Istanbul was an unsettling place in the lead-up to last year’s July 15 coup attempt. In those fearful days people were afraid to leave their apartments. Subways had become dangerous spaces. Locals avoided busy streets as well as theaters and galleries and markets.
At the time, terror attacks had become an almost banal part of daily life in the city. Militants of armed groups like the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the so-called Islamic State were hitting Istanbul hard: Car bombs detonated outside football stadiums, an ISIS militant chased Jewish tourists down Istiklal Avenue before killing them with a bomb attached to his body, and a triple suicide attack at Istanbul’s main airport resulted in the deaths of 41 people.
So when soldiers materialized on the Bosphorus bridge that connects Istanbul’s Asian and European sides at about 10 p.m. that humid Friday night, most of the city assumed it was a precaution against either the PKK or ISIS. But in reality, a third group had been plotting something quite different: a military coup against the Turkish state, aiming to dismantle it at its most vulnerable moment.
In the 12 months since, Istanbul has been struggling to redefine itself. Weeks after the coup attempt, Turkey’s forceful president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced a state of emergency, allowing armed riot police and members of SWAT teams on subway platforms and in city squares, and giving law enforcement authorities enhanced interrogation powers.
I watched the announcement of the state of emergency in Taksim Square, surrounded by thousands of flag-carrying citizens who had a sense of shared purpose. But that was replaced by a sense of retreat into the private sphere as a new season began — one of paranoia, anxiety, and waiting. These were the weeks of massive purges, when tens of thousands of civil servants who the government claimed had ties to Gulenists — members of the secretive religious group allegedly behind the coup — were taken from their homes and into custody. The group of people accused of masterminding the coup, including a mysterious ‘imam’ named Adil Oksuz, meanwhile, were in hiding as the police conducted a massive search.
Amid the widening purges, the public sphere was excised of politics. Since last February, Istanbul has become calmer and more secure — but it’s also quieter, muted almost. It has become very difficult to stage a terror attack in the city, but organizing a legitimate political action has proven equally difficult, as images of LGBTI activists being sprayed by water cannons last month showed.
The city’s artists and writers have been feeling acutely the atmosphere of post-coup Istanbul.
“The coup attempt had some side effects on art professionals — depression, fear, and anxiety,” said Azra Tüzünoğlu, who runs the city’s leading contemporary art gallery, PILOT, located a few hundred meters from the site of last month’s planned pride march. “Lately we have seen so many people leaving their positions and closing their galleries for a better future elsewhere. On the other hand, this has also brought some fresh energy to art people to produce more, to talk more, to collaborate and to try to stand together.”
For the larger society — the anxious mother, the fearful retiree, the despiser of public violence and terror — the state of emergency seems to have come as welcome news. In the past six months, the days of terror in Istanbul seem to have been left behind; suicide bombers walking into crowds has almost turned into a distant memory. The city returned to its previous, standard self: a place for tourists and seekers of keyif, rather than a target for militants or coup plotters.
“Thank God the coup attempt was foiled and… the state of emergency was declared,” said Betül Kayahan, a journalist, mother, and supporter of the Turkish president. “That night was a shock or maybe a trauma for some people, but we could get over the terrifying feeling under the state of emergency. Everything is normal in our daily lives as before. People are going to their offices, children are running around happily in the playgrounds, shops are open, food is there, people never stop going to the cinema or cafes…. Life is going on.”
For journalists whose lives have been ruined by the actions of public prosecutors, reality is more grim. Ahmet Şık, who devoted his life to exposing the secretive workings of the organization of Fetullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based leader of the Scientology-like “Service” movement accused of being behind the coup attempt, found himself behind bars. Meanwhile, his book “The Imam’s Army,” which led to his initial arrest years ago when state prosecutors loyal to Gülen were running the show, became a handbook for understanding the extent of the movement.
Turhan Günay is the editor of Turkey’s oldest weekly literary review, Cumhuriyet Kitap. Published in the Cumhuriyet newspaper, the review ran essays by many authors, including the Nobel Prize–winner Orhan Pamuk. But almost nine months ago, Günay was arrested with 10 of his colleagues.
“Until the day of my father’s arrest, I would define myself as a 35-year-old TV producer and literary translator who led a pretty normal life,” Turhan Günay’s daughter, Elif, said. “After the arrest of my father, I had to put my normal life on hold, to become the voice of my father and his friends to the outside world.”
Elif Günay has been campaigning for the release of her father, whose arrest even the most ardent supporters of the post-coup purges say is an utter absurdity.
Müge Büyüktalaş, a film producer who lives in Gümüşsuyu, an Istanbul neighborhood close to Gezi Park, the site of massive protests in 2013, also talked about a new life. “Since we felt in our houses the power of the sonic booms produced by fighter jets on the night of July 15, a mournful dark symphony is continuing to play in our lives, a combination of drilling, construction, low-flying helicopters, Arabic utterances, and the ghost sounds of the Atatürk Cultural Center that awaits at the heart of the city, unoccupied.”
Among the hundreds of thousands who joined last week’s “justice” march from Turkey’s capital, Ankara, to Istanbul, the image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, carried massive significance. Even the harshest critics of the country’s conservative government agreed on the necessity of fighting the attempted military coup, which killed more than 300 people and injured thousands more.
“On the night of July 15, I was worried about my little son’s future,” Kayahan, the journalist, said. “Today I feel safer than ever.”
But for Günay, the daughter of the imprisoned editor, such worries about the future are not over. “My life changed in so many ways that I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to — or if I ever want to — get back to my old life,” she said. “I guess I am so much braver than I used to be in this new life.”
Kaya Genç is an essayist from Istanbul. He is the author of “Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey.” Follow him on Twitter @kayagenc