Monday, January 02, 2006

An Arresting Experience in Istanbul

ISTANBUL, TURKEY: I was en-route to the Holy Land, in early spring, 1985, flying from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Amman Jordan, on a KLM Airlines 747. The captain’s voice came over the speaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to make an unscheduled stop in Istanbul, Turkey. We’ll be on the ground for about one hour.” No explanation was give as to the purpose of the stop.

What great luck, I thought. That’s just long enough to say that I’ve been to Istanbul, ancient Constantinople.

Viewing the exotic Moslem city from the air made my pulse quicken. The skyline, with its numerous domed mosques looked like something out of a Rudyard Kipling novel. In the outlying fields shepherds herded their flocks.

The airport was heavily guarded. Armed soldiers stood on elevated platforms above the high fence which surrounded the runway. In my excitement I didn’t hear the announcement that all passengers were to remain on board. I’ll never know why I wasn’t stop as I walked off the plane.

The best souvenir I could imagine was not a trinket from an airport gift shop, but a stamp in my passport. Without any luggage, I walked through customs unhindered. At the immigration desk I presented my passport for the coveted stamp, and received it without a hitch.

Walking outside the airport, I took a deep breath and smiled to myself. “So this is the legendary Turkish capital.” I walked around the front of the airport to see as much as I could. Forty minutes of the allotted one hour passed. Just to be safe, I decided to re-board the plane.

That’s when two armed guards stopped me at the airport entrance. “Ticket,” they demanded. That seemed to be about the only word they knew in English. The other word was “No!” which they repeated with increasing vehemence as I tried vainly to explain to them my situation.

When I made an effort to enter the airport above their protest, they pressed the barrels of their submachine guns into my stomach.

I’ve never seen anyone prouder than these two young Turks as they marched me off to the police sub-station in the airport. I was taken into a bare room where one stood guard over me while the other went for assistance.

Soon I was surrounded by a dozen angry looking dark-faced men in uniform. One of them spoke English. He demanded my passport. With exaggerated motions he crossed out my immigration stamp, scribbling something beside it in Turkish. I glanced out the window just in time to see my flight taxiing onto the runway. My heart sank; the blood drained from my white face.

I was informed I had entered the country illegally. My ticket was from Atlanta to Amsterdam and from there to Amman. I didn’t have passage into our out of Turkey. The officer gravely shook his head, “This is very serious.”

For more than an hour I stood in the middle of the room, praying silently while the police argued among themselves in excited tones as to what to do with me. Through the interpreter I laboriously explained again and again how I had arrived in their country.

Finally they must have decided I wasn’t subversive – just stupid. The English-speaking officer turned to be with a wide grin which showed a missing front tooth. Returning my passport he said in a pronounced accent. “Velcome to Istanbul. You may go now.”

The first flight I was able to book to Amman was 26 hours later via Royal Jordanian Airlines. They were very kind to offer me free passage. Twenty-six hours gave me the opportunity for a fascinating day of exploration. A taxi took me to a hotel near the Bosporus Bridge, which connects Europe with Asia.

The next morning, while visiting the famed Blue Mosque, I met a local young man who was eager to practice his English. I accepted his invitation to have afternoon tea with his family. He treated me as an honored guest and proudly showed me off to his friends and neighbors. It was an experience I would not have wanted to have missed.

Little did I know that in only 48 hours, on a lonely Jordanian road, near the place where Moses looked over into the Promised Land, I would be arrested again.

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