Istanbul, a brush with terror and the impossibility of feeling all things equally

Three months ago my wife and I caught a tram from our apartment in Cukurcuma in Istanbul across the Galata bridge to the old city of Sultanahmet.

I don’t really like Sultanahmet – it’s the tatty, bleary, jangling tourist centre, where touts in cargo shorts wave pamphlets and shout in German to try sell trays of sticky Turkish Delight or lure you into bad restaurants for overpriced doners, but we had spent some time there in a cold winter not long after we’d met, with the black rain lashing in from the Sea of Marmara and everything bleak and dark and the cobbles slippery under our soles, so we wanted to see it in the sunshine. Also, I’ve never been into the Blue Mosque. I’ve been to Haghia Sofia, across the way, and to the Basilica cistern and Topkapi just up the hill, and I’ve spent altogether too much time in the Grand Bazaar while men selling leather goodss openly mocked my haggling skills, but for one reason and another the Blue Mosque has been my Moby Dick.

A week before we’d arrived in Istanbul there had been a terrorist shooting at the Dolmebahci palace, on the edge of the Bosphorus, and we had wandered past and sat on the lawn in the heat, drinking gin and tonic from a clear water bottle, looking around at the peaceful scene and trying to imagine it just a few days earlier. There were white ferries on the blue water and seagulls yawped, and it seemed implausible that anything awful could have happened here. The violence had been like a stone dropped in the Bosphorus: the surface of life had closed smoothly over the splash, leaving no trace.

We trudged through Sultanahmet and my heart sank at the length of the queue into the mosque. It was hot and I loathe large groups of people, but I’m trying hard not to be the Eeyore on our trips any more, so I didn’t say anything. I perused a useful signboard depicting icons with red lines across them, detailing which items are forbidden in the mosque precinct. There were the usual suspects – martini glasses and roller-skates and the oversized boomboxes that would disqualify the young John Cusack in Say Anything ­– but also no short skirts! No short trousers! We looked at each our exposed knees. Undeniably, we failed to qualify.

We wandered back into the grassy square and sat on the park bench that I recognised this morning on the Sky News. As we sat there, sharing a cheese borek and scoring ten points for spotting every tourist wearing birkensocks (the sandal-plus-sock combination, inexplicably popular among Germans and Swiss), I idly said, “This would be a much better place for a terrorist attack. Lots more people, plus you can have an ice cream first. If I was a terrorist, I’d definitely come here.”

“Also there were no pictures on that board of suicide jackets with red lines through them,” agreed my wife. “So there’s a legal loophole.”

And we sort of smiled, because it was too hot to laugh. It was funny then but it doesn’t feel funny now because this week a bomb exploded just metres from where we were sitting, and other ten other human beings weren’t as lucky as we were, because they happened to be there, chatting, joking, holding hands, remembering the first trip they’d made together, planning the future.

There are so many fresh horrors in the world that it’s hard to know how to respond to each new one. One way that people respond is by demanding that other people respond in precisely the same way. You can grieve those people only if you grieve these people too; if you care about that, you must care in the same way for this.

I know I should be able to feel every fresh horror with equal immediacy and grief, no matter where they strike, but I don’t. The horrors come too fast and I do try but it’s too difficult to disentangle my narcissism and self-interest from the pathways of my compassion. I felt more shaken by the Paris attacks than the ones in Beirut because I have been to Paris but I haven’t been to Beirut, and this attack feels even keener because I was so recently in that very spot, joking about this very thing happening, unaware of how near the random finger of dirty luck was tickling the earth.

Perhaps that’s what art and stories do – they help the quality of our compassion by involving us in things that would otherwise be remote and horrid but unaffecting. That’s true for most of us, or perhaps it’s just me – I can’t speak for other people. Too many terrible things are being done by people speaking for other people.

The Times, 14 January 2016