I've Never Been to Katmandu (part 1)
Excerpted from Pothole of the Gods (Burnaby)
“Run and find out.”
Motto of all the Mongoose family
November 2012: I was starting to sweat. It was a cold morning, but Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport is not a cozy place. At 5:30 am it is a stifling madhouse. The din of the travelers moving in the wide, high corridors drifted upward along the curving walls and hung about my head like a muffled cloud. Around me, in grey and black permanent press, was a quartet of Turkish airport security – professional but jittery. The Arab Spring that was spreading like a grease fire across North Africa and the Middle East, had engulfed Syria. Just over the Turkish border one more ancient state was coming apart at the seams.
Once again, Western powers where coming in to spread the good cheer: The CIA was frantically trying to mop up arms pipeline that had sprung a leak and the Turks were furious over the whole thing. For my part, I was attached to an entirely different sort of mission that morning, and my concerns were of a much more personal nature. Namely that airport security was more than a little curious about an American flying into Benghazi with a black canvas duffle the size of a body bag. A bead of perspiration had formed high on the temple and was making a mad dash for my hairline. I’ve been me long enough to know that it wouldn’t be the last one.
Two months after the September 11 attacks on the US Special Mission compound in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, both the FBI and the CIA had cleared out of the city citing security concerns. Officially, at any rate. The FBI was conducting its investigation from Tripoli, as for the CIA, well you never can tell with that crew. Here I was flying into the place with a high-tech kit I couldn’t explain even if I did speak Turkish. The three men in the security detail were engaged in a routine search - more curious than suspicious and probably wouldn’t have given me any trouble if I remained generally likable. The lone female, however, stood with her feet wide apart glaring at me. She wasn’t ugly, just willfully non-feminine. The lip service that Turkey pays to women’s rights has never really soaked through to the cultural bones, and had been receding the longer President Erdogan stayed in power. She had something to prove. Thinking about the daughter I’d left in Memphis, on any other day would have applauded Officer Smiley’s determination in the face of sexism, but this morning she was problematic.
Having anticipated something like this, I was wearing a blue blazer, khakis and loafers because in these high-alert days it never hurts to look like you just stumbled out of the yacht club. I unzipped the duffle to reveal an almost ordered jumble of sterile, sealed surgical supplies. The trick here is to maintain a vague air of polite impatience without being insulting to security. They’ve got a job to do and rousing indignation just makes you look guilty. With the same insufferable air, I handed her my paperwork: the packing list, cover letter and my Libyan visa – all in Arabic that neither one of us could read. She handled the documents badly, crushing them and giving me a good frowning as she handed them back to me in a wad. I gave her my best aw shucks smile and handed the official crumple over to another guard with a shrug. He didn’t know what to make of them either, but smoothed the papers out apologetically before handing them back to me. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her bend down and snatch a clear container of surgical canula out of the duffle and begin to pick at the protective packaging.
If I’d thought about it, things would certainly have gone differently, as it was, I didn’t. Some nescient motor function took over. I rolled up my paperwork, swatted her hand – like a puppy – and snatched the container away. She stared at her empty palms for just a split second, but it felt like ten. Long enough for me to realize what I’d just done. When she did look up I can’t imagine the dumb American expression that greeted her on my dumb American face helped matters. Her shock would only buy me a few moments before the fury took hold and she did something brutal and, in Turkey, perfectly legal.
TEN DAYS EARLIER, I’d called the charming Mrs. M. at work to tell her where I was headed. “Oh fun!” she said. I thought she was taking the whole thing surprisingly well considering that the footage of that wall of black smoke rolling out of the Special Mission compound had been running nonstop on the news for nearly six weeks. That easy going air of hers didn’t quite make it to dinner.
While we watching the evening news, some escaped detail quietly returned to her. She turned to me and said, “Wait… did you say that you were going to Benghazi?” She was pointing to the infamous wall of inky, toxic smoke and heaps of excitable Arabs.
I remember exactly what was on television because my eyes were fixed on the screen. Too much eye-contact, just then, seemed ill-advised. “Yeah.” I said casually, “We talked about it this morning.” That, I thought would settle the matter. As it turned out, in some spasm of selective spousal hearing she’d thought I’d told her I was heading to Katmandu.
“Why would I go to Katmandu?”
“WHY would you go to Benghazi?!?” she asked, sensibly.
“Well, why NOT go to Benghazi?” I most certainly did not say. What I did was heroically open a bottle of wine. The truth is, she had me there.
Why was I been chasing a group of pediatric cardiac surgeons into a war zone crime scene? I’m not a doctor, that would be my twin brother – known in my family as “The Smart One.” The most I could offer was that I’d been to a lot of med school parties. It was perfectly reasonable to ask why I was putting my neck on the line for a bunch of people who, if the news was to be believed, hated Americans and the core concept of America itself. Fortunately, being a writer keeps me from believing everything I read.
To get to the unguarded heart of humanity you need to quit listening to the politicos and activists in their folderol and go talk to people who actually work for a living. So with the Arab Spring trying desperately to hang-on in that dim twilight between revolution and civil war, I just felt compelled to go. I wanted some strategic assessment of the world seen from the eyes of the people not currently trying to blow it up.