After the Bombs
…went off in Ankara
One Sunday last March, after I’d cleared the brunch dishes, my stepmother texted me to say that she and my dad were all right. They were getting ready for bed.
“Bizi merak etmeyin,” she wrote.
Don’t worry about us.
I thought this was sort of weird, especially given we’d already written to each other that morning. Why would I be worried about them? I tossed a load of laundry in the machine, slipped my sneakers on, and sent her a goofy selfie, from my garage in Minneapolis. I didn’t give her message a second thought.
In the summer of 1995, my stepmother and father met at a bank in the Gaziosmanpaşa neighborhood of Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. My mother had recently passed away from breast cancer, and after she was buried at a cemetery on the outskirts of the city, my father decided he wanted to stay in Ankara.
He purchased the small plot of land right next to my mom, its tombstone blank but ready, and told me he would look for a house nearby. “The shorter the drive to the cemetery, the better,” he said, and I began to worry about what would happen to him. I worried about him in the way that all only children perhaps worry about the parent who is left behind. I wondered how he would survive, not in a practical sense (my dad is excellent in the kitchen, and had always done most of the cooking in the house, for instance), but emotionally. I wondered whether he would ever be happy again.
My dad and mom had met in Ankara too, having their first conversation in 1974, while they waited at a bus stop on a college campus. It was an at-first-sight-romance that had them marrying at the courthouse downtown, and leaving a month later, emigrating to Australia, then living all over the world, from Riyadh to Calgary, and traveling to dozens of places in between. It was always just the three of us out in the world, until suddenly it wasn’t.
Suddenly, it was Ankara, and these two adjoining, rectangular plots of land.
The summer my father and I spent together in Ankara, living in a one bedroom-rental, looking for something permanent, I tried to talk him out of settling down in the city. Ankara was so provincial, so flat, so brown. “What about Istanbul?” I said, a place much cooler, and more appealing to me as a teenager. “We could live by the water. We could get a dog.”
But my dad didn’t want a dog. He wanted Ankara, a city back then, of three million; a place people who had outgrown their small town-roots came to, looking for something bigger, brighter. People, in other words, like my stepmother. Even then, Ankara was a city of Turks and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, a peaceable, middle class kind of place, “memur şehiri,” my dad called it, affectionately, which translates to “a city of government workers.” Ankara was not, and is not, a sexy city by any means.
And yet, it is somehow charming. Ankara, as I have come to appreciate, is an unpretentious, salt of the earth kind of place: a city Atatürk built in the 1920s out of the rubble of the Ottoman Empire, land that used to be home to the Hittites, Phrygians, the Romans, and Byzantines, among others, before that. It is a place of transit. It is a place where you can meet the love of your life at a bus stop, and a place where, decades later, your heart broken, you can return to, to pick up the pieces, and start over again.
A few weeks ago, that Sunday night, a car bomb explosion in Ankara killed thirty-seven people at a bus stop in Kizilay, the city’s main commercial district. This was why my stepmother had texted me. This is what she had meant. The suicide bombers, who have since been identified, appear to have been part of a Kurdish separatist group. Among the dead: several college students, a cab driver, and a woman who had recently lost her husband to cancer (the woman’s two girls now suddenly orphans). The attacks left 125 people injured, many of them seriously. This was third terrorist attack in Ankara since October of 2015. The month prior, a Kurdish militant group claimed responsibility for the death of 29 people. That one was a car bomb, too. In October, 103 people were killed and 250 wounded when two Isis suicide bombers targeted a peace rally.
My family and I have texted many times in the last month. Each time they let me know they are okay, that I shouldn’t worry. They tell me that the city is shaken, its people wounded, but that Ankara will heal in time. The city will piece itself back together, they say, as it adjusts to its increasing diversity, and the complications that come with it; as it re-calibrates to a new normal that has entire villages worth of refugees arriving at its gates every day. My family believes this because that’s what Ankara has always been about. It is, after all, a salt of the earth kind of place, a place where people come, wanting to build a better life.
It’s a place where it is possible to start over again.