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Tribes with Flags: Adventure and Kidnap in Greater Syria

Tribes with Flags: Adventure and Kidnap in Greater Syria

by Charles Glass

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‘Tribes With Flags’ is the gripping story of Charles Glass's dramatic journey through Greater Syria which provides background context to a troubled region once again in the headlines.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780007500185
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/13/2012
Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 510
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Charles Glass is the author of ‘Americans in Paris’, ‘Tribes with Flags’, ‘The Tribes Triumphant’, ‘Money for Old Rope’ and ‘The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary’. A world-famous journalist and broadcaster, he was Chief Middle East Correspondent for ABC News from 1983 to 1993, and has covered wars and political upheaval throughout the world. His writing appears in the Independent and the Spectator. He divides his time between Paris, Tuscany and London.
Visit his website at

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Three dogs pulled and tore the flesh from the corpse. The lamb's rib-cage was already bare, and still they clawed at the body and snatched lumps of meat with their jaws. They had opened the animal up from its soft stomach, and the wool was stretched aside to expose the food within. The entrails were mostly eaten, but the lamb's head was untouched. Its eyes were open and blank. The dogs' paws, their jowls and the hair around their eyes were stained, like the ground, dark red. One dog growled for a moment to warn another not to tread on its portion of the dead prey. Then it silently rejoined the feast, the grim work of devouring what each could of the lamb before they abandoned its carcass to the flies.

The black and white mongrels and the lamb were the only signs of life or death in the barren limestone hills. We were on the highway to Alexandretta, and the driver had stopped the bus and gone into a solitary hut just off the road. No one asked why. This was not, I would learn, unusual. Buses did not keep schedules here, and drivers made their money from more than the transport of passengers. They delivered food and parcels, they carried letters, they smuggled gold, cigarettes, coffee, refugees, drugs and weapons across borders. "A bus like this," one man explained, "can support a whole family."

Several passengers including myself had used the unscheduled stop to get out and stretch our legs. The sun was going down. I walked several yards from the bus to be alone. I was watching the dogs when another passenger approached me. "Do you have a degree?" he asked me in English. His accent was slight. He seemed to be in his mid-forties. He wore a grey zip jacket, khaki irousers and old, unpolished shoes. On his lip was a thin moustache.

"I'm sorry ..?" I said.

"A degree in something, from a university?"

"Yes, in philosophy."

"Falsafi," he said in Arabic. Then in English, "That's very good."

"And you?"

"Mechanical engineering." "Something practical, not like philosophy ..."

"I have a textile factory in Damascus," he said. "I'm here to buy materials."

"Are they better here in Turkey than in Syria?"

"Ha," he laughed. "You cannot find them in Syria. Anyway, this is Syria."

"Surie al-Kubra?" Greater Syria, I asked in Arabic.

He laughed again, patting my back. "You speak Arabic?"

"Only a little."

"Smoke?" He held out an open pack of Marlboro. "You have a family?"

I nodded.

"I have three children," he said proudly.

The Syrian textile manufacturer had established that, for the duration of the bus journey, we belonged to the same tribe. We were both non-Turks, both had university degrees and both had children. It was bond enough to keep loneliness and the dogs at bay on the dark, perilous road, in a bus crowded with forty strangers, in a land that was not ours. The driver came out of the hut, carrying a small package. We followed him onto the bus. Without discussion, the Syrian took the empty seat next to mine. The bus coughed and bumped its way towards Alexandretta, while the Syrian and I talked into the night.

It was nearly midnight when we reached the edge of Alexandretta, a port town whose form it was impossible to distinguish beyond the glare of the highway and car lights. When we passed a sign which said in Turkish and English, "Iskenderun, pop. 173,700", I asked the driver to stop. Handing me down my bags and typewriter, the Syrian told me to call him when I reached Damascus. I agreed, knowing it was unlikely. We would not need each other there, where he would be home among his people, where I had friends, where our common levels of education and fatherhood counted for nothing. Alliances here lasted only as long as the need for them, a truth we implicitly shared as he reached his hand out the window to shake mine in farewell. Now alone at the side of the road, I watched the red lights of the bus disappear into the warm Levantine night.

