Tuesday, August 17, 1999
The afternoon ezan is as if a lament. The muezzin's voice seems fuller,
more emotional, and he sings strong and slow. (Because the electricity in
my neighborhood had been off most of the day, apparently as a precaution
against fire, it was the first amplified call to prayer I have heard today.)
But it is not for us he wails. My neighborhood has been relatively
untouched; some fallen masonry, an empty top floor apartment overlooking the
square surrounding the Galata Tower half collapsed, debris from it partially
blocking the road that circles the square.
Thousands are suspected dead in an incredible series of earthquakes, the
first a possible and unfathomable 7.8 on the Richter scale, that began this
morning at 3:02. Images on the TV are horrific: a five story building off
its foundation leaning against the building next to it; a warehouse, its
roof collapsed, on fire; the top half of a minaret toppled; a bridge severed
neatly into four parts, collapsed. Worse yet, dozens of apartment buildings
flattened into cruel piles of concrete beams and slabs, twisted steel
reinforcement and rubble. A handsome father breaks down in the arms of
friends in front of one such monstrosity. At another, a reporter shoves her
microphone into a hole under a concrete beam, interviews someone trapped
there, the camera then panning back to show an impossible heap of debris
I had trouble getting to sleep last night, which was unusual. Ismail and I
had spent a fine evening at one of our favorite outdoor caf?s, under trees
whose leaves were gently tussled by a breeze coming down the Bosphorus.
(Nearby was the impressive bulk of the Nusretiye Mosque, built by Sultan
Mahmut the Second some 150 years ago to celebrate his victory over the
corrupt Janissary [a kind of special guard to the Sultan].) We spoke of
writing, of nationalism, about my upcoming trip to the States, about
learning a new language, about a possible trip together in the winter along
the coast of the Aegean Sea. We were both particularly buoyant, with the
worst of the summer heat and humidity seemingly behind us. In retrospect,
it was as if we were summing some things up, a minor period in our lives
over, a new one soon to begin. I returned home around midnight, lay in my
bed mulling (absurdly) over possible problems that might arise on trips that
are many weeks away. The last time I looked at my watch it was well after 2
It seemed that something woke me up other than the shaking, though I'm not
sure. It may have been dogs barking, a person yelling, or the birds.
Perhaps it was simply the first gentle movements of the quake, triggering
deeply imbedded memories and fears from the 1989 quake I experienced in San
Francisco. I was up out of my bed, though still half a sleep, before it got
really bad. There was a crazy mess of sounds from wood and metal, and
whatever, squeaking and creaking around me. The movement and sounds
confused me at first, and I remember thinking for a moment or two that there
were other people in my place, and that this was the problem. Soon,
however, there was no question what was happening. By then I was in my
hallway, where three doorways were close together.
The first moments of a serious earthquake, when you are up in a building,
are as if the earth below is swelling, the building riding those swells like
waves. Then it gets awful, out of control, and it is nothing at all like
the comfort of riding waves. I felt the sickening feeling of my building
being all too easily whipped around from side to side, and otherwise.
Though it was dark, the ceilings, walls and floors all seemed at absurd new
angles vis-a-vis each other. The shaking was bad enough I could imagine
that things might start collapsing. From time to time I darted out of the
relatively safety of the hallway, to grab my sweats, a jacket, my bag. Soon
the shaking stopped -- I heard it lasted some 45 seconds -- and then I
really started racing to get outside. I must have been soaked with
adrenaline by this point, remembering to grab my Turkish dictionary, a
flashlight (which unfortunately wasn't assembled -- I did that later -- and
I had to root around the drawer for the batteries), some extra cash, even my
camera. The electricity stayed on for a bit, which was helpful, but was off
by the time I opened my door a minute or two later.
My place is five stories up, on the top floor, and there's a veranda off to
one side. Perhaps unwisely, though I couldn't resist, I went out on it for
a quick look out over the city. It was dark except for a moving light here
and there, the headlights of cars. Something may have been burning across
the Golden Horn, in the Balat neighborhood. I could see the silhouettes of
a few of the great Mosques against a sky now full of beautiful stars.
Below, a car alarm had gone off, and people were yelling and shouting. I
worked my way carefully down the stairs, concerned that they may have
I spent most of the next two or three hours with the crowd that had gathered
in the relative safety of the square around the Galata Tower (though I
occasionally shot a worried look up at that huge mass looming above us). At
one point I took a long walk, further up my hill, then along Istiklal
Caddesi, my part of the city's main street. Other than the electricity
being out, and the people on the streets, there was little physical evidence
of the earthquake. Some masonry had fallen. As I mentioned above, an
abandoned apartment was half collapsed near my place. I saw no one hurt.
But I did saw people in their underwear, a women mumbling about Mohammed, in
one hand a water bottle, the other with its palm turned up to the sky (which
as I said was starry). Some people were laughing, others were crying, most
were huddled together in small groups talking quietly. Many of the women
were wearing headscarves, more than usual it seemed. An outdoor caf? next
to the tower opened and served tea and water. I knew a few people there
and, with my poor Turkish, learned that in was really bad in Izmit, sixty of
so miles east of here, that even here in Istanbul a few buildings may have
collapsed. Dawn came and I returned to my apartment, slept for a few hours.
That sleep was interrupted and made fitful by what I learned later were a
series of fairly significant aftershocks.
On the television, a crowd just burst into applause. A young boy has been
rescued from one collapsed building. Except for being dusty, he appears
unscathed. As they carry him to an ambulance a reporter follows, asking him
questions. Were you scared? "Cok kokum [very scared]!" He seems pleased
to be back in the world, by the attention he's getting. Then he is asked
about his family. His eyes grow wide, his face long. "Annem [my mother],
kardesim [my sister/brother], sesleri duydum [I heard their voices].
Duydum!" By the time they reach the ambulance, he is screaming. "Sesleri
duydum! Sesleri duydum!"
Turkiye, iyi sanslar.
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