His face was ugly enough to scare away the meanest grizzly, his hands thick enough to be the roots of the mountains guarding his golden rice paddies. To the one hundred or so inhabitants of Guney Koyu, most of whom worked in his rice fields in the valley far below, or were related to him through his four previous wives, Aydi Bekir, age seventy-three, was the boss, grandfather, or father.
My path had taken me across north-central Turkey to the hidden river valley where I spied his mud-walled domain resting high atop a mountain’s steep shoulder. I had climbed a dirt footpath to photograph some of the womenfolk baking bread in an outdoor stone oven.
At first I was tempted to refuse Aydi’s offer of tea. Already that long day I’d consumed twenty-two teas and two colas in the previous village of Hacihamza. But when the smiling giant quickly added a bed and dinner to the tea, I motioned him to lead on.
The hospitality ritual that followed was typical of the treatment I had received in many of the Turkish rural homes east of Istanbul–now two-and-one-half weeks and 327 miles behind me. In many ways it was still largely unchanged from that described in Marco Polo’s own journals.
At the bottom of the stairs leading up to Aydis’s home above a grain-storage barn, my shoes joined at least ten pairs of thin rubber sandals. Atop the wooden steps was a veranda of bamboo shades, intricately patterned wool rugs, rough wooden benches and one low, hard sofa piled with long and heavy flowery pillows, upon which I was made to recline. Though I would rather have sat upright like the rest of the men, I knew that they were trying to make me feel all the more rested and honored.
A large, round silver tray of mint tea and hot food prepared that very hour, undoubtedly by one of Aydi’s several wives or many daughters, was set before me by his youngest sons. In the long courtyard below gathered the curious of the village–the men on benches or thin prayer rugs in the center, the boys squatting along the sides of the walls. Word had spread fast that Aydi had a special guest from some faraway land, and so they had rushed to put forth their own questions, and to let Aydi know that whom he cared for, they cared for, too. Well into the night they were to stay, riveted to my words as translated to them by a schoolteacher.
No women and hardly a girl above the age of ten was to be found among those around me. In a remote setting like Guney Koyu, the law of Allah still ruled strongly. And Allah said Woman was to be baking and cooking somewhere unseen when so many of His men were together in one place. The female presence was to be made known only through the food and tea being obediently served by the sons. Or by the faint sounds of their laughter and chatter. And, too, from the occasional shy maiden’s eyes stealing a peek through an open door.
It happened to be the first, and most important, day of the four-day-long Bayram Kurban holiday, or “Feast of the Sacrifice.” All through the Islamic world, according to my host, those who could afford to do so had killed and butchered a ram for Allah. One-third of the meat was to go to the ram’s owner, one-third to his neighbors, and the remainder to the poor. Thus, besides the normal bowls of yogurt, spicy vegetable soup, and freshly picked tomatoes and peppers, there was a generous heap of the sacrificial animal, diced and covered in its simmering greases, on my tray.
Five times, once every hour, one of the young boys sitting silently off to the sides rose to his feet, gripped in his small dark hands a hand-made small hydria, stepped up to each of the grown men and older boys, and poured into our cupped hands a strongly perfumed water. For several seconds the air would be suffocating with the fragrance of lemon, as work-toughened palms vigorously rubbed the perfume into the stubbles of forearms and face.
In Istanbul, I had found an English-Turkish translation book to study while continuing to cross the nation. It was a most peculiar book–only one inch square and published in Germany, with the title Langenscheidt’s Lilliput Dictionary. But with it, I quickly mastered a large amount of the Turkish vocabulary, including the counting from one to a million, in less than an hour’s memorizing. Indeed, the Turkish language was one of the easiest I’d ever tried to learn. And so I was able, even if only in the usual broken fashion, to add my fair share of manly chatter during the evening.
At last very late that night, after the village’s men had returned towhat must be some of the world’s most patient wives, I was buried beneath a ton of blankets on that same sofa. A beaming Aydi sat down beside me, his lumpy stout figure dressed in striped pajamas and stocking cap, and looked as if he wanted to do one more bit of goodness for me before he retired. I smiled from beneath my own mountain.
Since I knew from my times in North Africa how much being hospitable meant to a Muslim, I hinted to Aydi that a glass of water might be nice. He jumped from his chair and dashed into the house, then proudly strode back to my side several minutes later, with the water and a plate of more kurban. Not until I’d finished every morsel and he’d had the pleasure of fetching me still another glass of water did my gap-toothed and bearded guardian angel finally tiptoe off to be with the wife I never did meet.
