Istanbul | Blood in the Water

The ship that launched a thousand protests returns to Turkey

A banner depicting the faces of the nine men killed on board hangs from the Mavi Marmara in Istanbul on 26 December 2010. BURTHAN OZBILICI / AP PHOTO
01 February, 2011

ON NEW YEAR’S EVE in Istanbul, I make my way from the seaside enclave of Beyoglu across the Galata Bridge. The gauntlet of fish restaurants lining the bridge’s lower level are gaily festooned for the holidays; white tablecloths are starched and a big flounder is laid out on ice. A foursome of fleece-laden Germans take their seats, while a mustachioed Turk frowns and smokes in a too-slim, hastily stitched Santa outfit.

Turkey, just outside the political and economic boundaries of Europe, but with a booming market that is the envy of its troubled European neighbours—like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain—has helped complicate the idea that all progress looks west. On the one hand, Turkey is among the world’s more promising economic engines and a visit to Istanbul can be as chic as one to Paris or London. On the other hand, Turkey remains dogged by a long record of alleged human rights violations, and its newly re-elected government is awkwardly trading what historians have called a self-obsessed and military-oriented nationalist past for a more religious, regionally ambitious and potentially more perplexing future.

These tensions sailed into the headlines last summer, when a Turkish vessel named the Mavi Marmara departed for Gaza, carrying 600 passengers and what organisers said were humanitarian supplies.

From the centre of the Galata Bridge, I can see a billboard declaring Istanbul a “European Capital of Culture 2010,” an honour bestowed on a handful of cities each year by the European Union. At the same time, I also see a banner flying from the Mavi Marmara, which recently sailed triumphantly into Istanbul; it shows the nine passengers who were killed by Israeli commandoes after the boat was intercepted in international waters.

Against the cold breeze, I steady myself: the boat on which men were killed bobs placidly in a harbour otherwise choked with commuter ferries, oil tankers and tourist boats. Where the bridge meets the shore, not far from the restaurants, I notice that there’s a swirling scum of broken jellyfish and a dead rat, its belly a knuckle of bloated flesh visible just above the surface.

Stomach soured, I warily make my way to the Mavi Marmara. I pass a crowd of people coming in the opposite direction, none of them resembling tourists or commuters. Two women in headscarves walk carefully, sobbing, holding gift bags emblazoned with the logo of the aid organisation that sponsored the Gaza trip. Then I see two school-aged boys chatting animatedly, one of them gesticulating angrily at a brochure. Next, I see whole families—many of the woman under yards of black fabric—all of them appearing to be red-eyed and tight-lipped.

Descending the blacktop to the docks, where stray chickens, dogs and cats wander about, I come to two glum guards, sitting and smoking, unsure of how to handle the thousands of people now swarming this normally quiet quay. A line of vans is parked next to the Mavi Marmara, and more vehicles continue to arrive as I survey the crowd.

After some time, a man in a jacket with an ID on a lanyard motions urgently to me. “Burun,” he says, welcoming me in Turkish. Then, searching for the right word, he tries “tfaddal,” which means roughly the same in Arabic. Then he finally says, in English, “OK, welcome, please.”

The boat is warm and smells of something old and unopened. Tables spread with literature and cans of coins fill a tight entryway. Lurking men in full beards and scarves bearing Palestinian flags stand in the corner with arms folded.

Visitors stream down the narrow stairway, many of them women, crying, the men with hardened faces, moustaches quivering. I fight the tide to the second floor, where I hear a wall of wailing funereal music, the voices booming in sadness and anger from an overtaxed speaker.

On row after row of ferry seats are balanced paintings and drawings—some of them by children—in memory of the nine men. I lean against a wall to steady myself; the boat is perceptibly rocking on the waves, and I fear it’s going to break its tethers. On the wall that I’m steadying myself against, I notice a bullet-hole from the Israeli raid, circled with a red marker and numbered.

This is “evidence,” I realise, because the Mavi Marmara is—if not a “crime scene,” because who would call it that?—a place where people died, where “evidence” of a sort could, if someone were to do it, be collected.

But instead of a forensic sterility, this boat is the site of something more emotional than scientific, mobbed as it is with people, who touch, cry, breathe and touch some more.

Making my way to the other side, I begin to encounter piles of belongings laid out on ferry seats: a torn sleeping bag, a soiled shirt, a bloodied shoe. I see a man reach out to stroke a red-soaked T-shirt. I am more and more unsettled and more and more nauseous.

In front of a brand new flat-screen TV—whose box lies  discarded in the corner, evidence of money spent quickly— dozens of people, including several young children, stand at rapt attention. Onscreen, a video shows images of the passengers—packing for their voyage, praying on mats above deck, and making goofy smiles for the camera.

I push into the crowd to get a better view: at this point in the film, fast boats approach the Mavi Marmara through an eerie darkness. In the beam of a powerful spotlight, Israeli soldiers can be seen crouched shoulder to shoulder, each carrying weapons, with battle helmets and goggles. The camera pans to some of the nearly 600 passengers, who are wearing life vests and looking worried. Suddenly a fierce-looking helicopter hovers above the ship’s upper decks. Thick ropes are thrown out the side hatch, and some of the geared-up Israeli soldiers rappel their way down. A later shot shows several of the soldiers scurrying across the deck, with slow, searching movements—looking inhuman because the goggles and helmets hide their faces. (It’s hard to imagine what the handful of Israeli soldiers now aboard plan to do with hundreds and hundreds people—arrest them all?—and I hold my breath, as if I don’t already know what happens next.) In the next instant, the camera is tousled; passengers are running; some of the passengers are carrying sticks.

Then the blood: one of the passengers has been injured. He takes deep gulps of air, and his eyes roll back into his head. A woman in a headscarf, terrified, screeches and carries a blood-soaked stretcher out of the camera’s view. Then the lens focuses on an open hatchway, the white walls soaked red.

Needing air, I push my way out through the staring audience. On the top deck, sandbags have been laid out to represent the dead. Silkscreen banners show their faces and a sentence or two of biographical information.

With a heavy heart, I lean against the top railing and survey the swirling waters of the Bosphorus. From that height, the great city twinkling in the distance, I don’t envy Turkey’s effort to balance a mastery of its own difficult eddies against a newer ambition to extend its influence into other, more troubled waters.

When the Mavi Marmara first returned to Istanbul a few days earlier, it had been greeted by fireworks, the release of balloons and a cheering crowd. One of the organisers of the original trip reportedly pledged to send more people to Gaza.

Meanwhile, at the highest levels of the Turkish government, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who had been the face of a newly confrontational Turkey in the weeks after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, was among those who had absented himself from the festivities. (Attendance, he may have reasoned, would have made meetings with Israeli, US and European officials more difficult.)

Speaking to reporters the day before, the minister hinted at the new balancing act. “Turkey has the intention to make peace with Israel,” he said, his words chosen carefully. “We are in favour of peace with all countries.”