Just two weeks ago today, I packed my bags, headed to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C., and boarded an airplane that would take me just over 8,000 km from home. In the upcoming months I would be based in Prishtina, as part of a summer program with RIT Kosovo; but my first stop was Istanbul.
I landed in Ataturk 10 hours later.
Two weeks ago, Ataturk International Airport was the site of my initial exposure to a city with a dazzling energy and compassionate population. Today, it is the scene of a terror attack that has suspected ties to ISIS.
“41 Dead, More than 230 Injured”: This can be seen plastered across the front page of several major news networks.
The act was horrific. The lives lost were lost without reason. In these situations it is easy to feel fear, but we cannot give fear even an ounce of authority. It is in the grimmest of times that we must work our hardest to prevent senseless acts of terror from tainting our overall perception of a place.
My decision to visit Istanbul came easily, a short excursion to a historic city en route to my final destination, Prishtina. In the two short days that I spent in the city, I developed an unexpected fondness for Turkey that stemmed from a feeling of serenity and warmth, a reflection of the people that I encountered during my stay.
When I travel to places that surpass the comfortable barriers of the western world, people often ask me if I’m nervous; a visit to Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey – even Kosovo – and I’m bombarded with inevitable questions of concern.
“Are you worried to go? Are you sure that it’s safe?”
I often joke that the true danger of a region lies not in its geography or political construct, but in the audacity of its drivers. Joking aside, however, I find these questions to be redundant.
Was I worried to travel to Istanbul? Not particularly. If I felt that my travels were a legitimate threat to my security, I’d likely have visited elsewhere.
Was I sure that it would be safe? Well… was I?
It is this question in particular that I find to be so narrow in construct, not because it is invalid, but because it is the result of an idea that has been both cultivated and accentuated by the western media.
I recently watched a TED Talk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she highlights the cultivation of bias through exposure to a repetitive narrative about a group of people or a place.
“So that is how you create a single story,” said Adichie. “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
This has happened in the case of Istanbul, as it has with much of the developing world. News outlets tell glamorized stories of terror stricken nations, defined by extremism and corruption, because it is “newsworthy.” But it becomes an issue when this is the only story they choose to tell.
A recent New York Times article, for example, painted a picture of a Kosovo that was haunted by “Islamic radicalism,” which quickly became the subject of controversy. When an article of this nature is written about a nation like Kosovo, whose representation in western media is scarce to say the least, the effects on the perception of the readership are intensified, and this is a problem.
It is articles of this nature that lead to trivial questions about security.
Was my safety guaranteed when I made the decision to travel east? Of course not, how could it be? In a region amidst political tension and the persistent threat of terrorism, nothing is guaranteed.
But the risk of harm – or worse – death, was there long before I landed in Istanbul.
When I got in my car the day before I left home and drove myself 5 km to the grocery store, there was risk. When I drove four hours to the airport the following day, the same risk was intensified.
According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, nearly 1.3 million people globally die in road crashes each year. An additional 20 to 50 million are injured or disabled. Next to these figures, the probability of falling victim to terrorism is miniscule.
Yet when I got into my car, the day before my departure, nobody bothered to question my safety. Nobody asked me if I was nervous about my drive. Nobody asked if I was sure that I was making a good decision.
“How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, [and] how many stories are told, are really dependent on power,” Adichie said.
In the case of Istanbul, and Kosovo alike, the power resides in the hands of media outlets, who all too often abide by a “If it bleeds, it leads,” policy.
A terrible irony
On the morning of June 17, just hours after arriving in Istanbul, I wrote down a brief description of my day spent with friends.
“We wandered the streets, talking to locals, opening doors, and finding hidden treasures. We ventured into buildings in which craftsmen were hard at work in dusty rooms lit only by natural light. We ended up on top of those same buildings, with views overlooking the city’s streets.
They explain to me that it’s less crowded than normal, in part because Turkey’s tourism industry is in a bit of a drought.
Less than 24 hours earlier, my dad had hugged me goodbye and told me to be careful in Istanbul. And while I was ‘being careful,’ I have a feeling that our interpretations of the word may have differed in the slightest.
But I’m safe, and I’m happy, and I’m having so much fun.”
That same day, I sent a text to my parents saying that I had never felt safer.
The news about the attack on Ataturk similarly came in the form of a text from my dad.
“Explosions and gunfire at Ataturk airport, FYI. Looks bad.”
At first I felt a sense of heartbreak and disbelief as I pictured the airport that I had recently visited transformed into a warzone. I pictured myself there, sitting at the coffee shop in the center of the terminal, waiting for my plane as I ran through a series of “what ifs” in my head – what if the attack had happened two weeks earlier. What if it was me, running for my life?
And then I became angry.
Beyond my outrage towards the act itself, I knew that one senseless act of violence by three cowardly individuals would heighten a pre-existing sense of insecurity in big cities and cause a surge of fear as people questioned their safety. That was the true tragedy.
Chance is often the difference between life and death.
Chance is what determines who dies in mass shootings, and who lives; who is at the airport at the time of a massacre and who was there just two weeks earlier.
I flew into Ataturk, and I flew out of Ataturk, and I will fly through twice more before I arrive back to the states.
I will continue to travel, to experience new cultures, and to live without fear.
Mourn the loss of those who have fallen victim to terrorism. Demand that your government take greater measures to increase security and decrease risk. But do not, under any circumstances, live in fear.
Continue to take your chances, and terror will never win.