Sleep remained as elusive as the stars that were shining between the mountain peaks around the veranda. It was the end of the first week of September. Another autumn on the road was nearly upon me. The last one had been in Normandy and Brittany. After one-and-one-half years of my greatest dream, I was but a whisper from its halfway point. Already I had experienced so much more love than I could ever have hoped for, and yet I was only on the other side of the globe from my own little village, and home. . . .
The closer I drew to the Iranian border, the more desolate the land became. Dirt turned into restless dust, then into rock, then finally into mountains and lifeless fields of lava, cooled and battered into grotesque forms by centuries of chilly winds bred just a hundred miles away to the northeast, on the steppes of Russia’s Armenia.
There were many in America who said that the Devil himself now reigned in Iran. As I looked uneasily upon the rough faces and the bleak scenery of the no-man’s-land there at the confluence of the borders of Iran, Turkey, and Russia, and saw the amount of war-related material moving to Iran each day, I wondered if perhaps there wasn’t more truth to that than the rational mind was willing to admit.
I moved cautiously through each canyon and over every high lonesome mountain pass with the expectancy of death pulling at the roots of my hair. But I was learning to use fear as craftily as it had once used me.
One dusky evening, while entering the folds of some high barren mountains east of Erzurum, I noticed many pairs of eyes staring down atme from dwellings in the cliffs above. Ragged figures of men huddling around fires on those ledges made me feel as though I were an insect trying to sneak through a cave of bats. When several of them silently detached from the others and swooped down the steep side of the mountain, I hurried along . . . only to realize they meant to follow me into the darker recesses of the mountains. I had to attack before they could.
Throwing Clinger to the ground, I charged madly with my knife, screaming as loudly as if I would kill any and all I could get my blade into. They fled back up to the cliffs, where I went also. There I demanded to see the tiny settlement’s chieftain, and when he emerged from a door in the cliff I had raced to, I drew my weapon’s blade across my throat in a way that said such would befall anyone who followed me into the mountains that night. No one did.
But I was not foolish enough to think I was immune from danger. And I knew that each step I took toward the base of Ararat Mountain was bringing me closer to the danger of robbery. So I stopped in the military town of Eleskirt, twenty miles from the end of the Turkey trek, to mail home all the exposed film I was carrying in Clinger. If something should happen to me in the unstable area just ahead, at least the record of my thousand miles across Turkey would be salvaged. What I didn’t know, as I sat sorting the film in a dark teahouse on a side street, was that danger was approaching that very minute.
It came in the form of a group of four, their jackboots, long brown wool coats, wide black belts, and heavy old carbines reminding me of the Gestapo of my history books. While the others in the packed room slunk out quickly to escape the look of hatred in the policemen’s eyes and joined the growing crowd outside on the street, I was forced to stay cornered and seated while they formed a curtain of gun muzzles about my cluttered table. A man I had talked with earlier and to whom I had admitted that I was a journalist now revealed himself to be of the secret police. In a show of intimidation, they shouted at me, pushed me to the floor, and kicked at me when I dared to raise my voice.
My explanation that I was walking around the world and that their town was simply on my route fell onto deaf ears. Even my journals and the signature book failed to make any impression.
I was led from the teahouse like a captured criminal. While one policeman mashed all my film and notes into Clinger and went on ahead with the backpack, the others jostled me out onto the street and practically dragged me past long lines of shouting faces and pointing fingers. My worst fears had been realized: Those who had been inside the teahouse, especially the children, had fanned down the street saying some sort of spy had been captured. I hung my head, not so much from shame as to protect it from rocks. The policemen prodded me along by giving me sharp kicks on the backs of my calves.
Nothing was making any sense anymore. What had happened to the kind Turkey I had known almost everywhere up to now? Why were so many Turks now spitting and shouting at me? From somewhere the shout of “Yahudi!” stung my ears. Yahudi meant “Jew” in Turkish. It was considered one of the most insulting things they could call another person. I’d heard more than one truck driver use it derogatorily during our conversations at the roadside tea shacks.
At the police post, the commander, a handsome, well-groomed, and well-dressed man in his thirties or early forties who spoke excellent English, made it quite clear why I was being treated like a pariah.
“You Americans think you are first-class world citizens, don’t you?” he asked in a mocking way.
“Yes . . . I suppose,” I answered hesitantly.
He flung my passport at me and spat at my face. “I think you are fourth class!”
I started to sit down in a stiff-backed wooden chair. A punch on my spine from one of his subordinates made me decide otherwise. I glared at the laughing commander with more hate than I’d known for anyone since that night in Tangier, while he continued to speak to me.
“Every day I read in the newspapers how your country is all homosexuals and drug addicts. You people are perverts! You Americans are so sick. You think only of money and sex.” His wide chest shook with laughter as he put his face just inches from mine, and sneered, “And I think your President Reagan is the biggest pervert of them all.”
