ISTANBUL — As the brief promise of the Arab Spring uprisings faded, Istanbul became a haven for dissidents and exiles from around the region and of all ideological stripes.
This Turkish city felt more familiar than Europe to the Arabs, who recognized its food, pace and people as being similar to their own, and Turkey’s government could provide these exiles with a measure of protection from the repression they fled at home.
But in recent weeks, a pall has been cast over the vibrant Arab diaspora that has called Istanbul home for years. The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has not only deprived the community of one of its celebrated members. It has also prompted fear among the exiles that if a regime is determined enough, it can get to them anywhere.
“We could not imagine the level of brutality,” said a Saudi writer. “We do not know anyone now who wants to be politically active after this, who wants to go from staying silent to speaking out.”
Many exiles from several Arab nations said their safety rests on whether Saudi Arabia is held to account for the targeting of Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post who lived in the United States but was planning to marry a Turkish woman and settle in Istanbul.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia said that its government agents killed the 59-year-old journalist during what they called a rogue operation to return him to the kingdom. Turkish officials have said they possess evidence that Khashoggi was marked for a premeditated assassination, and suspicion has centered on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi, though once a royal-court insider, had in recent years become a frequent critic of Mohammed.
Arab dissidents in Turkey have been mourning Khashoggi’s death while closely watching the global fallout.
“If Salman gets away with this, Sissi will do the same. Bashar will do the same,” said another dissident Saudi writer, referencing Egypt’s and Syria’s presidents, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Bashar al-Assad.
This slightly built and soft-
spoken 28-year-old writer fled Saudi Arabia last year as Mohammed asserted his power over the royal court, targeting rival princes, businessmen, clerics and activists even as he liberalized some of Saudi Arabia’s restrictive social conventions.
Like most of the people interviewed for this article, the writer insisted on anonymity, for fear of drawing the attention of his home government and for the safety of relatives and friends back home.
He settled in the Fatih district of Istanbul, a historic warren of winding streets packed tight with cafes, spice shops and bookstores, reminiscent of Arab capitals.
“It’s like an Arab neighborhood,” the Saudi writer said, noting he has not needed to learn Turkish to get by. “The culture, the people, the friends I have here, it makes it comfortable and familiar.”
Fatih has become a barrio for the community of exiles from Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya and other Arab nations where an intolerance for criticism or fierce combat has made it impossible for thousands to live.
Meanwhile, because of a complex set of political alliances, rivalries and aspirations for regional influence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has extended his protection to the exiles in Istanbul.
“It is very close to the soul of Egypt — its people are similar to ours,” said Mohamed Tolba Radwan, 40, an Egyptian journalist who fled to Istanbul in 2015. The political climate in Egypt had deteriorated since the military ousted that country’s first freely elected leader in 2013, and security forces began tracking his movements, Radwan said.
In this setting, the Arabs could mix in a way they could never have imagined back home. Islamists freely exchanged ideas with secular-minded Arabs, and hardened rebels who took up arms against their governments befriended bookish bloggers who could not fathom combat.
At the center of their salons was Khashoggi, who friends say was a bridge between people who would otherwise be at odds intellectually. He sympathized at times with Islamists and insisted they have a voice in any free society, while championing some liberal causes.
“I met a lot of real Saudi liberals, who are more open than Egyptian liberals, and they know more about the world and other cultures than the Egyptians, who grow up in a more open atmosphere,” Radwan said. “And this deserves more respect. Jamal Khashoggi was one of them.”
They mixed in other, more intimate ways as well. Istanbul became the backdrop for romances, and some turned into marriages.
An Egyptian student in his late 20s met and married a Syrian woman in Istanbul, where they had both taken refuge from governments that had them marked for surveillance. There was an irony to the exile, he said. While depriving them of the comfort and companionship of their families in their home countries, repression drove them to find loves of a lifetime abroad.
“It’s created a melting pot,” said the student, a former member of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. “There are so many mixed couples: Egyptian and Moroccan, Syrian and Turkish, and so on.”
He said he was an acquaintance of Khashoggi and dined with him a week before he disappeared at the Saudi Consulate on Oct. 2. The student noted sadly that Khashoggi had gone to the consulate to obtain a document certifying his divorce so he could legally marry his Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.
Obtaining official identity and travel documents has long been a source of anxiety for Arab exiles in Turkey, who are wary that employees of diplomatic missions could be on the lookout for them. For many dissidents, consulates and embassies were to be avoided at all costs.
“We do what we have to do without going to the consulate,” the Egyptian student said. “My worst nightmare was to have my passport confiscated.”
After Khashoggi’s killing, exiles worry that the Arab world has entered an unprecedented period in which even the norms of political violence are being shattered.
“With Mohammed bin Salman, it’s impossible to know what will happen or why,” said the first Saudi writer, who also arrived in Istanbul last year amid Mohammed’s growing crackdown. “It’s not clear what the new red lines are.”
Speaking in a courtyard in Fatih canopied by grape leaves and shaded by hanging laundry, he said dissidents have been shocked by the brazen assassination of his friend Khashoggi.
“They [the Saudi government] are so stupid to do such a thing — so publicly, in their own consulate,” he said. “Even Assad or [deceased Libyan dictator Moammar] Gaddafi, they would kill someone in a dark street. But this was a message to scare everyone — activists, the opposition.”
The episode has provoked a debate among Arab exiles about their long-term safety in Turkey, and many have noted they live in a sort of bubble of freedom not afforded to Turks themselves. The Committee to Protect Journalists says Turkey is the world’s top jailer of journalists, with 73 in prison.
Dissident journalists, writers and activists from Arab nations, on the other hand, are given nearly free rein. Turkey is home to dozens of opposition Arab news channels and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members.
Still, some exiles have felt a tightening of the political space around them as the region’s politics shift. Samir Meshaal, a Syrian opposition leader living in Istanbul, said Turkey has begun to rein in Syrians criticizing Turkish foreign policy.
Exiles are now watching warily, waiting to see how Turkey responds to Khashoggi’s killing. Many fear Erdogan will bury his government’s investigation if Saudi Arabia offers economic or political concessions.
Others hope Turkey will stand as a bulwark against any future attempt to harm them in Istanbul.
Either way, their already fragile sense of security and safety has been shattered and their fervor for advocacy has been blunted.