Towards midnight one night last week I walked miles down the pitch-black European shore of the Bosphorus, the 15-mile channel that splits Istanbul and Turkey in half. To any watcher of TV news, that will sound nuts. Fifteen million people have converged on Istanbul in recent decades, cramming into just-thrown-up tenements and dirty slums. The demographics are skewed towards the young, the unscrupulous, and the criminal. Turkish youths do not figure prominently among America’s biggest admirers. In November some of them were captured on film trying to pull plastic bags over the heads of sailors on shore leave from the destroyer USS Ross. Others are rushing to join the Muslim extremists of ISIS just across the border.
Doesn’t scare me. The Bosphorus is among the loveliest places on earth, but this time of year it is among the safest, too. All kinds of fish migrate between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara in the fall—delicious mackerel, tender bass, and the superbly fryable smelt-sized mullet called barbunya. Bundled up against the cold, spaced out every five or six feet along the entirety of the shoreline, all the men of Istanbul are standing with their casting rods and their tackle boxes and maybe a bucket with the evening’s dinner swimming around in it. They crack jokes, drink hot tea out of thermoses, and snack on the cartwheel-shaped sesame bagels called simit.
Not that those who see Turkey as a menacing place are wrong. I used to write a lot about political Islam and the AK party of Recep Erdogan, the current president. That took me into the boondocks. At a low point in the Iraq war, a war that Turkey did not support nohow, an Istanbul friend suggested I get to know the “real Turkey” by visiting his grandmother’s village. It was deep in the countryside, an hour or so outside of the ancient Silk Road city of Kayseri. The politically correct would call Kayseri a “crossroads of civilizations.” Another way to look at it would be as lying in the gap between civilizations, where mutually distrustful shysters cross paths on their way to rip other people off. Uncharitable visitors might call it a dump.
A car was to take me out of Kayseri in the morning, but when it arrived the driver (dark-haired, fiery-eyed, young) and the translator (gray, querulous) were arguing. I don’t mean arguing about soccer. I mean arguing in a spittle-flying, finger-pointing, dashboard-pounding way that portended a fight.
We made it a few blocks. The driver jammed on the brakes. The translator screamed at him for 30 seconds before jumping from the car. “This driver?” he said to me. “Asshole! He get for you other translator.” He slammed the door and I never saw him again. The driver and I went to a local tourist information agency. My new translator got in the car. “Good day,” he said to me. He and the driver fell into an animated conversation in Turkish.
About 312 people lived in the village. The mayor had agreed to meet me. We sat in his office—him, me, and about two dozen of his top aides. Before I could begin thanking him for having me, he began to give me a lecture, his voice quivering and rising. I picked up half-words here and there.
“Çok yok ekmek Bush! Bushli Bushleri Rumsfeld-li! Iranli Irakli Saddamli! Evet? Beslar meslar peslar Erdogan-da, Project for a New American Century-da!”
I looked to the translator for help.
“Him have for to be for have,” he said. “Bouche.”
“Could you repeat that?” I said.
“After war is was time into the him there very after,” he replied. “Bouche.”
When we were done, the translator tried to say something else. Either the mayor was inviting me to lunch or I was about to star in an Internet torture video. The mayor and his aides and I went to a cliffside park outside of town. They roasted me a lamb. It was wonderful.