The others in the small, clean office had a good long laugh at the last remark, which the commander translated to them. Perhaps because I didn’t seem amused, I was slammed into the chair by one of the policemen. Trying not to show the pain clawing at my back and stomach, I sat there stone-faced for the next half hour as the commander ranted on about the vices of America and the greatness of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Americans were greedy, living solely to see how much money they could make. Americans were the laughingstock of the world. Americans thought about, and cared for, only themselves. They were the most selfish race ever. Americans were diseased, ugly, stupid, and clowns in the rest of the world’s eyes. They were even turning their own children into drug users. They were almost too disgusting to talk about.
“You are just like the dogs on the streets.”
A glimmer came into his black eyes. He looked into my passport, then leaned forward onto his elbows. “Have you ever married?”
I knew better than to answer that one. All the Turkish men I had met had been amazed that I was thirty years old and not married. To most of them, who had had several children by that age, it was a sad and baffling situation to be so old and without a woman and children.
“You must be a homosexual, too. Yes?” the commander leered.
I remained silent. To deny it would only make me, in his eyes, one of those dogs on the streets.
I was scum any way they looked at it.
His hatred for Americans was such that he relished the chance fate had presented him to torment one. In all likelihood, I was the only American he’d ever had the pleasure of arresting.
The facts that I was in a highly sensitive military area away from any tourist spots, loaded down with codelike notes and an abnormal amount of film and maps, spoke several languages, and had been to several other Muslim countries, made him certain I was a prize catch.
“Show us your international journalist’s card!” he commanded.
“I don’t have any such card. There is no such card,” I replied truthfully.
“You are a journalist. Do not lie! You must have the international card, or else you are a spy.
Give it here!” he fired back, directing one of the uniformed men to empty everything from Clinger onto his desk.
I knew I would be searched next, and I tried to delay that by volunteering my wallet from my back pocket. He snatched it and dumped its meager contents onto the table. Meanwhile, other policemen arrived to say there was a crowd gathering out front in the dusk.
Whatever card he was looking for, it was not among the business cards and scraps of paper in the wallet. That only incensed him more.
“Where is your permission from our government to write about us and take photographs?” he asked.
Of course I had no such papers. I hadn’t even been aware such permission was needed. I could see the charges against me piling deeper and deeper.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I practically pleaded. “America and Turkey are friends, allies.
We both belong to NATO. We give your government so much money–” Immediately, I knew I’d made a serious mistake.
“Ha-ha-ha! You are fools. You think you can buy everyone else’s friendship, because you are so rich. Do you really think we care? You give, give, give money to buy our loyalty, but we don’t care about who gives us money. We’ll take American dollars or Russian rubles, and laugh at you both!”
Finally, he banged his fist on the desk top and said, “I think you are spying. I think I will lock you up for a few weeks. I will put you in the jail,and we will tell no one. Then”–he nodded his head sarcastically–”then we will contact your embassy to see if you are who you say.”
I was jolted. “You can’t do that. I’ve done nothing wrong, and you have no proof of anything wrong.”
“I can kill you if I want. You are not the boss here. This is not America.” Then, laughing his loudest yet: “If I want, I’ll lock you in prison for years and tell no one. I’ll tell my men to throw away the key. You are in Turkey.”
For the first time in the two or three hours he’d had me there, I was certain I was going to be imprisoned. And I knew that if he really wanted to kill me, it would be very easy once I was in jail.
I racked my brain for how to escape from that jail cell, and saw the answer resting right at his elbows–the Washington Post interview done with me in Atlantic City. I leaped for it, before the policemen had a chance to knock me back into the seat.
I waved it in the air, saying in a confessional tone, “I write for the Washington Post–here’s one of my stories. They know where I am. If they don’t hear from me in two days, they’ll send someone from Ankara to find me. And many people in this town know I was brought here.”
I had noticed during the evening that he had a gold cigarette lighter, a gold bracelet, and a gold chain on his neck. Those, his stylish clothes, and his boasts earlier of being a womanizer told me he was living well beyond what a man in his position made a month in Turkey. In a country as wretchedly poor as Turkey, being a border-post commander, with its many chances for making money on the side, had to be a most desirable position. I decided to threaten his job.
“If anything happened to one of their reporters, it would be front-page news, and your embassy in Washington would see it. What you are going to do to me will embarrass both your country and you. And . . . that could cost your job.”
I tossed the Washington Post article onto his desk, as if to dare him to look at it. To my relief, he pushed it aside as if he were above such garbage.
“Every day people write bad things about Turkey. What is one more bad story?” he said angrily. He carried on as if the whole matter were unimportant, irrelevant. But I knew I had scared him. I had seen the look in his eyes.
