The city in January — the Monday of months — is painted in forlorn, blue silhouette. Pale skies highlight the cast iron bridges, the streets are clogged with the head lights of motorists just trying to get home before early nightfall. Icy winds blow up from the Bosphorus, slicing through your winter coat. The rains are pitiless. And yet, from a certain angle (preferably indoors), the winter city does possess a certain cold, distant majesty.
“So is there going to be the third World War?” my wife Özge asked. She was sitting on the sofa, nursing our newborn son Leo.
“I don’t know,” I said, extolling the extent of my knowledge of world affairs.
I’d just gotten home from work and was hanging my coat on the heater to dry out. The prospect of global conflict was not nearly as interesting as getting warm. Here in Istanbul, we were at war with the weather more than anything else.
I felt for Özge. For the past two weeks, her mind has been solely preoccupied with the simple, demanding task of motherhood. She’s hardly had time to even glance at a headline.
“Is there going to be the third World War?”
Earlier that day, my students had asked me the same question. I suppose, since I’m American, they figured I might have something revelatory to say on the subject. I didn’t.
On the TV, the Turkish news was showing President Trump’s response to the assassination of the Iranian general. For days, the TV had been saturated with coverage of the assassination, of the social media reactions, with wild speculation. The general reaction here was about the same as it was everywhere else — shock, disbelief, indignation, anger, fear.
I went to the bedroom, slipped into pajamas, and went to check on Leo. He was doing what he usually does, suckling, eating, burping, crying and occasionally sleeping. He’s a good boy. We’ll probably keep him around for awhile.
Earlier that day at the school, we’d practiced modals of probability.
“How likely is the possibility of a Third World War?” I asked.
“Almost certain!” the students responded, referencing the latest news developments.
Their faces lit up, a sort of gallows humor laugh erupted in the classroom. We laughed together, one of those rare teacher-student moments. Still, all those fresh, 18-year-old faces … they haven’t done their mandatory military service yet. If there were a World War, in all probability, they would be called up. I wonder if that fact had occurred to them. Probably.
World War III. Great. Just great! How convenient. We just had our first child, and my work at the university is going really well. We are comfortable, settled, in our cozy flat while the cold winds blow outside.
Couldn’t we do this whole war thing another time?
Haven’t we had our share of tumult this past decade, here in Istanbul? What, with the Syrian war, Gezi Park, the failed military coup in 2016, the two-year state of emergency that followed? Let the winds of war blow elsewhere.
I remember a few years back, at the height of the Syrian war, seeing Russian warships cruising in the Bosphorus, bound for the Mediterranean. The sight of these ships was formidable. You felt as though you were witnessing history, and yet the reality of what those ships represented seemed remote. At least you wanted to think that. The roar of the fighter jets streaking over our neighborhood the night of July 15, 2016 — those were real, all right. Enough to wake you up.
Of course, as always, Istanbul — and Turkey — is caught in the middle of world events, between East and West. The US is a long-standing NATO ally, and yet Iran, a fellow Muslim country, is just across the border to the east. Were there to be a war, no doubt the effects would be felt here too. Why can’t we live somewhere like Manitoba, or Alaska, or Siberia? No — Switzerland, remember? Anyway, somewhere where nothing ever happens?
wife sometimes used to ask this question back during the days of the
failed military coup. Why does everything have to land on our heads,
here in this part of the world? Why can’t we have our share of
splendid isolation? Why can’t we be free to just raise our son Leo
in peace, without worrying that someday bombs would be dropping on
our heads in the middle of the night? It didn’t seem fair.
That was the way things were for the great part of the week. Outside, even the weather seemed to conspire against us. On Wednesday, my wife had to take Leo to the doctor for a routine check up. We agreed that a taxi was in order — no way my infant son is getting on a bus or metro during the flu season. But with the winter storms blasting outside, where were we going to get a taxi? Uber, which has been banned in Turkey (the taxi driver unions fought and won that concession), was not an option.
Fortunately, my mother-in-law has connections. Her brother is a fairly high-ranking local official. She called him, and he sent a personal driver to pick them up, take them to the doctor and bring them back to the apartment. Good to have friends in high places, eh?
By Thursday, following the retaliatory missile strike by Iran, and Trump’s announcement that Iran appeared to be “standing down,” we were able to breathe a sigh of relief. So there would be no third World War — for now anyway. In our cozy little apartment on a hill overlooking the Bosphorous, we’d dodged yet another bullet.
Meanwhile, my wife and mother-in-law were exhausted. They had been up all night with Leo, who was waging his own personal war with stomach gas.
“Poor little boy,” I said, as we watched him sleeping in his crib.
My wife concurred.
“Yes, he didn’t ask to be born into this world.”
Deep in sleep, Leo smiled in agreement, or maybe he was merely dreaming of boobs.
At the university, the term is winding down. On Friday, we wrapped up the last of our tasks. Next week loom final exams — for my students, a much more tangible threat.
“See you next week!” they said, on their way out. They had that youthful excitement of it being Friday, of being near the end of the term. Winter break — two weeks of glorious inactivity — drew closer with every minute.
At the iskele in Beşiktaş, I caught the ferry, which soon set out for the Asian side. About midway, suddenly the heavy grey skies opened up. For the first time in at least a week, golden rays of sunshine flooded over the city. The waters of the Bosphorus, which had been cresting for days, were now calm. A silence, almost Beethoven-like silence, seemed to have fallen over the city.
I went out to the deck and enjoyed the fine air. I thought about the tumultuous week, and how sometimes things work out, and how maybe the world won’t always end when you expect it to. I thought about my students and finals next week, and the new year, the new decade.
Sure, in all probability, it’s premature to feel too good about things. Don’t trust Istanbul weather or women, the saying goes. But for the moment, all I really wanted to do was get home to see my wife and son, to crack open a beer and watch the sunset.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.