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(The Earthquake in Turkey)
Five days after a powerful earthquake shook Western Turkey, rescue crews from around the world are still sifting through the rubble of destroyed apartment buildings, searching for the dead and praying to find, through some miracle of Allah, the living crushed under cinder blocks.
In Izmit, the center of the quake, and the industrial center of the region, billows of black smoke pour Eastward into the sky towards Ankara and the rural interior of Turkey. Along the busy highways, whole families sleep and eat and talk amongst the smoking fumes of busses and cars heading to work, most of them too scared to enter their leaning apartment buildings, many waiting for those walls to collapse to the ground in a rush of colliding cement. In my neighborhood, Baglarbasi, just on the Eastern side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, families sit outside, drinking tea and eating lahmucan. The family television sits on boxes or flimsy dinner trays and they watch as the steady news reports of pictures and numbers of dead flash across the blue screen. There is a stunned silence throughout the neighborhood as the numbers keep rising - ten thousand and more dead at last count. The electronic news anchor voices echo into the night, even as people begin to sleep or wake up for morning prayer.
Yet, from my balcony, looking west, the skyline of Sultanahmet and Beyoglu light up the sky with rocket-lake minarets and the domes of Hagia Sofia. The rushing of the Bosphorus seems pleasant and sleepy, almost romantic, as ships float towards the Sea of Marmara and then the Aegean and other ports. The lights of the city sway in the rising heat of late evening, and I, a ten-days resident, feel a false calm, a sense that nothing has changed, that the drama of tragedy is only dim static in the wind.
This misleading feeling is bred partly of language barriers and a sense of transient tourism (although this is my home for the next two years), and the knowledge that my family and loved ones are safe back in the States. This is a luxury, and the tragedy, however close it might be, feels distantly sad - almost as if I were back in the States, watching television in my San Francisco living room.
The closeness of tragedy doesn’t always make it seem more real. At 3:15 in the morning, after my fiancée and I got of the shaking doorway, we immediately called our parents, secure in the knowledge that this was a quake large enough to make the news in the States. After phone calling home, I checked our apartment - a very well-constructed apartment building built to house foreign teachers of a private high school - and found that nothing had fallen off the shelves, no books had shifted, and all our pictures were still on the walls. Having grown up in Southern California and spent the last five years in San Francisco, I had gotten used to earthquakes and was surprised to find that everything was intact, exactly as it was before the earthquake. I went back to sleep that morning doubting what I had felt and deciding that the violent shaking was not as large or dangerous as I had immediately thought. I slept soundly, awaking to the sounds of people in the streets and news reports blaring out of car windows, no electricity, and the realization that this was a major tragedy.
As my friends and family woke up in the States and turned on the news, they were bombarded with images of whole neighborhoods destroyed, buildings burning, CNN reporters standing in front of the few buildings in Istanbul that actually fell down, crushed, limp bodes being dragged from under piles of sand that were once cinder block buildings. Friends frantically called my parents, afraid that I might be dead. Other friends emailed and asked for a response as soon as possible. “Are you okay? We are so worried.” Others wanted to know if the streets were being looted or if we had water and food available. “Can you see burning buildings?” While this small storm of worry and concern circulated around me and my fiancée thousands of miles away, I got up, walked down the street, bought a couple of pieces of sweet bread for breakfast, made coffee, and walked to the first of the orientations to my new job. We spoke about the quake, but the distance was there the realization that this did not directly affect us. That day I learned about the best techniques in teaching Turkish students, and learned to say, “Dün gece siddetli bir deprem oldu,” (“Last night a strong earthquake occurred.”)
For the most part, life here in Istanbul is bustling just as it had in the days following the earthquake. Some businesses are closed, school might be delayed, but people are still drinking raki in cafes, most people are going to work each day, ferries leave for Eminonu and Üsküdar every half and hour, people are buying milk and water at spices in local markets, and the call to prayer echoes throughout the city five times a day from the many mosques dotting the hillsides.
In one of the e-mails received from a friend teaching colleague back in California, she says, “Having you in Istanbul has made this tragedy more real for all of us”. Distance, in miles, these days seems no longer the measurement of perspective. I have the privilege of quiet ignorance and well-built buildings and unemotional detachment to shield me from surrounding pain and devastation. The dead are those who squat on the edge of this city, scraping out an existence in cinder block tenements that collapse in split seconds or those in Izmit, huddled in ill-built apartments near the epicenter, whose walls and floors become sand with the shaking. These dead are the same dead in Mexico City, Kobe, Guatemala, anywhere the less fortunate find shelter in poorly built homes that become tombs when the earth turns hostile. The pictures on CNN broadcast half the story, the one of pain and tragedy, the one that spawns frantic phone calls from friends and loved ones. This is genuine and very real, but my experience is one very different from the unseen people on the edge of one of the oldest cities on Earth.
The other story is one of privilege. For me this tragedy has meant something completely different. It meant the acknowledgement and happiness that many people love and care for me. The fact that pictures on television cause people to worry, call, send e-mails to me is a fact that makes me feel less lonely, less isolated in a country in which I am only a guest. It means that a tourist trip to Cappadoccia has been canceled because the train tracks leading there have been twisted into an S along the faultline. To my friends and loved ones it means the fear of not being able to help someone they care about. To most people in Istanbul it means that government offices are closed, that they, their country, their relatives are vulnerable, but otherwise it is an inconvenience, a drama that is sad and fascinating to watch on the evening news.
Fear, concern, and tragedy radiate from a center in uneven and wavering circles, much like the shock waves of earthquakes themselves. We react to things that happen nearby, but some of us have the choice to ignore them, or watch in fascinated horror the pictures on television and feel vaguely sad. But waves, such as the measured waves of earthquakes, do not kill or strike evenly. “It could happen to anyone” is not entirely true in this case. The Hilton hotel sways briefly, while whole neighborhoods collapse a few miles away. The paper lists thousands as dead and more to follow due to the lack of rescue crews, and then speaks of an assessment crew checking the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque to make sure there has been no structural or aesthetic damage. The ones who suffer, the vulnerable ones, are not the foreign teachers living in solid steel and cement apartment buildings on a private school campus, or the rich dialing cell phones from the balconies of wooden houses that line the flowing Bosphorus. They are not the neighborhoods that surround Topkapi Palace. The destroyed are those lining the perimeters of these cities. The farmers who moved their whole families to the city because farming is no longer a living. The others who live in tenements and apartment buildings stacked like leaning card houses. Tragedy strikes unevenly, discriminately.
Following the quake, after the reporters have retreated, after the e-mails have been read, new buildings will be built, buildings as horribly inadequate as before, more people will move into shanty-towns, hoping to make it in a city that moves on without them. As for me, I will pour a glass of wine tonight and watch the sun settle beyond the hills of old Istanbul, secure in the knowledge that for thousands of years this city has borne great earthquakes and sieges and wars and fires, and still it stands, the center of itself in gaudy streetlight. And while the eerie call to prayer reverberates throughout the city and thousands pour into mosques to pray, I’ll be thankful that the sadness that echoes off the cracked walls of the city is somehow separate of me, and I’ll realize that luck is not always luck and fate not always fate.
About the author: Alan Drew and his fiancée, Mimi Frede, teach at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul, Turkey.
Published in In Motion Magazine September 19, 1999.
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