What You Do in a Coup by Kelly Hevel

View of istanbul at dusk clouds and sillouettes of towers

My phone begins vibrating, and as a known and confirmed hermit, I’m surprised and consider being annoyed. It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Friday and Jenny and Chloe, who rarely message me, are both texting to ask if I know what the hell is going on. I think, “I’m drinking a Campari spritz on my balcony in the breeze,” but know this isn’t the right answer.

I stand and look out over peaceful gardens, surveying the city. It’s a typical, quiet July night, and many have fled the heat of Istanbul for their summer homes. After ten years in Turkey I have seen enough terrorist actions and violent suppression of protests to assume this must be more of the same. I begin taking stock of where my friends are. Who’s out of town? Who would be at a protest that may have popped up? I listen for shouts and sirens, look for clouds of teargas, but nothing seems to be amiss. Above the treetops I see only darkened rooftops with their families of nesting seagulls. It’s so quiet I can hear the sound of a predatory crow’s wings as it flies past the balcony in its never-ending quest for an unguarded seagull’s nest.

I feel tension building in my stomach. I know that, because I face the center of the block, almost anything could be going on in the streets and I wouldn’t hear it. Knowing that the government decides what the press is permitted to say, and that when anything goes wrong—bombs, protests, etc.—gag orders are issued until a narrative is approved, I try to remain calm so I can decide on the best plan for finding out what is happening to who, and where.

I go inside, open my laptop, and start refreshing Twitter and Facebook. I find even my most conspiracy-resistant friends reporting there are tanks on the Bosphorus Bridge and heavy gunfire and explosions in the capital, Ankara. It takes me a long time to find and begin following people I believe are passing on the best information at hand at the moment instead of merely speculating. After ten years in Turkey I have grown tired of speculation and weak logic. Time after time I am forced to cut through the rumor and uncertainty resulting from the lack of a free press. I never get used to the frustration of not knowing when to accept that a tragedy is in motion in this information vacuum and when to move on to the next step: racking my brain to try to remember where my friends are supposed to be and who might be affected by this latest violence. It’s exhausting. But after just a few minutes of searching social media I am convinced: It is no longer a mildly interesting historical fact that every decade or two there’s a coup in Turkey; an attempt is unfolding right now.

As used to uprisings and uproar as I have become here, this is a whole new level of drama. This is not a protest I can walk around, or a bombing I can be thankful to have escaped. No, here I stand in the middle of my flat in my adopted home Istanbul on a Friday night, cocktail in hand and, incidentally, wearing next to nothing on this balmy July night, in the middle of what feels like a noir novel. Perhaps irrationally, I wonder if I should fear a knock on the door. In a place where whispers of foreign interference plague every aspect of politics and government, will blame for this too fall on outsiders?

I wander aimlessly from room to room wondering what to do, periodically venturing onto the balcony to peer into the peaceful dark, straining my ears for sounds of violence and hearing none. From my windows I can see only the gardens below and rooftops. Usually I am thankful for this view over the top of the city, but tonight my expansive vista feels more like exposure. Always quiet, tonight the silence of my neighborhood seems even deeper. Not even the sound of clinking glasses and silverware on plates, or the low murmurs that generally fall from open windows can be heard. Lights glow in a few windows, but I see no other signs of my neighbors.

I swim in feelings of guilt and amazement and a slight feeling of irresponsibility that I am not more sad or afraid. Instead, I am intrigued and feel a growing curiosity about what is happening out there in the dark and my strangely disconnected reaction to it alone in the silence of my house wondering what I will do in the next few hours or days. I realize I don’t know how long a coup takes.

Online, friends are posting advice. Go get as much cash as you can (I have little money in the bank, and anyway, it seems unwise to go out on the streets). Turn off your lights and close the curtains (Why? It seems unlikely squadrons of planes are about to fly over and bomb random spots around the city. The violence is between those assumed to be loyal to the government and those assumed not to be, not aimed at outsiders like me). Make sure you have food and water. This last recommendation provides me with something concrete to worry about. I have a stockpile of tap water for use in washing and toilet flushing in the event of a water outage, but I don’t have much drinking water in the house. I decide I’d rather risk drinking my store of questionable Istanbul tap water than go out in the street, but now I feel a growing concern because I don’t know how long a coup takes or how much water I should have on hand or if I should expect water outages.

At one point I text a friend who lives up the hill and always seems to know more than I do about Turkish politics, asking, “What exactly does one do in a coup?” The friend tells me not to make light of the situation, and I am chastened but also half-serious in my questioning. I have no reference point for this. Will I wake up to a different country? Will I go to work on Monday? Should I get dressed and prepare for some unknown need to leave my apartment? My mind roams erratically, at odds with the peace I see outside.

