Heartbreak for Istanbul

My heart breaks for Istanbul.

The beautiful city along the vibrant blue Bosphorus Strait has served as a center of many of the world’s great civilizations. For many tourists, Istanbul is the portal to knowing (if not quite understanding) the Muslim world.

In 2015 alone, Istanbul was the fifth most-visited city in the world — hosting 12.56 million people. But in the aftermath of the horrible attack, believed to be carried out by ISIS, that killed 44 people on Tuesday evening at Istanbul Ataturk Airport , the tourism sector is certain to suffer.

The airport (Europe’s third busiest) website homepage now bears a black ribbon and the following statement appears: “WE ARE IN DEEP SORROW: On June 28th, 2016, a heinous terrorist attack was carried out towards not only Istanbul Atatürk Airport, but also entire Turkey as well as humanity.”

The use of the word humanity particularly struck true. I fear Turkey seems a country perhaps too far removed and foreign to Americans to empathize with.

My Twitter feed did not overflow with grief, as it did for Orlando, Paris and Brussels. Only one friend changed their profile photo to that of a Turkish flag.

In Istanbul, most of the victims were Muslim. They included airport workers, taxi drivers, three young sisters traveling together, and a doctor who was seeking to retrieve his son who had apparently joined ISIS.

My first visit to Istanbul was in August 2015 – not even a year ago. But now, it somehow feels far more distant. The New York Times reports that since June of last year there have been 14 terrorist attacks in Turkey. May also marked the 10th consecutive month of declining tourist numbers.

When my husband and I visited the country, we already could feel a tense sense of foreboding in the city.

Just days before we flew into Istanbul, attackers opened fire on the U.S. consulate. Two attackers opened fire on the Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosphorus Strait, a major tourist destination. Despite some concerns at the time, we opted to follow through with our trip.

We visited in part because Istanbul holds a special place in my husband’s heart. It borders Iran, the country of his birth. It is also the site of a family reunion that he organized several years ago drawing family from the U.S., Germany and Iran.

Istanbul is the closest city to Iran that I felt comfortable visiting. And I certainly fell in love.

But I also can’t deny that the city felt unsettled during our time there. We had the distinct feeling that we were visiting during the calm before the storm.

When we visited the historic Sultanahmet district where the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are located, the large number of American and European tourists in such an open area stuck out to me. With our dark hair, my husband and I blended in with Turks, and at least this felt like some sort of camouflage against sticking out too much. But as we left the district and I looked back at the cords, I realized that this would be a place that might one day become the target of an attack (it did, several months later, when 11 German tourists were killed by a suicide bomber).

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After we arrived, we met other American tourists who informed us that cruise ships that they traveled into the city on refused to dock overnight in Istanbul due to the attacks. In light of this weeks attack, many cruise lines are canceling their stops.

When we left the country, I recall being impressed by the heavy security at the Ataturk airport. As soon as we entered, we passed through a security checkpoint. This is actually more rigorous than U.S. airports, as the Times pointed out.

But that extra barrier made me think that Istanbul was perhaps anticipating and trying to prevent what they perhaps knew could happen.

Istanbul is such a center of civilizations, and the airport welcomed a unique mix of people not just from the Middle East — but from all over Europe in the world.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, travel writer Rick Steves wrote on his Facebook page, “Should I react by not traveling there and, in doing so, contribute to Turkey’s economic hardship? Is traveling there after the recent bombing reckless from a personal safety point of view? Should I embolden the terrorists by reacting the way they want me to? How you answer depends on your perspective. But I choose to answer with a hearty ‘no.'”

This is a strong statement. I’m not sure I would feel as confident about visiting the country. Unfortunately, Turkey has suffered from a string of attacks — not just a solitary incident.

The United States Department of State updated the existing travel warning just one day before the latest attack, noting that “Foreign and U.S. tourists have been explicitly targeted by international and indigenous terrorist organizations.” And the warning pointed out elevated threats at “large sporing events, theaters, open markets, aviation services, transportation systems, and public venues where people congregate as well as religious sites and high-profile events.”

However, I certainly hope that somehow the city will continue to serve as a crossroads for people from all over the world. In the mean time, the world mourns for Istanbul, Turkey and humanity.

The terrorists win if they chase us all to our separate corners of the world, preventing us from traveling and appreciating each other’s humanity.

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