Sanli Urfa, Turkey–This is not a verbatim transcript–it is roughly what I remember of a conversation about America, al Qaeda, Iraq, and Middle Eastern politics during lunch in Sanli Urfa, a small Turkish city about 30 miles from the Syrian border. The Turkish fellow is in his 20s, speaks English fluently, is educated, and works with Americans regularly.
Turkish fellow: So you’re an American from Ankara. Do you work in the Embassy?
Me: No, I’m a writer.
Turkish fellow: Who do you write for?
Me: Well, a magazine called National Review and some newspapers in New York, Washington, and Philadelphia. These days I spend a lot of time trying to convince American editors that they need more coverage of Turkey. Some issues that are big here just aren’t that interesting to an American audience, like the effort to get into the EU. Sometimes they’re interested–like with the recent decision on Ocalan.
[Note: Of course, when you’re traveling overseas, you’re urged to avoid political discussions. Not all that different from Washington, D.C., or Manhattan, actually. Nonetheless, I try to locate some area on which I can find common ground or tell the local that I agree with him. In this case, because Ocalan, the mastermind of the PKK, is a widely hated figure, I figured it was safe to say I didn’t think the European Court of Human Rights should demand the Turks retry him--the country’s most-wanted terrorist, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths--because he didn’t get access to a lawyer fast enough.]
Turkish fellow: I’m half-Kurdish.
[Unspoken by me: Doh! He didn’t express sympathy with Ocalan, but obviously this is a sensitive issue, and I just stepped right in it. Time to divert…]
Me: Also, Americans are interested when something odd like the sale of Mein Kampf picks up. But I’ve found the anti-Americanism here pretty marginal. It’s there if you look for it, but it doesn’t crop up in day-to-day life…
Turkish fellow: There is no one in Turkey who is anti-American, we are only anti-Bush. I hope you tell the American people that they don’t need to worry about another 9/11…
Turkish fellow: …as soon as the Palestinian issue is resolved.
Me: Oh, really? What makes you think that?
Turkish fellow: I think much good will come from this. It is terrible that so many people died, but it is good that Americans have been taught a lesson, and now they understand how the rest of the world feels…
[If this was an action movie, or I were a bolder soul, I would have kicked tush and taken hyphenated names right then and there. But it wasn’t, I’m not, and I decided to see whether I could probe further and dissuade him of this notion that the murder of more than 3,000 innocent people was a “good thing” because it supposedly increased Americans’ understanding of the rest of the world.]
Me: I think if you’re looking for a humbler America to result from this, you’ll be disappointed. I think Americans are frightened, angry, and very, very determined to make sure nothing like this happens ever again.
[Right around now, the room is getting quieter and quieter except for us.]
Turkish fellow: But you understand why so many people follow bin Laden? You go to Syria, you see photos of Mohammed Atta on the walls. Osama is like a legend. He is a rich man, who had a billion dollars, who could live in a big house and with lots of servants and women, and he chooses to live in a cave…
Me: Yeah, yeah, he’s seen as Robin Hood, except that he kills thousands of innocent people.
Turkish fellow: It was terrible that so many people died. But it was such a… spectacular sight! America is so powerful, and has such vast armies, and yet only 19 men, trained as pilots, could create such an amazing vision, of each plane hitting the tower, and then each tower falling, one after the other…
Me: Yes, I remember, thank you, it was the worst day of my life.
[Unspoken by me: So this is what an al Qaeda sympathizer looks like.]
Turkish fellow: Why hasn’t the U.S. caught bin Laden?
Me: If I knew where he was, you think I would be here? I would be collecting the reward.
Turkish fellow: You think America can’t find him? With all their resources and armies and–
Me: He’s one guy and it’s a big world. He’s somewhere in northern Pakistan, probably, but it’s tough terrain, with unfriendly locals, and he’s one guy. Surely you’re not suggesting that the U.S. knows where he is and isn’t trying to capture him?
Turkish fellow: Did you see Fahrenheit 9/11?
Me: Oh, [expletive deleted]. Don’t tell me you’re getting all this [expletive deleted] from a Michael Moore movie. My friend, I hate to tell you this, but there was a lot that wasn’t true in that movie. There were a lot of half-truths, innuendos, selective editing, and then outright lies
Turkish fellow: Well, why did Bush let the bin Ladens leave on those planes?
