GALLIPOLI PENNINSULA, WESTERN TURKEY – My recent trip to Turkey wasn’t my first, but my friend Sean LaFreniere – whom I flew from Beirut to Istanbul to meet – had never been there before. So I let him decide our itinerary. He wanted to see Gallipoli and Troy, even though Izmir has better ruins than Troy. We didn’t have time to drive all the way down to Izmir on a brief three-day trip, though. So Troy it was.
I have known Sean most of my life. I should have known, then, that it’s impossible for us to rent a car in a foreign country and only drive a few hours. We ended up more than a thousand miles and a whole world away from where we innocently planned to visit over the weekend.
We hurtled down the highway from Istanbul to Gallipoli and argued about whether Turkey was Eastern or Western. Sean said it was Western. I played Devil’s Advocate and said it was Eastern. (What I really think is that it’s neither and both. It isn’t Eastern or Western. It’s Turkey.)
“Remember, Sean,” I said. “This country borders Greece and Bulgaria. But it also borders Iraq.”
I could all but hear the gears turn in his head.
“That’s right,” he said and put his hand over his mouth. “Holy shit, we could drive to Iraq.”
I knew the instant he said it that we would, indeed, drive to Iraq. Who cares about Troy when we could drive to Iraq?
He did not yet know what I knew. I had just flown over Anatolia in an airplane on a clear day. All of Turkey east of the Bosphorous ripples with mountains. And when I say mountains, I mean mountains. Huge, steep, snow-covered monsters that rise up from the earth and the sea like giant rock walls. Turkey is a miniature continent unto itself. (Hence the name Asia Minor.) You can’t blow through that land in a car like you can if you stick to I-5 in California.
Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere
I wanted to do it, though. Badly. How many people have ever decided to spontaneously make a road trip to Iraq from Europe for one day as a tourist after they were already in the car and driving the wrong direction toward Greece instead of the Tigris? We had no visas. No map. No plan. And no time. Sean had to be back in Copenhagen in three days for final exams. Pulling this off would be very nearly impossible. Nothing appealed to me more.
I pulled off the road and stopped the car so I could think.
“We’re going to make this work,” I said.
I called my wife Shelly and told her what we were up to. I also called a friend of mine who works on the Council of Ministers in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Would it be possible for us to get tourist visas on arrival at the border?
“Michael!” he said, disappointed that I even asked. “You know the Kurds won’t give you any problems.”
“Sorry,” I said. “The border is more than a thousand miles away. I don’t want to drive all the way over there in Winter unless I’m sure we can get in.”
“Of course you can get in,” he said. “You are always welcome in Kurdistan.”
“Can I call you from the border if we have any problems?” I said.
“Michael!” he said. “We will not give you any trouble. The only people who might give you trouble are Turks.”
I didn’t think the Turks would care if or how we left Turkey. They might care once we tried to come back, but Sean and I already had multiple-entry visas. We decided to drive all night if we had to and not bother getting hotel rooms. So it looked like we were set.
It dawned on Sean that we were actually going to Iraq, even if it was the Kurdistan region. We were no longer talking about it, but doing it.
“Would you take your wife there?” he said.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s really not dangerous. Shelly wished she could have gone with me when I went there before.”
It was a minor drag that we couldn’t see much of Turkey except from the car. Gallipoli (Gelibolu in Turkish) isn’t the most interesting place in the country, but it was the site of a crucial World War I battle and the inspiration for one of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s most moving speeches.
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
The only thing we didn’t have that we needed was a decent map and a decent night’s sleep.
We crossed the Dardanelles by ferry and landed on the Asian shore in the charming town of Canakkale.
Gallipoli was just on the other side of the water. Big guns from the battle made a set piece downtown.
I asked the clerk at the hotel desk if he knew a place where I could buy a map.
He didn’t. I wasn’t surprised. Maps are generally harder to find in the East, and it’s weird how many people do not know how to read them.
“Do you have any idea what’s the best road to take to get to Turkish Kurdistan?” I said. Sean and I did have a map, we just couldn’t tell from the small granularity which was the best route.
“I don’t like Kurds,” the clerk said.
“What’s wrong with Kurds?” Sean said.
“I don’t like their culture,” he said and twisted his face. “They’re dirty and stupid.”
Sean and I just looked at him and blinked. He seemed like such a sweet kid when he checked us into the hotel.
I had a brief flashback to a conversation I had with a Kurd in Northern Iraq a few weeks before. Istanbul is a great city, my Kurdish friend said. The only problem is it’s full of Turks.
“What do you think of Arabs?” Sean said.
“Eh,” the clerk said. “We don’t like them in Turkey. We have the same religion, but that’s it. They cause so many problems. You know.”
Sometimes it seems like everyone in the Middle East hates everyone else in the Middle East. Arabs hate Kurds and Israelis. Turks hate Arabs and Kurds. Kurds hate Turks and fear Arabs. (Interestingly, Kurds love Israelis.) Everyone, especially Lebanese, hates Palestinians.
Not all people are haters. I’ve met plenty who aren’t. But every culture has its baseline prejudices that individuals either opt into or out of. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to shake people and say: Keep your old-world ethnic squabbling out of my face, willya please? Jesus, no wonder there’s so much war around here. Even so, Middle Easterners are the most friendly and charming people I’ve ever met.
Sean and I tried to go to sleep early so we could wake up and go at first light. I stared at the ceiling and remembered my flight over Eastern Turkey. We are so screwed, I thought. There’s no way we can drive across that landscape to Iraq and back in three days from where we are now. And I was right.
Read Part Two…