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The Istanbul I Know

It is no wonder why violence dominates news about Turkey in the Western press. It sells.

Turkey is a beautiful country filled with beautiful people who sometimes kill each other — much like any other country. It is the home to pristine beaches along the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea coasts that are rich in classical and biblical history. Its urban gem, Istanbul, rivals Paris in romantic nostalgia steeped in history, literature, art and music. Though the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal, moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara upon the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Istanbul remains the cultural heart of Turkey.

Unfortunately, Turkey has seen its share of violence since the US mission to “remake” the Middle East began in 2003. The New York Times reports that since 2015 alone, 380 people have been killed in terrorist attacks throughout the country. Currently, the reverberations of the savage civil war in the southeast that has raged in Turkey since 1984 and the devolution into chaos of Turkey’s neighbors, Iraq and Syria, are now being felt in Istanbul, most recently on December 10, when 44 people were killed by twin car and suicide bomb attacks after a soccer game in the heart of the city. Sadly, the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara on December 19 capped a tragic year for Ankara, Istanbul and Turkey as a whole.

Nevertheless, Istanbul remains lined with cafes full of live music, political conversation and a diverse array of cuisine, reflecting the tastes of the many traders and conquerors who came through the city over the centuries. It is also full of resilient people. After an attack on the Istanbul airport in June killed more than 40 people, the airport was up and running again a few hours later.

Two weeks after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, I enjoyed a wedding cruise along the Bosporus. Although uncertainty hung in the air, the guests did not let it control them. After all, this was a wedding, a happy occasion and one much more important than politics or war. Weddings, birthdays and simple gatherings of friends will continue and they will be the real life of Turkey that is too often not reported in the West.

It is no wonder why violence dominates news about Turkey in the Western press. It sells. And it fits many of the unwarranted stereotypes that abound about this country. Despite the trite Midnight Express or Airplane! (“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”) references that are usually an American’s first reaction to any mention of Turkey, the foreigner here immediately feels the warmth and hospitality of the locals in the shops, on the streets or after terrorist attacks.

Shortly after arriving in Istanbul in 2010 to teach at the Istanbul International Community School, I heard my first bomb go off. On a breezy Sunday morning in October, a bomb detonated near a police bus in Taksim Square, the center of European Istanbul. The blast shook the building I was living in, about half a mile from the square. I opened the window, heard police gunfire and saw a woman across the street, leaning out her window and hanging laundry. She noticed the worried look on my face and said, “Don’t worry. It happens. Turn on NTV News.” And she went about her task matter-of-factly. Later that day, my wife and I strolled leisurely around the spot where the bomb went off.

That is the greatest story that is not being told about Turkey. Life goes on, refugees arrive, tourists (though fewer) visit ancient sites, students study, families gather along the banks of the Bosporus for cookouts, and the Turks remain good spirited. But even the stories of innocent Turks being killed run through the Western news cycle quickly. Last year’s October Ankara bombing was barely a blip on the screen compared to the Paris shootings a month later. This hierarchy of grief was not lost on the Turks, who are still subject to the unconscious racism that stems from the Ottoman conquest of southeastern Europe and the knocking on Vienna’s door in 1683. European anxiety regarding “the unspeakable Turk” is still very strong and shows its ugly face in arguments about Turkish inclusion in the European Union or Muslim immigration.

It is hard to understand Turkey and the Turks without living amongst them. Thus, we opt for stereotypes enforced by headlines that speak of violence, and too often, we let them color our perception of an entire people. This, of course, works both ways, and many in this part of the world see the US as an aggressive power using military might indiscriminately in the pursuit of economic interests.

But I think one would be surprised by the sagacity of the average Turk. Recently, a taxi driver asked me about Trump and the US election. He said he was concerned that Trump was unpredictable like Erdogan and lamented the fact that people have a tendency to put themselves in the hands extremists. I noted that a brief look at history would make it hard to argue with that.

The conversation then turned to family, children, education, health and work. These are the issues that Turks are most concerned with amid the clamor of bombs and political strife. Turks share these basic concerns and want peace, just like their allies in Europe and the US. Although seldom told, this is an inspiring story of a people who remain committed to their families and nation in the face of political chaos, civil war and terrorism.

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