• Richard Murff

I've Never Been to Katmandu (Part II)

Excerpted from Pothole of the Gods (Burnaby)



Istanbul, Turkey


November 2010: 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.

ADMITTEDLY, 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.


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