The June 28 terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport meant an attack on a gateway to the outside world for Turkey’s entire neighborhood.
Shortly after the explosions, hundreds of travelers from nearby countries checked in as safe on Facebook, underscoring the facility’s role as the region’s ultimate layover point. A place where rabbis and mullahs hang out in one lounge, Slavs snap up perfumes and purses at duty-free stores, and Georgians seem to permanently hold court in Starbucks, IST is the world’s third busiest airport and a veritable melting pot.
For many, it is much more than that.
“I spent endless hours there, watching people and munching on that free rahat lokum [Turkish delight],” one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack, said via Facebook Messenger. “You sit there, look at all these people from everywhere and all the world’s differences seem so small and unimportant.”
Canadian artist Melanie Mehrer wrote Tamada Tales that, on the night of the attack, she had been drawing at an airport Starbucks when two Pakistani men, artists en route to an exhibit in Moscow, noticed her work and struck up a conversation. “We spent a good hour gabbing about art, Islam, Islamic Art, politics, weird stories in our countries' news, what it feels like to feel connected and rooted in your own culture . . .or not. “
For Georgians like Zurab Tatanashvili, an assistant professor of social work at Tbilisi State University, Istanbul airport became synonymous with a door to the West after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. “Many other Georgians and I first went to the West through that airport and the West came here through it as well,” he commented by phone.
Tatanashvili said that the airport has been offering a symbolic sense of unity in both a divided region and even the larger world. “Istanbul’s airport defied all the religious, ethnic and whatever differences are out there. It is where you physically interact with so many other cultures, see and appreciate how big the world is.”
Thirteen out of the 41 people who died in the gun and bombing attack at the airport were international travelers, from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Jordan, China, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Two hundred and thirty-nine people are reported wounded.
Official condolences have poured in from across the South Caucasus, including from Turkey’s longtime foreign-policy foe, Armenia.
Flights to and from Atatürk had resumed by dawn on June 29, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported, but some travel observers, however, have questioned what the attack could mean for the country’s flagship Turkish Airlines, which already has been hurt by a sharp, terror-related downturn in tourism to Turkey.
But for American Chole Current, an Istanbul-based English teacher, it’s still 92-year-old Atatürk airport that signals home.
“Whenever I do the transatlantic flight, I always get a coffee and sit outside arrivals watching the taxis taking people away. It’s how I ease back to Istanbul – iced coffee and taxis,” she said after traveling to Washington, DC from the airport earlier in the day on June 28.
The airport, she said, is “how I get everywhere else.”
Tatanashvili believes the Tuesday attack on Turkey and others like it are meant to undermine the country’s role as a cultural and economic crossroads.
“Istanbul and its airport are a bridge between worlds,” he said. “Everyone has to make sure that bridge continues functioning.”