it was most likely to be death by dolmus. Of course, I told them, living in Istanbul comes with risks; anybody who wants, or is forced, to live here can’t allow him or herself to think about it too much, both because it is a useless exercise and because the relative risk is very low.

Still, it’s hard to hold myself to this ideal. I do succumb to fits of anxiety. So what to say? Touché, terrorists? You’re assholes, but you know how to do the job.

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