REVISITING THE LAND OF 'MIDNIGHT EXPRESS'
Escaped Hashish Runner A Welcome Guest After Apologizing For '78 Film
ISTANBUL--Billy Hayes didn't flinch when the two Turkish police officers approached him in the dining room of Istanbul's Conrad Hotel one recent morning. He smiled.
"I wanted to thank you for what you did," said one of the officers, while the other nodded vigorously in assent.
This sort of thing had been happening to Hayes all week, and he was finally getting used to it -- even if it was a little surreal. His last official contact with Turkish authorities, more than three decades ago, was anything but friendly.
In 1970, Hayes, then a 23-year-old U.S. college student hanging out in Istanbul, was caught trying to smuggle hashish out of the country. His six-year ordeal -- imprisonment, harsh treatment and finally a desperate escape from the Bosporus island prison where he was serving a life sentence -- was immortalized in a 1977 book and 1978 film called Midnight Express. His story effectively turned Turkey into an international byword for human rights abuse.
Now a gaunt, slightly sheepish 60-year-old, Hayes was back for the first time since his escape, thanks to an extraordinary suspension of a Turkish order banning him from the country. ( An Interpol arrest warrant for Hayes had long since been wiped out. )
The reason for the Turks' change of heart: Hayes wanted to apologize and "make amends" -- not for the book he wrote, but for the movie, scripted by Oliver Stone, on which it was based.
"The film wasn't what Turkish people deserved," Hayes told reporters at a jammed June 15 press conference, explaining that it painted an unfairly bleak portrait of the country.
Some apologies are sweeter than others. Hayes, now a filmmaker in his own right, first issued his mea culpa a few years earlier in a U.S. interview. But Turkey's decision to grant his long-standing request to return was a masterpiece of shrewd timing.
He was invited as one of 1,600 delegates -- including academics and police officers -- from around the world to an Istanbul conference on democracy and global security.
If you think that sounds like unlikely company for a self-confessed drug runner, you're right. But the plot gets thicker.
Hayes was a minor, if fascinating, player in a larger drama.
One reason for the original appeal of Midnight Express was that it played into then-contemporary images of Turkey as backward and brutal. In fact, Turkey is now a bustling, moderate democracy hospitable to Western values in a region where those characteristics are few and far between.
Hayes' apology underlined the change, but the message intended by the Turks was more complex. The security conference, which covered subjects ranging from smuggling to terrorism, was designed to emphasize Turkey's growing strategic significance as a crossroads for Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The evolving chaos in Iraq, on its southern border, is one example of why the world cannot afford to ignore the perspectives of this nation of 75 million people.
There was another message, perhaps even more important, that Turkey delivered through Hayes and the conference -- this one aimed at Turks themselves. It was a subliminal warning that their country's hard-won acceptance in world opinion could be endangered.
The internal debate between moderate Islamic politicians and "secularists" largely backed by the army over the direction of Turkish democracy will come to a head this summer with parliamentary elections. The generals have hinted darkly at a return to power if they feel their prerogatives are threatened.
Can a moderate Islamic democracy survive in the Middle East? It was no accident that delegates to the conference ( including this writer ) were guests of the Turkish National Police, which is developing into a modernized force that can balance the long-entrenched power of the military.
The two Turkish police who congratulated Hayes for his apology were on leave from their PhD studies in the United States, part of a cadre of some 200 senior officers sent abroad each year for advanced training. They represent a sophisticated new generation of leaders in Turkey, and they will be crucial to the country's internal stability as well as its overseas image.
"That film was terrible for Turkey, especially in how it portrayed cops," one told me later. "I saw it for the first time on late-night TV in the States, and I had to force myself to watch. It's good that Hayes could tell the world we aren't like that."
I asked Hayes whether he worried about being part of a propaganda ploy. "I've always loved Turkey," he answered cautiously. "But it's been a strange psychological experience to come back."
In the land of the Midnight Express, morning still arrives with a caveat.
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