When a bombing hits home.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Ankara'dan
by Selin Gökcesu
When I tell Americans I’m from Turkey, they assume I must be from Istanbul. But I was born and raised in Ankara, the lesser of Turkey’s two major cities. Ankara is gray, dry, and lacking in historic and natural attractions. It’s the government’s city.
The ugliness that Ankara is famous for is not inherent to the city, but comes from its perpetual comparison with Istanbul, the dreamy, chaotic Ottoman capital, split into two continents by a snaking splash of blue. Istanbul inspires poets, it is the backdrop of novels and films. Ankara is the backdrop of ordinary lives.
One of my favorite poets, Ahmet Haşim, who had the misfortune of spending some time in my hometown wrote: “I cannot imagine a more suitable contender for what I imagine hell to be than this city. In this rat-colored rubble heap perched on rocks, my nerves and soul tasted every torment known to man.” People like my parents who chose to make the rat-colored rubble heap their home are usually transplants from smaller Anatolian cities. Those born there, like myself, manage to love it.
As I grew older, the circumference of my life expanded from our three-story house in Dikmen to the greater Ankara area.
As I child, I felt privileged that I lived in the capital of our country. For me, Ankara’s rat color was the color of the world and its cold, prairie winters were simply winters. I grew up in a three-story house with a yard, in a lower middle-class neighborhood called Dikmen. We had two cherry trees with glossy purplish barks. We had a blue-tiled fountain that my uncles built. We had chickens and an aggressive rooster. As I grew older, the circumference of my life expanded from our three-story house in Dikmen to the greater Ankara area. Through the years the roads, sculptures, trees, benches, and pigeons became associated with moments, people, and routines from different periods of my life. Each time one fell victim to urban development and gentrification, I lost a tie to my past.
During the 1990’s, I went to high school and college in Ankara. On the weekends, I usually took the dolmus past the Parliament to Kızılay. I walked through the side street with the flower stands, lined across from the Ministry of Education where my mother worked, inhaling the smell of daisies, daffodils, lilacs, carnations, and roses that mingled with the smell of rotting petals. The stands ended at the foot of the overpass, which I crossed to get to Vakko, an expensive department store and one of the two major meeting points in downtown Ankara. There, at the other foot of the overpass, I met my friends. We strolled the shaded, carless backstreets and bought cassette tapes at Karanfil Pasajı from a store that gave loyal customers a free tape for every ten that they bought. We ate at cafes or patisseries and browsed at the bookstore at Yüksel. Sometimes, we sat out in front of the store and chatted, watching the boys with long hair walk by. In the late afternoon, I crossed the overpass again, in the other direction, usually with my best friend who picked up the bus right where the overpass stairs ended and the flower stands began. Sometimes, I sat with her on a bench and we talked as the dusk closed in, while children shouted at the playground behind us. She let bus after bus go by until going home became inevitable.
After we parted, I walked past the stands of daisies, and the daffodils, and the lilacs again, and sometimes picked up a bundle of carnations to take home.
Now, I live in Brooklyn. Every morning, I get up in my Williamsburg apartment, make a pot of coffee, and log onto Facebook. My newsfeed is packed with updates from progressive Turkish newspapers that I favor. Although I have lived in the States since 2001, I feel an inexplicable indifference to the goings on in my current home. I often find out about things happening in the States, like Beyonce’s performance at Superbowl, from Turkish papers.
Usually, the news from my hometown is all about the government—not much else happens in Ankara. Most of the social and cultural news is from Istanbul, as is the news of violent and petty crime. Ankara, for a city its size, is a gentle soul.
It was Sunday, March 13, late afternoon in Ankara, midday in Brooklyn. The bomb went off right where you come out of the overpass, by the flower stands, only a few yards away from where I used to take the dolmuş to ODTÜ, my alma mater. It exploded right where I used to sit with my friend at dusk as she missed bus after bus. When the bomb exploded, I wasn’t there.
I cried for the dead, for their youth, for their parents, for broken glass, for familiar cobblestone, but the whole time, I suspected that I was just crying for myself because someone bombed the backdrop of my life.
Two ODTÜ students were there, perhaps headed to the dolmuş stop. My friend’s brother-in-law, a doctor, tried to save one’s life and failed. A famous football player’s father was there—luckily mine had just arrived home and was watching a football game. My cousin’s teacher lost her husband. College students were there, people visiting Ankara, people heading home. All in all, thirty-seven dead, right at the overpass. When I found out about it, from a newsfeed update, the only thing I felt was an intense desire to go home.
The desire turned into an insatiable hunger for raw footage. For two days straight, I watched video after video of the explosion itself, broken glass carpeting the sidewalks, bloody people, charred benches, burned cars, a burning bus, crying people, eyewitness accounts, relatives searching for their missing relatives, families waiting at hospitals, protests, funerals, funerals, funerals. Sometimes I cried for something specific—I cried when I recognized the distinct cobblestone walkways of my college campus in a photograph showing the memorial held for two of the victims who were students there. Mostly, I cried out of unattached sorrow.
Crying for a bomb that takes out a familiar place and strange people is not like crying at a funeral, for a breakup, or a sad movie. The tears are less predictable and less explicable. I cried for the dead, for their youth, for their parents, for broken glass, for familiar cobblestone, but the whole time, I suspected that I was just crying for myself because someone bombed the backdrop of my life.
The bomber was, we were told, a 24-year-old woman associated with a Kurdish terrorist group. Her body was blown into small pieces, and she was identified by a DNA match to her parents who refused to claim her remains.
I read everything there was to read about her and the other terrorists, I absorbed every piece of information there was about their plans, their movements leading up to the bomb, I watched the footage of them sitting at a cafe as she flipped through a notebook. The content of the information didn’t matter, I was hungry for anything that would make me feel closer to home, closer to the familiar strangers who were killed, closer to the explosion, closer to where you come out of the overpass right where the flower stands start.
Selin Gökcesu is a Brooklyn-based writer with an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared on the Tin House blog, Asymptote Journal’s Translation Tuesdays and in Gingerbread Literary Magazine.