Commentary & Opinion
12:50 pm
Sat March 29, 2014

David Nightingale: A Coup In Turkey In 1963

There had been a roar, waking me up, and as I rubbed my eyes I realized there'd been a whole background of roars, which hadn't exactly been dreams.

The Angora cat with its differently colored eyes was no longer, as usual, at the foot of my bed. Then another jet zoomed over the building, way too close to the roof, and I could see a reddish-orange smoky glow from its exhaust in the dawn light. My apartment happened to be at the top of an old 5-story Ankara building, on the residential side of the Ataturk Boulevard. The other side housed Turkey's Grand National Assembly, with its solid government buildings.

By now I was fully up, in time to witness yet another terrifying shaking of our building, as a jet swooped over. It seemed it could have been strafing the government, but I don't think there were any bullets – it just gave that impression.

I had a 9 a.m. lecture to drive out to that morning – General Physics to about 50 students. Delaying breakfast I went into the living room, a long low pleasant room with wide windows looking over the boulevard towards the National Assembly. Unable to understand Turkish well enough I switched on the BBC from Cyprus; in a bored voice an announcer said 'there has been a coup d'etat in Ankara, but all is quiet now'. One of my living-room windows fell in at just that moment, as another jet thundered over the building.

There had been coups d'etat in Turkey before this of course. In 1960, at a time of political turmoil and economic hardship the government of Adnan Menderes had been replaced by the army, and Menderes had been hung. Now, this was 1963, and in fact history would recount it as a failed coup, against the highly respected and elderly prime minister, Ismet Inonu. Later, in 1971, and 1980, there would be more in Turkey. Other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Iran, Syria had also experienced coups in their histories.

I could see down to the small parking lot, to my first ever new car, a 1963 Volkswagen, fetched from the Istanbul docks a month earlier. It had been exported from Germany minus any tax, and minus any import duty, on a bank loan that, with the rent, took most of my instructor's income. As I looked down I could see a soldier crouched behind the nice little shiny car, rifle resting on its hood.

A knock on my door; my landlady. She and her husband owned the apartment building, and lived on the floor below me. He was a tall, imposing middle-aged Turkish gentleman; she was the one who spoke English. “David Bey, not to worry,” she said pleasantly. “You know, army is attempting to change government – you are safe – don't worry.” I mentioned the window near the sofa and glass on the floor. “Oh that's all right; we send man later today. We have it fixed. But please don't worry.”

There was a lull in the screaming jets, and the gunfire had subsided. When I got down to my VW the soldier had gone, so I drove out to the university, being allowed as a foreigner to pass through two roadblocks.

Later, at lunch, I learned from Erdal Inonu, middle son of the prime minister, professor of theoretical physics and Ph.D. From Cal Tech, that the brief coup attempt had failed and the uprising had been quelled quickly.

“I like your shiny Volkswagen,” he said. I described to him how I had fetched it the month before, the 6 hour drive from Istanbul to the capital, past chickens and goats, sheep herders with their slow-moving flocks spread across the highway, horses and carts, 18-wheelers with no stoplights, and how, as dusk came in just before reaching Ankara I had been stopped by the police. For reasons unknown my new car had a rear light out, and I had been given a ticket. “Why didn't the goat-herders and truckers without any lights get stopped?”

"Simple”, the young Inonu said. “Foreigners are the only ones who can pay the fines.”

By the time I got home, I was delighted to see my living-room window had a new pane of glass, and my stray, green-grey-eyed Angora cat asleep on the couch.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

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