ISTANBUL, July 29—Two nights after devastating terrorist bombs exploded on its popular pedestrian shopping block, the neighborhood of Gungoren swarmed with people: old and young men repaired the shattered windows of a clothing shop under the blank, watchful eyes of naked mannequins; women in head scarves shared ice cream next to women in sundresses; shop owners smoked beside their boxes of shoes for sale; a handful of policemen clutched riot shields opposite tiny pink girls jumping around in empty fountains.
Huge red Turkish flags hung from balconies where families drank tea; one woman had stretched a flag across the frame from which the glass of her window had been blown out by the bombs.
Gungoren is the kind of neighborhood I might take a foreigner to if I wanted to say: This is Turkey. And it’s the kind of neighborhood that would lead anyone to wonder, as one man who’d lived there for 40 years wondered to me: "Why Gungoren?"
Istanbul is such a diverse and geographically enormous city that when news breaks of a terrorist bombing, the scramble to make sense of the act requires everyone to marshal all of their resources to find out exactly where it happened. Phone-calling, Googling, and then arguing over what exactly the neighborhood is.
Turks reflexively know whether any neighborhood sits on the European side or the Asian side; I imagine that’s a genetic adaptation in this ancient border-sentinel city.
But then come the disagreements and confusions over borders: "It’s out by the airport." "But is it near New Bosnia?" "Close, but not too close." "By the sea, or not by the sea?"
Last month’s attack on the U.S. consulate, recently moved to a safer location up the Bosphorus, invited a similar response—you probably know someone who lives near the site, but that could be quite far away from you.
When the news identified the neighborhood of this latest attack as "Gungoren," there are a few things I knew immediately. The bombing wasn’t in Sultanahmet, the Old City—the peninsula home of the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Golden Horn, and, once upon a time, a thousand sex slaves locked up in a palace with a view. Everyone knows those neighborhoods.
It also can’t be anywhere near Beyoglu, the old European city; the deluxe dance clubs of the Bosphorus; or the modern skyscrapers of Maslak. If someone were to bomb these Istanbul commons—as al Qaida did in 2003—where security cameras line the streets but trash cans do not, the news would take a more sensational tone than this one had. It was a whole different kind of bold.
This is partly why Sunday’s attack was so chilling.
The terrorists targeted a pedestrian street in a middle-class neighborhood of no unique political or religious character. There are no Byzantine treasures or European corporate headquarters here. Just a civilian cross section of working, living, breathing Istanbul, shopping before bedtime.
Pedestrian boulevards are beloved in a hilly, trafficky city of large families and lonely migrants. In Istanbul, a pleasant, flat place to walk is also a communal sanctuary, especially in summer, when nighttime is a blissful reprieve from days spent cursing the sun.
The bomb exploded out of a garbage bin after 10 p.m. And killed 17 people and injured 150, thanks to a tactic the Iraq war has made cruelly familiar: set off one bomb, draw hundreds of concerned citizens to the scene, then set off the other. One witness caught an image of the second bomb exploding on his cell phone.
So, who wanted to bomb Gungoren? The bombs went off the night before the first day of a massive trial: Turkey’s top prosecutor, with high-level support from ultra-secularists, had been trying to shut down the AKP, the Islamic conservative ruling party, and ban the prime minister and president from politics for five years. The highest court here can do that, even though the AKP won 47 percent of the vote in a democratic election. (The verdict came late this Wednesday: The so-called Islamist government will remain in power.)
Still, the timing of the bomb raised suspicions—but only that vague suspiciousness that always attends coincidence. Turkey doesn’t have a strong history of radical Islam, and the AKP’s supporters aren’t radicals anyway.
"Who does everyone think did this?" I asked my young cab driver, who’d lived in Istanbul his whole life, on the way to Gungoren.
"Maybe Al Qaida?"
The international terrorist fraternity had been accused of the brash attack on the U.S. Consulate.
"Could be," he said.
"Not the PKK?"
On July 29, officials fingered the PKK, the militant Kurdish organization that has engaged in terrorist tactics for 30 years. The PKK doesn’t have an obvious connection to the AKP trial, but it has been taking a beating from the Turkish military in recent weeks. So far, the PKK, who often take responsibility for their terrorist acts, have denied Gungoren, and offered their condolences to the victims.
"Could be," he replied again.
"This is the problem when something like this happens now," said one Turkish intellectual. "You think: ‘It could be the PKK, it could be DHKP/C, it could be Al Qaida, it could be the "Deep State"—it could be anyone!’"
The Deep State—or Ergenekon—is another story, and a distinctly Turkish one.
The word "Ergenekon" refers to a Central Asian myth about the origin of the Turkish race, and involves caves and wolves and possibly world domination, but what’s important to know today is that "Ergenekon" was the name chosen by a murderous gang.
At least, in Turkish, they call it a "gang," but the word carries a different meaning than it does in English. This isn’t the Crips and the Bloods. It also isn’t the Italian Mafia, because Turkey’s mafias run parking lots. Ergenekon, assuming it exists, is the most powerful gang of all, the übergang.
Turks have been living in a state of legitimized paranoia since January, when over 80 members of the Ergenekon gang were arrested for trying to create an atmosphere of instability that would result in a coup against the ruling religious government. The accused make up the ultranationalist upper crust—retired military generals, lawyers, academics, journalists, a university president, the head of PR for a church.
The 2,500-page indictment against Ergenekon, which was released this past weekend, accuses the gang of engaging in demonic terrorist tactics: bomb prominent targets, blame left-wing or minority groups, and stir up chaos until the army is forced to step in, shut down the government and wipe the slate clean. That’s why subscribers to this theory might think Ergenekon had a hand in Gungoren: maximum chaos, minimal sense.
That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Every morning, Turks wake up to terrifying headlines, newspapers filled with incredible details about Ergenekon. Among many other things, Ergenekon supposedly kept a to-do list including plans to kill Prime Minister Tayyip Erodgan and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk—and anyone else who threatens the sanctity of the secular nation or the tenets of Turkish nationalism.
One of the arrested was the lawyer, Kemal Kerincsiz, who prosecutes writers and other liberal folks for violating the infamous anti-free-speech law Article 301. Some link Ergenekon to the 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink, editor of the newspaper Agos and the face of Istanbul’s Armenian community.
Could one group possibly be responsible for all these acts? It strains credulity, and so some suspect that anti-secularist or religious elements have engineered the Ergenekon investigation. That secularist vs. Islamist war in Turkey you’ve been hearing about goes way beyond head scarves.
But the point is that Turks have been living for years with the idea that some secret force controls the fate of their nation. Here, well before the Ergenekon case, when participating in any sort of political conversation, it was common for Turks—all Turks, not conspiracy theorists—to mention the "Deep State" as a legitimate actor in the country’s problems.
For now, some Turks will be satisfied by the authorities’ prime suspects: PKK for Gungoren, Al Qaida for the U.S. consulate. But in this climate, the deeper Turkish response to the Gungoren tragedy and others will remain, Who the hell knows anymore?
"Terror is terror," said one Gungoren native, sitting on a bench at the bomb site, chain-smoking. And so living, working Istanbul learns to live with its dangerous enemies, whoever they are.
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