I toggle between Facebook and Twitter. See rumors an attempt has been made to capture the president in the hotel where he’s vacationing in a seaside town. A rumor he has fled the country, tried to fly to Germany, and was turned away. Through the night dozens of friends continue to check in on and update each other as much as possible. Personal ties are important, strong and resilient in Turkey, with even foreigners finding that the longer they remain the deeper the relationships among them and with their Turkish friends grow. Any small differences are set aside without a thought; throughout the night, we continuously check in with each other to make sure everyone is safe and vet the rumors that are flying.

The free press in Turkey was completely quashed a few years ago, so we cull our information from social media, private sources, and friends known to have good connections, as much as from official news sources. Now, the news organizations the government allowed to remain in place (and which are viewed as nothing more than the voice of the government) are themselves under attack. I’m astonished to turn to a broadcast of empty chairs, as the coup conflict enters a news building. I watch as a television station is invaded by coup plotters while broadcasting live. I can’t quite get used to using the term “plotters” seriously. It is surreal to watch on television and social media as the entire foundation of a nation and millions of lives shifts before my eyes in a matter of hours, while outside my windows, in the darkness, silence continues to reign. This is much different than the usual protests and marches of private citizens that have become part of our daily lives over the past few years; this action is being directed by men in uniforms with guns, planes, and tanks, who are attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government. The president manages to get through to a television station. He is interviewed on his phone via Facetime and tells the population to take to the streets and resist the coup.

At 1:30 in the morning I am startled to hear the call to prayer. Often the five-times-a-day call goes unnoticed, blending into the routine sounds of city life. But now it pushes its way through the silence I’ve been so ceaselessly monitoring. Only now do I finally feel the rush of adrenaline and fear, as this everyday sound turns ominous by appearing at the wrong time; people are not normally called to the mosque at this hour. For some reason this particular upset of the normal order unnerves me more than accounts of tanks on bridges and presidential kidnap attempts. My thoughts go immediately to the ringing of church bells when a king has died. I wonder what this means, if the president, or someone or something of importance, has been overcome. I usually avoid posting anything that even hints at trouble on Facebook where friends and family in America can see it, as they tend to misunderstand context and proportion, but now I need a quick answer and reassurance. Unable to marshal any semblance of nonchalance I post, “What the hell–I am hearing the call to prayer at 1:30 a.m.! What does that mean?” I am quickly informed by my Turkish community that the mosques are calling the people to the streets to defend their democracy.

Soon after this post a Turkish friend calls. I answer with a joke saying, “How did you know I’d be awake at this hour?” Thinking I am afraid, he offers to come get me. But, now that the call to prayer has been explained, I am not afraid. I tell him that under no circumstances should he leave his house and chance the streets on my account. But I am grateful to know that if I need help, it is there.

Calmer now that someone has reached out to me, I decide to return the favor by reaching out to my friend up the hill, who replies to my text that she is on her fifth vodka and doing just fine.

On one of my sorties onto the balcony to scan for some sign of the chaos I’m reading about, I hear a soft whirring sound. I peer to the right and, after my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a military helicopter hovering a few hundred yards away, lights off. I decide to limit my restless wanderings to the interior of the apartment, unsure of whether these are coup plotters or defenders of the republic, but certain that either way it’s best to remain below the radar.

At 2:30 a.m. word comes that parliament and the intelligence headquarters in the capital have been bombed. Then that some of the soldiers associated with the coup attempt are climbing out of tanks and surrendering. Some are attacked by crowds and must be rescued by police.

Around 4 a.m. I decide it’s pointless to continue refreshing Twitter and Facebook over and over again in a vain attempt to follow which side is in control. It’s clear skirmishes will continue and possible outcomes will shake out over the next few hours. I begin to clear the detritus of my night’s watch, carrying whiskey and water glasses into the kitchen.

The sonic boom hits as I stand at the kitchen sink, and instinct has me hitting the floor as I shout, “Fuck!” Later, I will find that the jet’s pass overhead blew out many windows, including those of friends just a kilometer away. They will depart Istanbul for good a month later, driven out by this shattering night. Strangely, when the jet flies over it’s not fear I feel but a sudden burst of anger. I don’t know why a military jet has just flown over my home or who is flying it, but clearly, I must now ignore my physical and emotional exhaustion, stay up, and continue following the news, when all I want is to sleep. I think distractedly how remarkable it is that we can adjust so swiftly to new realities and shifting priorities.

The shock of the flyover passes quickly but now I am flooded with memories of that sunny September day in New York in 2001 when planes flew overhead and I watched 3,000 people die in the space of 30 minutes. Social media is flooded with panic as people across the city think they have just heard the sound of an enormous bomb being dropped. I know better but am not sure why I recognize the sonic boom for what it is. Perhaps I heard jets overhead in 2001, I don’t remember. Perhaps I heard the sound at an air show. In any case, these crashing waves of air have shaken me out of the preternatural calm I have worn through the night. I am now vibrating with vigilance while at the same time feeling the nausea that comes on with lack of sleep. I flash back to a summer day a few years ago when, lying alone on a beach on the Aegean, icy cold washed through me as I watched two jets streak past so low to the ground that they seemed to fly into the hillside bordering the sea and I waited for the sound of a crash that never came. The same air base those jets were attached to now seems to be the headquarters of this coup attempt. Which side are those summer pilots on tonight? Did I just hear the sound of them fleeing? Unfazed by the idea of a coup, I still fight irrational panic at the sound of low flying planes and helicopters, because that was the soundtrack of that September day when the illusion of safety fled.

