David Nightingale: A Return Trip from the Middle East


It was a month to the end of my sojourn in the Middle East.

I would then travel up through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, to re-enter Europe proper, with its forests, little inns, country churches in the valleys, and the long-forgotten sound of cattle bells. I would linger in the clarity of the Alps, take in the green-ness, the lovely oxygenated air. Anatolia had been so different. Enjoyable, friendly, muezzins calling people to prayer from minarets, but sparse vegetation, hot, arid, dusty, and now I was returning to a world I'd not seen in three years.

The list on the cover of my pad included international driver's license, insurance for the car, proof of payments of state taxes, customs documents, proof of end of residency, visas ... carnet de passage for the nice new VW, smallpox vaccination ... but, I realised sickeningly, one of them, my residence permit, might by now be out of date.

Impulsively I grabbed the carefully folded official document from the thin holder in my back pocket. I had never had to show the document and the small stapled photograph was sweatily concave. Yes, the date of expiration was indeed January, and I'd be crossing the border in June.

Thinking of the past three years of forms and bureaucracy, and those little ubiquitous government stamps for every document, I read 're-application must be made in person at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security, Ataturk Boulevard, Ankara.'

Oh, it could be so simple: a single stroke of the pen could make 1/12/64 into 7/12/64. But forgery of a state document? 3, maybe 6 years?

Now the final months of lecturing had passed. I had risen before dawn, and driven westward. It was 8 a.m. and a fine mist hung over the customs gate that led into Bulgaria and final freedom. Dampness filled the early morning air, and distant forests seemed to exude a hopeful, exciting aroma.

I took my three dossiers of forms and papers from the back seat, staggering with them towards the Turkish customs office. A uniformed man wearing a short black cylindrical cap, reminding me of pictures of Parisian policemen, snapped:

"Pass-a-port!"

My booklet was examined slowly, and I was made to fill out yet two more forms, one saying that I was not smuggling national treasures out of the country, and the other that I was concluding a work contract. But in my files, the document I felt most proud of -- the one that had involved hours of work, including a long roundtrip to the port of entry and that had finally been validated and officially stamped back in Ankara with those tiny 2 kurus government stamps -- was my carnet. Carnet de passage. It was not asked for.

The massive steel gate was being raised.

"Pass!" barked the mustached official with the short cylindrical Parisian cap.

"But my documents," I exclaimed in Turkish, staggering with my files."These, all these."

"Eh?"

"These -- all these."

"Pass!" he shouted again, this time threateningly.

"But I want to show them to you," I pleaded.

The man's hand was creeping towards his holster. I drove the 20 yards that separated the Turkish gate from the Bulgarian gate.

"Typhoid vaccination," demanded the Bulgarian official in English.

This was unexpected. "But they told me in your embassy that I only needed the smallpox one."

"That is wrong. You cannot pass."

"I beg your pardon -- "

The official raised his voice. "You cannot enter!"

"Typhoid you said? Oh, typhoid. Ah-- I have it." Rummaging in my 3 bulging dossiers, with prison looming in my mind, I came upon an unintelligible receipt for a Turkish rug, replete with small green Turkish stamps.

"Here! This it?"

"Pass!" said the official.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

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