Like every journalist abroad, I have my proverbial taxi driver, my Everyman, who helps me understand what Turkey is thinking. Mine is an Everywoman: She lives across the street, keeping guard over our neighborhood with an eagle eye. I acquired my respect for her powers of observation several years ago when my 2-year-old daughter marched down our front steps having insisted on putting her galoshes on by herself. "She's got them on the wrong feet," called out my neighbor, and, in that moment, I knew I would never need a burglar alarm.
Since then, she has kept me informed in other ways. I recall the early months of 1997, when she stood at her window every night beating her pots and pans and blinking her living room lights--one of millions taking part in a short-lived but convivial protest. Every night for one minute, much of Turkey protested not against the government in power at the time, but against an entire political system gone wrong.
The other night, I discovered her camped on the pavement. A few days before, we both had been roused from our slumber by the vertical shake of Turkey's horrendous earthquake. She was responding to fears of a fresh temblor by spending the night outdoors. "My God, what will become of us?" she asked, an elderly woman afraid to spend the night under her own roof. I had no answer. Suddenly, for her, more than the political system had gone wrong; it was an entire universe.
Since then, I too have slept less than I'd like. You've all seen the wrenching pictures: the flattened apartments, the rows of corpses. But there is another, equally mesmerizing side to events here. The earthquake possessed a power of biblical proportions, slicing through people's lives and exposing that which they would prefer to conceal. Turkey is struggling with an uncomfortable truth--that the quake sought out not only weaknesses in the earth but, with vicious accuracy, weaknesses in the society itself.
At least that was my reflection roaming the city of Adapazari, a once-prosperous agricultural and industrial town east of the epicenter. I was already weary from trying to take my bearings from buildings that are no longer at right angles to the horizon. I stopped, pen in hand, to watch as the body of a policeman was zipped into a bag and stored for retrieval in the ruins of a Toyota showroom. His misfortune had been to stop for a snack as he went off duty at 3:02 on the morning of Aug. 17.
Around a corner, there was a more affecting spectacle--a collapsed building that had claimed a young man's life. It was still upright, but the facade had fallen away completely. On the top floor, a sofa sat flush against the wall--if only a wall had been there. Even the living room blinds were hanging--although from what, I still do not understand--but no longer able to keep out prying eyes.
Turkey is wrestling with shock and grief but also with the dawning realization of just how large a task it will be to rebuild. Its rulers, too, are beginning to understand that they will have to rebuild the people's confidence in them, and they must do so with the rest of the world looking in. The violence of the shaking earth, calculated at 7.4 on the Richter scale, was felt throughout the northwest. Two hundred and twenty miles east of the epicenter, the disaster woke the capital out of its slumber. Ankara must now cope with the criticism that it failed both to plan for a disaster and to react when it struck.
The result on the ground in cities like Adapazari is almost impossible to comprehend. Yet from the air, the sheer power of the earthquake is breathtaking; you can almost believe it benign. As I flew over the devastation in a helicopter, the meaning of the new Turkish mantra also became clear: Earthquakes don't cause death, man-made buildings do. A sudden underground snap along an extension of the North Anatolian fault etched a fissure in the countryside some 30 miles long. It zips across fields: an irregular line from south of Adapazari to a point on the Bay of Izmit. In places, the fissure is 10 feet wide, carving a causeway through dense forest. The moment it touched habitation, it became dangerous. As the crack crossed the main Ankara highway 10 days ago, an overpass collapsed on an unlucky bus.
Aykut Barka, my companion in flight, is a geologist at Istanbul Technical University who has documented this particular segment of the North Anatolian fault since 1991. It is a cruel cause for satisfaction for him that his model of this destructive path was proven accurate by the evidence freshly etched into the ground below us. His knowing with fair accuracy not when the earthquake would strike but where was valuable. Yet his knowledge was ignored, as was the chance to contain the dimensions of the tragedy.
The recriminations are deafening. The wrath of the quake has exposed contractors who shortchanged on steel and cement; it has condemned their accomplices in local government and the national politicians who exchanged building amnesties for votes. The trouble is that the chain of culpability includes pretty much everyone, from the migrants in the cities to the politicians they backed. It's almost like blaming the postwar history of Turkish urbanization. Avcilar, one of the few Istanbul neighborhoods to be badly affected, didn't really exist 15 years ago. Now it is an integral, though distant, part of the city, with McDonald's battling Burger King for control of the main drag. The value of nearby property has risen accordingly, but Avcilar also had poorly constructed buildings on terrain given to landslides.
Turkish institutions simply have not developed at the same breathtaking pace as its cities. My neighbor knew as much when she flashed her lights in protest, but it has taken an earthquake to drive the point home to millions of others. The Turkish state is highly centralized and resentful of local government, let alone civil initiatives. Most of the nation watched incredulously last week as the Ministry of Health, controlled by the ultra-right Nationalist Action Party side of the current ruling coalition, locked horns with the only Turkish nongovernmental organization that actually managed to rescue people from the quake ruins, accusing it of just being there for show, performing a function that should be left to government.
It was a residual cry from an old guard that seemed to give priority to national honor over the need to save lives. It's a mind-set that values protecting the state, even at the individual's expense. Now Turks are questioning a social contract that clearly defines their obligations to the state because the state, in this case, has failed to reciprocate.
Dissatisfaction has been heard at the highest levels: "The bribe takers and the bribe givers are under the same rubble--along with the system and Turkey's whole urbanization policy," said the outspoken young minister of tourism, Erkan Mumcu.
In a way, of course, the forces that have led to the region's higgledy-piggledy urbanization became ordinary peoples' first line of defense. Community is still strong in this country. There has been little looting. It was neighbors, not civil defense units, who began digging through the rubble, many using their bare hands. But the effort was not enough.
If I had to describe the country I've lived in for 10 years, I would say it is a country now angry with itself. If I am honest, I would confess that this is preferable to the Turkey of just a few months ago, which regarded itself as proudly alone in the world and unjustly maligned. Since the quake, some 65 nations have offered their help. "Turks have no friends but themselves," is an adage cherished by the ultra-nationalist partner in the government coalition. Today, it is a demonstrable lie.
Turkey must now rebuild more than homes. Even the prestige of the military has suffered as it, too, failed to react to the catastrophe in time. But there is a danger that there will be no change. My neighbor's beating of pots and pans was, after all, a warning ignored. There is no carpet large enough to sweep the rubble under.
Andrew Finkel is a correspondent based in Istanbul for the Times of London.