Istanbul has the world’s largest airport, but our corner of it is as hushed as a hospital waiting room. There are no X-ray screeners, no rowed seating or gates, no last calls. Only an expensive-looking clock that makes our heads turn. Every tick seems to mark another passing, sorting the living from the dead.
Some sixty rescue volunteers from across Istanbul, we have gathered here, the second morning after two earthquakes sheared a 185-mile gash from the lower gut of Turkey into the western tip of Syria. We will fly, a team leader says as they hand me a blank boarding pass, to the epicenter of the first quake (Maraş), from where we will drive to the epicenter of the second (Gaziantep), to join our co-volunteers in Islahiye, a town about halfway down the gash and deep into its scab. Our task is to help free people from their homes and to do it fast. Some of them are presently trying to free themselves.
The national disaster management agency has blocked off a commercial plane for us. An air-bound dolmuş collective taxi van that dashes off as soon as the seats fill up. But there aren’t enough of us. I see a handful of paramedics and rescue workers; other than that, the last ones to board are all plain-clothed question marks. Some, I learn later, have come to manage the disaster agency’s English-language social media accounts. Others are medical and engineering students who will learn on the job. Me and a Ghanaian are the only two foreigners on the team.
By the third hour on the tarmac, my head feels like it’s wringing my brain. I press a butler-shaped button and ask for water, which the flight attendant passes to me. I don’t even know if there are refreshment carts on this plane. I set down my book, still on the first page, and take a look at my fellow passengers.
“We’re getting off this plane,” says a woman who stands up two rows behind me. She wears the navy-blue badge of paramedics. There are three others beside her. “We’ve missed the ride with our colleagues to Hatay, and we can’t act in Maraş on our own.”
“You can’t get off, the doors are closed,” a man in a vest of the Green Crescent responds. He’s with an Islamic anti-addiction charity that also has a search and rescue team, according to the logo’s caption. “If you do, we’ll be back at the end of the line for Maraş Airport.”
“I spoke with the hostess, it should be fine,” she says, louder.
“I spoke with the pilot,” he counters. “Do what you want, but it means we could all wait for another ten hours.”
The guy leaning against the empty seat in the row in front of mine looks smug. He’s been begging to step off for a smoke and has assembled a gang to lobby with him.
“Didn’t you think to bring nicotine packs?” huffs my neighbor Kemal.
Kemal looks and speaks like he’s from Queens. He has a baby face, slicked hair, a tight waist, and hard shoulders. When I ask Kemal what he’s come here to do, he tells me he’s an endurance athlete. I ask again—maybe I asked the wrong way?—but he gives the same answer.
“You know, those people who do triathlons, I’m one of them.” he says. “My body can stand great physical and mental strain. Plus, I fundraise for the disaster management agency at marathons, so they reserved me a spot. I don’t have search and rescue training like you, but I can last long.”
I think of the four boys at the airport who snuck into our team’s box of branded orange jumpsuits in a failed attempt to get onto the flight. They probably have family in Maraş.
“It’s all very strange,” Kemal goes on. “Did you know that a couple days before the earthquake, an American ship emitted HAARP rays as it entered the Bosphorus? Did you know that it triggered tectonic movement, one that was never recorded? The Americans are expecting the next big one at the San Andreas fault.”
He knows I’m American.
“Are you saying they’re trying to release tension in the San Andreas fault by provoking earthquakes in other parts of the world?”
“You never know, but it’s all very strange . . .”
Another hour passes. The paramedics decide to stay on board once the man from the Green Crescent assures spots for them in the van of the district governor that is going to Hatay. Hatay’s airport has collapsed. Reports suggest all roads going in are either closed or dysfunctional.
Kemal also tests his clout. He tries a number. “I see, so the plane there will only take off when it’s filled with survivors trying to leave Maraş? Could you tell them we’re supposed to be next in line? Right, right. Well, could the pilot take off on his own initiative?”
I don’t check my phone much until the plane starts to taxi. I want to share good news with the few friends who know where I’m going. Anything in the active voice will do.
It’s 7:40 PM. The clouds over Istanbul are already blushing. Flustered to see them move—suddenly, decidedly—we forget to buckle our seatbelts and stow our tables. Then, we all lift the craft together. I almost see our white beast flap its wings.
The window-seat dazzle wears off within an hour. On the seat monitor, I follow our progress. Poorly drawn circles form around Ankara, like a kid venting in his coloring book. We have been stalled as two military planes cut the line. Kemal disappears to the cockpit, to find out if there’s another airport to refuel at.
He emerges with the new plan, which is that we will land in Elazığ, around two hundred miles northeast of Maraş on pre-earthquake roads. From there we will either find rides to take us on the twisting mountain roads open to traffic, or we will stay parked and slip right back in line behind the other planes. At Maraş, there will be an even longer line for buses to Islahiye.
Islahiye in the present tense
Time stops in Islahiye. Its buns of dough harden and turn sour. Its storefront shutters miss opening hours. Sleep in Islahiye is a fragile gift to be guarded from unknowing robbers.
Islahiye lost its place on the map. It lost its roads, its landmarks. We search for an hour for one building’s address. If the building has gone, so has its address.
Islahiye coats us. Its powdered walls and roofs, its loose diary pages, its carbon flecks and mortar chunks and porcelain shards, they all blend into white particles that rain on us and smother our eyelashes.
Islahiye clings to our noses. Rot. Shit. Smoke. Sweaty socks.
Islahiye has encrusted so deep into my nostrils that I can still catch a whiff back home, pouring the laundry detergent or crossing a wet parking lot. I breathe it as deeply in as I breathe it out.
