I’m watching from my flat as the men fell the tree. Since I moved to this Istanbul neighborhood five years ago, it has swayed outside my sixth-floor windows, rooted in the garden below that stretches the length of the city block. Surrounded completely by the backs of apartment buildings, the garden is patrolled by a troop of noisy cats, but it’s rare to see people there.
Today, upon arriving home, at first I didn’t notice the absence in the air outside as I slid out of my shoes and tore off my bra in the usual post-work ritual. Moving from room to room, I slowly became aware of a persistent shouted conversation outside my windows and the sound of neighbors calling to each other from windows and balconies.
An American transplant in Turkey, I have learned to live in community in a new way. In our Istanbul homes we pretend we don’t know what’s going on inside the homes of others. It is considered poor form, a kind of showing off, to not have curtains on your windows. This is something we foreigners sometimes choose to ignore when we live in an apartment like mine, which is high enough that there are no sight lines to allow a stray glance inside. But some are scandalized by this behavior, and you may even get a talking to by a neighbor trying to help you out with the advice to add some sheer curtains for the sake of propriety.
The invisibility of home life is a respite from the unrelenting interactions that form the public life of Turkey. Once outside the confines of your home, you are part of the hive-like life of the city, like it or not. Strangers will talk to you, laugh with you, give you advice, pat your children on the head. It is normal to ask a stranger for help parking, or for an old woman on an icy street to be passed from stranger’s arm to stranger’s arm as she makes her way home, each of us taking our turn helping her on her way before we turn off her path and onto our own, handing her with a parting smile, but no comment, to the next helper. I’ve seen many people help a blind person with an obstacle but never once have I seen them ask permission. It is a given that help will be given and accepted, often without comment or fuss from either party.
As I follow the discourse on the rights and preferences of people with disabilities in the United States I wonder what an American would think of a stranger wordlessly taking their arm to steer them around a low-hanging branch they can’t see, then walking silently on. In Turkey, there is a different awareness of and perspective on the needs and comfort of all the parts of the whole. Once, riding a crowded bus, I was standing in the aisle holding a strap when an older “auntie” became agitated because I didn’t have a seat. I told her I was fine, but she wasn’t having it and proceeded to rearrange people, pointing and directing, until eventually she somehow managed to create an empty seat beside herself for me. Not one person questioned her directions, they all complied without comment, until I was eventually seated beside her as she offered me a fig from the small paper bag she was holding. There was really no choice but to eat the fig. Accepting hospitality is as important as offering it here.
I am used to sounds echoing off the walls of the buildings surrounding the central gardens below my flat, gardens which are inaccessible to all but a few of the ground floor inhabitants who mostly choose to ignore them. We all know we can hear each other through our open windows, we hear the tinkle of spoons on tea glasses in the morning and the complaints of children arguing with their parents in the afternoon, but we pretend we can’t to preserve our city privacy. Now and then I accidentally lock eyes with a woman on the balcony perpendicular to mine hanging her laundry as I water my geraniums, and we both look away quickly to maintain the illusion of solitude. We are used to each other’s voices and habits and no longer notice them consciously. But today the awareness that unfamiliar voices have been shouting continuously outside has filtered through, and I have come to the window to investigate.
Though my apartment is six floors up there has always been a very tall tree embracing the entire flat, stretching its arms from the bedroom window and balcony across to the windows in the living room. I’ve often been startled by the flexible treetop blowing wildly from side to side, high above its firmly planted base. In the winter moonlight its bare branches run from one side of the wide windows to the other with the wild winds blowing in from the Bosphorus. Out of the corners of my eyes I have seen flashes of motion, and in irrational moments of fear, before common sense takes hold, I have been frozen in place, thinking someone has run past, close to my windows. Then I remember how high up I am and giggle as my heart rate slows. The stately tree has provided a green cover over the years, the leaves a welcome shelter from prying eyes and a rare reminder of timeless nature just an arm’s length away.
Now, walking down the hallway toward the sound of men’s voices, I see an unfamiliar emptiness in the air outside, spreading from one end of the apartment to the other. Even before I reach the windows I feel exposed to the blank, pale sky.
I rest my arms on the windowsill and lean out, echoing the stance of neighbors in the surrounding buildings. Looking down, we watch the men with their web of ropes running from backyard to backyard, across walls and through trees, holding the old giant in place as they finish the job of bringing it down. The gardens of several buildings are littered with the remnants of the graceful arms of the tree. One man is standing below the denuded stump, the raw end of which still stretches to the height of two men. He alternates between shouting to those surrounding the tree and turning his chainsaw on it, causing small pieces to fly into the suffocating air.