Sure enough, after about ten minutes, he suddenly softened his voice, and said politely, as if nothing had been wrong all along, “I do not want you to think I am a bad man. I will have you stay tonight in a house, instead of the jail. That will be safer for you. I care for you, I do not want to see anything happen to you.”
I could hardly believe my ears. There had to be some sort of catch. There was.
He sent one of his officers to a small room across the narrow hallway. For several minutes I heard the sound of typewriter keys clacking. The officer returned and handed a one-page typewritten sheet to his superior, who placed it before me.
“Sign this, and you will not have to go to the jail,” the commander said.
I looked at it carefully. It was in Turkish. For all I knew, it was a confession that I had spied or done something even worse. I protested that I wasn’t about to sign something I couldn’t read.
“All it says is that you were not forced to come to the police station. That we did not take anything from you, and that no one hurt you physically.”
He was asking me, in effect, to deny that anything wrong had happened that day in Eleskirt. That I had volunteered (!) to come to his station, and had been treated like a real gentleman. The very thought of signing that paper was against everything I’d been taught about law and justice. But what was the alternative?
I asked the French-speaking plainsclothesman about the document’s contents. He, too, said it was basically a release. I asked for a pen: I had no choice. But first there was one more gambit to be played. If I lost it, I would not be leaving Turkey for many years.
“This says you did not take anything from me. But you have all my gear and my camera,” I pointed out. “I refuse to sign this until you give me my things back.”
He did not like that at all. He insisted his men, and he, were honest. That everything was perfectly safe in his office overnight. I threw the paper, my only salvation, on the floor. I was bluffing for my life. He had no way of knowing it, but just inches from his arms was all the proof he would ever need to convict me of spying. In my camera, on a roll of black-and-white film (which could easily be developed right there in the town overnight), was a photo of what I had been sure was an American tank being hauled by truck to Iran.
But I held out, sweating the entire time that I was blowing my only ticket to freedom.
Till at last he relented, saying:
“Okay. You can have all your things, but you must promise not to change or destroy anything. Right? We agree as gentlemen. I must have your word.”
I gave it to him. I signed the paper, and I was allowed to repackeverything into Clinger. Even my passport was returned. When my hand clasped the heavy Minolta’s clunky body, I thought I could almost feel my feet rise off the floor.
I was being released, he said. But only to the house. I was to stay there overnight, in case they had more questioning to do in the morning. To “protect” me (as he put it), but more likely to make sure I wasn’t up before the roosters, I was accompanied by an armed guard. After what seemed an unnecessarily long time of walking from side street to side street in the freezing wind, I was shown into an old house that was little more than an empty shell. There was no plumbing, no electricity, no furniture, not a bit of warmth. I didn’t know who had it worse: the guard sitting outside in his long coat, or me inside with all the rats and smells.
I sat on the cold cement floor, feeling as low as a person could. I was away from that mad police commander, but for how long? Tomorrow could bring more of the same abuse, and beatings. He was as likely to decide overnight that I had to be punished as anything else.
I shook with cold and the urge to cry. Drawing my knees up to my chest, I let my head rest against a wall. I looked unhappily at the stars blinking through a back window: I felt like an alien lost a billion light years from my family.
The window . . . my God-the window! No, I told myself, it’s too crazy. You can’t even think about crawling out that window. But that was all I did think about. Less than ten feet away from me was an open window. I looked to the guard out front. He was smoking and seemed unconcerned about me. I eased myself to my feet and tiptoed to the window. Not a soul behind it, just an open lot. I tried again to talk myself out of it, but there just wasn’t much to say against going out that window while I had a chance.
I thought the pounding of my heart was going to wake the entire town as I eased Clinger onto my back and snapped the buckles tightly. He hugged me as tightly as a cub would a momma bear. If there was any running to be done, I wanted him clinging like my own clothes.
First one leg, then the other I placed out the window. I sat unsteadily on the sill, holding my breath as if I were about to plunge into a bottomless lake. When at last I shoved and dropped away to the ground, I knew I was free again, that the roads and the skies were mine to keep for a while longer. It could have been a trap, I realized, a ploy to trick me into being killed while “escaping.” But it wasn’t.
Under the cover of the darkness and with the dark rows of the town’s houses watching me like jumbled tombstones, I crawled on my hands and knees to the fields on the edge of the town and made my way along the mountain peaks all night to Agri. When I arrived there the next morning, I was shaking and exhausted with the symptoms of a bad head cold. The grayest clouds I’d seen in my fifty-five days of walking the entire length of Turkey were shrouding that ancient outpost, but still I was very, very happy.
For, at last, I was halfway home.
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