My ugly hometown, Ankara
The joke that everyone knows to be true is this: The best part of visiting Ankara is the road back to Istanbul. The capital city of Turkey does not house the most aesthetically pleasing urban architecture. In fact, the buildings follow Communism-inspired uniformity and functionality from the 1970s. The color palette of the city consists of shades of brown and dull hues. Chicago, the city where I moved to, stands in utter contrast to Ankara, the city where I was born.
Ankara was the place I felt connected to only through memories of childhood and fascinations that abandoned me while moving into adulthood. For instance, in primary school, every time we drove by the Foreign Ministry's brutalist gray building, my heart was pounding differently. I felt that this building and the city itself held some magic that could actualize my dreams. That feeling, albeit strong to the point of allowing my poor memory to recall it vividly after many years, left itself to deep disdain for Ankara as a city. After moving to Istanbul for high school, my imagination was captured by a good majority of Istanbulite friends that ignored the rest of the country and claimed superiority over it. While under the teenage pressure of wanting clearer identities for myself, I embraced this ignorance and concluded: Ankara had no culture, no urban life, no excitement. Everything happening in the city, including politics, sucked.
With growing comfortable in my own skin came another disillusionment: of the Istanbulite ignorance of Turkey. Living in bubbles is fine and perhaps inevitable; yet, that was not the life I desired. While waiting on a ridiculously impossible visa to visit Germany, I found myself in Ankara for four months from September to December 2013. Until then, my visits to the hometown were brief and very interrupted. I had left the city at the age of 12 and came only for holidays. At maximum, I had stayed for three to four weeks. This time, there were four months ahead of me and zero friends (besides my mother and her friends).
Turns out the city was holding mayoral elections right then. A viable and, in my opinion, very reasonable candidate emerged to contest the undemocratic and corrupt rule of the mayor that governed since 1994. Funnily enough, Ankara's local politics hold many similarities to those of Chicago. The 2013 election results brought with them major fraud allegations, and I witnessed ballots in trash cans and much more during those months. Speaking with the beautiful people of Ankara who wanted to ensure transparency and justice, I began noticing what there is to this city that naturally was invisible to the outsider's eyes. I became an insider quickly and began seeing the place rather differently.
That people in Ankara are politically engaged is not news in Turkey. During all the military coups from the 1960s onwards, Ankara students were at the forefront of protests. For me, however, the city began gaining a three-dimensional reality only during that undesired, forced stay. And recently, more specifically in the past 18 weeks, this city has become something even more different and oddly also more familiar. I am still physically an outsider, not residing there. Emotionally, however, I am with Ankara more fully than before.
On October 10th, 2015, the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkey's history took place at the heart of the capital city. Lots of news outlets covered the horrific event in minute detail. For me, what stood out was that civil society members, concerned citizens, and most importantly people who cared deeply about Turkey's present had gathered in Ankara for a peace rally. The videos and photos from that day unmask the collective intention of these people: to stand in solidarity. These words would have sound wishy washy to me until the Gezi Protests in 2013. But now I know, through first-hand experience and not solely intellectual conversations, that collective efforts of support for a cause matter greatly. Those people — those with the most beautiful of hearts — lost their lives for a still-unsolved attack in broad daylight in the middle of the city.
Today, on February 17th, 2016, another attack took place once again at a very central location in Ankara. This time, the target was military personnel leaving their work with shuttles to go home. On a Wednesday evening at rush hour, a car with bombs exploded, leaving at least 28 dead and 61 injured (according to the latest news source I found, 10pm Ankara-time). While I hold major reservations toward the military as an institution in general and Turkey's military in specific, I feel extremely sad and angry for the loss of these people who were heading home to have a peaceful evening. The details of what happened are unclear, and I doubt there will be satisfactory answers.
Right now, all I am trying to do is figure out ways to deal with the shock, the terror and the pain without falling into hopelessness. The intentions and actions of the people who met in Ankara for the peace rally 18 weeks ago are loud and clear in my mind. The sound of today's bomb is loud, too, and perhaps will remain loudest for the families whose loved ones suffered today.
However, there is something more to the city due to its changing meaning. And it makes me want to focus on the clarity of peaceful intentions and actions. The same terrorizing event could elicit countless responses among the people experiencing it. My wish for the city's response follows the reasons why people gathered here in October 2015, why university students here are deeply political, and why justice somehow runs through the streets that are occupied by officials that defy its value. Ankara is still an ugly city with poorly designed buildings, and yes there is no Bosphorus here. Today, however, it is a city mourning, a place that lost its most beautiful people in the past few months. And I mourn with it, keeping close to my heart the word "peace" and allowing it to mean what it does.