Waiting for the barbarians

Waiting for the barbarians

One silent September afternoon in Ankara, when I was the Washington correspondent for NTV television, I was dozing on my sister’s sofa of my sister when my telephone rang. It was dear Mustafa Aşçıoğlu, the foreign news editor at NTV, my employer at the time.

I answered, saying, “What’s up Mustafa?” He said “Turn on the TV.” I said “What channel?” He said, “It doesn’t matter.” I shivered terribly, saying to myself: “Something terrible must have happened.” And, yes, that was actually the case. Sept. 11, 2001, something that terrible, had happened.

I cursed my luck and flew to Istanbul immediately. On the plane, one woman was talking to another behind me. “Look at this bad luck. The second plane hit the next building in New York.” I shouted back “This was not bad luck, madam. This was terrorism at its worst.”

At NTV headquarters, they asked me what was likely to happen. I said President George W. Bush would find a way to link Saddam Hussein to the attacks and would definitely attack Iraq, and I said he would also strike the other places America saw as being connected to the incident. My predictions came true. Bush launched an attack against Afghanistan two or three months later and invaded Iraq 18 month later.

Since there were no flights to New York for the two or three days after Sept. 11, I waited in Istanbul, feeling the deepest sorrow in my heart, and then flew to the Big Apple on Saturday. Upon my arrival, I saw a big yellow cloud, but the Turkish Airlines plane still landed. There was calm on the faces of the people, who had been subjected to the worst of crimes. Then I took the train to reach my ex-wife and dear cat in Washington.

The next few days were ordinary. Some unfortunate Muslims, as well as some Sikhs, were attacked because they were wearing their traditional turbans. During my 11 years in Washington, I only received one remotely racist comment, or rather question, maybe because of my blond hair and blue eyes, when someone asked me in the elevator of my apartment building, “Are you Czechoslovakian?” I answered “There is no such country anymore.”

In hindsight I think Sept. 11 facilitated the invasion of Iraq, which I think in turn facilitated the ongoing Arab Spring. Bush inadvertently disturbed the delicate balance between the Sunnis and Shiites by invading Iraq, thereby creating a Shiite country and handing the country over to its worst enemy, Iran.

This has forced current President Barack Obama to seek to restore the balance between the two largest Islamic sects, taking sides with the Sunnis in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. The Syrian situation has not been resolved yet. But in the meantime no one is looking out for Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is suffering under a Sunni minority regime. But of course, Bahrain is a small country, and the ally of what is arguably Washington’s closest and most major Sunni ally, Saudi Arabia.

This is why I titled this oped “Waiting for the Barbarians,” after a poem by the great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis. It speaks about the helplessness of the people of a country doomed to be invaded by barbarians: “What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum? The barbarians are due here today.”