Shoes For The Coup
by Peter Burke
Istanbul — Summer of ‘16
Facebook gives the convenient option to mark myself “Safe during the 2016 June 28 Atatürk Airport Attack,” and I let that cover my bases. It’s not even the airport I flew into a few days ago. Then, I get back to work — trying to figure out the relationship status of my fellow counselors and staring out the window of the dormitory common room. Out over the glistening strait.
This room, located at the top of the building — itself located high on the hill of the sloped campus — is where we congregate. Low couches, laminated wood tables, messy bookshelves, and a few public computers populate the common area. The arts and crafts collages of candids and group photos along the walls reveal the in-season identity of the yellow stone building — the girl’s dormitory for the boarding sect of the high school. During the summer, the entire camp staff lives here, genders divided by floor. Like hot air, we all gather at the top, in this common room. Sometimes, when the pressure builds, we seep through the cracks, go higher — up onto the roof.
Right now, and for most of the summer, it’s sweltering in the old building, and the open windows of this lounge provide the only source of respite. We drift about the room, still feeling each other out. Yellow light filters in. Sprawled on an ottoman, I receive a text message from a girl who I put an ocean between rather than admit I love her. Hey, are you okay? I just saw something in the news about a terrorist attack in Istanbul.
You can see the Bosphorus over the tops of the trees from where I’m sitting, framed in the sun. Dark green hills throw themselves at the water’s feet, and off-white stucco buildings crust the banks, their faded red roofs like scabs. Minarets and cellphone towers thrust up from this low spread. One of the massive suspension bridges connecting Europe and Asia is visible as well, further down the Bosphorus. From far above, I imagine it looks like a strained stitch. Beneath, vessels of infinite variation leave pale cuts in the blue behind them. I have to remind myself that I’m looking through a window and not at a photograph. It feels unreal that this humble dorm room holds a portal to such a crossroads of humanity.
Before the session starts, the camp charters a party boat for the staff, kind of a last-second team building activity, and a release from the relative stress of training. A buzz of anticipation builds throughout the day for this apparent tradition. In the late afternoon glow, we return from the school’s grounds, we shower and ready ourselves, and put on the single set of nice clothes we brought. We shuffle down the hill to the water, leaving the leafy campus for the swanky waterfront district of Arnavutköy. This is easier said than done, as the half-mile trip to the lower gate includes a hearty grade and winding path. For the most part, the walk is either reserved for the cooler evening hours, or simply skipped by ordering a cab directly to the top of the hill.
I find myself falling in step with Rose, a local college student, and Nemo, my new roommate, and also an American. The names are pseudonyms, chosen prior to arrival to conceal from campers (and their parents) who is Turkish and who is not — but for some of us, it also provides an opportunity to try out a new identity. I can’t remember anyone’s real name, and we lapse into using these nicknames even in the off hours. I have taken the name of a cartoon dog.
This evening, sparse streetlights make for a conversation plunged in and out of darkness as we nose our way down the hill. We make an odd podium with our shadows; Nemo, a towering, dreadlocked NY queen, flanked by the spritely Rose, and my own middling self. My companions are asking the hard questions.
“Have you ever been in love?” Rose asks, head cocked to one side.
“Yeah, I actually try to always be in love.”
“But what about love love?”
A warm breeze blows up off the strait. I start to see the lights of the lower gate, and feel our walk start to level off. I don’t have an answer for her. The question, though, lodges itself in my brain, a splinter to be picked at for years. Interrupting the pause, Nemo reiterates a previous proposition before we get to the street: “Imma say it again, I give great head, so you just let me know if you want some of that tonight!” He winks and laughs.
I politely decline, though I begin to wonder if our other roommates have a similar outstanding proposal from the massive man, and I feel a drip of pride. He speaks with a defiant unshackling in a land where he is stared at everywhere he goes. Though, I suppose it’s like that for him everywhere. I sometimes find myself positioning myself at his side, hoping to deflect, or absorb, some of the looks. We end up being great roommates.
“Your loss!” He rushes to join the rest of the crew milling about the gate. Rose looks at me for a moment longer, smiling, before making her own way to show her ID to security. The cacophonous honks of Istanbul traffic await, and a boozy cruise up and down the Bosphorus follows just after. The glittering banks of a city on two continents surround the dark waters. Motorboats and behemoth tankers share the vein with our revelry, and all are dwarfed by the bridges that stand keeper. Keep going a few thousand miles and you might find the nearest person who knows who I am. As we stumble off the flat-decked ferry hours later, Rose tells me how one of the counselors jumped off the boat at the end of the night last year and swam to shore. How you couldn’t even see him in the dark.
