My Time in Turkey: The Night of the Istanbul Coup

Posted on July 21, 2016 by Charlie Grosso

Istanbul coup Turkey Taksim Square

It was a simple Friday night in Istanbul, Turkey. Watermelon and rum; roasted chicken salad and take out pizza; friends and a rooftop. We had just finished dinner and moved out of the oven-like kitchen to the rooftop when Alex, a former diplomat asked casually, “Have you guys heard anything about the bridges being closed?”

From the roof, we could see the Ataturk and Galata Bridge, stitching the north and south half of European Istanbul together. Headlights from the cars sparkling across both bridges in a steady stream, Scott replies, “They look open to me.”

“Friends are saying the Bosporus Bridge are blocked by the military with tanks.” Alex gives us more details.

Everyone pulls out their phones to see what is going on. I left my phone four flights down in the kitchen; I feel left out and itch for more. It’s probably nothing, or most likely another terrorist threat. Did I see a State Department warning today? I don’t recall. I’ve been living part time in Istanbul for six months now, through numerous threats and several bombings. My sense of normal has been revised. Alex had the news of the military coup via WhatsApp before the BBC alert pinged. I immediately left Alex and Olivia’s. I live only two doors down and I need to get online.

At home with multiple tabs open and numerous news outlet pages constantly refreshing, I watch the coup develop from my quiet corner in Istanbul. The journalist in me wants to head out to Taksim, except I don’t have a mandate. I am not working for a wire service or a paper. I don’t have press credentials, and I would want them for a night like this. If I were to head out with cameras in hand I should be responsible and smart, I should not go alone. Jordan and Scott are still over at Alex and Olivia’s, would I be able to convince one of them to go with me? Would it be fair to ask? To risk their safety when it is unclear why I felt the need to go outside and witness history?

I keep hitting refresh: AP, Reuters, AFP, BBC, BreakingNews, CNN, The Guardian. I need to know more. Friends in New York City, San Diego, and Munich are texting me updates from Twitter (which is blocked here) among other outlets. President Erdogan is calling all citizens to go out into the streets against the coup, the impulse to go outside increases in direct proportion to the chaos.

I wish I were 22 and not 37, to be reckless and have youth as an excuse. I wish I had a clear mandate; a reason to take the risk, something beyond this indefinable need that is being expressed as restless feet tap and finger nail chewing. There is no shortage of journalists in Istanbul; tonight will be well witnessed and documented. What could I contribute that would be meaningful, worth stray bullets and getting caught in a possible civil war?

I text Jordan,“Will you come over and help me pro / con going out to Taksim?!” “Yes. Let me stock up on some water and I will be over.” From my window, I can see the guy at the corner store pulling down his gates. I grab my wallet and run down. I’ve been sitting in the alcove reading news feeds while keeping an eye on the street below. This night looks like every other night. People are out, no one is in a rush, there’s no shouting, no panic. From this corner in Balat it all looks the same but the air is charged and I sense it the minute I open the door. I grab some water; the owner hurries me out, pulls down the gates and rushes home himself.

Jordan arrives a few minutes later. We are both undecided on the wisdom and the justification. Knowing Scott had already recklessly gone out to be a spectator highlights all the reason why I do not believe to be a smart decision for me. There is only chaos. Some say the military is in charge, some say the government is back in control. We can hear F-16 flying overhead. “Let’s wait until morning, when we know more. This has just begun.” Jordan advises.

Nearly 20 years as a photographer I now know even the most iconic images can only serve as punctuations in the overall conversation. And I want to contribute a sentence or two in a nuanced multi-faceted dialogue. The current situation here in Turkey is a complicated maze of politics, religion and military. Even if I could deliver the most definitive exclamation mark, it would do little to deepen the overall discourse.

Eventually, I close my laptop and we hover on the edge of sleep. An F-16 flies so low the sonic boom shook the house, scaring us awake. I jumped out of bed and opened the laptop for the latest news update.

Next morning, President Erdogan had reclaimed control, the military coup failed. We went up to Taksim to see how the city’s reaction from the night before. Public transportation is working, free of charge. The streets are quiet. A third of the shops on Istiklal are open, there is coffee to be had at Starbucks, hamburgers, and fries at McDonalds. It will take more than a failed military coup to stop us.

Istanbul coup parade flags

After a couple of hours in and around Taksim, we head over to Sultanahmet to see if we could find Jordan’s friend Ozan. He has not been in contact. We find Ozan sitting outside of a cafe, smoking and drinking tea with a few other men. Why wouldn’t they be?

It is increasingly harder to talk about politics publicly yet politics is everywhere. Over tea and cigarettes, we gently ask Ozan for his reaction to last night’s event. There is little to say about a night like last. There is nothing that won’t be covered in the headlines. Ozan brings out his guitar and ask Jordan to play. They play for each other; they play for me. The combination of tea, politics and music is timeless in some ways, both appropriate and incongruous to this day. There is life– so we play. Nimble fingers on strings as we sink into this moment, the reality of our lives in Istanbul.

Istanbul coup parade Taksim Turkey

That night, Jordan and I return to Taksim for the pro-government rally. Taksim is a sea of undulating red Turkish flags. I go to work. First for the obvious shots, the ones every photojournalist will undoubtedly capture. Images of men standing on top of the Republic monument, flag in hand; the size of the gathering; the passion and excitement of the crowd. Then I search for those images that are questions rather than answers. A little girl wearing pigtails sitting on her father’s shoulder as they make their way through the rally. What is her impression of this night in history? There are plenty of women here tonight in Taksim, but none dressed in western attire. Every one I saw and photograph are wearing hijab and floor length dresses. Where are modern Turkish women? In this ocean of red, moon and star, there are no pictures of President Erdogan; those won’t show up in the square until the next day. For now, it is just the flag. There are chats in celebration of Allah, of President Erdogan, and of democracy, ideas that are inherently inharmonious, mudding symbolism that is the Turkish flag. And then there are the food vendors, selling watermelon, tea and kebab, making a living regardless of who is in charge. Needs are needs. These frames contain the beginnings of a more complex story waiting to unfold, stories that will get overlooked as we grapple for the big picture. I lament for the briefest moment for not having gone out that night but history is being made and we’ve only just begun.