How I talked myself out of Turkish police custody

I am deeply concerned when I read of people being arrested because they are in the wrong country, speaking the wrong language, having the wrong religion, or just being in the wrong company. I have some notion of how frightening it can be, because it happened to me once.

I was spending the summer studying mathematics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I took a week off to sightsee in that part of the world. Jews could not go to the Arab countries then, in 1971, but I could visit Turkey. I flew to Istanbul on a cheap student flight, arriving after midnight. Beside me on the plane was a young Englishman. He knew his way around Istanbul, so I went into town with him and we checked into a cheap hotel together.

Two days later, the police came and arrested him. I learned, in what followed, that my friend was traveling the world, making a living by selling fake student identification cards. The IDs were valuable because they allowed large discounts on things like plane fares. He had a little printing press in his suitcase, and apparently had been selling Swedish student cards in India, Indian cards in Turkey, and so on.

The police found from his passport that he'd spent a lot of time in Nepal and Afghanistan, so he was a strong candidate to be carrying drugs. They took him, me, and our luggage to the police station.

They sat me down and asked me a long string of questions - mainly in Turkish. To many of them I had to reply that I couldn't understand the question. They wrote something down in their little book - perhaps that they couldn't understand the answer. We resorted to very basic English and pantomime. I was terrified. My companion looked guilty of forgery, and the reputation of Turkish prisons was not at all encouraging.

Then the police pantomimed that they wanted to look in my luggage. Did they suspect me of carrying drugs? Could my roommate have hidden something there? I pantomimed permission.

At this juncture, I'd better explain what tefillin are. Also called phylacteries, they are a Jewish prayer implement. You may have seen them in paintings by Chagall. The Bible (Deut. 6:6-8) says in part, "... these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart:.... And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes."

Traditional Jews interpret this quite literally. We take those words, write them on little scrolls of parchment, tie them up in little boxes, and strap them on where it says, for morning prayers.

So in searching my bag, the police came to my tefillin - funny little boxes. You can tell something is inside, but can't tell what. They pantomimed at me: What's in there?

I don't know if you have ever played charades, but I can tell you that that is a hard one! I did not want them ruined, and who knew what sort of secret code the police might think I was carrying?

Anyhow, I tried to act out "religious implements" or something like that. Gestures at the heavens and clasped hands drew a complete blank. For reasons that seemed convincing to me in my terrified state - reasons having to do with the death penalty for apostasy in Islam - I did not even consider attempting a Muslim prayer posture.

I was getting desperate when I got my brainstorm. These police must be at least nominally Muslim, so they must have had at least as much exposure to mosque Arabic as I've had to synagogue Hebrew. I'd read just enough about Islamic law to suspect that some words were similar in the two languages. And I also remembered the immigrant stories my father had told. In many of those stories, Jewish immigrants to the United States often sounded funny, but they often managed to be understood.

So in my very broken Hebrew I began an ungrammatical speech on the general subject of faith, hope, and charity, substituting a "k" for a "ch" and a "v" for a "b" and silently praying that it would sound something like Arabic.

My first sentence drew strange stares. On the second sentence, every single one of the policemen broke into smiles, then gales of laughter. They patted me on the head, put my suitcase in my hand, and pushed me out the door.

I checked into a hotel that was more expensive than I could easily afford - one with a translator on duty. And I called the British Embassy to report where the young Englishman was being held.

To this day I don't know what I said to the police. I was far too scared at the time for such details to sink in. Years later, when I began attending the social hours at my neighborhood mosque in Memphis, Tenn., some possibilities were suggested. Perhaps the Hebrew word tzedakah suggested the Arabic zakat; both mean "charity." Or perhaps I used the Hebrew rakhamim (mercies), and it suggested the Arabic raheem (merciful).

But the experience did help me to learn that by whatever name and in whatever language, Allah can be very understanding.

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