As spring has graced Istanbul, the weather has been pleasant lately. Yet it is hardly enjoyable to go out given the circumstances. When I do leave my apartment and stroll in the neighborhood – which I’ve called home for six years – it’s as if I were discovering an entirely new place.
Imagine having a dream about somewhere you know well, but a significant number of details are off, additions and distortions that could only be produced by the psychedelic properties in the brain that transport you to an alternative reality in your sleep where days-long journeys occur in just seconds or minutes of real time.
It starts when I leave the building and notice that the window and curtains of the basement-floor apartment next door are still shut. They haven’t been open in weeks, and the older gentleman who warns people against leaving their plastic bags of litter on the street across from his window (as if there were any trash cans or dumpsters in the area) hasn’t emerged for just as long.
The main avenue in Kurtuluş is still quite busy during the day, but a drear, fearful energy clings overhead as people scuttle down the sidewalks, trying to get home as fast as they can. I’ve been afraid to pass by the tiny storefront of my favorite börek shop, and when I do I notice that he’s closed, at least for the day. God knows if he’ll be able to weather this unruly storm.
After a series of curfews have ended at midnight on Sunday for the past several weeks, a trend has emerged where people cooped up in their apartments take to the streets as soon as the clock strikes the hour. Many are walking dogs that have been clambering for fresh air and exercise, others are making runs to the convenience stores that open on the dot to sell beer, cigarettes, soda and snacks to those who made the mistake of not stocking up in the days prior to the lockdown.
I made that mistake a few weeks prior. The first curfew was announced just hours before it was scheduled to begin on midnight April 11. I heard the news after waking up from the dreaded evening nap just shy of 10PM, and naively thought I would amble up the corner to grab some last-minute supplies for the weekend. Pandemonium was thick in the air. Dozens of people were rushing home clutching bags full of groceries and bulk packages of bottled water. There were huge lines out the door of every single market and convenience store still open. I curiously circled the neighborhood for about 15 minutes before retreating to my place empty-handed.
The scene was not unique to Kurtuluş, and news quickly spread of longer lines and larger crowds in other parts of the city, with videos of fights breaking out being shared on social media. This culminated in the resignation of the firebrand Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu over the fiasco. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan subsequently rejected the resignation, in a move that was said to be a power play by the former.
This past weekend, things weren’t as hectic as the curfews were planned well in advance, though many were quick to leave their house at midnight. Young groups of people socialized on the corner, some wearing other masks, others both not doing so and smoking. Apparently the FFP2 mask I was lucky to get my hands on doesn’t filter out second-hand smoke. Kurtuluş is a friend to the night and its owls, as several shops skirt the laws by delivering booze 24/7, and some restaurants remain open all night. Yet it’s never been precisely this bustling at this hour.
Some semblances of normality are comforting. A friend of mine and the owner of a beloved restaurant I would frequent 2-3 times a week waved from across the street, we instantly recognized each other despite both wearing masks. At the beginning of Eşref Efendi Street, just steps away from the Osmanbey metro, Musa usta defiantly remains at his post, selling his excellent version of the Istanbul-Armenian delicacy topik, a complex sweet/savory meze that can be found in varying levels of quality at meyhanes in the city. Musa usta, a salty character with a big heart, has been doing this for three decades, and he is the only one selling it on the street. He commutes by bus six days a week to and from a different neighborhood. He should probably be staying at home, but he most likely cannot afford to do so.
Last week, I left the neighborhood for the first time in over a month, for a walk in Maçka Park with a friend. I thought we would be greeted with nice weather but it was dismally cold and drizzly. Still, seeing the emergence of spring, hues of green, pink and purple that I haven’t laid eyes for weeks resulted in a surge of happiness from having the opportunity to once again experience nature, or at least as much as one can in a medium-sized park in the dead center of the city.
At the tail end of the park, a grey and black-feathered crow cawed ominously before taking a swipe at me with its beak. I instinctively dived toward the ground and nearly knocked my friend over with me. I tweeted about it and based on the replies, the consensus was that since crows are highly intelligent birds, this one was either telling me I should be at home or was fiercely asserting the fact that they were now the masters of the park’s domain.
A few days later it was April 23, and that evening at 9PM I heard the celebrations of the National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, but I couldn’t see them, as my apartment, into which I moved just under three months ago, only faces the gardens in between buildings rather than the street. The living room of my previous place looked out on to the street, but I took this amenity for granted, rarely peering out the window unless there was some odd commotion. I would be typically joined in an instant by my neighbors who were leaning out and curious to see what was going on. Nowadays, in order to see my street I have to leave the building, and for the time being, each time I do it feels like stepping into the unknown.