Outside the Zone: Searching for Sarai Sierra

By Kaya GençFebruary 23, 2013

Outside the Zone: Searching for Sarai Sierra

TWO WEEKS AGO I visited one of the most crowded Starbucks branches in Istanbul. My goal was to write a piece on Julian Barnes’s latest essay collection, but while working on the opening sentence about the author’s prominence as a literary essayist, I found myself eavesdropping on a rather curious conversation from the neighboring table. Two baseball-capped men were talking about a missing woman, while carefully and rather nervously looking outside the window. Sitting below the siren logo they were struggling to keep their sights on the endless waves of crowds moving to and fro on the city’s most popular street. It took a few minutes before I realized they were plainclothes policemen. This was followed by a second, more crucial realization: they were looking for Sarai Sierra.

The 33-year-old amateur photographer from New York City was roughly my age. I had been reading newspaper articles about her sudden disappearance with a sense of alarm over the last couple of days. She was last heard from on January 21 and was feared to have been murdered. She took pictures of neighborhoods where I spend most of my time and uploaded them on the photo-sharing platform Instagram. She was taking part in a “#5shotchallenge” designed to “take us out of our comfort zone.” On her Instagram page she had listed rules of this challenge some days prior to her disappearance. “IGer must post 5 pics within 5 days with no posting in between and no reposts,” she wrote. 

Reading about the story in The New York Times, a New York friend called and asked what I thought had happened to her. But like most of my journalist colleagues and the general public, one could only speculate, and I feared the worst. 

Sierra’s husband and children drove to Newark Liberty International Airport on January 22 to meet her, expecting to listen to her tales about Istanbul, Amsterdam, and Munich. Until the day of her disappearance Sierra continued uploading pictures to Instagram. Employed at a chiropractor’s office in New York, she was an amateur photographer who used a Samsung Galaxy 3 and an iPad to take and edit pictures. Most of her work consisted of landscapes or images of deserted social spaces. Her work still remains on Instagram and when I viewed them last week I was left with a desolate feeling. In “Sunset, Istanbul style” the mood is gloomy; “Train station a la Amsterdam” evokes a feeling of anticipation and subsequent disillusionment. The last picture on her Instagram stream, the image of a brook in Holland, is entitled poetically: “Your movement’s similar to a serpent.”

For many of us who looked at those pictures for clues of her whereabouts the crucial question about her fate remained unchanged. More than a thousand police officers were assigned to search for Sierra on Istanbul’s streets. Some newspaper reports argued Sierra was on her way to meet a fellow IGer before her disappearance. The correspondence with this photographer proved to be her last known digital interaction. When Sierra’s husband reported her loss, her landlord in Istanbul said he had no idea where she was. Some people suspected him of withholding information while others insisted the police should keep their eyes on the photographer.

Tarlabasi, where Sierra rented the room on January 7, is a few minutes walk from my apartment. It is an authentic, colorful neighborhood, and a favorite with students as it is extremely affordable. Some years ago, American authors Lorraine Adams and Richard Price told me they had been warned against visiting the neighborhood; as residents of Harlem they ignored those cautions, insisting on walking around Tarlabasi’s streets. They ended up loving the place and showed me pictures they took there. A picturesque neighborhood with lots of colorful buildings (some of which are on the brink of destruction) Tarlabasi is convenient for tourists, close to the city’s cultural attractions: Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is a 15-minute walk, and you can be in the contemporary arts museum Istanbul Modern in about 20.

But some people see the place as synonymous with trouble. When she was reported missing, rumors spread that Sierra was a drug dealer. “Why else would she stay in that neighborhood?” some asked. There were pieces about the “shadier backstreets of Beyoglu where Sierra stayed.” Eyebrows were raised when it was discovered that Sierra had made trips to Amsterdam and Munich prior to her disappearance. Because she had travelled frequently, she was accused of being “a CIA operative.” A friend of mine wondered why she travelled around Europe if she was not involved in illegal drug trade. According to his theory, Sierra had ingested a set of special, high quality drugs prior to her departure because her customers had asked her to carry the drugs in her body. Bolder theories circulated on Twitter and in Turkish teashops.

In the US, too, people speculated. The New York Post quoted FBI agents saying Sierra “hung out with a ‘criminal element’ during the solo trip abroad.” In both continents people assumed, wondered, discussed, and judged.

