Guest Post: Adventures in Foreign Parts by Barbara Nadel

Friday, 29 August 2014
I'm excited today to share a fantastic piece written by Barbara Nadel. I recently read and reviewed her latest book Body Count which you can read here and I'm hoping to get round to reading some of the books of hers that I've missed very soon! I really enjoyed reading the guest post, it's a fascinating read so hope you enjoy too.

Adventures in Foreign Parts

Writing a long series of books set in a foreign country can lead the author into some odd scenarios. I’ve been writing about Cetin Ikmen and Mehmet Suleyman and ‘their’ Turkey for about fifteen years now and so I’ve seen a thing or two in my time. And as well as conducting research in Turkey I’ve also been to the USA with, as it were, Ikmen and Suleyman.

All these visits are research trips. Of course I do get to see friends and relatives too sometimes but I do have to be, for the most part, focussed on my job. Often this can get weird.

A few years ago I wanted to know more about the Turkish carpet trade and so I enlisted the help of my carpet dealer friends, Ruth and Faruk. Although based in Cappadocia every year they do a series of educational sessions for carpet collectors in Istanbul and so I went along with them on one of those. What Ruth in particular doesn’t know about carpets really isn’t worth knowing and so we were booked to go to the gated community home of some very high powered diplomats and their friends in the Belgrade Forest. This area, about 15 kilometres north west of the city is not the easiest place to get to and none of us were accustomed to the crazy Istanbul ring roads. Crammed in the van with Ruth, Faruk, Huseyin, the labourer, and thousands of dollars worth of carpets, how we arrived alive is still a mystery. I think my eyes were closed for most of the time. Turkish traffic at its finest – any old trip may be your last. But luckily it wasn’t Ramazan and so people weren’t dashing to get home to eat after a day’s fasting.

I’d never been in a gated community before. It was spooky. The carpet buyers were charming, lovely people but the area they lived in was strange. Unlike most Turkish towns, this place was silent, nobody was about and the local shop sold marmalade from Harrods. And no local bread. And there were security guards, who were armed, everywhere. Whenever they looked at me I had to make the effort not to assume a stress position.

Fortunately for me I wasn’t in Istanbul back in 2003 when the al Qaeda bombs went off at the British Consulate, the HSBC Bank and the Neve Salom synagogue. I was staying in a friend’s cave house in Cappadocia but my son and my mother were transiting Istanbul and so it was a tense time. The worst ‘terror’ alert I ever had was in the far south eastern city of Mardin when we were told that Hezbollah were in the area, cutting off the heads of those they didn’t like. Turkey isn’t strictly the ‘Middle East’ but it was once, in its incarnation as the Ottoman Empire, the owner of it. So when you get to borders, things can get hairy sometimes and Mardin is very close to Syria.

Sometimes, not often, I want to go to places that I’ve been told I shouldn’t. However because this is Turkey, which is essentially a very welcoming country, unless we’re talking military zones, you can usually get away with a lot. I find that the slightly batty, confused foreigner thing can get me into a lot of places while, at the other end of the scale, knowing the right people just works miracles. Some years ago I wanted to get into one of the great Istanbul hotels and for 18 months I chatted up everyone in the hotel I could think of. To no avail. That was until a friend of mine suggested to a friend of hers, who comes from a prominent local family, that he might like to help me. Within the day I had access to all areas, a bed for the night and all I had to do in return was talk to a reading group about my books.

Gone are the days when I could flutter my lashes at someone and get my own way. I never did much of that anyway - except once when I wanted a policeman to lower me into an ancient cistern. But when the skin around your eyes looks crocodilian it becomes impossible. That said I did, not so many years ago, find myself the subject of some unwanted staring in a shower cubicle in the far east of the country. Also Turkey does have scorpions who don’t care what you look like and in Mardin, snakes. I was a bit perturbed when I found that my hotel room in that city had mice until a local told me that mice were a good sign. Mice mean that it isn’t snake season.

It’s widely acknowledged that British people need a lot of personal space. The London Underground is a challenge to us all but we deal with it by looking at the ceiling a lot, not smiling and pretending we’re too cool to exist anywhere but inside our own bubble. Once off the train we get as far away from other people as we can. Turks are different. They like to mingle. Old ladies will happily give you boiled sweets they keep inside their bras and bus and tram rides are just chances to get to know complete strangers more than you (the wretched British person) really want to. You have to learn not to panic in confined spaces, forget how to queue and not treat everyone who talks to you like you think he might possibly be the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.

However because I’m so used to Turkey now, I do take most things in my stride. It’s whenever I go elsewhere that things get challenging. A few years ago I ‘took’ Ikmen and Suleyman to Detroit in the USA. I had planned on setting a book featuring my boys in the deep south, but then a story from Motown came to light and so I opted for Michigan. My troubles began as soon as my plane landed in Philadelphia. While queuing up to pass through immigration, I was asked whether I had an ‘implant’. I didn’t know what that was but I did own up to having metal plates and nails in my right leg. That is apparently an implant and so I was taken to one side and made to wait an inordinate length of time while they scanned my leg, presumably for weapons. Another set of immigration bods once scanned my flip flops which did make me want to say ‘look if I can get a bomb in a flip flop then I am a fucking genius and you should be afraid!’ But I didn’t. Those people have no sense of humour and handcuffs. Not a good combination.

Detroit is what is known as a ‘failing city’. It is bankrupt, a lot of it is derelict and the crime rate is sky high. But it has a fascinating history that encompasses music, industry and civil rights. And it was racial issues, particularly amongst the auto workers from the southern states that I wanted to research. While in Detroit, Ikmen and Suleyman were going to uncover an old crime that had its roots in race. But I had to see the city and that wasn’t straightforward. What I needed to do was contact people who knew the places I wanted to go to and take me with them. Places like the old Packard Plant can just be walked into but they are full of scrappers, many of whom are on crack and so wandering alone – especially with a camera – isn’t a good idea.

So before I left the UK I put a request for help up on a Detroit city forum and people just flocked to give me a hand. I was shown churches next door to waste treatment plants, ornate, but empty skyscrapers that could easily rival those in New York, abandoned railway stations, schools, theatres, mansions and crack houses. My escorts ranged from enthusiastic local historians to tough guy drug addicts and because I got stuck in, followed them into mad places and actually had a ball, we got on.

It could have ended differently. The ruins of Detroit are, in places, full of gang members wanting to shake down or even kill the unwary. It’s a poor city, people are fighting to feed themselves, their families and sometimes their addictions too. I don’t blame them, but you as an outsider, have to take care and you have to show respect.

And I suppose that sums up what I feel about doing research in someone else’s country. Respect. Show it and you’ll make friends, get help and when something goes wrong you’ll always have an ally. That’s important when you’re 2,000 miles away from home, have had your credit card swallowed by a cash point machine and need the toilet. Believe me.

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