The first strains of the music woke me early. The only sound which should have disturbed the peace of Friday, the Muslim sabbath, was the muezzin's call to prayer. The sound coming through my window was from a brass band, whose music sounded like a cross between a Handel anthem and a John Philip Sousa march. I went downstairs to the lobby of the Hatayli Oteli and looked out the front door towards the seafront. A parade of what looked like half the population of Alexandretta was marching along the corniche like irregulars at the end of a long campaign. Women carried wreaths and men wore ribbons, and all walked out of step with the triumphal music.

Was this, I wondered, Turkey's national day? Had democracy been restored? Perhaps war had been declared? I asked the porter what was happening. Discovering we had no common language, I pointed at the parade and tried to look puzzled.

"Polis Bayram," he said. "Bayram" was Arabic, and apparently also Turkish, for "feast" or "holy day". "Polis" was Turkish for "police", and pronounced the same way. I learned later in the day that Turkey was celebrating the anniversary of the founding in 1845 of the Ottoman Police. Everyone in Iskenderun seemed to be wearing a small green and red paper badge, with the Turkish crescent and star in its centre, saying, "10 Nisan Polis Günü". Despite the obvious enthusiasm of the crowd for the festivities, there was something strange about it. Turkey was the first country I'd known to celebrate the creation of a police force. It seemed to me that the establishment of the police was an admission of failure, an acknowledgement that man was inherently evil and had to be controlled, a cause for regret rather than joy.

No one in the hotel spoke anything other than Turkish, but a young man and young woman behind the reception desk struggled to recall a few words of English. I wanted to telephone the tourist office to see whether I could obtain a car and guide to show me around Alexandretta. I telephoned the number listed in the Fodor Guide, which turned out to be the house of an irate woman speaking only Turkish. The receptionists found another number. It was the tourist office, but the man at the other end spoke no English. The receptionists suggested I walk to the tourist office and assured me someone there would speak English. In a way, they were right.

The hotel porter led me along the wide seafront drive, where drab concrete offices and shops faced the port, to the tourist office on the ground floor of an old building. Inside, a man in a tweed jacket and necktie introduced himself as Mehmet Udimir. He spoke a few, very few, words of English. He said Udimir meant Iron, and made a fist to show it. He was the only person in the tiny, cavern-like room. I explained I needed a guide. He handed me a pamphlet.

Iskenderun is situades atthe foot of the Amanos mountains. It's about 5 km. wide. The elimate is temperate, and during the winter it is like spring ... The raining season is winter. The surrounding mountains are covered with fir forests. Iskenderun is one of the most important port-towns of Turkey. Iskenderun was founded (Alexandrietta) by Alexander the Great after his victory at Issos, The town, in order to distinguish it from Iskendiriye (Alexandria) in Egypt, was given the name of Alexandria Minor in the 17the century ...

"No, no," I said. "Not this sort of guide. I need a man who speaks English, to show me the historic buildings."

"Okay," he said, standing up, walking outside and locking the door behind us. I had acquired a guide.

"You see church first," he said, turning left and leading us away from the seafront into the town. "Church is very old."

"How old?"

He thought for a minute, but could not give me the date in English. He took a pen and paper out of his pocket and wrote. He handed me the paper. It said, "1901."

"Very old," I said.

"Then you see library," he promised.

"How old is that?"

He wrote again on the paper and handed it to me. "1868."

We had not reached the relics of Alexander's invasion, but we were headed, as far as time goes, in the right direction. We walked past the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation, but he did not stop there. He merely pointed at it, saying, "Church very old," and continued across a small, leafy side road to the library. Mehmet Udimir took me into a shaded courtyard behind a stone wall and into a building which looked as though it had once been a large private house on two floors. We walked upstairs, passing reading rooms where schoolchildren were studying. On the walls of each room were portraits – some of them photographs, others prints of oil paintings – of the father of modern Turkey, Moustafa Kemal Atatürk. An Islamic historian in Beirut had once told me, "Atatürk was a man of contradictions, even in his name: Moustafa means 'chosen one', Kemal means 'perfection', Atatürk means 'Father of the Turks'. Yet he was neither chosen nor perfect nor even a Turk."

