In my first column for Duvar English, I thought it would be appropriate to write about my time in Istanbul, because it is precisely my time in Istanbul that enabled me to become a writer.
This year will mark a decade in which I have lived in this wonderful and difficult metropolis. My decisions within that period and even prior to it have largely centered around my desire to stay here. I spent a year here as an exchange student just to get out of the States and spend some serious time in Istanbul, and I returned two years later to complete an MA, which was essentially just a reasonable excuse to come back.
When I finished school in 2013, many of my colleagues had been accepted to doctoral programs throughout Turkey, Europe and the US. I thought about going down that route, but rather than spending another six or more years in school, I had to figure out another way to stay in Istanbul that didn’t involve teaching English. I had written my MA thesis about urban transformation in Beyoğlu and figured getting into journalism was the only way I could continue to follow and write about these topics in lieu of a PhD.
My graduation coincided with the outbreak of the Gezi Park protests, where I witnessed an outpouring of solidarity, creativity and spontaneity, scenes I’ll carry with me to my grave. This fueled my desire to write about The City and the constant development that perpetually threatens to destroy it.
To this day, every stroll through the park is a reminder of the power of millions of people rejecting a decision they had no part in making. The protests may have been squashed, but the park — with its modest canopy of trees, rows of benches, sprawling fountain and dolphin sculpture — remains in place.
I realize that this is a privileged perspective, but for me the worst thing about living in Istanbul is not the traffic, the crowds, the noise or the chaos, or the skyrocketing rent, but rather the nonstop and unsettling change and destruction brought about by rampant greed and speculation that pays no heed to heritage, history and humanity.
The little I could do was write about these things, be it the monstrosity of a restoration inflicted upon the once beautiful Narmanlı Han building, or the living nightmare that is the Fikirtepe urban transformation project, an ongoing disaster so bleak that it inspired a dystopic feature film released last year that gives a harrowing glimpse into the ordeal and how it ruptured a community.
Then there were the Roma families being forced out of their already barely-livable homes; the police violence against Alevis in the Küçük Armutlu neighborhood, which the state has been trying to demolish for several years; the fierce political contestation that has played out on Taksim Square and its periphery, resulting in construction of a massive mosque on one side, and the demolition of the Atatürk Cultural Center on the other.
Duvar English, despite only being around for a few months, has established itself as a vital force within a grim, toxic media environment. Its nuanced news coverage and analysis is a breath of fresh air when even some of the opposition outlets frequently replicate the ugly language and discourse of their opponents. The site has done a great job of telling important Istanbul stories that may not have otherwise made it into English, like Meral Candan’s excellent reporting on old-school shopkeepers in the hip neighborhood of Bomonti who are struggling to stay on their feet due to regularly rising prices and inflation. Candan also filed an heartbreaking and important story on the double discrimination which with LGBTQ migrants and refugees in Istanbul are confronted given their dually-disenfranchised identity as queer people and refugees alike. While many of these people face frequent harassment based on their visible queer identities, others are excluded by those sympathetic to LGBTQ people but not to refugees.
There were also more encouraging stories that show how people of the city can quickly mobilize support to help those in need, like Ferhat Yaşar’s recent report on a group of restaurants in the Kadıköy district who have begun to offer free food to university students on shoestring budgets who have been hit hard by the rising prices in their school cafeterias.
I was here for the entirety of the traumatic 2016, which witnessed numerous terrorist attacks in the city, not to mention the failed military coup of July (though I happened to be behind the fortress-like brick walls in a boutique hotel in the Aegean city of Bergama that evening, glued to Twitter until 5AM). I naively celebrated New Years with a group of friends, all of whom seemed desperate to move on into a brighter 2017, only to receive the news after the ball dropped of the horrific attack on the Reina nightclub. Waking up well after noon the next day, I received an email from an editor wanting me to write about the attack, but I was in no shape to do so.
Oddly enough, none of that made me want to leave The City. I don’t take for granted the privileges that come along with an American passport, though holding one doesn’t guarantee a good and productive life there in 2020. 3,000 journalists lost in their jobs in the US alone last year, a symptom of a deeply suffering industry where important investigative reporting has taken a backseat to the endless cycle of Trump-focused coverage. I would have no idea how to stay on my feet as a freelance journalist in that environment.
More importantly, after ten years living in Istanbul, despite being jaded about this industry, I’ve never felt more confident that I am in the right place. While the the state of journalism in Turkey remains dire, the stories to be told are endless and frequently go unreported, and the relentless development and political chaos has not eroded my deep love for what has become the closest thing I’ve had to a home. Moving forward, I will be writing mostly Istanbul-focused columns, and welcome any ideas, criticism and feedback.