Photo: James Tressler.

Last Sunday evening, we were sitting in the living room when we got word that there had been an explosion on Istiklal Avenue over on the European side of the city.

My wife’s reaction summed up our feelings perfectly: “Not again.”

We live on the Asian side, far from the explosion. Yet outside we could hear sirens everywhere. An armored vehicle sat on the overpass outside the window, and the highway below, normally placid on a Sunday evening, was jammed with cars trying to access the tunnel. The internet was working, so we were able to get the latest news, but social media had been blocked – at least from our side. All told, six dead, more than 50 wounded.

A few days passed. For much of the world the story quickly became yesterday’s news, all but disappearing from the headlines and feeds. Meanwhile, I thought about our decidedly cynical and tired reaction to the latest episode of violence to befall our great city. It was troubling, to be sure, but what can you do?

Sure, you do have to offer prayers for the families of the victims. As for the investigation: Within hours of the explosion, police arrested a woman, a Syrian national, with reported backing and ties from a Kurdish terrorist group. The woman was reportedly captured on CCTV at the site of the bombing, and later traced by some 1,200 security cameras to a hideout in one of the neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts. More arrests are promised.


To be frank, I have grown bored of it all: terror, war, violence, memorials and aftermaths. Judging from the faces of friends, colleagues, family members, I am not alone.

Why shouldn’t we be fed up? Looking over the letters I have written over the past decade, one could find a collection of “Terror Tales,” a Poe-sounding title if there ever was. An attack on Dolmabahçe Palace, where my wife works, back in November 2015 (fortunately only one policeman was injured in that otherwise foiled attack. Then the late 2016 bombing near Beşiktaş football stadium that killed nearly 40 people, 150 injured. And let us not forget the failed military coup that dark Friday, 15 July 2016, when in the night tanks and soldiers occupied the same bridge I now take to work every morning.

Let us not forget the bigger picture stories, like the war in Syria and now the war up the road in Ukraine, both of which I have written back home about. War and terror, violence and its aftermath. At one point, in early 2016, government officials here, with a grim outlook, told citizens that they would have to, “Learn to live with terror.”

Well, we have. The thing that gets you really is the aftermath, the never-ending aftermath. Living in constant aftermath is akin to bathing in blood. It sticks to your skin after a while.

The thing is, daily life here in Istanbul isn’t like that at all, the way some people in the West imagine. When these incidents occur, caring friends and family back in America and elsewhere send urgent messages, are you OK? And I have to remind them that we live in a city as big as, if not bigger than New York, with the same majestic sweep and vast, discursive network of neighborhoods, districts and boroughs.

Perhaps surprisingly, one seldom feels anything like danger, but rather energy. It’s a vibrant city. Other than the crowds, which can be especially tiresome on the metros and buses, the soul-crushing traffic on the bridges, life in Istanbul is as safe as any city its size can be – in fact, safer than most American cities, this writer posits. Each morning, I walk at dawn through the still lamp-lit streets of Kadıköy, the old neighborhood just waking up, the smell of fresh bread coming from the bakeries, the street cleaners out hosing off the sidewalks in front of the markets, and I am never molested by anyone.

True, these are streets I know very well, having lived in Kadıköy from the time of my first arrival. I know its alleys and passageways, its niches and cornices, as well as some of the locals – in fact, I consider myself a local by now, and several of the local tradespeople and not a few barkeeps would vouch for me. Of course, my situation has changed. My wife and I worry about our son, who will turn 3 next month. Like all parents, we worry about him.

In the hours after last Sunday’s explosion, with sirens still whirring in all directions, the streets crammed with cars, we took Leo out for a walk because, with a toddler’s insistence, he demanded it.

Outside, the November evening was windy but not cold. Beneath the overpass, a sea of cars were jammed on the highway going towards the undersea tunnel to the European side. The eastbound side was virtually deserted, as the highway usually is on Sunday evenings. Looking at all the cars far below, I noted aloud, “It’s really surreal. I mean, it’s Sunday …”

Leo whirled around, “Daddy, it’s Sunday!” he said, proudly. We started: he had never spoken the word before. “What day is it?” I asked. “It’s Sunday!” he said again, laughing. Well, at least we’ll always remember when he learned the word “Sunday.”

The following day in class, my students were not blessed with such childish obliviousness. The news hit them hard. “Angry,” “Shocked,” “Upset.” These were the words they used to describe their reactions. Like me, most of them had been at home resting when the explosion occurred the evening before.

As I said, my own reaction was one of resignation, of weariness, even boredom. Perhaps that is a sign of getting older; the battle scars have long since hardened. One becomes used to such things, and reasons: well, one has to expect –

Still, I found myself touching wood. After all, the Saturday before I’d been thinking, “It’s been so long since we’ve been to Taksim … It would be nice to browse the bookshops on Istiklal, sit at a streetside café over a beer and watch all the crowds pass.” Instead, my wife and I had taken Leo to nearby Moda, and passed a pleasant afternoon at the park and enjoyed big tasty burgers at a fashionable seaside café.

As readers know, the very next day, the explosion had rocked Istiklal. Of course even if we had gone there on Saturday, we would have been safe, but still … You realize how close you came, that such things maybe are just matter of chance. Those six people who were killed, and the 53 injured, who went to Istiklal last Sunday did not plan what happened to them either. Wrong place, wrong time. So in these times, you do get a sense of hanging by a thread– but when you think about it, don’t we always?


This past Tuesday afternoon, I went to Istiklal Avenue to have a look at the scene myself. As was reported, the busy avenue had by and large returned to normal, with the exception of a procession of the red Turkish flags lined up in two columns all the way down the busy thoroughfare. It was the same busy, vibrant avenue whose corridors and backways I’ve traveled so many times over the years. It felt good to be back, honestly, as it always does: in the heart of the great city.

At the site of the explosion, scores of people were gathered, many taking photos and placing flowers at the spot. Photos of the dead were also on display. Police could be seen nearby and up and down the street, but that is not so unusual in this part of the city. Over the years demonstrations and protests of all kinds have been held here near Taksim Square and on Istiklal Caddesi because of the location’s visual iconography and historical significance. For many, this past week’s tragedy is sadly just the latest one.

And yet we have to move on. Maybe that’s why so many, including myself, made a point of going to the site of the explosion. Not just to honor the dead, but the living as well, and to take back our city, the city we call home.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.