We walked into an office, and I sat down on one of three wooden chairs facing a large desk. Mehmet sat behind the desk and under another portrait of Atatürk. This painting was almost life-size, in full colour, and showed Atatürk in white tie and tails, his arms casually folded, looking handsome and rather like Noël Coward. His red hair, blue eyes and reddish lips looked anything but Turkish, and it was little wonder his enemies had accused him of having a Greek father and a Jewish mother.

An ancient man, wearing an old, baggy suit, shuffled slowly into the office carrying a tray with glasses of tea on it. His facial features were like a Mongolian's. He said nothing to either of us, but put the glasses on the desk. It was clear that Mehmet Udimir was not merely the director of tourism in Alexandretta, he was also the chief librarian. I felt as though I'd strayed into one of those small American towns in which the same man, simply by changing hats, served as policeman, judge, fire chief, mayor and coroner. I was certain that if I asked Mehmet to take me to the head of the chamber of commerce, we would walk into another office, where he would sit down behind another desk and another old man would bring us tea. That way, I could confirm the answers to my questions to the tourism director with quotes from the chief librarian and the head of the chamber of commerce. It was an old journalistic trick, but one Mehmet inadvertently prevented me from playing by never telling me anything.

Another old man, better dressed and more distinguished, came into the office. He must have been in his late sixties, and he had a trim moustache. After shaking my hand, he sat down. "I was his teacher," he said in English, indicating Mehmet. "I am free now."


"Yes," he said. "I come to see Mehmet one day each month."

Mehmet smiled and appeared to ask him what he had said. They then spoke for a minute in Turkish.

"And you?" the retired teacher asked. "You are tourist?"

"Sort of," I explained. "I am writing a book."

"You are going to Antakya?"

"Yes." Antakya was Turkish and Arabic for Antioch, the city in which the disciples of Christ were first given the name "Christians".

"In Antakya, you are to look at two places famous, the church and the museum."

The first old man returned with more tea, served as everywhere else in the Levant hot in clear glasses with no milk and much sugar.

We were talking when a thin young man with black hair, a short black beard and a hawk's nose, came in and sat down. The retired teacher told me the young man had recently returned to Alexandretta from Istanbul after the death of his father. The father's restaurant had closed, and he had come to arrange his family's affairs before returning to Istanbul. The young man, in his mid-twenties, spoke a few words of English, rather like Mehmet. He offered to help me find my way around Alexandretta. His name was Munir. He told me he was half Turkish and half Iranian.

Friends in Beirut and Damascus, I said, had given me the names of people to see in Alexandretta, traders named Makzoumé and Tanzi. Mehmet tried to telephone Tanzi for me, but there was no reply. He could not find a number for Makzoumé, so he asked Munir to take me to the Makzoumé Shipping Company nearby. We finished our tea, and I thanked the director of tourism and chief librarian for his help. He and his former teacher said they would see me again.

It was a short distance to Makzoumé's offices, back in the direction of the sea. The offices of the Makzoumé Shipping Company were more European than Oriental, with fitted carpets, modern furniture and paintings. There was no old man with tea, but there was an attractive secretary at a desk in an outer office. She showed us into Makzoumé's inner office, where we sat in silence while he finished making telephone calls. He was an old man, a little overweight and well dressed in woollen trousers and a cardigan. He looked more European than Turkish or Arab, and, as it turned out, behaved more like a European than a Levantine.

While we sat waiting, he spoke on the telephone in Turkish, French and Arabic. When he finished, he asked me why I was there. He was the first person I met in Alexandretta who spoke fluent English. I was hopeful that he could guide me through my first day in his city. I explained that mutual friends, who had been his neighbours when he lived in Beirut, had given me his name as a man who would help me in Alexandretta.

