Journal of the Plague Year: Part III

I was already in southern Turkey on my way to Syria when the Gulf War began in earnest in January 1991.

I’d been unsuccessfully reporting on life in Eastern Europe behind the newly fallen Iron Curtain since the previous September. And there was this girl I liked in what was then Yugoslavia, and her family who liked me in spite of or perhaps because of an impenetrable language barrier. But when the time came none of that mattered. I wanted glory.

Of course, had I remained where I was I would have been fortunate to survive the glory that followed. Less than a year later, Yugoslavia tore herself apart in an internecine bloodbath not seen in Europe for 50 years. I kept in touch with the family, but not for long.

The closer I got to the Middle East, moving from trains to buses to shared rides, the more I tried to keep a low profile. It was winter and I had a big coat with a big collar and I wore a knit hat I could pull down to my eyes.

So many people were already on the move, and this was just the beginning of what was to come.

I was standing in line for a visa in a freezing lobby more crowded than the average Westerner could imagine. Everyone talked at high volume in a variety of languages and we leaned against each other in a manner most would consider intolerable, for most of a day. The way they stood, the way they spoke, and the distress of their children, all told their stories.

You can’t hide in a crowd like that.

This big guy behind me in line started barking at me. I didn’t know what he was saying. But the old ladies in front of me, they looked back at him, and then at me, and said nothing.

If the old ladies aren’t on your side, it’s not good.

Then he gets out of line and pushes forward.

He’s pointing at me and bellowing at the crowd. He’s about 20 and bigger and stronger than me, but I can see he’s somewhat impaired and wants to make a show of something. I try a couple of my phrase book languages until we get traction in French, of all things, since the region had been under the control of France for decades after the first World War.

Qu’est-ce que c’est? I ask him what his deal is. Ta guerre! He’s angry about the war. So am I. What? Yeah, I love your country, you think I like winter here — I’m a reporter. You write? Yeah, a writer. Oh, OK, let’s get a drink, man, yes, yes, we should talk, let’s talk. Yeah, we should, but it’s on you, right? Yes, yes, I was rude, but I saw you and it’s like, what, they want us from both ends, you know? N’est-ce pas? Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Je comprends.

We stood together talking like that until he got a visa to do construction. Being a nobody tourist in wartime, I was refused entry.

“Come on, come home, meet my family, and we’ll have some raki. You like raki? We’ll drink raki,” the guy said.

It sounds bizarre, I know, that a half-drunk 20-year-old in Turkey would invite a strange Westerner home to meet the family after a public confrontation. But in that part of the world and at that moment in history — before 9/11, before Afghanistan, before Iraq, before ISIS — it was normal. The stress had gotten to the guy and he lost it in public and he knew it. His invitation was an apology. Refusing it would have been an insult. By accepting, I allowed him to regain his dignity, which is a real thing in the East. He was grateful, and a gracious host.

He lived with his parents, which was not unusual. I met his younger sister, Meryem, who was just a teenager then and grew up to become a biochemist. Unlike her family, she spoke proficient English as well as French, and sized me up immediately. Thirty years later we remain friends, along with her children and ex-husband.

We have talked more in the past three months than we have in years. About the pandemic. The civil war. Her work in Syria that began with tracing chemical weapons. Then to tracking diseases. Then sheltering refugees against the wishes of her government.

But now she asks me about my country.

“Oh, Meryem,” I say.

“Je comprends,” she says.

Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.