Monday, May 02, 2011

Getting the Osama bulletin in a Moslem land

We all remember where we were on the morning of 9/11 but I found myself in an equally memorable place - Turkey - on the day the world learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in a daring raid at his lair near Pakistan's equivalent of West Point.

Stepping out of my hotel in the ancient Sultanhamet sector of Istanbul on the first day of a long-planned, 30-day getaway in Turkey and Greece, I was surprised when merchants looked up from their colorful newspapers to yell "Osama Bin Laden" in triumphal voices that made me wonder if a few weeks in Wailea might have been a tamer bet for my wife and myself.

"He's dead," said a man proclaiming himself to be an American in an accent that sounded far more local than Yank. "I am glad they killed him. He was a son of a bitch and I hated him."

We returned briefly to our hotel room to get the details of President Obama's announcement and to learn about the spontaneous late-night rallies celebrating Bin Laden's demise. While it may be that Bin Laden had to go, the unseemly glee beamed by television around the world did not reflect well on the United States.

It was particularly troubling to think about its impact in a predominantly Moslem country like Turkey, where East literally meets West at the Bosphorus Strait and traditional religious customs coexist fairly comfortably with a dynamic and modern society.

We didn't experience a bit of personal hostility, because the outgoing and generous Turks want to show off their culture and make friends in the same way people everywhere celebrate their national pride. But a few of the people we met who ventured to discuss politics drew a sharp distinction between us visitors and our government.

"Americans are No. 1," said the proprietor of a bodega we visited to buy a bottle of what proved to be an estimable wine produced in a country where drinking alcohol technically violates a precept of the major religion. "But American government is No. 10," he added, shaking his head to make clear that 10 was not a good thing.

So, America may have won a small victory in neutralizing Bin Laden but we are far from making peace with much of the Moslem world.

This realization was powerful as my wife and I toured the fabled Blue Mosque, a magnificent relic that still functions today as a working mosque. Visitors are cordially welcomed to the sanctuary to view the soaring ceiling and stunning mosaics but we are asked to stay on one side of a railing that separates us from those in prayer.

Reflecting on the day's dramatic events, I realized the worshippers on the other side of the railing were really just like us. We can only hope they feel the same way.