Istanbul Asks: Why Gungoren?

by Suzy Hansen

New York Observer
July 31, 2008

ISTANBUL, July 29-Two nights after devastating terrorist bombs exploded
on its popular pedestrian shopping block, the neighborhood of Gungoren
swarmed with people: old and young men repaired the shattered windows
of a clothing shop under the blank, watchful eyes of naked mannequins;
women in head scarves shared ice cream next to women in sundresses;
shop owners smoked beside their boxes of shoes for sale; a handful
of policemen clutched riot shields opposite tiny pink girls jumping
around in empty fountains.

Huge red Turkish flags hung from balconies where families drank tea;
one woman had stretched a flag across the frame from which the glass
of her window had been blown out by the bombs.

Gungoren is the kind of neighborhood I might take a foreigner to if
I wanted to say: This is Turkey. And it’s the kind of neighborhood
that would lead anyone to wonder, as one man who’d lived there for
40 years wondered to me: "Why Gungoren?"

Istanbul is such a diverse and geographically enormous city that when
news breaks of a terrorist bombing, the scramble to make sense of the
act requires everyone to marshal all of their resources to find out
exactly where it happened. Phone-calling, Googling, and then arguing
over what exactly the neighborhood is.

Turks reflexively know whether any neighborhood sits on the European
side or the Asian side; I imagine that’s a genetic adaptation in this
ancient border-sentinel city.

But then come the disagreements and confusions over borders: "It’s
out by the airport." "But is it near New Bosnia?" "Close, but not
too close." "By the sea, or not by the sea?"

Last month’s attack on the U.S. consulate, recently moved to a safer
location up the Bosphorus, invited a similar response-you probably
know someone who lives near the site, but that could be quite far
away from you.

When the news identified the neighborhood of this latest attack as
"Gungoren," there are a few things I knew immediately. The bombing
wasn’t in Sultanahmet, the Old City-the peninsula home of the Aya
Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Golden Horn, and, once upon a time,
a thousand sex slaves locked up in a palace with a view. Everyone
knows those neighborhoods.

It also can’t be anywhere near Beyoglu, the old European city; the
deluxe dance clubs of the Bosphorus; or the modern skyscrapers of
Maslak. If someone were to bomb these Istanbul commons-as al Qaida
did in 2003-where security cameras line the streets but trash cans
do not, the news would take a more sensational tone than this one
had. It was a whole different kind of bold.

This is partly why Sunday’s attack was so chilling.

The terrorists targeted a pedestrian street in a middle-class
neighborhood of no unique political or religious character. There are
no Byzantine treasures or European corporate headquarters here. Just
a civilian cross section of working, living, breathing Istanbul,
shopping before bedtime.

Pedestrian boulevards are beloved in a hilly, trafficky city of
large families and lonely migrants. In Istanbul, a pleasant, flat
place to walk is also a communal sanctuary, especially in summer,
when nighttime is a blissful reprieve from days spent cursing the sun.

The bomb exploded out of a garbage bin after 10 p.m. And killed
17 people and injured 150, thanks to a tactic the Iraq war has made
cruelly familiar: set off one bomb, draw hundreds of concerned citizens
to the scene, then set off the other. One witness caught an image of
the second bomb exploding on his cell phone.

So, who wanted to bomb Gungoren? The bombs went off the night
before the first day of a massive trial: Turkey’s top prosecutor,
with high-level support from ultra-secularists, had been trying to
shut down the AKP, the Islamic conservative ruling party, and ban
the prime minister and president from politics for five years. The
highest court here can do that, even though the AKP won 47 percent
of the vote in a democratic election. (The verdict came late this
Wednesday: The so-called Islamist government will remain in power.)

Still, the timing of the bomb raised suspicions-but only that vague
suspiciousness that always attends coincidence. Turkey doesn’t have
a strong history of radical Islam, and the AKP’s supporters aren’t
radicals anyway.

"Who does everyone think did this?" I asked my young cab driver,
who’d lived in Istanbul his whole life, on the way to Gungoren.

"Maybe Al Qaida?"

The international terrorist fraternity had been accused of the brash
attack on the U.S. Consulate.

"Could be," he said.

"Not the PKK?"

On July 29, officials fingered the PKK, the militant Kurdish
organization that has engaged in terrorist tactics for 30 years. The
PKK doesn’t have an obvious connection to the AKP trial, but it has
been taking a beating from the Turkish military in recent weeks. So
far, the PKK, who often take responsibility for their terrorist acts,
have denied Gungoren, and offered their condolences to the victims.

"Could be," he replied again.

"This is the problem when something like this happens now," said one
Turkish intellectual. "You think: ‘It could be the PKK, it could be
DHKP/C, it could be Al Qaida, it could be the "Deep State"-it could
be anyone!’"

The Deep State-or Ergenekon-is another story, and a distinctly
Turkish one.

The word "Ergenekon" refers to a Central Asian myth about the origin
of the Turkish race, and involves caves and wolves and possibly world
domination, but what’s important to know today is that "Ergenekon"
was the name chosen by a murderous gang.

At least, in Turkish, they call it a "gang," but the word carries a
different meaning than it does in English. This isn’t the Crips and
the Bloods. It also isn’t the Italian Mafia, because Turkey’s mafias
run parking lots. Ergenekon, assuming it exists, is the most powerful
gang of all, the ubergang.

Turks have been living in a state of legitimized paranoia since
January, when over 80 members of the Ergenekon gang were arrested for
trying to create an atmosphere of instability that would result in
a coup against the ruling religious government. The accused make up
the ultranationalist upper crust-retired military generals, lawyers,
academics, journalists, a university president, the head of PR for
a church.

The 2,500-page indictment against Ergenekon, which was released
this past weekend, accuses the gang of engaging in demonic terrorist
tactics: bomb prominent targets, blame left-wing or minority groups,
and stir up chaos until the army is forced to step in, shut down the
government and wipe the slate clean. That’s why subscribers to this
theory might think Ergenekon had a hand in Gungoren: maximum chaos,
minimal sense.

That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Every morning, Turks wake up
to terrifying headlines, newspapers filled with incredible details
about Ergenekon. Among many other things, Ergenekon supposedly kept
a to-do list including plans to kill Prime Minister Tayyip Erodgan
and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk-and anyone else who threatens the
sanctity of the secular nation or the tenets of Turkish nationalism.

One of the arrested was the lawyer, Kemal Kerincsiz, who prosecutes
writers and other liberal folks for violating the infamous
anti-free-speech law Article 301. Some link Ergenekon to the 2007
assassination of Hrant Dink, editor of the newspaper Agos and the
face of Istanbul’s Armenian community.

Could one group possibly be responsible for all these acts? It strains
credulity, and so some suspect that anti-secularist or religious
elements have engineered the Ergenekon investigation. That secularist
vs. Islamist war in Turkey you’ve been hearing about goes way beyond
head scarves.

But the point is that Turks have been living for years with the idea
that some secret force controls the fate of their nation. Here,
well before the Ergenekon case, when participating in any sort
of political conversation, it was common for Turks-all Turks, not
conspiracy theorists-to mention the "Deep State" as a legitimate
actor in the country’s problems.

For now, some Turks will be satisfied by the authorities’ prime
suspects: PKK for Gungoren, Al Qaida for the U.S. consulate. But in
this climate, the deeper Turkish response to the Gungoren tragedy
and others will remain, Who the hell knows anymore?

"Terror is terror," said one Gungoren native, sitting on a bench at
the bomb site, chain-smoking. And so living, working Istanbul learns
to live with its dangerous enemies, whoever they are.