Istanbul Asks: Why Gungoren?

ISTANBUL, July 29—Two nights after devastating terrorist bombs exploded on its popular pedestrian shopping block, the neighborhood of Gungoren swarmed

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.

Istanbul Asks: Why Gungoren?