Eleven years ago Istanbul experienced appalling events involving bombs. From time to time smallish bombs had gone off, usually with few casualties. However, in November of 2003, four bombs went off that shook the city.
I was living on Luleci Hendek Street at the time. One morning as I was getting ready for work, I heard a big thump and thought that someone living upstairs had dropped something very heavy. I mentally shrugged my shoulders and continued to get ready to leave. From that house I did not go through Galata, as that meant I had to go up a very big hill. Instead, I walked down a hill and over to the tunel so I could ride up and then walk up Istiklal Caddesi. As I walked up towards my office, I saw people standing in front of the Arcelik store looking at the television sets. Even without the sound, it was clear that two bombs had gone off. One was in front of a synagogue in Sisli and one was in front of the synagogue in Galata. I was horrified and then understood what the thump had been. I continued on to work and of course there was a lot of talk about the bombs. The one in Galata had blown a big hole in the street, as well as windows all along the street. Some of the places across from the synagogue had been destroyed, killing the people in them. These included a bakery and a light shop I used to patronize. Those shops and the people in them had been blown apart.
After work I walked to Galata Square and found a very sombre mood. People were upset that their area had been invaded by evil people. No one in the synagogue had been injured, as the place is like a fortress. Fifteen years before that, a man with a rifle had infiltrated the synagogue and killed several people. After that, entrance was very controlled, as it still is. Even Jews have to make an appointment to get in. There was also a back exit so people could escape. It happened that a bar mitzvah was being held when the bomb went off, but everyone got out safely. However, the street was a mess and stayed like that as the police and other security forces came to investigate. Interestingly, Israel sent a crew to help investigate and to counsel those affected. The Israelis that came wore yarmelkes and had full beards and looked very much like haji, the men who make the pilgrimage to Mecca– they also wear knitted caps and full beards.
It turned out that the bombing had been done by Hizbullah or Al Qaeda. It was especially shocking to people in Galata, for historically it has been an area where Jews, Greeks, Levantines, Armenians, and other non-Muslim people had lived for millenia. Galata today is mostly Muslim, like the rest of Turkey, but the people there are probably more open-minded about others because of the history. Local shopkeepers lost their fellow ‘esnaf’, business owners, and of course realized that it could have been them. For a few years afterwards people talked about how they too could have been killed if they had walked down the street five minutes later or if they hadn’t missed the bus or if they hadn’t had something else to do. It was too close for comfort. However, people got out their brooms and started cleaning up and the city got the street fixed fairly quickly, since it was one of the main streets of the area.
Another day soon after this I went to meet my assistant who was coming with me to the studio, as we were making a ‘learn English on video’ set of CDs. We took a taxi to Eyup, up the Golden Horn. The studio we were working in was at Kanal 7, so of course there was news coming in. As we were getting ready to film, someone rushed in to say that there had been a bomb on Istiklal at the mosque (there is only one mosque on Istiklal, which is like Main Street Istanbul). People were very upset even though the details were still not clear. I decided that we would not film that day and Gulin and I left to find our way back to Taksim and our office. We tried to take a taxi but the driver told us that no taxis could get to Taksim. As a foreigner who had been taking tourist friends around, I knew there was a ferry on the Golden Horn, so I had him take us there. We took the ferry as far as Kasimpasa and walked up from there. As we got closer to Galatasaray, we saw glass from blown out windows and groups of policemen running by. Finally we got to our office and could find out more details.
It turned out that someone had driven a food delivery van into the British Consulate and promptly blew it up. The British Consul was killed, along with a few other foreigners, but as usual, a lot of Turks were killed. Although my office was on the 7th floor and faced the consulate about a block away, none of my windows had even cracked and nothing had fallen onto the floor. However, looking out, I could see blasted and broken windows all around. Over the days that followed I could see people struggling to repair their shops and of course the mayor had to come to make his statement (don’t worry, etc etc). Once again people were appalled. The same day the big HSBC building further out in Levent was also bombed. More people were killed, more damage.
It was a terrible time in Istanbul. Many people lost loved ones, many shops were damaged or destroyed. However, most people pitched in to help put back the pieces. The city did pretty well and within weeks things began to look and feel normal. At the time I was struck at how the place could indeed return to some semblance of normal, while in neighbouring Iraq, bombs were striking every day and there was little hope of repairing or restoring infrastructure while this was going on.
I myself did not feel afraid or targeted, though of course foreign embassy warned their citizens in Turkey to be vigilant. It was like the earthquake– you were in the right place at the right time or you weren’t. As the Turks say, kismet– fate, destiny. I wish that some people were not such hateful idiots and that we could all live our lives in peace.