‘Midnight Express’: A shame for Turkey?

Alan Parker, the director of “Midnight Express”, passed away on July 31. His 1978 film was said to have caused great harm to Turkey’s image, when apparently everything else had been going perfectly well for the country.

All 14 films the 76-year-old Londoner directed were unique. Parker did not repeat himself, and never condemned himself to any one style or genre, while many greats make the same film over and over again, as Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami put it.

Among Parker’s masterpieces are “Mississippi Burning”, a story of racial tension in the American south; the Eva Peron musical “Evita” with Madonna as the Argentine first lady; the erotic thriller “Angel Heart”; “Fame” the musical; and my personal favourite, despite having seen (and not understood) it more than three decades ago, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”.

And, of course, “Midnight Express” - the film that made Turks look bad and made Turkey work hard to restore its image in the international arena.

The film, which won Oscar nominations for Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone, is the watered-down version of a novel of the same name by Bill Hayes, an American student who was caught smuggling drugs in Turkey, imprisoned for the offence, mistreated in prison, and eventually escaped.

Gary Arnold, a film critic for the Washington Post, called the film an “outrageously sensationalistic movie,” and “loaded with show-stopping fabrications,” in an article published in the same year as its release.

Any person’s escape from prison is a huge event that deserves its story told in novels and films - the story of a strong will, planning, strife and achieving liberty through determination. It is without a doubt a grand event that the drug trafficker Halil Havar, dubbed the Great Turk, escaped from the Netherlands’ Leeuwerden Prison on Feb. 19, 1991, and more so that he had been rescued by helicopter by the famous Italian mafia family the Trappanis.

Like the same Kurds being called freedom fighters by some and terrorists by others, a man who was a criminal in the Netherlands could turn into a source of pride for Turkey, whose life story was integrated into one of the most popular Turkish television series of all time, the “Valley of the Wolves”.

Well, Bill Hayes had been caught with four pounds of drugs on his person, that was why he went to the dreaded Turkish prison. In this sense, it is expected that he returned home a hero, had a novel and a film created over his story.

But unlike great prison-break films “the Shawshank Redemption” or “Escape From Alcatraz”, “Midnight Express” was Bill Hayes’s heroic journey, so to speak, boiled down to a sensationalist film that mocked the noble Turkish nation, who could make blood feuds out of any and all insults to their honour.

It is easy to forget that the “callow boy,” as Gary Arnold called Hayes, was, in fact, a drug smuggler. Hayes himself admitted to having successfully taken several kilograms of drugs out of Turkey in similar ways before.

So what should the Turkish government have done? “Mr Hayes, four pounds? Chump change. Let’s wrap up a pallet for you? Let’s put you up at the Four Seasons, maybe we can later send you home in a cargo plane?”

If one tried to smuggle a few joints worth of hashish out of the Netherlands, famously permissive for soft drugs, let alone a few kilos, one would not see the light of day for a long time.

And prisons are, God forbid, terrifying places where freedom - the most important thing that human beings have - is taken away, where people are thrown behind bars and treated with unfortunate inhumanity.

This is the same anywhere in the world, including in the United States. Maybe more so. There are documentaries and reality shows if the reader wants to make up their own mind.

One doesn’t even have to go to prison to be mistreated in the United States, or be a smuggler. People can be subjected to police violence for no reason at all, in broad daylight. As they can in Turkey, of course.

This is not an exercise in legitimising the torture and mistreatment in Turkish prisons, which Bill Hayes was also undoubtedly subjected to. Whoever it may be, it is a human duty to object to any and all mistreatment of any person.

It is precisely due to this duty that one must point to Turkey’s issues that are much more important than one film damaging the country’s image abroad.

Like the epidemic of murdered women. In the “99 percent Muslim” country, where almost all people presumably believe that “whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind,” young girls and women are violently murdered every day, and their killers get away with it because of the legal system that the government has hollowed out.

Forests are set on fire to construct shopping malls in their place, villagers are beaten by the police and their fields are handed over to companies so a few ounces of metal can be mined. The beaches are raided by five-star hotels. Concrete is poured over ancient settlements in Mesopotamia, where civilisation began. The paradise that is Turkey has been taken hostage by a creed that sees nothing but concrete - turning into an empire of construction, covered by non-aesthetic ugly buildings.

And in this beautiful country where murderers roam free, prisons are full of writers, artists, journalists who have offended the wrong people. Today, like in the past, children of these lands, right wingers, left wingers, nationalists, revolutionaries, the religious, communists, people of all persuasions have been left to rot in prisons just for disagreeing with the government. Especially around the late 1970s to early 1980s - when Hayes had his escape - torture in prisons ruined many a life and many a family. 

In short, what I want said is this: “Midnight Express” could be entirely exaggerated or even fully made up - but the truth of what happened in Turkey and what continues to happen is worse than any horror film that can be imagined.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.