Indiana Jones: What’s in a Name?

Here’s an excerpt from my humorous travel memoir, Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea:(the previous episode is Diplomatic Démarche)

I love that part of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indie appears in the “Republic of Hatay” between World Wars I and II. Approximately one one-thousandth of one percent of the people who see that movie might have any clue at all as to the whereabouts of the “Republic of Hatay,” or its capital city of Alexandretta. Therein lies its charm.

Hatay is the modern name for the historic Sanjak of Alexandretta, at the eastern end of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

The city of Alexandretta was founded by Alexander the Great around 330 BC.

Just under a thousand years later the Arabs conquered it and translated its name to Iskenderun (Iskender means Alexander in Arabic).

Almost 1400 years after the Arab conquest people in Europe and America were still calling the city by its old name and marking the old name on maps. So for almost a millennium and a half we’ve refused to recognize the name change.

Talk about crusader mentality!

We did the same thing with Constantinople, which became Istanbul in 1453. Although Atatürk insisted that everybody call Angora Ankara and Constantinople Istanbul and Smyrna Izmir and Antioch Antakya, the Greeks still use the old names to this day and entertain fantasies of getting them back.

Hatay was not precisely a republic between the world wars. It was a sanjak. A sanjak was an Ottoman territorial unit similar to a county in size. The Sanjak of Alexandretta—or Republic of Hatay—included the cities of Iskenderun(Alexandretta) and Antakya (Antioch).

After the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the sultan’s lands in the Middle East were claimed by the victorious powers and governed by “mandate:” the British got Egypt and Palestine, and the French got Syria and Lebanon. Curiously, the Sanjak of Alexandretta was designated an autonomous district attached to Syria rather than part of Mandate Syria itself.

Atatürk recognized Hatay’s strategic importance: a foreign army based there could threaten the Cilician Gates, the mountain pass north of Adana which leads directly to the Anatolian heartland, and which has been the entry point for conquering armies for millennia. He decided that Turkey had to have Hatay to remain secure.

The French seemed about to make it part of Syria, so in 1937 Atatürk put pressure on the French to establish the “Independent State of Hatay” in place of the “Sanjak of Alexandretta.” A plebiscite was organized soon thereafter, the vote went in favor of Turkey, and the quasi-autonomous “state” became the Turkish province of Hatay in 1939—just in time to help Turkey preserve its neutrality during World War II.

So Hatay is no longer independent but, historically speaking, for a single New York minute it sort of was, and the Hollywood people seized upon this fact for a clever bit of historico-political engineering.

Most of the time, movie people don’t want to tick off potential viewers so they try hard not to alienate anyone except perhaps those with no money for movie tickets. They particularly dislike ticking off whole countries because some of the citizens are going to have the price of a ticket so they need to be clever about where the action is located, especially if the plot is Standard Hollywood Plot No. 1, ie, there are lots of baddies trying to do nasty to the hero.

Nazis are the convenient bad guys because most people hate them and the real ones are long dead and therefore incapable of filing nettlesome lawsuits, but what to do about thelocation? What if you want some of the movie action to take place in a picturesque desert? There are no deserts in Germany, picturesque or otherwise, or in Austria for that matter, so you’ve got to look elsewhere.

North Africa is the obvious place to locate your movie Nazis because during World War II there were in fact Nazis there; but the countryside is mostly boring desert, not picturesque desert. You can’t put them in other countries of the region because there were no German troops there during World War II. Spies yes, troops no. You can shoot lots of desert scenes for your movie in these places, and in fact some of the most beautiful and exciting scenes in “Last Crusade” were shot at Petra in Jordan; but you can’t locate your movie there.

So what do you do? Make up an imaginary country to locate your movie in? Well, you could, but that sacrifices a significant amount of verisimilitude, and in an Indiana Jones-type movie most of the verisimilitude has already been sacrificed so you want to hold onto whatever’s left.

Ironically, with so little left, every tiny bit of actual truth takes on huge importance. People come out of Indiana Jones movies saying “You know that part about the Rolls Royce Phantom II, 4.3 litre, 30 horsepower, six cylinder engine, with Stromberg downdraft carburetor? It really can go from zero to 100 kilometers an hour in 12.5 seconds,” etc. If there were only one actual atom of truth in such a movie, that atom would be talked to death.

In short, there’ve got to be at least some fragments of truth in an Action/Crowd-Pleaser movie, just as in advertising and government, or the whole ridiculous suspension-of-disbelief structure crumbles and you’re left with no paying customers.

That’s why, as a movie-making person, you love Hatay.

It is at least believable, if not completely accurate, that there was a pasha in charge of Hatay, and that the Nazis bribed him with a Rolls Royce so they could go get the Holy Grail, etc. Even if it’s not strictly true, it’s so obscure that, as noted above, only one one-thousandth of one percent of your paying customers will notice, and even fewer—perhaps only two, namely Steven Spielberg and Yours Truly—will give a damn.

Speaking of accuracy, movie people like to be able to say that such and such a movie is “based on a true story.” This always kills me. “Based on a true story,” in Hollywood parlance, means “we’ve changed this sucker around so much that it’s a bigger myth than Enron’s ethics, but now it fulfills our ego, box office and political-correctness requirements, and it’s important to our amour propre to appear ethical, so sit back, relax, and, against your better instincts, believe that this is true.” If you need convincing on this point, I refer you to “Midnight Express,” which was “based on a true story” in which a two-bit convicted drug smuggler is miraculously transmuted into a suffering hero while the Turkish authorities who are trying to protect American youth from the scourge of illegal drugs become the heavies, and Hollywood cashes in at the Turks’ expense.

But more of that later….

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(Excerpts from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea copyright © 2004 by Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)

(Next: The Bile Green Color Wasn’t Even the Worst of It)


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