Camp starts and I lead a Star Wars fan club elective — and it's a hit. We end up filming our own movie. Yoda is played by this little Turkish dude who furrows as he backtranslates his English to Yoda-ese. It turns out the intergalactic green icon’s inverted speech patterns are actually closer to how his mother tongue is structured. Our lead is a young, ponytailed girl who takes her Jedi persona to heart. We shuffle around campus with pool noodle lightsabers and cardboard blasters. Unfamiliar flora is exploding through the cracks and edges of the marble buildings, and we stage a battle in the midst of weathered columns.
I also run a tailgating class. Another original. We listen to country music, I teach kids how to throw a football, we drink sodas and play water pong. It’s an English immersion camp, so I take that to heart and throw 'em in the deep end. A lot of the kids, or more accurately, their parents, come here with the goal of an American university education. They’ll be ready when they get there, if I have anything to say about it. It’s a surreal scene: a bunch of kids running around with red solo cups and frisbees, superimposed on a subtropical field hazy with Mediterranean winds.
We go on field trips as a camp. This time it's to a wooded reservation a bit inland. We hike with our little groups through a few miles of towering Turkish pines and paintbrush cypresses. I’m walking with Lola, my horde of preteen boys strafing in and out of the orbits of her little pack of similarly aged girls. Lola’s mom runs a pretty famous pastry shop here in Istanbul, she tells me — though Lola herself goes to college in Virginia. Lola is beautiful. I try to impress her with tales of my own collegiate experience. Anecdotes of frat house revelry that turn chalky in my mouth even as I tell them. I misjudge the transaction rate of American social currency. The best I can get out of her is bemused, though to her credit, we keep talking. Partying as a global phenomenon is something I quickly learn is out of my league to speak on, and conversation moves elsewhere. Her dark eyes keep flickering back to me after admonishing a wayward camper. “I can understand birds, you know?” she says, finally. “I actually thought everybody could do it until my grandmother told me I got it from her. Most of them aren’t really saying much, though.” She smiles. I believe her. We continue our walk through the old growth in silence. The massive trees make me feel small, but ultimately comforted by their longevity. One night, during my last days in the country, Lola kisses me. Occasionally, I still see her in the eye of a pigeon or mourning dove as I walk to work.
Our post-workday activities include the camp counselor staples of drinking and smoking hookah. Nargile, it’s called when you’re in Turkey. Our cheap beer is brown-bottled Bomanti Filtresiz. Raki, the regional version of the ubiquitous Eastern European anise liquor, is known colloquially as the “Locksmith’s Drink.”And we all do some unlocking. Inhibitions drop and we see who our roommates and co-counselors are. What's immediately clear is that we’re an international group. We have a stout Irish guy, Rex, who pisses himself whenever we drink, yet is revered as a benevolent god by his campers. A slew of American collegiates, hopeless internationally, but carrying the requisite superiority complex to fake it ’til we make it. An English actor, Leo, accent figuratively keeping him afloat. Beatrice, a late 30’s Australian bachelorette whose wisdom and self-assurance belie a sadness that has brought her out here, alone. A few roamers like her who have made a life of working at jobs like this, home being a blackhole to revolve around. Then there are the locals who have parents to see on the weekends or apartments to go get high in.
And there’s also a Belgian. A blond, Norse-tattoo-arm-sleeved motherfucker. Bello. Pseudonym choice aside, he’s an attractive individual with an even more attractive passport. So when he dares me to kiss him during staff spin-the-bottle, out at the low ropes course, I say why the hell not. I’m told later, by Rafael, Rose’s cousin and notorious flirt in his own right, that I really opened his eyes that night. And what he didn’t even know was that I sought out Bello in the back room of a bar a few days after, where it turned out he wasn’t really that great of a kisser. Alternatively, I was the one who was still in love — a thousand miles removed.
Summer’s apex; mid-July — the more local staff have called in a favor for the break between sessions. A couple, Alp and Layla, both apparently previous counselors, have access to a boat. With echoes of the partybarge on our minds, we mobilize to join up for another evening of Anitolian revelry. We hike down off our perch. The waterfront welcomes us once again. It's a warm night, so we walk to the park-and-marina some couple miles up the Bosphorus. The city is out in force — it's a perfect Friday night after all. We’re all working for the weekend.
I wind up on alcohol duty with Atlas, a stocky North Carolina native with a philosophy degree from UNC and a luscious manbun to match. We’re feeling ourselves at this point and wave off offers of assistance from the native-speaking members of our ensemble. We fumble our way through a transaction that nets us four or five bottles of wine in exchange for some amount of Lira that really doesn’t matter because, like in this worldly life, when you leave Turkey, you can’t take your money with you. Inflation turns our paychecks to Disney Dollars — so we take that as an invitation to enjoy the ride.
