Tuesday, February 26, 2008

MEMOIR: Ballistic missiles,Circassian concubines and Lt. Rabinowitz of the Turkish army

For a decade during the 1950s and early 1960s I was the military affairs correspondent in Washington for Business Week magazine and other McGraw-Hill publications. This was a period in which the Korean war was winding down and the Vietnam war was beginning. So I never covered a shooting war overseas.

But there was the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which periodically threatened to turn into a full-scale shooting war. To publicize the nation's military readiness, the Defense Dept. frequently conducted press junkets for Pentagon reporters to visit U.S. troops based abroad.

One of those trips took me to Turkey, where there was a U.S. air base at Eskisehir in the northwestern part of the country. There were also secret U.S. sites scattered elsewhere in Turkey, housing nuclear-tipped Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles aimed at strategic Soviet targets.

In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis came close to producing a catastrophic exchange of nuclear missiles. War was averted by a diplomatic deal, never officially confirmed in detail, in which the Soviets agreed to remove their ballistic missiles from Cuba and the Kennedy Administration, newly installed in Washington, agreed to withdraw the Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

About a dozen Pentagon reporters were in my group visiting Turkey, where we spent more than a week inspecting military bases and interviewing both U.S. and Turkish defense officials. We did, however, have a few free days in Istanbul to play tourists.

We stayed at the magnificent Istanbul Hilton Hotel overlooking the Bosphorus. The Turkish government tourism agency assigned a guide to show us around the city. She was a gorgeous young woman, fluent in English, who inadvertently gave us an interesting bit of Turkish history.

I don' t remember how the subject came up, but she told us that she was a Circassian, one of Turkey's ethnic minorities. They are a Muslim people who originated in the Caucasus region. Most of them had fled over the centuries to Turkey to escape Russian invasions.

But at the same time, the Turks had made their own incursions into Circassian territory. The aim was to kidnap local girls for the royal Ottoman harems. Voltaire, Lord Byron and other European literary figures had written about the erotic charm of Circassian women, commenting on their legendary beauty, spirit and elegance, qualities that made them desirable as concubines.

Our guide, whose name I do not recall, possessed all those charming attributes. That's obviously why she shows up in many of the photos I took of the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, and other famed Istanbul landmarks.

She advised us about restaurants and night clubs to visit during our free evenings--on our own, of course, without her company. A friend of mine and I decided to dine at one of the establishments she recommended. The food was wonderful, but the restaurant's bizarre floor show was not conducive to a hearty appetite.

During our stay in Turkey, the country was having one of its periodic conflicts with neighboring Greece. The floor show featured a stand-up "comedian" whose routine produced raucous laughter from the audience. It consisted of improvisations on the theme of Turks "cutting off the balls of the Greeks and stuffing them in their mouths." We received an English translation from a man at an adjoining table who observed that we were failing to understand and to appreciate the "humor."

The restaurant was within walking distance of the Hilton. But when we left the restaurant, it was no longer light outside, and we were unfamiliar with the way back to the hotel. The streets were poorly lit, and we were unable to find a taxi. We began to look for an English-speaking person who might give us directions.

We finally found a young man who spoke excellent English. He volunteered to walk with us back to the hotel. It was only about a 10 minute walk, and along the way he told us that he had been a lieutenant in the Turkish army. He had been stationed in Korea as part of the Turkish/United Nations force allied with the U.S. army. He said that he had polished his English through his regular contact with the American troops.

When we reached out hotel, we invited him to join us for a drink and asked him his name. I was stunned when he said that his name was "Rabinowitz." That is my mother's maiden name and a very common Russian Jewish family surname.

I asked how the ex-lieutenant's family wound up in Turkey. He explained that his grandparents had left Odessa, a Russian Black Sea port, planning to go to the U.S. or another Western country to escape Russian persecution. As they sailed into the Bosphorus, his pregnant grandmother went into labor.

The family was allowed ashore, where she gave birth to a child. Instead of continuing their voyage, the family decided to remain in Turkey. In subsequent years, the family prospered in the textile machinery business, and they assimilated comfortably into the local society.

For centuries, Turkey has had a small community of Sephardic Jews, descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th Century, who had found a tolerant refuge in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. They still bear Spanish names and speak Ladino, a language with medieval Spanish roots. With a name like Rabinowitz, my new friend was obviously not Sephardic. Jews from Russia and other central and eastern European countries are known as Ashkenazim and speak Yiddish or German.

The differences between the two Jewish cultural groups seriously affected the ex-lieutenant's social life. He was a single man and was eager to marry a Jewish girl. To his sorrow, the local Sephardic community was exceedingly clannish and frowned on marriages with their fellow Jews, the Ashkenazim.

In his search for a Jewish mate, the ex-lieutenant flew almost every weekend to Tel Aviv, which is relatively close to Istanbul. Indeed, there was an El Al office across the street from the Hilton Hotel. My new friend was enjoying an active social life during his visits to Israel, he told us, but he had yet to meet the "right woman."

I assumed that our lovely Circassian tourist guide was unmarried, but it never entered my mind to try to fix him up with her.

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Blogger joared said...

You missed a golden opportunity to play cupid -- what a shame, especially given the difficult time your new friend was having. Oh well, hind sight.

You keep telling the most interesting stories with backgrounds in such interesting settings.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 5:44:00 AM  
Blogger Aimée Kligman, née Dassa said...

Meet and read commentary from the world sephardic community on Women's Lens. I am the author of the blog, a sephardic Jewess born in Alexandria, Egypt.
I now reside in New York, where I have lived most of my adult life.
The blog address is http://womenslens.blogspot.com
See you there.
Aimee Kligman

Sunday, March 02, 2008 9:23:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I saw the title and thought, "Concubine, what did Mort get up to back then?" I'm sure that young man found a wife eventually. Anybody working that hard on a goal usually succeeds.

Monday, March 03, 2008 12:52:00 AM  

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