Why this should be so is not quite clear to me, as Istanbul has never seemed a safe place to live. Just after my family moved here, when I was eight, a tanker travelling up the Bosphorus collided with a passenger ship. They both floated past our house, burning brightly. The fire, I recall, burned for months. A few years later, another tanker missed one of the many bends in the Bosphorus and ploughed into a house we had tried to rent. In 1962, we watched Russian ships bearing missiles to Cuba. Later we saw them coming back.
Istanbul is not the sort of city where you can shrug your shoulders and ignore politics and expect the earth to stay beneath your feet. First came the Cyprus crisis in 1964. Then the riots to protest against US imperialism and the Sixth Fleet, and the student uprisings, the worker revolts, the bombs and, finally, the military take-over that led to political imprisonment for many friends and classmates. In the Seventies, there was the invasion of Cyprus and another military take-over. After that came the Kurdish troubles, years of 100 per cent inflation, the rise of fundamentalism. Time and again, it seemed to me as if the city was about to be swallowed up. Time and again, I've watched its people pull back from disaster and work together to restore it to peace.
When my family first settled here, Istanbul was a city of one million people; now, if you include its suburbs, it is 15 million and growing. Every summer, when I come back, I look at what used to be the edge of the city and see the hills teeming with bulldozers, half-built concrete buildings and dirt tracks. I look at the same hills when I am flying out again and already there are curtains in the windows, cars and saplings along the paved streets. My first thought as I speed past them is always, can this expansion go on for ever? My second thought, as I look at the buildings' flimsy foundations, is: what will happen to them in an earthquake?
I lived through a number of small earthquakes here when I was a child. After experiencing a number of large ones later on in California, I became well versed in earthquake lore and popular science and so, despite the nagging knowledge that a big one was going to happen in Istanbul sooner or later, I did not worry too much about bringing my family to stay in my sister's house. It must be one of the safest houses in the city, as it is 160 years old and made of wood and sits at the top of a hill on bedrock. So when I woke up at two minutes past three on Tuesday morning to hear the earth rumbling, I did not panic. I just followed the instructions I had read all those years ago in the San Francisco phone book. The electricity went off before I could pull the children out of their beds, but by the time I had them sitting under a doorway in the middle of the house, the rumbling had stopped.
The silence lasted only a few seconds. Then all the dogs in the city began to howl. When the power came back on a few minutes later, the overhead light was still swinging wildly back and forth. There were no cracks in the walls. Not a plate had fallen, not a picture was askew. I spoke to my mother on the phone; they had been shaken much more in their house, which is also wood and also on bedrock, but they'd suffered no damage either. I tried to find some news on the radio but there was only music, so I assumed that the epicentre must be far away. When I went back to bed I did have some trouble going back to sleep. Just as I was drifting off, I'd feel another jolt. I told myself I was just imagining things.
Call it denial, if you will. Whatever it was it went on and on. Even when I turned on the television the following morning, and saw the aerial view of the damage, I was still not able to put two and two together. We had been in Yalova and Kartal and other neighbouring devastated areas only days earlier. When I heard reports of the buses and cars that had been crushed under flyovers there, all I could do was think, that could have been us. Then, very slowly, I remembered all the people I knew who had summer houses along those same shores. I realised that it could have been them.
When the aerial views of the damage inside Istanbul came on the screen, it dawned on us that my sister had spent the night in one of the worst hit areas. She is the head teacher of a primary school that has just moved to new premises on the edge of the Marmara Sea. She had stayed over with a colleague who lived near the school. All the services to the area were cut off.
It was not until late afternoon that we found out that she was safe. But only just. She had been staying on the third floor of a new 20-storey building. Like so many of the houses that collapsed in nearby Avcilar, it was built on an alluvial plain. She and her friend woke up to see huge chunks of ceiling falling around them. The big furniture followed suit. Between the crashes they could hear cracks in the wall. My sister panicked and was just about to jump out of the window, but because her friend refused to go with her, they ran down the stairs instead. When the first aftershock came, they were sitting on the pavement outside. It rocked them like a wave as they headed for an open field, other refugees from neighbouring high rises joined them and they began to worry about their flimsy nightgowns. As they passed a group of youths, my sister's friend heard one of them say: "Did you see them swinging!" She nearly turned around and punched him because she thought he was making a comment about her breasts. Then she realised that he was talking about the buildings.
That gave them a moment of light relief, but there was not much to laugh about when they got to their school the next morning. The bulldozers that had been digging out the new playground the day before, were now trying to recover people from under the rubble in the neighbouring streets. The man who had been painting the new lockers did not turn up for work. No one knows if he is helping with the rescue work or is lying under rubble.
This is the thing about life in the aftermath. No one knows very much at all. Are the buildings that are still standing to be trusted, or are they one aftershock away from collapse? Half the city has no idea if friends and loved ones in the other half are safe. It took two days for my brother to track down his girlfriend, who was staying with her elderly father in a town just outside the city on the Marmara. He didn't have her address, so what could he do except sit by the phone?
Call it living in limbo. It does very strange things to you. You turn on the television and you see groups of men trying to pull their neighbours out from under concrete with their bare hands, and you want to get into a car and go and help them. But then you hear reports about the crowds of onlookers who are blocking traffic and obstructing rescue efforts. You hear urgent requests for blood and you find there's no point, because the hospitals have no way of storing it. A second urgent request goes out, for interpreters to help with the foreign rescue teams, but after the woman at the radio station takes down your name, she tells you that she can't do much with it because she can't track down the co-ordinator. Outside in the street an ambulance goes by and then you hear two helicopters passing over. For a few minutes there's an unearthly quiet. Then you hear a woman let out a terrible shriek; you find out later she's just received news of a lost relation.
Later still you here the muezzin calling from the mosque, but it is not the hour for prayers. Is it a funeral? You make a grocery list because there is no food in the house, but when you get to the store you feel like a traitor, acting as though life goes on as normal. Everyone else there must be feeling the same way, because when you walk towards them, they avert their eyes.
You speak to your friends after their first night in a field and they talk about life and death. You talk to them the next morning, and they say how crowded it's getting in that field. You talk to them on the third morning and they ask questions. Why were we so ill-prepared for this earthquake? Why the slow and so very inadequate government response? Why is it that the government allowed developers to build high rises on ground that scientists knew would turn to jelly in an earthquake? "I am ashamed of my country." This is the sentence you hear over and over again.
It took 48 hours before we were able to track down all the people closest to us. Now that we're back together, our happiness seems undeserved. The names and faces of all the other people who may have been out there keep coming back.
My sister was able to get on a school bus going out to the place where 100 Israelis are trapped. She said: "If I find one person alive I'll feel I've done something useful."
For myself, I feel totally worthless. We feel very aware that we are not going to be able to do anything helpful. Between the piles of rubble and the TV cameras, you feel ashamed to be alive.Reuse content