Plastic bags of booze in hand, we return to the festivities. We picnic in the park until the evening sidles in. The sun sets over our blankets and dry meats, breads and spreads. Notifications ping a tattoo over our phones. Shit happening again. The bridges are closed, someone says. We wonder how this will affect our joyride. It has become time to board the boat, so I give it no more thought. A cool wind kicks up off the water, and the night is so warm that the resulting effect is something I call videogame weather. It takes no thought to operate in such an environment.
There is a murmur as we help each other step off the dock, and I catch a few people looking at their phones quizzically. I excuse myself to give them privacy and make my way to the front of the small yacht, where I’m joined by Atlas again. The combination of climate and visual splendor is dizzying, and we take a seat on the white plastic bow. We agree that experiencing this global cultural juncture from the comfort and intimacy of someone’s multi-decked schooner is beyond us, and we sit without speaking and look out over the flickering hills of the far shore.
Here, the crescendo of the night stalls. We sit alone on the bow for one moment too long and I realize that this boat is never leaving shore. Weightless seconds ago, we begin to fall.
Rose snakes her way around the cabin and tells us we should probably head back to campus. Wordlessly we follow her. Bottles clinking awkwardly, we step back onto the jetty. Alp and Layla apologize for not taking us out, say that there’s something going on at one of the bridges and the strait is being closed. The two-track sound of a speeding police boat reaffirms the notion.
The acoustics of the streets and strait make it eerily hard to locate the source, but wails erupt, ring, and fade around us like demented songbirds. In the minutes it takes us to cross back through the waterfront park to the streets of Bebek, the sirens have become pervasive. Visual input is just as jarring, as the upscale district around us appears to be in the throes of a typical night on the town. Restaurant-goers sit and enjoy their late meals as we trundle past, the only sign of unrest is a disproportionate number of people talking firmly into their cellphones. It strikes me that I have no one to call. Or any idea what to say.
Traffic is never good in Istanbul, but it seems to have calcified completely and we take to the cracked sidewalks. I gather that all three Bosporus bridges are closed now, and I chalk it up to an abundance of caution as a bomb threat or something is investigated. These bridges are massive arteries though, and the effects of their closure are clear. We clamber around stopped cars, and the endless honking wages war with the sirens over the soundwaves.
At this point, if my attempts to cross-reference all this are correct, the most important events of the attempted coup d’etat have probably already taken place. A splinter sect of the military declares that “the democratic and secular rule of law has been eroded by the current government” and seizes control of the bridges and news stations. Various military leaders are captured, and helicopters bomb government buildings. But the chaos is uncoordinated. The rebellion has jumped the gun. The plot has been discovered. The takeover is already falling apart as forces fail to capture President Erdoğan. Still, tanks block the bridges and rumble through Taksim square.
At sea level, we see none of this, though the sound of gunfire is becoming an apparent part of this evening’s unsettling orchestra. We stuff ourselves into a taxi only to spill out again a block later as we find the way completely blocked by police vehicles. Panic begins to set in as we slip past the ad hoc police lines. I hear the word coup for the first time. A sensation of rusty gears falling into place occurs in my mind. A phrase that I had semantically categorized as archaic whirs to life. Coup d’etat. Words you see in history books — not used to describe the events happening around you.
Nemo is getting hysterical. Rose and I try to calm him down, but there is nothing we can tell him with any certainty. I mentally latch on to the gated campus of our school. That is the safest place in the country to be. No one is attacking a school is the logic I’m forced to run with.
“Come on, man, we just have to get back to campus and we’ll be fine.” I tell him and tell myself.
“I just really need to call my mom,” Nemo sobs.
The remaining couple miles of our journey are an absurd rhythm of jogging and walking — space and time refusing to yield in the face of our terror. The streets have cleared ominously, and people stand on balconies pointing or sit on corners yelling into phones. We hear the first of many helicopters chop through the dark night above us. By the time we finally arrive at the gate, I’m so strung out from trying to keep us together that I can’t find my ID in my wallet. The security guards know I walked out of these gates hours ago, but they glare sternly as I rifle through my credit cards and free coffee certificates.
With a breath of relief, I find it, and am swept through the steel gate with a grunt. Safety is assured by the clang of the metal behind me, and a weight falls as I realize all we can do now is wait. Everything that I’ve come to know and love in this country is protected behind the physical and diplomatic walls of this school. I step towards the dark path upward when a commotion behind me draws my attention, and I realize not all of our crew is following me towards the interior. Rose remains at the little security building and is in a heated conversation with the guards. Atlas stands behind her. As she argues in Turkish, I glance in the direction of her emphatic gestures. Alp and Layla still stand on the other side of the chipped white bars.
Rose turns with a huff, her curly black hair a half-second behind.
“They won’t let Alp and Layla in because they don’t have staff ID,” she says, anticipating my question.
