“As Turkey becomes an increasingly difficult place to live, many friends and peers have become perplexed by my determination to stay here.”
I had never seen that many people before. Even after seven years living with the perpetual crowds one encounters in a megacity, this was something else. It was early August 2016, and Istanbul was hosting a massive, government-organized rally in opposition to the shocking coup attempt that shook the country three weeks prior. The putsch was curtailed but more than 240 people were slain in the process. Nightly rallies had followed the derailed coup, but none with a turnout like this.
The conclusion of the colossal demonstration, said to have been attended by at least one million people, coincided with my ill-planned attempt to take the metro to the city’s main bus station, en route to Greece. As terrible as it sounds, I needed a vacation after several deadly terrorist attacks cast a thick, uneasy cloud over Istanbul during the first six months of the year. The coup attempt didn’t ease this tension, though the country was able to breathe a (temporary) sigh of relief in light of its failure.
Incorrectly assuming that the rally was to end later in the evening, I boarded the metro at a quarter to nine to catch a ten o’clock bus bound for Thessaloniki and transferred at Yenikapı, the station adjacent to the location of the rally. The place was at capacity, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of demonstrators of all ages, Turkish flags in hand, had queued around the turnstiles as a nervous security guard with a megaphone informed everyone that the metro was now closed, his voice shaking as he repeated his poorly received message. Outside the station were thousands more who didn’t even bother with public transit, already anticipating that they would be returning on foot. Many ended up trudging five miles or more to get home on that sticky August evening.
Most of the side streets around me seemed to be closed to traffic. A police officer recommended walking five minutes to a main boulevard that leads to the highway to try to flag down a cab from there. It was a quarter past nine, and I frantically zigzagged my way through the crowds to the main road, carrying a backpack and a duffel bag stuffed with books for a friend. The duffel bag weighed at least forty pounds, and darting around with it in the profuse humidity caused the spontaneous formation of an upside-down triangle of sweat that spread across my polo shirt. I looked ridiculous, and people began to stare.
Approaching a stop on the metro line that was impossible to board earlier, I ducked down into the station. There was still time to reach the bus terminal if I could somehow catch the next train. Unfortunately, hundreds of others harbored the same wishful thinking. The train arrived so jam-packed that people were pressed up against the windows, probably regretting that they were among the “lucky” ones able to get on. When the doors opened, not a single soul exited or boarded.
Outside, every minibus and taxi in sight were full. The main boulevard was smothered with traffic. I tried to convince six or seven taxis already hauling passengers to bring me to the bus station but no one was having any of it. It was 9:30 p.m. and I began to panic. If I didn’t conjure up a way to get to my bus, my ticket money would go to waste and I might have to walk the four miles home lugging a heavy bag in 85 percent humidity. Reaching my destination seemed impossible but I refused to admit defeat.
Noticing a cab ambling beside me in the suffocating traffic, I gave it one last try. The driver and his two passengers were around my age, perhaps a few years younger. Noting the palpable desperation in my voice and eyes after having been turned down for a ride six times consecutively in the past fifteen minutes, the cabbie promptly agreed and so did the passengers. They were headed in my direction anyway.
Progress had been made, but there was still the problem of the bumper-to-bumper traffic. We plodded along for a tense five minutes, until all of a sudden the road spilled out onto the open highway and we found ourselves hurtling down an empty lane to freedom, or at least the bus station. Realizing that we were actually going to make it, I became overwhelmed by this natural high, a rush that replaced the steeping anxiety of the past half-hour. I got to the terminal with ten minutes to spare. The bus was blasting AC, and I finally stopped sweating.
Recalling my evening to a Turkish friend, I explained that one of the reasons I liked living here was this certain flexibility that didn’t exist in more stringent, institutionally-developed, rule-oriented places like the US or Germany. I couldn’t imagine pulling off my feat back home: Even if the cabbie had complied, his passengers certainly wouldn’t have. My friend’s eyes slightly widened as she quickly rebuked me by retorting that the same “flexibility” is also the source of endless frustration for citizens like her, and is among the reasons she is trying to leave the country.
As Turkey becomes an increasingly difficult place to live, many friends and peers have become perplexed by my determination to stay here. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you thinking of returning home?” are questions I receive on a near-daily basis. I understand why they ask, but I have difficulty providing sufficient responses. Becoming fluent in the language—which has changed how I think, feel, and dream, resulting in a deep connection with this place and a string of unique, enriching opportunities—is my personal reason, but it’s not particularly convincing to those who were born, raised, and now feel trapped here.
Much of the flexibility I had encountered was a result of the same frustration that makes my friends want to leave. I recall successfully convincing a police officer to change my appointment for a residence permit renewal to accommodate an upcoming travel plan. After exhausting all options with the unsympathetic public servant, I demanded that he let me speak with his supervisor, who had a more jovial demeanor and responded to my “impossible” request by whipping out a ledger and asking if the next Monday would be okay. At the time, I felt triumphant that I prevailed in a system where rules could always be bent, so long as one believed in their own determination.
That the rules could be bent in the first place was due to a convoluted bureaucratic headache where these guidelines were often subjective, interpreted on the spot, or simply unknown because they were changed every few months. The flexibility was rooted in systemic discord. After Istanbul’s particularly rough 2016, expats departed en masse, as did many Turks who were able to do so. A dehumanizing visa application process for the EU countries that can only be interpreted as racist prevents many Turkish people from going on simple vacations. A friend with a professional job and all his documents in order was recently unable to get a visa from neighboring Bulgaria on time so he could perform at a concert. The visa finally arrived weeks later. Turks holding EU visas have complained of degrading treatment from border authorities, while many denials often seem to be completely arbitrary.
Hence, the basis for my peers thinking I was either crazy or a CIA agent: I could return to the US or travel freely in the EU, yet I had chosen to stay in Turkey, which they yearned to leave.
I can’t help but think that perhaps it was all a function of my neurosis. The madness and chaos of Istanbul often presented real, valid problems that acted as welcome distractions from the largely fictional problems created by my own anxiety and obsessive-compulsive nature. Hurdling beyond these obstacles—whether bureaucratic or less banal—via creative means and determination was healthier and more productive than living somewhere calm and orderly with plenty of living space for my own demons to flourish.
I also now refuse to confirm or deny being a secret agent.
Paul Benjamin Osterlund is a freelance journalist and writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. You can follow him on Twitter at @Paul_Osterlund