My wife Özge works at Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. Normally she works until the palace closes at half past five. But the other day, she left early for a doctor’s appointment.

Not twenty minutes after she left work, two gunmen opened fire on a police watchbox at one of the gates. One of the assailants tossed a small “noise” bomb at the police before the shooting began. Fortunately, only one police officer was injured, and the gunmen were soon caught.

While all this was happening, I was also at work, across the city in Suadiye. I found out what had happened when I called my wife to see how her visit to the doctor had gone.

“Did you see the news?” she asked.

She filled me in on the details of the attack. Actually, she had been unaware of the attack herself – the reason she heard about it was that suddenly friends, family members, were all calling, sending nervous texts, asking if she was OK.

“Are they going to close the palace, as a precaution?” I wondered.

“Actually they just closed for one hour, and then they re-opened,” Özge said.

She got more details from her colleagues when she returned to work the next day. One of her colleagues, a young guide, was out near one of the gates. This gate, which was used only by the sultan during Ottoman times, is located along the main thoroughfare. The high walls of the palace run alongside this main road. Inside the walls, there is a big garden. Most of the guides, including Özge, use this sultan’s gate as a place for cigarette breaks, since smoking is not allowed near the palace.

Anyway, the young guide went out to have a cigarette. He was standing there, smoking, when suddenly he heard this huge blast (the “noise” bomb, which evidently was intended to create a distraction). Then there were gunshots. The terrified guide apparently couldn’t really see any of it, since it all occurred just outside the walls.

The tourists standing in the queue outside the palace also heard everything. “They panicked and all ran inside,” Özge said. “Many of them were crying.”

“I would have run inside too,” I said. “Can you imagine? You’re a tourist on holiday in Istanbul, and suddenly your worst nightmare seems to be coming true – a terrorist attack!”

“Anyway, it was the European tourists who were scared the most,” Özge said. “Apparently the Arabic visitors were just like – oh, there was a bomb? Really? So can we get on with the tour? They were completely unfazed.”

“Well, I’m glad you weren’t there,” I said.

“Imagine, baby –“ Özge said. “That could have been me, standing there having a cigarette break!”

“Touch wood,” I said. I made sure to touch the nearest wood, it was right there on the balcony, where we were sitting and having a cigarette. Outside, it was Friday evening, and the streets in our neighborhood were fairly quiet.

“Anyway,” Özge said. “I told you, something like this would happen sooner or later.”

It’s true. She had said that, and I think I’d worried about it too, on some level. With the conflicts along the Turkish-Syria border escalating, and the Islamic State threat growing, warnings of possible terror attacks in Istanbul have become almost routinely announced by officials. The U.S. Embassy also issues warnings to American citizens to be especially careful.

That’s what my wife was talking about. Dolmabahce Palace is a powerful symbol of the Turkish state, and thus perhaps inevitably a target in these times.

Later that day, when I got home from work, Özge was watching the news, listening for updates. But there wasn’t much to report, evidently — just a recap of what had transpired earlier at the palace, and the commentary on the assailants, who were reported as belonging to a Marxist-Leninist group known as DHKP. This same group claimed responsibility for recent attacks on the ruling party’s offices in Istanbul.

Often we are bored by distant problems. Every day, every week, we see or hear of airliners disappearing, plunging into the bottom of the sea. Some disaffected whacko walks into a cinema, or school, or work place and unleashes a stream of bloodshed. A decent, hard-working family is killed in a car crash, while the drunk driver who smashed into them escapes the wreckage with only minor injuries. A 5-year-old child is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Wars rage on, sometimes for decades, in some country that we probably will never visit.

We are inundated with the very real stories of other people’s misfortunes.

These things hold our attention for a time, but are quickly forgotten, swallowed up in our minds by the next disaster, (or near-disaster, in this case). Even if we manage to pay attention, and lend sympathy, we eventually grow bored by crises, traumas, disasters that really don’t affect us personally. And even on those occasions when misfortune does strike us – or by some luck, we or our loved ones manage to narrowly avoid getting struck – it’s amazing how we take it in stride.

My wife went to work this morning. I walked her to the bus stop. “Be careful,” I said. She couldn’t hear over the bus engine, and leaned closer.

“Be careful,” I said again, louder this time. She smiled a little, nodded and got on, and the bus lurched away up the hill.

Meanwhile, her colleague, the guy who was standing outside having a cigarette when the attacks started has apparently taken the rest of the week off.

Well, can you blame him?


James Tressler is a writer and former North Coast journalist. He lives in Istanbul.