Yesterday, Ali, Uthman and I helped N, a single mother of two girls under five, organize her newly arranged studio apartment. The building is ancient enough; juryrigged portable stairs lead two precarious levels up; a ledge is wide enough to allow two girls to sit in the window, but the window is too small for even the baby to fall through; two bulbs hang suspended from the ceiling; a gas stove and a washing machine attest to the twenty-first century. While N passed tools, gave increasingly useful instructions in a muted, authoritative voice, and while the little one persisted in playing in the heap of IKEA boards, panels, screws, and bed slats, we three brave ones constructed an IKEA single bed, a bunk bed, and a cupboard. And we accomplished all this without a single page of IKEA’s highly detailed, illustrated instructions. As a bonus, when we had finished all this assembly work, we discovered that—holy cow!—there was a third bed, unnecessary for the family but, nevertheless, a hysterically amusing revelation in this fast-evolving studio.
Shala, our overlord at the Yusra Community Center where we all volunteer time, calls us genius.
And if this is what geniuses do on the afternoon after a horrific suicide bombing attack on our (yes, our) city, then we are indeed geniuses.
Of course assembling furniture without the step-by-step instructions is frustrating, and spearing yourself once or twice with a wrong-sized Phillips screwdriver occasions an Arabic oath to whose translation I am not privy. I wonder if these two bright, calm, handsome, mild Syrian men were driven out of their homes by barrel bombs. It’s none of my business. I do not wonder if they are partly responsible for a young mother being able to rebuild a family’s life in a new country with a new language with new friends and adopted foreign friends. Amid the IKEA parts and lost pieces, who can guess what these souls have done, have seen, will make of their lives to come?
So went the day after the bombing. To me, the day is the evidence that the brutal killing of dozens of people is less effective than four amiable people putting together furniture sent to Istanbul by an unknown donor to help refugee children too small to consciously remember their waking nightmares.
Don’t misunderstand: the lives lost at Ataturk Airport are essential, subtracted as they are from the daily, human scenes like N’s moving into a new flat. Their loss, as Donne says, diminishes us; their death knell is ours. To carry on is to carry them with us.
To mourn without caving into mourning is our job.
So after work, I go up to Sultanahmet where the tourists and the local Turkish families gather in large numbers despite the terrorist threats, and I photograph people living, continuing to live, insisting on their lives, in their private joys and griefs.
They are genius.