"I don't think so," he said. He could do nothing, because he was leaving for Europe the next day. "Perhaps this young man can help you."

"He is trying," I said. "But he has been away from here for years, and he does not speak English."

"I am sorry," Makzoumé said, the resignation in his voice betraying more relief than regret.

As we left his offices, he called out, "You could try the British Consul."

Munir and I walked to the Catoni Maritime Agencies, an Ottoman stone building which backed onto the sea and had for years served a secondary purpose as British Consulate in Alexandretta. The front room was a shipping company and travel agency, in which a woman was preparing airline tickets for a customer seated by her desk. I asked where we could find the British Consul.

She indicated a door to another office, and Munir and I went in. The first sights to greet us on entering were three large portraits: in the centre, of course, was Atatürk, to his right was Queen Elizabeth and on his left was Prince Philip, who in Turkey, if nowhere else, was never referred to as "Phil the Greek". The portraits of the British queen and her husband, bedecked in medals and ribbons, were nearly as dated as that of Atatürk, obviously made many years and many chins ago. Beneath the portraits sat a soberly dressed middle-aged woman, who looked as unassuming as the luminaries behind her were grand. When she saw us, she looked up from her desk with its small British and Turkish flags and smiled. "May I help you?" she asked.

She understood immediately when I explained the purpose of my journey and why I had begun in Alexandretta. She was just old enough to remember that the province had been part of Syria until 1939, although too young to have been born when the whole region was united under the Ottomans. Hind Koba, MBE, had been Her Majesty's Consul in Alexandretta for nearly thirty years. I told her that I had introductions to only two people in Alexandretta, Makzoumé, who had not been helpful, and Abdallah Tanzi, whose telephone did not answer.

"Abdallah Tanzi," she said, "is my brother-in-law. We live in the same building." She thought it would not be difficult to find him. She promised to make appointments with a variety of people who would give me some idea what Alexandretta was like and how its life had changed. Her first call was to a lawyer named Kavak, who said he could see me then.

Walking through the streets, which were becoming more crowded as the morning grew late, Munir used his few words of English, gestures and the gift of an expressive face to tell me that his life was unhappy. He was a Shüte in a Sunni Muslim country. He was half-Iranian in a land which distrusted Iran. His father was dead. He owed taxes on his father's restaurant, which had closed as a result. He had to care for the rest of his family in Alexandretta, and he yearned for the cosmopolitan life of Istanbul. "Maybe one year," he said. "Maybe two." Then he could leave Alexandretta again for the pleasures of the north.

We found Kavak's office in a modern, if run-down building, up two flights of stairs, past various shops selling women's clothes and building supplies. A dark-haired man in his mid-thirties opened the door marked "avukat", introducing himself as Yalçin Kavak. We followed him into a room filled with law books and a large desk covered in papers. There seemed to be no picture of Atatürk, but a small staff displayed a Turkish flag. We had been squeezed into the little office for a few minutes when Kavak invited us to lunch. Munir had to leave for an appointment, but said he would see me later at Mehmet Udimir's library.


Excerpted from "Tribes With Flags"
by .
Copyright © 1990 Charles Glass.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: From Alexandretta to Aqaba 1,
1 The Legacy of Alexander,
2 The Army of the Levant,
3 The Last Ottoman,
4 Minarets and Belfries,
5 No-Man's-Land,
6 Six-Star Brandy,
7 Where Armies Failed,
8 A Consular City,
9 The Survivors and the Dead,
10 The Village of a Pasha,
11 The Road,
12 The Old City,
13 Meleager's World,
14 This Bad Century,
15 Queen of the Desert,
16 Provincial Loyalty,
17 Enemies of the Goddesses,
18 Excursions,
19 A Blood Feud in the Mountains,
20 Foul is Fair,
21 The Ghetto,
22 Monks and Martyrs,
23 The Family and the Plain,
24 The Slumber of the Dead,
25 Disrespectful Dancing,
26 The Last Day,
27 The Black Hole,
28 Recalled to Life,

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