By LUCAS CARMEL ——-
CLAREMONT, Calif.- Music wafts through the air, couples sway with traditional folk songs, waiters circle tables filling empty glasses. As the clock inches towards midnight, time seems to stand still in the countryside town of Polonezköy, Turkey; the new year, and the terror it will arrive with, are far away.
The Oktar family sits around a table at a small hotel in Polonezköy, enjoying a quieter New Year’s Eve away from the bustle of Istanbul. They had tickets for the evening. An eight-course meal came and an unlimited amount of wine was offered and fully enjoyed. Surrounded by farm land, few would be able to guess that they were only 45 minutes northeast of the metropolis.
As the night goes on, the Oktars discuss what they’re thankful for and exchange gifts. A foreigner might wonder whether they had stumbled upon a Thanksgiving or Christmas celebration, especially if they noticed the numerous Christmas trees and Santa Clauses positioned around the hotel. But such is Turkish tradition on New Year’s Eve and in the cool night air, the family revels in the festivities.
With his belly full of wine and feet sore from dancing, Kerem Oktar, the 20-year-old youngest member of the family, joins his brother Deniz in a cab back to Istanbul. Oktar arrives at his mother Meltem’s apartment before midnight and calls her to wish her a happy new year. She’s out clubbing, a popular way to spend New Year’s Eve in Istanbul, and he strains to hear over the thumping electronic music. The new year finally arrives and Oktar heads for bed.
Sirens suddenly cry out. Oktar thinks nothing of it. His phone buzzes after the sirens pass and a report says that there’d been a shooting at a nightclub. He doesn’t believe the news. These bulletins come out often and most turn out to be fake. And Reina nightclub, the club in the report, “has the most intimidating bouncers,” he says; no one would ever try anything there. But a gunman with ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was not similarly intimidated that night. He opened fire with an AK-47, throwing the 600 people in the club into a frenzy.
Oktar calls his mother again. She’s not at Reina. His friends are safe too as he quickly finds out from those also at clubs around the city. With his anxieties quieted, Oktar finally retires to bed.
The next morning, Meltem is home, safe. For families across the city, however, 39 of their beloved do not return the same way.
Terror has become commonplace in Istanbul. Numerous bombings and shootings in 2016 have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent people. To Oktar, a life-long resident of the city’s Ortaköy neighborhood, the attacks are so common that he has developed a reluctant acceptance of their inevitability. He worries about his mother and friends’ safety, but not so much his own. Oktar rationalizes that he’s more likely to die from a bus crash than a bus bomb. If such a fate comes, what can he do? “I’ve lived a good life, so it’s fine,” he says, with a resigned and self-effacing tone.
This attack hit especially close to home. Reina nightclub is just a 30-minute walk from the apartment Oktar and Meltem share. Alerted to it by the sirens’ scream, Oktar felt the immediacy of terror stronger than he usually does. He is a sophomore at Pomona College in Southern California, so when Istanbul shakes from a bomb, the reverberations hit Oktar a little after most residents.
Oktar senses that most students at the Claremont Colleges don’t know much about attacks around the world, especially those in the non-western world. He feels no slight when peers or teachers don’t ask whether he or his family were affected by a terror incident. To do so would require a constant eye toward Turkish affairs. “They would need to seek out information about Turkey all the time,” he contends. It’s a pursuit “I don’t do,” he says in his logical, insouciant voice.
He occasionally gets angry when other students demonstrate a narrow-minded, U.S.-centric mentality, and a lack of tolerance for Turkish issues. But he stresses that he’s more often appreciative when people do ask about Turkish incidents. One professor emailed him after the nightclub attack. The gesture was unexpected and “meant a lot,” Oktar notes.
His two years at Pomona College have been affirming. People see him “first as a student, second as a foreigner,” he says, and that’s how he prefers it. He attributes that distinction partially to his lack of accent and “non-foreign appearance.” Modesty courses through him and he’s unwilling to take pride in much, especially things he doesn’t see as direct consequences of his actions. He does take pride, however, in the fact that he got into Pomona, an achievement of uncommon merit as an international student.
Oktar is no stranger to straddling two worlds. “I went to high school in a different continent,” he says, alluding to Istanbul’s occupancy of both Asia and Europe. In Claremont, he’s found a new home. The fear of terror remains and his mind will always be in Istanbul. Yet, his relationship with Turkey is complex. It’s a mixture of disgust, hope, and admiration, a reverence for what the country “once was,” and a belief “in what it still could be.”
(Written by Lucas Carmel; Feb. 10, 2017)