I arrived in Turkey a week after dissenting military officers briefly hijacked fighter jets, bombed government buildings, took over media stations–and ultimately were defeated by massive and bloody resistance from pro-government civilians. Over two hundred people died in the early hours of July 16th, mostly around Istanbul. The international press was filled with articles that seemed cause for concern: tens of thousands were being rounded up in a post-coup purge and the government had declared a state of emergency.
The government, which had sent text messages to every cell phone owner in the country urging citizens to mass in the streets and fight back against their own military, had made all public transportation free. They called it a gift to the people; they probably also wanted as many people on the streets as possible to discourage a second coup attempt.
The subway turnstiles below the airport were left unattended and the gates chained opened. I was traveling with a friend and we took a free ride into the center of Istanbul. The first thing we noticed were all the flags. Turks boarding the train carried them in their hands and the majority of ad spaces within the train and on station platforms were images of flags—many with the words “Hakimiyet Milletindir” written below—loosely translated as “the nation prevails.” Once we were above ground we saw giant flags covering entire sides of buildings. Taksim Square and most other public spaces were filled with citizens waving flags and rallying in support of the government.
My first impression was fear. The government had successfully whipped its citizens into a nationalist frenzy and was obviously exploiting the crisis to consolidate its power. As a traveling American I saw a lot of ways this could go wrong for me or make me into a target. Maybe the media was right; maybe it was as unsafe as they claimed.
As my friend and I spent more time in the city though, observing and interacting, those initial fears began to fade. We took advantage of the free transportation and spent our days exploring the city. We took ferry rides back and forth over the Bosporus straight, laid on beaches on islands off the Asian coast and visited popular, if slightly empty, tourist attractions like the Blue Mosque. All the Turks we met were friendly and welcoming. Even the flag wavers in the squares smiled at us as we passed. It was clear that there was a very deep divide in the country between Europe-centric secularists and the more eastward facing Islamists, but seemingly everyone disagreed with a violent military takeover.
I’m sure it would be different if I were living there as a Turk, but as a tourist passing though I felt very safe. This isn’t as sexy and doesn’t sell as many newspapers but for me the most shocking thing about Istanbul post-coup was its normalcy.