On that day I didn’t feel fear at the time events unfolded, and now, as the coup progresses, my anxiety over the sound of the sonic boom passes quickly and I wonder why I’m not afraid tonight, either. Is it the psychic remove of knowing that no matter how long I live in this country I will never be Turkish, never be one of them? Is it because of my physical remove from the center of the action and a lack of imagination? Is it because I have an idiosyncratic, analytical reaction to any shocking event? I remember that September day, and the screams and pointing fingers, and the sight of that tower dissolving as I thought of the men who had run past me and toward it when I exited the subway into a city in flames and under attack. I remember how my knees shook as I realized I was watching those men die when the tower fell, but even then a part of my brain thought coolly, “Oh. Your knees really do knock together.” I remember the urge to sink to my knees and remember deciding not to. I remember when the second tower fell I didn’t turn because I could see it too well on the faces of those looking past me.

Abandoning thoughts of bed I go back to my computer and its never-ending chattering stream. Finally, at dawn, I fall into an exhausted, headachy sleep, hoping the sonic booms from jets are over and I won’t be jolted out of bed in fearful confusion.

I sleep until 9:30 a.m., then crawl out of bed wondering what to do. The world is silent. No sounds of traffic or horns, a few birds twittering, but the normally raucous seagulls seem subdued and shell-shocked. They were lifted from their perches in the night to wander aimlessly too.

I make blueberry pancakes and coffee for something to do. It’s a minor miracle I have food in the house, since lately I’ve become addicted to takeout delivery services. I’m thankful to have enough to last a few days, as much because cooking will give me something to do as because I’m hungry. I wonder what I’ll do when the task of feeding myself is complete. Random questions flicker through my mind: the day after tomorrow is Monday, should I go to work? What’s happening out there on those streets I can’t see or hear? Are shops open? Have they been ransacked? Boarded up? I’m troubled by my lack of drinking water. I congratulate myself for overcoming my junk food guilt and buying Nutella and a loaf of bread last night, pre-coup, thinking, if necessary, I should be able to subsist on that for days. Uncertainty creeps in as I realize I have no idea how long it will take for things to return to normal. Will they return to normal?

I am struck by the fact that most Turks knew immediately, as soon as they heard there were tanks on the bridge, that a coup attempt had begun. Americans have no frame of reference for this kind of societal upheaval, but there have been four coups in Turkey since 1960. While Americans’ inherent expectation of safety was crushed in September 2001, Turks have no such expectation of the peaceful continuity of their daily lives.

The benefits of living six floors up in an apartment that faces the center of the block are the quiet and the green view. The drawback is that I can’t see or hear anything that might be happening beyond my small, sheltered domain. I am convinced I need to have a supply of water on hand for the next few days, so after dawdling over my pancakes and coffee on the balcony overlooking the silent neighborhood, I get dressed, ride the elevator down six flights, and cautiously poke my head into the entryway to see — complete normalcy.

The sun is shining, I see people walking up and down the street, and I open the door onto the sidewalk and see the smiling face of the owner of the furniture store to the right of my building. He greets me with an enthusiastic “Welcome!” and a big smile because, while on a normal day you might smile and nod as you rush past each other, in a coup, you have to hold each other up.

I take two steps to my left and enter the convenience store next door. I see there are only two 5-liter bottles of water left and pick them both up. The shop owner, who has always been no more than distantly polite comes inside to take my money. Usually our exchanges are minimal, but we just had an attempted coup, so for the first time I ask him how he is and we both stop for a moment and look at each other. He shakes his head and answers with a paragraph of Turkish I don’t understand, but on the other hand, I do. There was a coup attempt. We will all wait to see what happens next, and meanwhile, life will go on, unchanged, despite what strikes us as major upheaval. Today we will restock our kitchens, and tomorrow we will drink wine with friends, and Monday we will go to work. We will adapt to the rise and fall of this constantly shifting city. We will reach out to each other and sometimes we’ll ignore each other, but we will go on, and we’ll do it alone and together and side by side. I pick up my 10 liters of water, take two steps to the right, and go back inside to wait. With everyone else.

Kelly hevelKelly Hevel is an American living and writing in Turkey, a place that inspires and frustrates her daily. An editor by day, by night she writes, paints and wanders her adopted home, Istanbul. Her work has appeared in Hobart.





STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Tania Artur

Share a Comment