At the 75th Anniversary military parade

ANKARA, TURKEY - JULY 16:  In this handout ima...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

All week, the whole country’s been gearing up for October 29th, the 75th Anniversary of the Turkish Republic. On the navy base on our island Heybeliada, they’ve been doing drills and practicing their drums – rat-a-tat! How exciting! Soldiers marching and shouting “Country before everything!”

We went to Aksaray for the morning parade. It was scheduled for 10AM and started promptly at noon. Walking there, I found my English to be more helpful here than my Turkish. (This is often the case here. Once, when we were riding on a train to see Elif’s father, Elif had told me that that the ride would be crowded and miserable, but instead it was surprisingly nice – because we had accidentally boarded the private, first-class train. The conductor came over, angrily telling us our tickets were no good, and I asked Elif, innocently, in English, “What’s the problem, what’s happening?” And the conductor suddenly turned to me and smiled and apologized all over, saying welcome to Turkey, you are our guests here, you don’t have to pay anything.) Now, walking to the parade this morning, as we got close to the bandstand, we were all going to be stopped and frisked for bombs, and I asked Elif, in English, why the man was going to check our bags, and the soldier let us all through without searching us.

Turkish security, however much in earnest, is not perfect. Today, the TV reports that a guy just hijacked a plane headed to Ankara from Adana. The plane left at 7:30 and was supposed to land in Ankara at 8:30, but somehow he snuck a hand grenade and a gun on the plane (perhaps he spoke English at the airport?) The plane landed at 9:30 and they told him he was in Sofya, Bulgaria, and he demanded to be taken to Lausanne. But the wily Turks tricked him – they didn’t land in Sofya at all, but actually in Ankara, after having shut off all of the lights at the Ataturk airport and ordering the village mosques not to broadcast evening prayers. Then, after seven hours of negotiations, they brought in some Turks without moustaches to talk with him as if they were Bulgarians. By 3 AM, negotiations were breaking down, and they managed quietly to open a rear exit of the plane while the hijacker was in the cockpit. One at a time, they replaced rear-seating passengers with plainclothes sharpshooters, and before sun-up, when he would have discovered he was in Ankara and not Bulgaria, they blew his head off. I watched much of this unfold live, except for the finale. My favorite part was when the Turkish news station we’re watching got the cell phone number of one of the plane’s passengers from a family member, and the reporters talked with him live on TV while the hijacker was in the cockpit. The passenger was whispering into the phone what was going on, and the conversation ended quite abruptly when the passenger said, “He’s looking at me, I have to go, don’t ever call this phone number again!”

But back to this morning’s parade. There were a respectable number of tanks, planes, and helicopters, but not much in the way of folkloric dancers or cultural marchers – strangely subdued for a country’s – demisesquicentennial? The reason was obvious when the parade’s organizer, Istanbul’s mayor Erdogan, passed by us on his float, touching his hands to his head and heart repeatedly in a religious love-bestowing gesture – our current mayor clearly has no interest in promoting celebrations of modern Turkey’s democratic standing, Kemalist principles, etc. The festivities were enlivened considerably when an insane old guy waving the Turkish flag started walking with the tanks. Wherever he passed, the crowd would let out a huge cheer. If anyone else in the crowd would have stepped into the street, they’d have been shot, but this old guy – who would stop him?

On the way back from the morning parade, on a bridge, I saw lots of people crowded around a Jandarme looking to the ground. I went there, asking what was up, and Elif said “They’re just looking at the Jandarme’s gun.” But I saw something different: there, in the corner, was a crying 6-year-old boy, who had gotten separated from his mother. Dilek had the clearest head of all – she suggested they take the boy to the police station before something would happen to him. One woman had a different idea, however, and grabbed the boy’s arm and said she would bring him to the cops. The soldier was fine with that, as were the villagers present, but we would have none of it – who was this woman? What did she want with the boy? We summoned the police, and they came, and everyone was smiling, how cute, a lost boy, and the mystery woman again said she’d bring the child into the station downtown, and the cops were fine with that and seemed happy to be free to go off and do other things. We were screaming to the cops to take the boy in yourselves, and the cops said, OK, we will take him, but the woman started walking away with the boy, and Elif and the woman are playing tug-of-war with the boy’s arm, and in the argument I saw the woman push Dilek hard in the chest. So, with a crowd of people, two cops, and a soldier present, I instantly did exactly what I was required to do in a situation when someone pushes my mother-in-law in the chest: I stood up to my full five-foot-six-inches, pointed my finger in the woman’s face, and shouted in a loud, deep voice: “Hey!” And the two men behind me did exactly what they were required to do in the situation: they grabbed my arms. Now nobody thought it would come to blows, but the cops were now forced to lift the boy up in the air and carry him themselves off to the police station.

One thing bothered me all day: after this crazy woman had tried to abduct a boy and then pushed Elif’s mother in the chest, why did Dilek, a tough cookie, did not do anything, thus forcing me to intervene? Elif gave me the answer: Dilek had shoved the woman first, naturally.

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