War casts a long shadow. It casts many shadows. The actual war may be in Syria, and along the border, and even in Iraq. But the shadows of war, the effects, continue to stretch. They have stretched here, to Istanbul, to Ankara, to the other Turkish cities. Now, they have even extended into Europe, where masses of refugees are fighting for safe harbor in countries like Germany.
The shadows hang and hover like hungry hawks, diving occasionally into the streets, where nationalists clash with perceived Kurdish separatists, and outside newspaper offices, like the Daily Hurriyet, of which the offices in Istanbul were pelted by stones, the windows smashed, in two separate incidents this past week. We see the shadows in the night faces of the demonstrators in Sişle, protesting the government or else against “terror.”
They are long, ominous shadows that cross your path at every step. For those who have never lived in or near a war zone, you can’t fully understand the grip of fear and uncertainty, the dangerous absurdity, lurking around every corner. You keep a constant eye on the news; you see the crude manifestations in stories, such as the Turkish nationalist who was beaten up by his own fellow nationalists. They apparently mistook him for a Kurd. Or in the story, posted a few days ago, of a Kurdish man in the south who was beaten by nationalists and forced to kiss an Ataturk statue. Or the reports of the Kurdish political party (HDP) headquarters attacked by nationalists.
There are too many reports to keep track of: even this story, as you read it, is probably long out of date by now.
You see the shadows in your wife’s face. She comes home from work, tired, tense. Recently there was an attempted terrorist attack at Dolmabahçe Palace, where she works, and a policeman was injured.
Your wife sits on the balcony, smoking a cigarette and watching the news on her laptop. She listens to the latest reports of Turkish soldiers killed in an attack by Kurdish separatists, and the retaliation by the military, which sent 50 fighter jets to bomb the separatists locations, and other reports of Turkish policemen killed in a town near the border.
The two of you are planning a trip to America for Christmas. You’re going to visit New York, see the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, etc. She would like to eat at the famous “Seinfeld” café on the Upper West Side, and you’d like to take her to one of the jazz clubs in the Village. Then, you’re flying (or taking the bus, still haven’t figured that part out) to Pittsburgh to spend Christmas with your family. She hasn’t met your family yet. Everyone is excited.
Saving money has been hard, because the Turkish lira has been falling steadily against the dollar. You keep a constant eye on that, too. Just a few years ago, the exchange rate was 1.8, but now it is over 3 and rising. That means for every 100 dollars you hope to save, you need to put away 300 liras. And New York isn’t cheap.
“Well, if there is a civil war in Turkey,” your wife says, resignedly. “You could always go back to America.”
“You could come with me,” you say.
“How could I?” she asks. “My family is here.” She sighs. “Why couldn’t I have been born somewhere else? Why couldn’t I have been born in England?”
“Well, I wouldn’t leave without you,” you say, putting on a brave face. “If you stay, I stay. After all, this is my home too now.”
“You don’t have to,” she says.
You look at your wife, as she lights another cigarette and returns her attention to the news. You realize that what you mean what you said; that whatever happens, your future lies together.
Passing along the shoreline at Caddebostan, on the Asian side of the city, where we go swimming in the summer, you notice that the waters of the sea are beginning to get a bit rough, choppy, and the colour is changing to a deeper blue. The Mediterranean autumn, which you always love, is on the way (“Marmara autumn” would be more precise, true, but the former has a more poetic sound). The leaves in the cyprus trees are getting lighter, the wind stirring them more in the evenings, but there is also still in the afternoon a dazzling sun coming off the surface of the sea.
Autumn is always a reflective time, a time for moving forward and making plans. The children have started back to school; most of the university students have returned as well. People are back from their holidays in Marmaris and Bodrum (the latter is where the body of Aylan, the Syrian child refugee, washed up recently, so the shadows extend even to the holiday resorts).
In many ways, life goes on. There is a surface normality, but you fear at times that that dazzling sun over the autumn sea is but an illusion, a trick of the eye. Your nerves tell a different story. You feel like a clock is ticking somewhere, the hour ready to strike.
# # #
James Tressler is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.