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My Eastern Star

A long ago encounter on the streets of Istanbul leaves me thinking now about the nature of friendship, our fear of terrorists, and even the dehumanizing of refugees.

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My Eastern Star

It is a tangential day here as I've gone from deep disappointment at seeing a friend share(and worse emphatically agree) via Facebook a quote by Stephen Baldwin-yeah that Baldwin-regarding his opinion on the state of the United States to thinking about what Christopher Hitchens perhaps would say in response, to listening to Hitchens discuss the Kurds, which leaves me thinking about my Eastern Star.

Hamdi was a man I met while I was wondering alone through the streets of Istanbul in 1999. I had arrived to the city early that same morning. I spent a few hours drinking apple tea while haggling over a rug in the bazaar followed by a raki laden lunch after which I decided a late afternoon stroll was in order. I encountered Hamdi on a nondescript street not far from the Blue Mosque.

Hamdi was what I considered old at the time, 60's give or take a few years, dressed in a simple off white tunic with weather worn leathery skin and salt and pepper hair. His amiable ebony eyes were heavily creased and aglow from their blackest depths. I instantly liked him. We made eye contact and I smiled and said hello. Important to note, I have a weakness for the reveries of old men after having been raised by my grandfather-a sometimes naïve weakness that has led to more than a few awkward situations.

Back to the street in Istanbul…Hamdi greeted me back with equal warmth and a wide smile and asked if I would like a fresh orange juice. He explained quickly that he takes every opportunity to practice any of the eleven languages he speaks and would consider it an act of kindness on my part if I would sit with him for a few minutes. Of course I obliged.

He led me into a restaurant fronted with crimson shutters. It was dark inside, suspiciously dark. Empty in fact. Not just empty but closed for business. I considered slowly backing out but didn't. I tend to believe in the innate good nature of humans. Regardless Hamdi ushered me into a wooden booth and continued on behind the bar. He proceeded to squeeze enough oranges picked from the bowl on the bar to fill two glasses. He sat across from me and proudly urged me to drink. I did and it was delicious. The worry at being alone in a strange country with a complete stranger dissipated. I felt instant comfort with him as if we had been meeting at this time and place over fresh orange juice for years.

We spoke long enough for him to share his story about growing up with his extended family and many other Kurdish families in a system of caves on the Turkish/Iraq border. The Kurds were a people with no country he explained. I was an ignorant American(not much has changed) and this was all news to me. He went on to explain that as a kid he felt ostracized, always the outcast, which led to his deep desire to connect with and be an accepted, welcomed citizen of the world. This motivated Hamdi to study languages, pulling books and newspapers out of the trash, approaching strangers from strange lands to hear them speak, always asking questions. He said that although he now lived in Istanbul and was a retired tour guide that some old habits were hard to let go. He still quite enjoyed people, stories, connecting. Like me.

My turn to share and I was raw, an emotionally charged live wire. My grandfather had died a few years earlier and my mother only months earlier. I was alone in the world and had been wandering for months through lands foreign to me lost in my own thoughts. Thoughts on mortality mostly, dark thoughts, but leveled with thoughts about all of the good in the world and the reasons I hoped to live longer than my mother's 47 years. I explained this all to Hamdi. It was the first time I talked about my mom's death out loud. Made it real. He asked questions, voiced concern as well as admiration. He listened. Then he patted my hand. A small but significant gesture. His hand, calloused, deeply tanned and in stark juxtaposition to mine, was the touch, that human connection and act of kindness that I suppose I needed. I had been wandering as if already dead and his touch brought me back.

The doors to the restaurant opened and a group of well dressed men in dark suits, surely lost on the way to a business conference, walked in. Hamdi stood immediately. They approached our table and Hamdi bowed slightly in greeting to the group and introduced me as his dear friend. One man in particular looked to be the leader with a few others shadowing him. Body guards I thought. He smiled warmly, genuinely, greeted me and asked if they might speak privately with Hamdi for a few moments.

'Of course' I replied as the group of men shuffled through a doorway in the back of the restaurant.

Several minutes passed when Hamdi returned. He was agitated, his eyes no longer held that same spark. He looked mournful. He sat and said almost solemnly 'My dear Shannon, you are leaving today. You will leave now and in fact I have arranged transport.' I argued that I was planning on staying in the city for the week but he stopped me with another pat on the hand and said softly 'No you will be leaving today. I am your Eastern Star. Please don't forget me for I shall never forget you. I will always be your Eastern Star. Now you must go.'

He held my gaze as I went and he whispered something, perhaps 'allah yusallmak' but this was years ago and I can no longer be sure.

It was one of the few times I listened. There was something in the tone of his voice, in his gaze that frightened me. There were events unfolding in Istanbul, unbeknownst to me-an idealistic and ignorant young American. At the time I had never heard of the Kurds and I certainly had never heard of Ocalan or the PKK.

I walked out of the restaurant into the early evening filtered sun. My stomach was knotted and my heart racing. The taxi waiting outside dropped me at the hostel, refusing payment. I ran in, grabbed the backpack holding all my earthly possessions and set off for the airport.

When my plane landed in Bali I figured it out. CNN was reporting the bombings that had just happened in Istanbul, aimed at tourists and civilians.

In February 1999, just a few weeks prior to my arrival to Istanbul, Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, was arrested in Nairobi in a joint operation executed by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization and the CIA. Americans were not held in high regard by the PKK and were likely to be targeted in retaliation. The PKK had been fighting with Turkey for sovereignty of a Kurdish nation for years and the CIA was assisting to thwart their efforts.

I sat in the safety of my hotel room glued to the television ignoring the beautiful Balinese beach just beyond. I thought about Hamdi. How was he involved? Did that change my feelings about my new friend? Why would he risk warning me?

I still think about Hamdi on occasions like today when I hear the hatred being spewed, the vitriol that has become the norm. Would the lack of human decency be so rife if we all had an Eastern Star? If we connected with someone from a different culture or continent? Would the world not be a better place if we opened our deeply shuttered hearts and minds and explored beyond our psychologically and physically stagnant borders to genuinely consider another person's differences? What would happen if we let go of fear, if we were not afraid to hold a gaze, to look deeply into the eyes of a stranger, those that are different? I challenge everyone to do just that. Get to know someone that doesn't look like you, didn't grow up like you, or someone who doesn't believe in the same god as you or perhaps none at all. Have a discussion not about your differences but about your similarities. Talk about family and fears and dreams and food. It is easier to define 'others' by their differences, easier to put them in a box and mark it as evil, but more difficult to spew the vitriol and promote hatred when we realize the extent of similarities in humankind. Let's be brave together. Explorers together. Let's get to know one another and change this world for the better one step at a time.

To my friend, my Eastern Star, Hamdi. I hope you are well friend.

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