I've Never Been to Katmandu
“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.
For an American traveling on a completely off-the-books errand in 2012, all of this made the world very interesting.
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.
For an American traveling on a completely off-the-books errand in 2012, all of this made the world very interesting. Iran’s current regime has been monkeying around in the Lebanese civil war since before they took power in Tehran. Everyone knew that the Islamic Republic had crept into Syria, but then so had everyone else. In an age of proxy wars, how to you negotiate a settlement with half a dozen or so belligerents when only about three will admit to actually being in the fight?
Politics are muddled, and modern politics even moreso. Today’s wars serve the abstract: Economics, self-determination, nationalism and other slippery ideals that don’t always work right out of the box. Freedom is even more slippery. These are hard issues – and to look at the bill, expensive ones.
By the time I was packing for Libya, I’d been all over Hell’s half acre trying to find answers and generally confusing myself. I was getting a general idea as to how politicians, technocrats and other foreign policy experts were “losing” states left and right. And there, on the side of the Mediterranean that the Italians never managed to make fashionable, a state was being lost in real time. The noble aspirations of a people to overthrow a psychotic tyrant was being hijacked - not from the Judeo-Christian West, but from the East. By a deranged version of their own religion that was taking massive arms shipments from the Great Satan for a holy war and screaming “Death to America” while butchering Muslim Arabs.
Granted, this tragic pothole of the gods is a weird place in which to see humor, but why not? Being theatrically serious about a problem may signal its gravity, but it has never helped bring about a solution.
So, I got my shots and had a check-up: my heart rate was fine and my BMI came it at ‘nicely marbled.’ I was set. I attached myself to a humanitarian aid mission to gain access to government officials as well as get a worm’s eye view of the situation on the ground. Politician lie wherever you go, but hospitals are where you universally find the rawest types of grief and joy. You can’t fake that. If there was a Why to be found, it would be here. Earnest ideology be damned, what works for the people we are trying to help? Let’s not be Boy Scouts about it, what works for the people we’re trying to cripple?
Which is how I would up in Istanbul that strange morning with a bag of supplies unidentifiable if you don’t have some sort of medical degree. I knew why the Turks were jittery about that bag of donated surgical supplies, I just didn’t care. I may have been a mule, but I was a mule with my papers in order. Once in Benghazi there was no way to re-supply so those sealed tubes and gizmos and whatsits all meant life or death to some little kid with heartbroken parents. Years ago, I sat through a long, uncertain night in the hospital with my own daughter _ and have seen it since around the world. The politics and the religion of desperate parents has got nothing to do with socialism or capitalism, or whether you pray on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. It is very simple: Please God, let her make it through the night. Take me if you have to, I won’t fight it, but let her make it. See her through to the sunrise. So, I was in no mood to have the sterile material in that bag ruined by the fussy security at the Atatürk airport.
In retrospect, taking a swat at airport security was an idiotic thing to do but my conscious mind hadn’t thought about it. I’d just done it. Or my subconscious had done it while my conscious-self watched in mute horror as my arm reached out and snatched that clear box out of her hand. My conscious brain was caught between visions of Midnight Express style Turkish prison and the truism that a bold move – even a near suicidal one – is wasted on a weak follow up. There was nothing to do in the situation but to push through it and push hard. I doubled down. Like a real first-rate ass, I wagged my finger at her and said in the slow, halting words that Americans assume all foreigners understand, “Must. Not. Open.”
The other guards looked amused. “Docktor?” one asked. Turkish is a harsh language. It sounds like one of those Slavic tongues that was taken round back and roughed up by Arabic. As it was the only word we had in common, I lied. Hell, I looked like a doctor. The four guards conferred as I checked the seal (it was still good) and started to put the bag back in order without anyone’s permission. I zipped up and started off in an arrogant huff as they waved me through. Once out of sight I bolted upstairs to my flight check-in as fast as a husky middle-aged man hauling 57 pounds of badly balanced surgical supplies can. It lacked grace.
After a little more bad noise at the gate, I got both myself and the damn bag on the flight to Benghazi. Where I was promptly arrested again at customs.
Excerpted from Pothole of the Gods (Burnaby)