Imagine this scene. You’re in your bedroom. Your eyes slowly open. Looking out you focus and attempt to take in your surroundings. Ah it’s O.K. you’re where you expected to be. The tip of your tongue scans the place where your bottom row of teeth meets your gums. Further back, between your tongue and the roof of your mouth you sense a slight metallic taste, it’s not unpleasant but you look forward to cleaning your teeth. Already the day is getting warm. In the background you can hear the sound of your beloved making coffee in the kitchen, but then you realise that something is odd about this morning yet you can’t identify what it is?
After greeting your loved one you wander absent mindedly into your front room. It is already full of sunshine and then as you look out of the window you see not one, but two persons who appear to be working? – no watching you – from the roof of the building opposite. One has a large pair of binoculars, the other what appears to be a long thin telescope that s/he is pointing at you.
You pretend not to notice, calmly walk to the place where you keep your own binoculars, return to your window and look back. The people are still there and the one you thought was looking through a telescope is, in fact, armed with a sniper’s rifle. You can see that it is fitted with a telescopic sight.
There is a scene in both the book, and the film, of a story by Louis de Bernières set in Kefalonia during the Second World War in which the doctor’s daughter Pelagia has developed feelings for Antonio Corelli, a Captain in the Italian forces that occupy this tiny Greek island. It’s a relationship forbidden by war and Pelagia is both angry at herself for feeling as she does, and at Corelli suddenly being so dominant in her thoughts and feelings. When he returns, late one evening and drunk to her home, where he is billeted, she takes a pistol and points it at him. He is furious.
“How dare you point that gun at me”, he cries out. “I have never pointed a gun at another human being in my life!”
And it was thus that I felt on a morning in 2004 when the ‘killer on the roof’ of the Conrad Hotel in Istanbul placed me in the cross-wires of the rifle’s telescope.
“Darling”, I called out, “There’s a man on the roof opposite pointing a gun at me.”
“Oooh”, she replied, “This is Turkey, sometimes these things happen.”
“What do you think I should do,” I asked?
“I suggest you go to the pâtisserie and buy poğača for breakfast.”
When I backed out of the room the window did not explode into a mass of glass shards. My brains were not splattered across the room’s rear wall. My heart was not pierced by a deadly mercury tipped bullet; instead I found myself back in my regular life on my way to buy breakfast. The sniper couldn’t see me from the ground floor exit of the apartment block, or as I ambled up the hill past the tailor, and the baker, on my way to the pâtisserie.
At the corner of the block men were, as ever, sitting on low stools around the small round coffee tables common to many cafe’s in Turkey. There seemed to be slightly more of them than usual but this didn’t alarm, or surprise me. Then I came to the pâtisserie. It was closed!
Never in all the time I had lived in Beşiktaş had I known such a thing. The pâtisserie always seemed to be open. Some of its staff might change throughout the day but from seven a.m. until ten in the evening, or even later, it was always serving customers. The early morning was a particularly popular time as people from the neighbourhood would, like me, go there to buy freshly baked poğača and simit for breakfast. But today the place was completely shut.
Somewhat puzzled I doubled back toward the baker, which I had noted was open, and on the way spied my driver Hasan sitting with some men drinking tea at the corner cafe.
“What’s happening Hasan”, I asked in my best Turkish?
“George Bush”, he replied, “Nothing works anymore.”
Unable to fully understand his words, I took them to be a joke, I ambled past him and into the baker’s shop where I purchased two large loaves of lozenge shaped bread – and then I realized what had seemed different about the day. No cars were moving. The City was completely silent. Normally by now, on this street, cars would pass every twenty seconds, or so. On the main thoroughfare two blocks away the traffic would be queued, across six lanes, in either direction. From where I was standing with my back to the baker’s shop I could see that the lanes were completely empty. Something was very odd.
Back home I discovered that the two assassins on the roof of the Conrad Hotel had lost interest in me as a target and were looking out toward the Bosphorus. Today, the ferry boat stations were sealed off with red and white tape. No steamers were plying their continuous schedule connecting the different suburbs of the city as they had for over a century, but there was no lack of activity in the water.
Not just one warship was moored nearby, as is always the case on my birthday, but two guided missile destroyers were there. In the centre of the channel a minesweeper could be seen and between them black rubber inflatables, filled with face-blacked commandoes in black rubber wet suits, armed with black metal machine guns, could be seen crisscrossing this way and that rapidly, but going nowhere fast.
After breakfast my beloved and I decided to explore further. It seemed a good day to be walking. The traffic pollution had already abated. We set off in the direction of Ortaköy, a district of Istanbul popular with tourists as it has a permanent arts and crafts street market. We would go there regularly not so much to buy such items but because there are numerous cafes and food stalls in the district, so it’s a good place to meet friends and wile away a few hours.
On this morning, however, it was not to be. Some two hundred metres along the main road we came upon a barricade made of heavy concrete anti-tank defences. Only a small aperture, wide enough for one person, was left open and that was guarded by one male, and one female, police officer. Beyond them, though, I could see there were reinforcements stood down, but alert, enjoying some shade.
The officers were very polite. No we could not pass. In any case there was nothing happening in Ortaköy. Nothing was open. No one was allowed to pass. We should go home. George Bush was in town.
So it was not the mind of a young woman deranged by feelings of lust and conflicted loyalty that had caused the sharp-shooter on the Hotel roof to point a gun at me. It was a more calculated, dangerous, and far reaching, kind of paranoid insanity.
As you may imagine that morning I attempted to break through this cordon by venturing up side streets and back alleyways. Always the result was the same. At some point I would find the route blocked by substantial physical obstacles accompanied by polite, but armed, police officers. I am told the whole city was like this. Its fifteen million population corralled into what amounted to urban villages. Nothing moved until after the third day when night fell and then with surgical precision the snipers disappeared from the roof of the Conrad Hotel along with the warships, the road blocks, the police, and the face-blacked commandoes in black rubber boats, dressed in black wetsuits armed with black machine guns.
Best of all the pâtisserie reopened so once more it was poğača for breakfast as usual.
Kindly note: Poğača is a is a type of pastry eaten in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Greece (where its called bougatsa Μπουγάτσα) and Turkey (where it is called poğaça) with variations. It is called pogatschen in Austria. Pogača is sometimes served hot as an appetizer instead of bread. Hot pogača filled with sour cream (or feta cheese in Turkey and Bulgaria) is considered a particularly delicious specialty.
A simit is a circular bread with sesame seeds, very common in Turkey, as well as in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans and Middle East such as Lebanon. Simit’s size, crunchiness/chewiness, and other characteristics vary slightly by region. In the city of İzmir, simit is known as “gevrek,” (literally, ‘crisp’ in Turkish) although it is very similar to the Istanbul variety. Simits in Ankara, which is the capital of Turkey, are smaller and crisper than the ones in other cities. Simits in Devrekare made with molasses.
George Bush Jnr. is the 43rd President of the United States of America. His remarks made at Galatasary University, Istanbul on 29th June, 2004 may be found here.