We reason from both sides of the fence, Alp even presenting his ID card from last year that he finds in a forgotten fold of his wallet. We offer money. The guards’ faces go blank and I feel something rising inside me. It becomes clear that the sides are cemented. Sirens scream past and gunshots echo over the water. I have no idea what is going to happen a minute from now, an hour from now, or lord knows, a day. I don’t know Alp and Layla’s political affiliations, I don’t know the motivations behind the coup, I don’t know who is firing the guns, or who they are firing at. All I know is that this side of the fence means safety to me, and the other side means complete uncertainty. I become angry. So I begin to yell. I yell at the guards who cannot understand me. I yell at Rose because she can. I yell that I refuse to do nothing. I yell because I am scared. I yell because I cannot do anything. I yell as Atlas pulls me away, as Rose talks to Alp and Layla, nodding solemnly.
“Do we go back and fight them?” I whimper to Atlas as he escorts me up the hill.
“I don’t know,” he says.
We gather in the common room at first. Lights low, information is passed around like a desert canteen. The Turkish nationals have received a direct message from the president, a text telling them the government is still in power and they should take to the streets to resist the rebels. Soon, someone turns on the lounge TV and there is Erdoğan, on a black-bordered facetime, relaying the same. I pick this up in bits and pieces, overheard from those who understand the language on screen. No one here seems to be taking his words as the rallying cry I understand it to be, though the noises outside our compound seem to indicate the public is answering the call. A new sound joins the fray — tinny voices echoing over the rooftops; the call to prayer. But this is something else. This time, the voices blare out a call to resist, Rose eventually tells me. Just as I’d begun to find the daily broadcasts to be grounding, this off-hour use jolts the alien nature of the practice back into me. A message falls across the city, as unavoidable as rain.
The anxiety in the common room becomes claustrophobic. Phone calls, crying, consoling — I need space to process. I drift to the bathroom, out the window, and onto the fire escape. The roof is the steam valve to this pressure cooker. I follow an arced red path of a flare as I climb; a reverse comet in the dark, a distress signal to the heavens. As I pull myself over the stone ledge, I find a few like-minded compatriots already there. Atlas beckons. I take a seat next to him, feet swinging off the edge. The black plastic bag from our quest years ago sits open behind him and he passes the bottle he’s been pulling on.
“Glad I held on to this,” he says. “I needed some wine for my first coup.”
I’m still seething from the confrontation at the gate, but the repurposed liquor calms me down some. Once more we gaze out over the dark vein at the heart of the city. The scene is surreal: police boats fly down the strait, flares erupt like blood orchids from distant neighborhoods, the popcorn crackle of gunfire bounces untraceable across the water, and most absurdly, the bridge that we can now gaze down upon in the distance is devoid of its usually arterial flow of headlights, replaced with the trundling shapes of tanks and military vehicles. It is insane how removed I feel from the chaos, perched on our castle, a perfect seat for the show playing out before us. It strikes me that there may be no one with a better view than us — that we may be the best witness to the grand theater of a government’s upheaval.
Who knows how long we sit there, staring. It seems a crime to avert my eyes. We are removed — this is not our country, but for millions, it is home. At some point Rafael sidles over for a drink of wine and to inform us that his countrymen are beheading captured rebel soldiers on the bridge. Others filter by for similar reasons; a taste of alcohol paid for by some admission; that they can’t reach their parents, that they hate Erdoğan, that they want to go home. Lola tells an anecdote of her grandmother, who apparently always kept a pair of comfortable ‘coup shoes’ in her purse, lest she have to run in her heels. We laugh dryly, but we laugh. The only time I am truly scared is when a fighter jet flies low above us, the sound booming out long after the craft has passed. I realize if it wanted to kill me, I would be dead before I even heard it coming. I realize there are those around the world who live in that fear daily.
The black helicopters at least announce their presence.
Night rolls on, and Atlas and I tell each other everything as we wait to see what country the sun will rise on. We talk about our families, our losses, and our loves. Our tongues are loosened by the bottle, and the desire for someone to at least hear our story if this is where we die. Which is funny, because I don’t remember a single thing that he tells me that night. I think maybe my mind tore up the memory, like a suicide note gone unneeded.
Cambridge, Massachusetts — Present Day
I wake from a fitful sleep on the couch in my apartment. Sometimes on summer nights I get too hot or antsy, and slip out of bed so as not to disturb her. It’s morning now, Sunday, and I’ve awoken early enough that the streets below our windows are still quiet. Yellow light filters in through the grimy panes and I see that she’s already up too, doing last night’s dishes in the kitchen. The river is a short walk away, and I have the sudden urge to leap up and grab her hand. Pull her out the door and down to the bank or one of the bridges and say “See? This is what I dream of.” She won’t understand, so I’ll continue: “All this has followed me back to you.”