I notice Islahiye’s clatter when a hundred bystanders are told to go quiet so the volunteers can listen. You can tell who is tearing a wrapper or ruffling their puffy coat and where the caution tape flaps. The ambulance that recovers one life interferes with the search for another.
We balance on Islahiye, which balances on a wire. A Jenga tower built too high. When I lay down in our tent, I feel my back float on waves. When I dig, the floor I stand on dissolves. I mistake an aftershock for someone knocking under my feet. This I call empathy.
I knew nothing about Islahiye. No one I knew was from there, or knew much about it either. It was a kind of rest stop between Aleppo and Gaziantep. Between war and exile. Snow and palm trees. Cows and machines. Climbing and falling.
I didn’t know, then, that it was “one of the top three places destroyed by the earthquake” —or was it the “top ten” or just “one of the top?” We still don’t know. But as our bus drove further south, I struggled to find an uncracked surface or vertical line. No starting point made sense for us, there was no right place for our bus to stop and unload. Just like back home in Istanbul: no right place to start to unload.
When the first rescuers arrived, friends later told me, they couldn’t move from the aunties pulling at their arms. Our welcome was different. As the most resistant buildings and widest lots had been claimed, we parked next to the fire station-turned-coordination center, behind which other team members had slung up their tents. Before we could get up and stretch, a file of narcotics police jogged onto our bus.
“It’s OK, they’re with us,” said D, who came to greet the latest group.
Everyone was with us, and everyone was against us.
E’s phone is in my pocket. He wants me to take photographs for our parents and kids and acquaintances. Not to make them proud, but to show them that what we did wasn’t anything special. Most of the time we did what many of them did back in Istanbul. They passed cardboard donation boxes, we passed buckets full of shards and sliced-up window frames.
Be discreet, E warns me. We’re not allowed to snap photos here. But I don’t think to peel off my gloves and pull out the phone. My hands are too busy. Moving things, breaking things, climbing. I’m supposed to be a journalist, but I don’t even think to ask people questions. It doesn’t feel like the right moment. And my brain has slowed.
I take out the phone on two occasions. The first time is when we are ordered to drop tools and buckets and rush to the edges of the rubble, away from the whiplash of the crane’s chain. With an excuse to take a break, I shoot from so far away that the faces are too small to be useful. Lumps of people below a giant metal claw.
The second time is when E’s friend T calls me to a place where miners are about to pull out an Akdeniz or “Mediterranean Sea,” which is code for living, as opposed to Karadeniz or “Black Sea,” for dead. I try to hold the phone steady as they press deeper into a cave. After a few minutes we learn it was a false alarm.
And the third time I think to take out my phone is when a young man—he’s around my age—drops to the grounds where gendarmes are digging. His black oily hair sticks up as he’s been pulling at it. He buckles to his knees and howls: “Let me dig, let me dig! If I die doing it, at least I’ll die with them!”
I force my eyes away. Until I hear something different.
The gendarmes have jumped on the man. Their arms swing fast. He is momentarily lost among the bobbing khaki beanies. Then I spot him again, his tanned hands upright but his body hanging by the joints. His voice goes hoarse. The more the man fades, the more this one gendarme loses it. He strikes with the force of five hard days.
“Let him die!”
“Don’t hit him!”
“Hey, stop!” I yell, loud enough for myself to hear.
If it was a Sunday, was the teacher at her parents’ or back home for class? If we call, will his phone ring? If they were caught running, were the others ahead or behind? How many people must huddle on the staircase for it to collapse? How sure are we that the detector picked up her tapping and not another’s? How sure must we be to start digging here and not there?
Drive back. Helmet off. Head down.
Did you keep anything from the rubble? Did you hand them the soiled clothes or the bag of gold when they told you it was theirs? Did you read, one after the other, the prayers she wrote over twenty years? Does that make you compassionate or intrusive? Are you archiving or stealing?
What affected you the most? The swollen blue bodies? Or the boxes of medicines, the framed graduation photos, the annotated business cards, those pretty kitchen tiles and car-shaped mini beds, all pale and strewn around in places they shouldn’t be? Or was it the disarray of the hair and the way the arm curled under the head, face-down on the pillow?
Did you always do what you were told? Did you crawl inside with your headlight on even though you are afraid of the dark? Did you only answer “I don’t know”? How many family members did you let slip under the caution tape when you were keeping guard? Did you wonder if their wishes clashed with the victim’s?
Were the lucky ones alone, or those with family? Would you have been relieved when they found you? What if you were not home that night? Would they know where to look? Would they have camped by your building until they learned the news? Or until they knew you were too ugly to reclaim? Or would they have gone to other buildings, for others who weighed heavier on their hearts?
How many bodies does it take to lose count? What makes one forgettable and another worth remembering? What makes one more tragic than another? Is tragic the right word?
Beer for the soul
My body and mind realign as we cross the airport in Gaziantep. My stomach tells me that six days of canned tuna and halva don’t add up to much. My heart acts up soon after. M says she just realized we had placed our lives in the hands of team leaders we barely knew, who took orders from a crisis table we never saw, and that this is what it meant to live in Turkey. I nod.
The mood is lighter on the smokers’ terrace. Now, all we want is beer.
Y asks the airport barman to pour it in white paper cups.
“What, are we in high school?”
I immediately regret my words. It strikes me that I’ve never been to a funeral in Turkey.
Back inside, silhouettes gather in front of the gates. Families settle into their new roles: the messenger, the amputee, the caretaker, the joker, the fainter, the provider, the pest, the mute. I stand behind them all, awaiting my next role.