I, too, believed Sarai Sierra had an agenda. But it was not that complicated. It was Instagram. “5shotchallenge,” to be more precise. Last week Today’s Zaman newspaper quoted Istanbul’s Police Chief who said “she was just a tourist.” A tourist and a photographer who loved challenges.

At times I imagine seeing her on the street. A portrait of Sierra in a leather coat, wearing a hat, her eyes looking upwards, was reproduced in all the newspapers. While I made my daily strolls in the city, it was this image that I superimposed on faces of the crowds. In my apartment I watched security camera footage where Sierra ascended escalators of a shopping mall. I watched her move like a ghost between the frames. She had gone to the food court, took out her jacket and checked her email on her tablet. To me she seemed perfectly normal. And then the day had come when she suddenly disappeared from Instagram and the security cameras.

As I struggled to write my piece about Barnes and what I saw as his variations on James’s international theme, the ghost of Serai Sierra continued haunting me. I thought she could also be considered as an American in Europe, a subject fit for the Jamesian international theme. But her adventures had gone terribly wrong. For her there was little hope for resolution or wisdom at the end. 

Her name itself was intriguing. She was not Sarah, as some misspelled, but Sarai, pronounced in Turkish as saray, a palace. The surname reminded me of Humphrey Bogart’s film, High Sierra, whose DVD sat on my desktop. For the next week, as I watched the film and managed to finish my essay, I hoped she would be discovered. I imagined her announcing to the media (to social media perhaps) that she simply wanted to go offline. She had simply wanted to cut herself from all digital connections to enjoy a great, ancient city.

I finished my piece in that same Starbucks branch. Looking around I realized the officers were nowhere to be seen. I logged on to Twitter. By now Sarai Sierra had become a trending topic: her body had been found some hours previously behind Istanbul’s ancient city walls in Cankurtaran, near Galata Bridge. Her head was smashed. Her body lay amidst historical ruins, a hundred meters away from Istanbul’s Kennedy Street.

In the social media there were two opposing reactions to the news. Some argued that the killing of Sierra was conclusive evidence of the violence inherent to our national character. Others held the opposite view, finding fault with the victim: the fact that she was a foreign woman was conclusive evidence of her malicious intent. Both stances were, to put it mildly, problematic.

While trying to take in the news I found my mind engaged with placing blame: with Turkish men, with men in general, with a culture of violence. I thought about the so-called Saturday Mothers, women whose children had been lost in Turkey in dubious circumstances. For many decades this had been a city where people got lost fast, without leaving a trace. I blamed Istanbul.

But I was also overwhelmed by a more painful and personal feeling of guilt. Until a few days ago I felt Istanbul was a city where I could write about Edwardians, caring for nothing besides my own academic interests. “There goes your peaceful city!” my conscience cried. “Your peace is nothing but voluntary ignorance.”

I felt compelled to yank myself from my literary cocoon and try to face my own time, my own city, my own culpability. But having arrived this far, I have no idea how to conclude. How would Barnes do it? Or James? It is not typical, or desired, for such an essay to end with questions, I know, but what if there are no answers? What if Sarai Sierra’s death had only raised questions rather than providing any rational answers? 

Yes, of course, we have some distressing statistics: 42 percent of Turkish women admitted to being abused by a male partner, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the UN. And yes, another worrying study revealed almost 100 foreign women had gone missing in Turkey over the last two decades. But at the same time, the number of women killed in the country went down from 257 in 2011 to 165 in 2012. Statistics enough to see some things getting better, statistics enough to know things are bad.

What is also bad, perhaps, is speaking about tragedy in the language of statistics, which is cold and dispassionate, and thus has a calming effect, as it rationally moves our attention from the specific to the general, turning every death into a number and a percentage. We need to remember that Sierra, rather than being a “case” that we can instrumentalize for one or another political agendas, was a person, a physical presence with loved ones, two sons, and a husband, and perhaps a lover, as well as a digital presence, with fellow “IGers” who followed her and who she followed in an artistic community. While she was missing we sensed her palpability, physical and digital. When she died it was quickly forgotten, in favor of arguments about Turkey, about the Turks, about women, about violence.

But Sarai Sierra was not an argument, she was a woman. She was a woman who moved outside her comfort zone and took up a challenge. Her last days, though they remain a mystery, provide us, too, with a challenge — that of looking at her story closely, one more time, and of handling her memory with the care it deserves. 


LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and The London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s "best works of journalism in 2014" list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English Literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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