big story very often is right under a reporter’s nose — and so
often they walk right by it,” an editor once told me.
I remembered that advice this past week, after I proceeded to do just that — walk right past what turned out to be a break in arguably the world’s biggest news story. Let me explain. On Monday, at the university we had one of those staff meetings that run late. Tired, ready to put Monday in the bag, I took off as soon as the meeting ended, jumped on the nearest tram for the hour-long journey home to Üsküdar.
That evening on the news, there was a report on a break in the ongoing Jamal Khashoggi murder investigation. One of the missing vehicles from the Saudi consulate, where the dissident journalist had “disappeared” three weeks ago, had been found in a parking garage in the district of Sultangazi.
I nearly jumped out of the sofa.
“You see this?” I cried out to my wife. She was having coffee and a cigarette on the balcony.
“They found one of the missing cars in Sultangazi!”
Sultangazi. Of all the hideways in Istanbul, and there are many in this city of 15 million people, the car had been found in a carpark right next to my university. I walk right past it every day.
The next morning, on the service bus, I related this development to one of my colleagues. “Yes,” he confirmed, “Didn’t you see yesterday? There were a lot of police outside, and even some of our students were there.”
No, I hadn’t, as you know. As a former reporter, I felt burned, picturing one of my old editors hauling me into the office to ask how I’d managed to miss a bunch of police and bystanders and probably other reporters all amassed on this narrow little street.
That morning, when we arrived at the campus, I immediately stepped went over to have a next-day look. The police line was still in place, and a few cops were keeping people away. An evidence van was pulled up in front of the car park entrance. Imagining the hectic scene from the day before, I took a consolation photo of the still active crime scene.
Aside from my work at the university, you might forgive me for having missed out. This is Sultangazi we’re talking about — a poor, dirty, conservative district on the great city’s outskirts. The boondocks of Istanbul. Nothing ever happens here.
Everyone at the university was as stunned as I was..
“How in the hell did they ever think of hiding the car here?” they asked.
“Maybe that was the point,” some suggested. “If you were looking to hide a car containing evidence in the murder of a famous journalist, then where would you hide it? Someplace nobody would think to look.”
“That’s right,” others agreed. “The driver probably used Google Maps and found a spot as far from anywhere as possible.”
Like many people, we here have spent much of the past few weeks playing amateur detectives. We went over the often conflicting, changing accounts. How could a man walk into an embassy and just never be seen again? How could the Saudi authorities continue to deny any knowledge as to his whereabouts? If Khashoggi was not dead, then where the hell could he be?
And what about those missing cars — the ones with consulate license plates seen on security cameras leaving the Saudi consulate that fateful afternoon? “And all that time we were talking about it,” one of my Turkish colleagues remarked, laughing. “One of the cars was right here!
Right here. We looked out the window at the parking lot, watched the police still roaming the streets, and employees from the nearby hospital also looking on curiously.
Heading into class that morning, I decided to “take a learning opportunity” to discuss the Khashoggi case. But I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. This year’s crop of prep students are the first freshman class of students all born in the 21st century.
Would I have to first tell them who the late Jamal Khasshogi was? Were they even aware of this tragic news story at all?
To my delight and surprise, they seized on the topic immediately. They were excited, engaged.
We were world news, folks. In fact, we were the top story in The New York Times. I showed the students a photograph taken by the Agence Press France. The photo shows the car park, and in the background you can clearly see our university.
“So, class,” I said. “Where is the world’s biggest news story at the moment?”
“Here! In Sultangazi!” they cried in proud unison.
The whole class erupted into spontaneous, collegiate applause. Like we’d won the national championship or something. A few even snapped photos of the NY Times picture and no doubt shared it on Instagram.
Even the school administrators were flattered, bemused.
“Wow, The New York Times!”said one.
“We’re a trending topic!” remarked another.
“Hey — there’s no such thing as bad publicity!”
(Still others saw the whole event as yet another chance for the dollar to continue its pounding against the unfortunate Turkish lira. Indeed, the lira did drop a bit that day.)
By Thursday, much of the excitement had faded. The police line was removed, the world moved on to other news developments. Back once more to obscurity, we at the university toiled on toward midterms.
Of course, the story as you well know continues to unfold, the investigation focusing ever tighter on the Saudi authorities implicated in Khashoggi’s murder. We later read that the car found in the now famous car park reportedly contained suitcases, and there was some kind of gas mask, as well as some clothing.
Looking out at the normal activity resuming in the street, my colleagues and I wondered what the future would hold for the owner of the car park. Would he find some way to capitalize on these fortuitous events?
We could almost see the advertisement: “PARK YOUR GETAWAY CARS HERE! AT LEAST THREE WEEKS BEFORE THE COPS FIND IT OR YOUR MONEY BACK! GUARANTEED! ASK SOME OF OUR FAMOUS CLIENTS!”
“But where is Khashoggi? The body?” The question on the whole world’s mind was in ours as well.
Of course there were all sorts of theories, speculations — some well-founded, others just wild and fanciful. He was in the Saudi consul general’s garden, he was chemically evaporated, dust in the wind. Black humorists posited that he was maybe residing permanently in the basement of our school, or had even been on the menu at the cafeteria upstairs the previous day.
The question, inshallah, will be answered once and for all, and those responsible held accountable. For the students here at the university, perhaps the lasting thing is that at least for one day, they could rightfully boast, “Sultagazi! Who says nothing ever happens here?”
As for myself, that old editor’s advice has been slightly adjusted. The big story may well be right outside your window. And maybe slow down a bit on the way home.
POSTSCRIPT: All of these comments may seem trite and cynical to people justifiably horrified and concerned over the late Mr. Khashoggi. As a former journalist myself, I share the outrage. But as a teacher, I was glad in some weird way to have world news all but come marching onto the campus. It gave our boondock campus a refreshing bit of relevance, something to talk about. For young minds (and not-so-young minds), that’s never a bad thing.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul. His latest book of short stories, “Strait Fiction,” is available now at Booklegger in Eureka and Northtown Books in Arcata.