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Reflections From a Winter Visit to Istanbul

In mid-December of 2015, I leave New York to go to Istanbul for the holidays. It doesn't take long before I'm sucked into the stress that comes with being a Turkish citizen who's living in Turkey.
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In mid-December of 2015, I leave New York to go to Istanbul for the holidays. It doesn't take long before I'm sucked into the stress that comes with being a Turkish citizen who's living in Turkey. I feel the weight of people's unhappiness combined with air pollution, and dislike breathing. My sister and I are driving home on the spacious highway, the E5, that on more crowded days could host you for five hours and make you miss your flight. It is joyfully traffic-free after a day and night of heavy snowfall. I look out the window and blurt out: "Even the snow couldn't conceal the ugliness." The skyline of Istanbul has become thoughtless and unlovable with rapid construction. Istanbul is carrying so much weight that it's going to sink into itself.

Istanbul is house arrest. I sit at my sister's apartment for most of the day and meet people at locations no more than 10 minutes away by car. This works because all the people I want to see live or work nearby, they've all picked apartments to be relatively close to each other and have opportunities to socialize. Once you're out you might not be able to come back for hours because of traffic and once you stay in you are trapped because you don't want to get into traffic. Fear of being stuck outside, in transit or enclosed spaces keeps me in.

I hate getting into cabs. Most cab drivers are aggressive and feel entitled to their aggression. "Which way do you want to go from? Should we try the seaside or Besiktas?" Usually I tell them to take whichever way is faster. But sometimes I want to appear as if I know how to go where I'm going and I mutter somethings to save time while I look at my Google Maps for traffic. Once, I get a really nice one who laughs at how apologetic i am for asking him to go somewhere close. "Thank God! When you started saying 'sorry' I feared you'd want me to take you the airport."

"Not too long ago," he tells me, "we would be happy to get a customer who wanted to go the airport. Now it's a nightmare. I dropped off a friend once and he called me a few hours later from Izmir. I hadn't even made it halfway through the highway! That's why we always try to make the customer decide. One minute there's no traffic but the next minute it could be completely blocked. At least if they tell us which way to go from, we are not to blame."

When I do get out, I try to take the subway and walk as much as I can. I've developed a habit of trying to count how many women there are around me as I walk on the streets. If it's not an area where there are offices, I am usually one of the few. Vendors are never women, and during the day I hardly a see a woman walking alone. Crossing through Istiklal, I see that there a bunch but they are either in pairs or in groups. When a man looks me up and down as I cross him, I still feel his eyes on my back though he should be looking the other way. It's as if I've said something to him accidentally by walking alone on the street. I never intended to speak to him.

This is around the time that two prominent journalists get arrested over "terrorism charges". No one is surprised. There's a coldness to the anger and frustration you feel over such news. It's as if the emotion has drained out of our emotions. You act the way you think you'd feel but there's no feeling in your body. There's an online petition that's going around to demand justice for the journalists and I sign it readily, not knowing what purpose it will fulfill. People getting arrested over things they've written or said have become so mundane that a news source called Diken have a recurring post called: "Who's offending Erdogan today?" They have a new story almost every day.

My friend who lives in Spain says "Let's meet in Berlin for New Years". I check flights and they are expensive but they aren't insane. I'm talking to my dad on the phone and I tell him. "It's supposed to snow though, it's not a huge problem if you're not able to go but you wouldn't want to miss your flight back to New York." Everyone knows I want to go back and no one tries to keep me, which makes me conflicted about leaving them. Last year I missed my flight because I was stupid and certain that it was at a later hour. I had a breakdown at the airport, crying at the ticketing booth. Once I was able to change it, I sat at the gate and I cried on the phone to my mom for hours as I waited for the next flight, saying how much I loved her.

I decide against Berlin and invite my friend to meet me in Istanbul for New Years. "My mom doesn't want me to," she says, "because... bombs." It's not too ridiculous of a concern, I assure her. I celebrate New Years with friends I've known since I was a child and only see a few times a year now. We go to a party at a venue that had felt liberating and new and wonderful when I went soon after the Gezi Protests. But this time, everything feels like depression. I can't take people's desire to have fun sincerely. I know that sometimes when you're depressed you pretend to be laughing. I also know that sometimes you laugh sincerely even when you're depressed. But the clouds over you are so dense and thick and suffocating that the sincere laughter is muffled and hidden and those laughs are the ones I'm most sad about. All those sincere laughs that my friends are laughing that fall like a rain of dead birds into a smog filled hole.

A few days after I return to New York, a bomb goes off in Sultanahmet, mostly killing tourists. It's been preluded by many before, and will be followed by many after.