Last week an earthquake struck Turkey and Syria. As an agent and translator who works with international writers and publishers, I began to hear from many of my colleagues, so I decided to write a message to them.
When I started writing the letter below, the earthquake’s death toll was at 12,000.
By the time I sent it out just hours later, that number had grown to 17,000.
By the next day, it was over 20,000.
Now, as I write this, on the evening of February 12th, six days after the earthquake, it is said to be nearly 30,000.
And it won’t stop there.
It seems heartless to speak of this disaster quantitatively. But with something so unfathomable, we turn to numbers as a way to convey impact. Because as most of us will have experienced, the crushing weight of a single death is immeasurable. Now take that qualitative experience, and multiply it times 30,000.
We have received dozens of messages from you over the past few days. We appreciate every single one, and are grateful to each of you who, whether you have written or not, have kept us and the victims of this tragedy in your thoughts and prayers.
This week was declared a week of mourning by the Turkish government. And it certainly feels like one. It is impossible to smile. One feels ashamed to be going about one’s business, greeting a friend or a passerby. We nod and purse our lips. The question is on our tongues but it’s often too difficult to pose.
Everyone knows someone directly affected by these earthquakes. There is never more than one degree of separation. This makes it extremely difficult to ask anyone anything, especially having to do with work. Because we cannot know the magnitude of the other person’s loss. And we are afraid it will come across as cruel. All of other life’s concerns at this moment seem, quite frankly, rather petty.
Even here in Istanbul, the air is thick with grief. Many express a kind of nausea born of guilt. We make donations, scramble to assemble convoys of aid, anything to assuage the guilt, to contribute in some way.
Seething beneath that grief, however, is a potent anger.
For while it is true that the occurrence of earthquakes is certainly beyond human control, preparation and response are not. There is no doubt that this tragedy is, in large part, man-made. From the construction companies who skimp on materials to the authorities who sign off on lethal buildings; from the billions in “earthquake taxes” that remain largely unaccounted for, to the squandering of public funds on opulent palaces, to a president who, when asked to account for the blatant negligence underlying this tragedy and the wholly inadequate response to it, proceeds to scold the people in what would be a comical parody of Big Brother if it weren’t absolutely sincere, there is a long chain of greed and corruption that has culminated in the deaths of tens of thousands—17,000 as I write, but the number is growing by the hour—and the unspeakable pain of millions.
Hence the people’s righteous rage.
Alas, we cannot raise the dead. What we can do is honor those who have lost their lives by holding accountable the individuals, companies, and politicians responsible, and striving towards a more compassionate, more humane future, in which every life is respected and valued.
For now, we find in the good intentions and mobilization of millions in Turkey, in Syria, and all around the world, some consolation, a glimmer of hope. To this we cling.