The dark haired man with dark, wild eyes ran into the crowded restaurant holding his ears and yelling in Turkish, disturbing our family lunch of small, delicate meatballs and silky soft eggplant. We could only understand one word.
“Did he just say “bomb?” Ethan asked, as unconcerned as if the man had shouted, “lamb kebob.”
“I think he did,” I replied. “Either ‘bomb’ or ‘bum.’” The guy ran over and pointed at Griff and Ado’s ears, saying again, “Bomb! Bomb!”
Well, shit howdy, but I always wondered what I would do when faced with a potential mass disaster. I’d envisioned myself accessing some heretofore hidden super powers and jumping into action with foresight, intelligence and lightning speed.
What I actually did when the possibility cropped up that there might be a bomb somewhere in the vicinity of The Blue Mosque (Istanbul’s top tourist attraction and right around the corner from our restaurant) was, well… nothing. Ethan and I just sat there in a kind of stupefied inertia, as the waiters ran around jabbering to customers in Turkish, probably warning them that nuclear holocaust might be, literally, right around the corner.
A moment later, a detonation reverberated through the restaurant, just as we were doing a slow motion grab for Griff and Ado, some ingrained parental instinct finally kicking in to protect them with our bodies – or to be holding them tightly when the world ended. But it was nothing that dramatic. The loud blast shook tables, windows and nerves, but when it was over, we were all still sitting there, the milky Aryan yoghurt drink in front of me sloshing slightly in its glass.
Waiters and customers ran to the door together, including Ethan. I sat still, two wide-eyed boys on my lap, flashing back thirty minutes in time, when we saw several uniformed police officers and about a dozen black clad, earpiece wearing, Secret Service types milling around across from the restaurant.
“Are Brad and Angelina in town?” I had joked, not reading in their body language that danger might be lurking.
Ethan returned to our table. “There’s a guy across the street in a full “Hurt Locker” suit digging through what’s left of a blown up suitcase,” he said.
Now, I’ve seen this kind of thing before. A lot. I was a newscaster for eighteen years and bomb scares, especially post 9-11, happened with almost the same frequency as car chases. We’d hover News Chopper 2 over an evacuated school, or a parking lot, or an airport terminal until the bomb squad sounded the all clear. Occasionally, I’d hold my breath as the little Wally-esque robot scooted over to check out a package or briefcase, and stay tuned for the thrill of seeing it explode from the safety of my anchor chair. But the cops had always evacuated about a twenty-block area first.
Outside the restaurant, one Black Suit in dark sunglasses was taking down red and blue crime scene tape. Apparently the Turkish police had evacuated first – an area of about twenty square feet – before blowing someone’s unattended suitcase all to hell. Two uniformed cops were scooping charred clothing (there was no bomb inside) back into its twisted remains, as the rest of the bomb squad either helped the Hurt Locker guy out of his rigid suit or stood around smoking. The reporter in me wanted the scoop.
“Excuse me,” I asked the smokers. “Did you find the owner of the suitcase?” They stared at me, said “suitcase” a few times, and then yelled something to a large, bald man with a bushy mustache. The boss-man turned to look at me with narrowed, unfriendly eyes and I smiled, trying to lighten the mood.
“You… owner… suitcase?” he asked, not smiling one bit.
Holy crap! “NO!” I said, praying that was the universal word for “no.” I stumbled backwards, trying to get away before I ended up in some murky prison cell, admitting to smuggling hashish in my big, blue Samsonite. I had seen Midnight Express – and I knew that small offenses could get you in big trouble in this country. No one followed me as I retreated back to my meatballs and relative security of my family, but I felt dark eyes on my vulnerable American back.
The bomb scare was just a small slice of life in a city that shocks, surprises, delights and dazzles. Listening to the jumbled chorus of competing prayer calls, I felt
respect for those stalwart Muslims who pray on hands and knees five times a day, while knowing I could never do it myself. I chatted with the charming, pushy, ubiquitous carpet salesmen who sniff out tourists like blood hounds, offering back door entrances into museums, mosques and palaces in return for a promise to browse their stores. We cruised the wide Bosphorus Strait on a riverboat, fascinated at the juxtaposition of the old, ornate palaces and modern high-rise buildings. We strolled the rowdy riverfront where jostling, jovial locals snap up fish sandwiches called balik-ekmek like they were hotdogs at Pinks. Sixteen million people, constantly pushing, praying and partying in this ripe, slightly seedy, boisterous city, live at this crossroad between East and West, past and future, and Christianity and Islam. And somehow, it works.
To me, Istanbul felt very alive, and very safe – despite the cries of “Bomb!”