The sun was shining when I sat down, with cats purring on one side and a couple embracing on the other. Despite the cold, the sunshine spilled generously, treating visitors to the best view of the world heritage sights they had come to see.
I sat down because of the text. The text about the shootings.
It’s not often that I receive text messages while I’m away. I loathe the extortionate roaming charges and I protect my frail bank balance by only giving my number to a fairly select few. You won’t find it on my business cards, and it’s certainly not on this website.
So when I do receive a text, a part of me feels uneasy.
I typed in my PIN, hoping that someone had simply made a mistake.
Just checking you are OK and not in the vicinity of Topkapi Palace. There has been a shooting there…”
My quickening heartbeat smothered the rest.
Topkapi Palace is one of Istanbul’s main attractions. The Ottoman Sultans lived there for more than 400 years and it is said to house the Prophet Muhammad’s cloak and sword.
It’s also where I was going next.
I looked up again at the world around me. The sun still shone, the minarets of the Blue Mosque still painted the sky with their ephemeral beauty. The couple still embraced. The touts still called out “Chai!” and “offered” to polish my shoes.
In short, the world seemed the same, although everything was different.
I looked back at my phone. Another message.
“Shooting at the Blue Mosque. Hopefully you’re not around there – can you check in?”
My heartbeat played the soundtrack to my skull. Shooting. Blue Mosque. Shooting. Blue Mosque.
I looked up at the Blue Mosque, just a few metres away, and the world changed once more. It swerved a little and lurched to the left. I looked back at the shoe shiners to orient myself.
The world still looked normal, beautiful even. I had obviously been lucky. Yet, yet…the crucial question appeared.
Was it all over? Or was the gunman fifty metres away?
News stories picketed my brain: the Virginia Tech Massacre, Dunblane, Columbine…Killers on killer sprees. In several places. Authorities and inquiries claiming that more notice should have been given. More warnings should have been provided.
Well, I had been given notice. I had been warned. What should I do now?
Shouts interrupted my thoughts as a fight broke out nearby. One, then two, then three men screamed until punches were exchanged until another man pulled someone away. The cat stretched out and turned over. Someone else offered to polish my shoes.
I looked at my iPhone while the world continued. Homicidal maniac fifty metres away. No-one else knows.
My heart beat faster.
I tapped the screen to connect online, sod the roaming charges. I googled “Istanbul Shootings.”
News results appeared, from eight minutes earlier. “Security forces kill gunman at Istanbul Palace.”
I felt relieved; I felt disgusted.
The uncomfortable truth was that another person’s death had meant relief for me. It meant safety. It meant that there wasn’t someone brandishing a gun and firing it at strangers within firing distance of me.
It was a lot to experience in less than five minutes. And I didn’t like it. Any of it.
More messages came through and I reflected on social media and the newborn digital age. I had gone through the whole story by iPhone, while the cat, the couple and the shoe shiners didn’t even know there was a story yet.
Given how things turned out, the obvious conclusion would be that they were better off without the technology, without the scare. Yet, that’s only a matter of luck. What if the gunman had been in the Blue Mosque? And stepped outside and continued to fire. What then?
Would my prior knowledge have helped me? Would I have helped anyone else? If I had turned to the crowd, would anyone have listened? Or would they just have dismissed me as yet another city crazy person and turned back to enjoy the sunshine?
I don’t like to play “what if” for too long, as it rarely leads to anything productive. But with an experience like the one today, it takes a little while to shake out.
And of course, for those fighting for their lives today, and for their families, it will never shake out. For them, I am so sorry.
For the rest, I’m less sure.
Important Points Please, please, please don’t think that Istanbul is any more dangerous than any other mainstream city as a result of this. We all know that violence from disturbed individuals is an unfortunate fact of life. I’ve been in the vicinity of terrorism and isolated shootings before back home in the UK. And I went on to have an entirely peaceful, inspiring, intriguing look at Istanbul this afternoon.
It’s just that, well, sometimes things really make you stop and think…