Turkey: pepper sprays and coups


Originally, I was due to attend a NEH conference on Arts in Africa, but when my supervisor told me turn it down, I decided to plan a two week adventure. When I was in Bosnia and Herzegovina,  I never had a chance to visit Turkey, although it was a short flight. I had in mind images of shimmering mosques, hot sun, Turkish coffee, and a more European version of Bosnia. So, off I went for two weeks of traveling down the coast.
Izmir showed me the dark side of the Turkey. I had gone to the bazaar to buy a headscarf; the day before I had seen several shops of beautiful scarves, silk and patterned. I walked though the bazaar, looking for the cluster of shops, looking for the shops. I stopped to buy a few cheap keychains, as gifts. I turned a bit lost, and then went back. I pulled out my camera to take a shot of the sky, the brilliant hot yellow sun. And then turned. As I walked a few minutes, my eyes started to burn. I thought it was the sunscreen but it wasn’t. I started to feel woozy, and unsteady. I remember thinking that if I could just reach out and hold something but all I saw were table of scarves, and candy. I felt people watching me. I felt like I was stumbling. I kept reaching up to dry off my eyes, but they hurt more and more.

I remember seeing a mother and child as I walked to the hijab store, but my eyes were watering, and I felt woozy. Somehow, I kept thinking I had to get, and I somehow I got out. I walked out and then outside the market, I sat near a mosque. My eyes just burned. I sat for ten minutes and then went to get water. In the grocery store, it as worse. Five backpackers pushed past me, and I could not focus my eyes. I was unsteady and yet, bought water and ice cream. I walked out further to the Clock Tower Square, and sat with a group of people in the grass. Washing my eyes out and eating an ice cream but I felt worse. I was due to meet my husband near the bazaar. Somehow, again, I managed to get up and walk back toward the shops outside the bazaar. My eyes were not stop itching and watering. I must have looked ill. Yet, no one stopped me.

I thought I was overheated- 100 degree heat- and so, went to a shop. But once again, I couldn’t focus. I went to sit outside on a bench, unsure of how I could walk back to the hotel.
Later, we realized that I must been pepper sprayed in the bazaar. Someone must have been following me until I passed out or was so woozy that they could steal my bag. They didn’t count on my stamina.

All I remember is the heat, light, and struggling to focus.



The night before I was due to fly back from Istanbul, the Turkish military began a (now failed) coup. I woke up at 3:30 am when a bomb exploded at Atatürk airport, which was about 4 KM away.  Then low flying jets zoomed overhead.  Outside, the call to prayer was replaced by exhortations to go fill the public square to support democracy. The road to the airport was jammed with abandoned cars, and people walking- many were waving Turkish flags, or wrapped in Turkish flags.

For once, social media proved useful. My family and my Bosnian friends all sent me Facebook messages asking if I was okay. A quick glance at the news: a military coup had begun.  We ran down to the reception. They knew no more than what the news said, but did say that Turkey had been through this before 5 times, and would be fine.  We were told to stay in the hotel and to stay away from windows; the modern hotel was all windows. The rest of the day passed with fragmented news, and cancelled flights. The airport was closed. The state department was provided vague warnings to stay put. The airport began to fill with stranded and shaken Russians, Singaporeans, and others. One Russian tourist told me that she had been waiting for a flight to southern Turkey, when she learned that the airport was surrounded by tanks, and then she heard shooting. The Turkish airline staff disappeared. Then, streams of Turks carrying flags walked into the airport.  The Russian embassy got them out, and to the hotel.

Several windows in the hotel were cracked due to sonic booms from low flying aircraft.

The coup was crushed, but then the purges started.  The  mood was somber.  Late in the day, we went out to the grocery store, and people were conducting business as usual.  We only saw people shopping, and police cars stopped at key points to protect people. The airport reopened, and after a long difficult 6 hours on hold, we got a flight out to London. ( It turned into a 30 hour journey with cancelled flights, delayed flights. We had go through customs at Heathrow just to get back to the US. This meant standing in a line for 40 minutes just to go outside and back into the airport.)  Leaving the next day, the airport was still surrounded by protestors for democracy, and inside, there were people camped out in the Starbucks, and few workers, who all looked like they had been up all night. The police looked tense.

It is perhaps hard to understand the terror you feel when you hear the words “a military coup has begun, “ but it is a moment that I will never forget.



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