We watch as ropes are secured to guide the fall of the remaining body of the tree. From my perspective, it seems the tree is still too tall and will take down a garden wall when it goes. I wonder if the men are too close to see clearly what they are doing. Eventually I grow bored watching the arm waving and shouting, and I retreat inside, but soon after I hear a crash and return to my post at the window to see that the tree trunk has indeed fallen on a garden wall, shattering it. Later, I look down and see all evidence of the tree is gone, but the pieces of the wall remain, scattered in the gardens.
This tree I shared with my neighbors sheltered us from summer sun and neighborly eyes as we sat on balconies mere feet apart, barely clothed, hoping for a breeze. It provided us not just with shade, but with a fragile scrim of privacy that grew thicker in the summer when we emerged to take the air and thinned out with the falling leaves in the autumn when we began to retreat to the warmth of our homes. We watched together as it was taken down. Now, we are exposed and will have to be careful where we direct our gaze when we go out into our shared living space if we want to maintain the polite pretense of neighborly privacy.
When you become a native of a big city—because let’s face it, that’s what it is, it’s often a becoming; in most cities it’s rare to be born a native—it’s the disappearance of small things that sticks you in the ribs, because it’s the small things that make you feel you belong. Visitors don’t notice the little shops on the corner but those shops on the corner, and the men and women who run them, are an important part of our local community. When one disappears it leaves a hole bigger than the empty storefront. It was when the corner shop closed in my old neighborhood that it became unlivable. I missed the patience of the guys there when I forgot the Turkish word for honey and instead buzzed like a bee, but more than that, without the guys running the shop and their cohort of friends on the street at night I no longer felt safe. One night a man grabbed me while I was unlocking my door and I ran after him shouting angrily. When I realized there was no one to hear, no more neighbors sharing my street, just a stream of tourists coming and going in short-term rentals, I knew it was time to move on.
Change is inevitable, and sometimes necessary. While our tree was green and lush outside my windows, I used to look at the huge, dead branches two floors down and hope the winds never twisted enough to send those branches through someone else’s windows. I’m sure we are all safer now that the tree is gone, but the removal of something as small as only one tree shifts, ever so slightly, the relationships of dozens. Ironically, the removal of its sheltering curtain serves to isolate us as we adjust to unfamiliar exposure. I notice my neighbor darting inside when I appear outside, and I back away quickly when I see her come out to hang clothes. Without the tree between us it seems as if we are in closer proximity, and we have to renegotiate our relationship to each other and our environment. We feel exposed when we are caught on our balconies, they no longer feel like extensions of our private home space now that the green wall between us is gone. These small changes change our relationships, how we move through the city and where we feel protected from the eyes and actions of others.
Like ancient city walls, trees rise and fall, leaving empty spaces behind to be filled with some unknown future. The tree was here before us, but now we remain, responsible for adapting to the empty space it left until we too disappear and are replaced. What will we fill our shared space with? Will it separate us or bring us closer together?
I’ve learned to be comfortable with the roles and responsibilities of public life in the collectivistic Turkish culture. Living in cities on the east coast of the U.S. I’ve always felt that, while we know our neighbors are close, we tend to ignore that physical closeness. We cultivate a pretense of ignorance in order to respect each other’s privacy, and this urge to remain psychically separate even when physically close extends outside our homes. American culture is more centered on individualism and self-sufficiency, so sitting on the subway or walking down a crowded city street we cling to our privacy, avoiding eye contact and interactions.
The absence outside my window has made me realize that the comfort I’ve come to feel with the collective public life of Turkish society only increases my sense of discomfort when our private lives collide. It took some time, but now that I have adjusted to the closeness of the public sphere in Turkey, its contrast with the privacy of home life feels odd. Now that I’ve been conditioned to reach out when I see a stranger on the street, it seems strange when a neighbor on a balcony turns away.
A timeless peace radiated from that tree gently blowing side to side. In the first treeless summer, the sun beat relentlessly on my apartment, a daily reminder of the loss of its protective veil. Two months after the tree fell, I looked into the garden below and found the stump was invisible, hidden by the new young leaves and branches that had sprung from it.
Image: “29 balconies of Istanbul” by Allan Henderson, licensed under CC 2.0.