Me: [making a mental note to track down Michael Moore and have some words with him] Have you ever heard of a gentleman named Richard Clarke?
Turkish fellow: No.
Me: He worked in the White House, and handled national-security policies. He was the one who authorized the departure of those planes, not Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld. Perhaps it would have been good for the FBI to talk to those people more extensively or a second time later. Richard Clarke eventually resigned and made many critical comments of President Bush. But you notice that Michael Moore didn’t bother to mention that this guy was the one who authorized those planes leaving.
Turkish fellow: Why are you going to invade Syria?
Me: We’re not going to invade Syria. At least not as far as I know, and at least not anytime soon. There’s this widespread conspiratorial thinking that there’s some secret U.S. plan to invade Iraq, then Syria, then Iran… I cannot imagine that that is the case. For starters, the job isn’t done in Iraq. If all of the U.S. troops left Iraq tomorrow, what would happen in that country?
Turkish fellow: It would be chaos.
Me: Exactly. So U.S. troops can’t leave Iraq until the Iraqi people have set up their own police, their own army, their own methods of keeping order. And bit by bit, they’re getting there. Keep in mind that I’m an American civilian, and not speaking for the government, but I think you’ll see about a third of the U.S. troops out in a year, another third out next year, and the job pretty much done in three years.
Turkish fellow: I have many friends in Syria, and would not want to see them hurt in an invasion.
Me: I would be tremendously surprised if the United States invaded another country anytime soon, unless we suddenly found that some government was protecting al Qaeda or something clear-cut like that. The thing about the invasion of Iraq is that because it is done, it’s had this ripple effect and made further political changes throughout the region. For example, you have seen the pro-democracy demonstrations in Lebanon. Jordan is having local elections, as is Saudi Arabia. They’re small, and only at the local level, but it’s a start. Egypt is now going to have an election with more than one candidate. Do you think any of that would have happened if it hadn’t been for what happened to Saddam Hussein?
[There were two points of the conversation where I think I broke through with this guy:]
Me: You’re a Turk, and you participate in elections. I’m an American, and I vote. What makes us any different from the Iraqis? Why shouldn’t they enjoy the same rights we do? If September 11 was the worst day of my life, then January 30 is one of the best days since then. There’s no doubt that many Americans believed that we would be welcomed as liberators, if for no other reason than just how bad Saddam Hussein was. Well, clearly we weren’t trusted, we were seen as a very alien outside force. It was clear that the story of Iraq had to stop being about what the Americans were doing for them, and start being about what the Iraqis were doing for themselves. And that’s what January 30 was about.
Because it was a day when it was no longer about what the Americans were doing, but about what the Iraqis were doing and their courage. They knew there were people trying to prevent them from voting and trying to kill them. They did it anyway. They said, “We don’t care, we’re not going to be scared,” and they stuck their fingers in the purple ink. And a people who had known nothing but fear and oppression and dictatorship stood up and said, “I’m going to be treated like a human being, and I’m going to choose my own destiny.” A lot has gone wrong in Iraq–it’s embarrassing to not find weapons of mass destruction, and the ties to terrorism are widely disputed. But this is the good that will come from all this, a working democracy where before there had only been Saddam and Uday and Qusay.
[Then this fellow took up a common concern in Turkey: the fear that the Kurds of Iraq will create an independent Kurdistan, prompting the Kurds in southeastern Turkey to attempt to secede and start a civil war.]
Me: You’re half Kurdish. You’re a happy Turkish citizen. Many Kurds are happy being part of a unified Turkish nation. The question is, what will it take to get the Kurds of Iraq to have the attitude of the Kurds in Turkey–that they don’t need to be part of a separate state, and that they can be represented as part of a unified, multiethnic republic?
[He looks back at me for a while.]
Turkish fellow: That is a very good question.
Anyway, this is one guy. He was friendly, genuinely interested in Americans, and I’m sure he thinks that by talking to me, he’ll help the American people understand that fixing the Palestinian issue will end terrorism. And I don’t want my recollection of this conversation from a few days ago to come across as this great breakthrough–I don’t think I really changed this fellow’s mind on much.
So chances are, he probably still thinks the Sept. 11 attacks were good because they taught Americans a lesson.
And of course, he loved Fahrenheit 9/11.
I’m going to head back to the United States for a few weeks in the not-too-distant future, to check in with friends and family, and to do research for a long-term project. At some point, I’m going to have to track down Michael Moore and have a little chat with him.