What It Was Like to Watch the Turkish Coup Attempt Unfold

A former Philadelphian from Turkey recounts the chaotic week in Istanbul.

People gathered in Taksim Square in Istanbul to protest against the attempted coup, watch a pre-recorded video message by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, early Tuesday, July 19, 2016.

People gathered in Taksim Square in Istanbul to protest against the attempted coup, watch a pre-recorded video message by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, early Tuesday, July 19, 2016.

In the hours before Friday’s attempted coup, I was focused on how to keep moving forward with a manuscript, based on the dissertation I finished at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of Folklore and Folklife. Over the years I lived in Philadelphia, I called several neighborhoods of this city — most recently Bella Vista — home, and traveled back and forth to Turkey. In the hours following the coup attempts, dear friends and former professors reached out on electronic media, bridging our divide. 

Istanbul, the city I now share with 17 million others, stretches across two continents, with two suspension bridges (a third under construction) and ferries and boats connecting shores. On Friday, July 15th, news of the unusual appearance of tanks and groups of soldiers blocking traffic on the two Bosphorus bridges, and low flying jets in Ankara, slipped across the city and into our phones. As the announcer on a national television station interrupted her interview to bring in images from the bridge, my smart phone lit up with message squares: What was happening, friends asked, and shared bits of initial news. I realized after speaking to my cousin in Ankara and hearing the sound of low flying jets that I had inhaled a package of cookies.

The social media trickle became a steady flow, rumors mixed with minutiae. Darbe, the Turkish word for coup, began to appear as a name for the unfolding events. Many of us were home, but some friends were en route, back from work, on their way to airports. We reached out to each other, offering our homes, money, suggestions. By dawn, the coup attempt had been crushed, a story that has been told in many news outlets.

Turkish people are no strangers to coups. My 87-year-old aunt, whom I did not want to disturb at 3 in the morning, told me the next day she knew exactly what was going on. She is not one you can surprise easily with loud jets. Her repertoire of coups stretches back to the first military coup of 1960, 1971, and 1980, and the “postmodern” coup of 1997. My experience of those decades were secondary, having spent those years away from Turkey.

What was different about this attempted coup was that the response involved urging citizens to fill the streets and according to some commentators, to create crowds that would make it difficult for tanks to maneuver. Mosques were instructed to transmit the salah prayer, usually recited to announce a death and tell people about the funeral time, and to call people to action against the unlawful military attempt.

As I write, public squares in major cities are filled with people waving flags, keeping a “democracy watch” and keeping any potential tanks at bay. Citizens are encouraged with cell phone messages to keep filling the squares. A message sent on Saturday, July 16th, read: “We invite all our people to the squares to protect national will and democracy.”

On Monday morning, in a taxi to work, the 40-something driver told me he took the time to watch documentaries of the 1980 military coup, and even watched them again. In an ironic way, he held it up as an example of how a coup ought to be done, not that he would support a coup. Having suffered the consequences of their share of coups, Turkish people from across the political spectrum are against military interventions.

A tweet on Monday from a young environmentalist quotes an 86-year-old woman from an Aegean village as saying, “I heard what happened. The country is really in tumult. We used to mourn the dead, but now we grieve for those who are born.”

In extraordinary situations like these, information is conflicting, and nuance is lost. At the moment, most people here feel various forms of confusion. Some believe that confusion will be dispelled when all the perpetrators have been found and brought to justice. Others are convinced their minds are being played with, and wish they could find out if this is a scenario, or “nylon” coup.

So far, 103 generals and admirals have been arrested, 2,389 soldiers, detained, 2,745 judges and prosecutors have been detained, and 8,777 Interior Ministry officials suspended. Over 1,491 people were injured, and 232 people died, 145 of them civilians and 24 rebels.

A former journalism colleague checked in with me over the weekend. The images of violence had been flowing down the timelines, and I told him I felt pessimistic. He told me not to be so pessimistic, at least not on humanity, and offered consolation and an invitation to gratitude. “I hope your neighborhood is open for business this morning. That the coffee is hot, the pastries delicious, the fish mongers are shouting … all the simple things.” Indeed, as these volatile and fragile times unfold for all of us, whether we live in Istanbul, Baton Rouge, Paris, Damascus, or Philadelphia, this ability to live out daily routine in a place where rituals of commerce, hospitality and friendship are possible, is what helps structure our faith in meaningful life.