The Real Midnight Express

Last Updated on May 2, 2019

Here’s an excerpt from my humorous travel memoir, Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea(The previous episode was The Thumb in My Soup.)

She was a PCV [Peace Corps Volunteer]teaching English in Ankara in 1969. I’ll call her Mary. She would have been quite attractive if there’d been somewhat less of her, but it was a Peace Corps commonplace that when volunteers got lonely the men lost weight and the women put it on.

I was in Ankara for the September Peace Corps conference. August had raced by in a flurry of research for my guidebook—bus trips and note-taking—and here I was one evening with a few other PCVs sitting in Mary’s Ankara apartment. She took out a guitar, gave it a tune, and played the old Peter, Paul & Mary ballad “I’m Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” singing it sweetly.

Mary had a boyfriend called Moe, an African-American vagabond out to see the world. Hippies were commonplace in Istanbul but rare in Ankara, and in 1968 a black hippy was rare anywhere. Moe was exotic and charming, a good talker, and Mary fell for him. He gave her attention, sex, excitement and a whiff of devil-may-care freedom, and she gave him food, sex, love, and a place to stay.

Moe wasn’t in Ankara for the sightseeing, or even for Mary. He was there because he was a convicted drug smuggler. He had been caught with an industrial quantity, hauled into court, found guilty, and sentenced to a long vacation in a Turkish slammer. As was customary at the time, his case was automatically sent up for appeal. The Turkish authorities gave him back all of his possessions except his passport—and the drugs—and released him on his own recognizance. In theory he was supposed to appear at his appeal hearings.

What? A convicted drug smuggler walking the streets?

Sure! While he waited for Turkish justice to grind along, he dossed with Mary and enjoyed life. It was part of the system.

The system was this: in certain parts of the country, Turkish farmers grew a lot of opium. They had grown opium for centuries. Their pastoral life was built on the cultivation of the opium poppy. They ate the tender leaves of the opium plant in their salads. They fed the harvested plants, deprived of their precious opium gum, to their cattle. The only thing they didn’t use from the plant was the drug. They sold the raw gum to the government, as required by law, for use in making morphine-based pharmaceuticals.

The problem was, illegal traders paid far more for the gum than the government’s low fixed price, so many farmers sold only part of their crop to the government and the rest to the traders because that’s where their real profit was. The traders turned the gum into heroin, increasing its market value a thousandfold, and sold it to European and American drug dealers, who passed it on at a princely price to addicts.

What’s the Problem?

Drugs were a pestilence in American society, causing not only the illness and death of countless Americans, many of them young, but also increasing all the other crimes related to the drug trade: robbery, burglary, fraud, racketeering, blackmail, assault, murder.

“First-world” countries needed to do something about their drug problem. What they did was toblame the Turks for “being the suppliers,”  choosing to ignore the real problem, which wasthe demand for drugs. Without demand, supply would dry up. With demand, closing down supply in one country would only cause it to pop up in another. But it was much easier and politically expedient to use Turkey as a whipping-boy than to solve the problem at home in the USA.

President Nixon and the Congress put heavy pressure on the Turkish government to solve the western world’s drug problem. To pay for the fix, the USA gave the Turks $40 million. The money was for increased surveillance, arrests, prosecutions and convictions, and to smooth the transition to the “poppy straw” process whereby the poppy plants are harvested before they mature and the sap (prelude to gum) forms. Opium can be extracted from poppy straw only in an elaborate factory, and the factory would be run by the government. With no sap and no gum there could be no heroin.

Turkey had gotten a reputation as an easy place to buy drugs which, for awhile, it was. Few Turks used drugs but supply met demand: if foreigners came asking for drugs, the market would meet their needs. In a way, foreigners probably invented the modern Turkish drug market, or at least the export department.

With the pressure on from the American government, the Turkish police were ordered to cut down on the trade and arrest drug smugglers, which they did. The foreign traders were the easiest because they didn’t know the territory as well as the local talent. Most of the foreign dealers were rank amateurs, easy to pick up, charge and convict.

Due to that jolly absurdity which infuses so much of modern life, arresting foreign drug smugglers earned the Turks no praise from the people who were demanding that they do it. In one memorable incident, a British woman put her 10-year-old son, his luggage packed with illegal drugs, on a plane from India to London by way of Istanbul. The Turkish authorities discovered the drugs, took the boy into custody and his mother too when she arrived on a later flight. The British tabloids crucified the Turks for persecuting a child and demanded his immediate release. The tabloids apparently thought nothing of sending off a child by himself on a halfway-round-the-world plane trip along with enough illicit drugs to earn the owner a death penalty. The boy was released, with no thanks to the Turks for interdicting a shipment of poison meant for British youth.

When a foreign smuggler was convicted, the Turkish government had a different problem: it had to imprison the criminal. This was expensive because foreign prisoners were held in special prisons that were more modern and comfortable than the spartan traditional Turkish lock-ups. Foreign prisoners had to be treated better or there would be even greater howling from the media in their home country. As the Turkish police acceded to American pressure and arrested more and more foreign drug smugglers, the problem of room and board for picky foreign crooks got ever more expensive for the Turks.

What to do? The Turkish authorities came up with a creative plan. They’d release the convicted smugglers pending appeal. This cut the incarceration expense right away. As the convict was being released, someone would casually whisper that a train ran from Istanbul to Edirne through Greece—slowly.

It was true.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when the new border was drawn between Greece and Turkey, the old railway line ended up partly in Turkey and partly in Greece. Until the 1970s when a new line was built entirely on the Turkish side of the border, a slow train departed Istanbul each evening at 10:10 pm bound for Uzunköprü, near the Greco-Turkish frontier. After leaving Uzunköprü it headed north toward Edirne, crossing the frontier into Greece at Pythion (Pithio). It stopped there to take on Greek border guards who rode the train until it crossed back into Turkey, reaching Edirne at 8:01 am.

Because it was a Turkish train going from one place in Turkey to another place in Turkey with no stops in Greece (except for the border guards), this “corridor train” was officially a domestic run, and no passport was needed to board it.

Although drug smugglers called it the Midnight Express, it was not an express at all but a yolcu (passenger) train, Turkey’s slowest kind, trundling along at a pace just above a run. If you had a good reason to get off in Greece, you could work up the courage to jump.

After a convict jumped off the Midnight Expresshe’d call the American consulate in Thessaloniki, claim that he had lost his passport, apply for and receive a new one, and be on his way. If the border guards saw him jump, they’d jail him for a night, consult with the US consulate, get him a new passport, and send him on his way.

Mary Takes the Train

Mary showed up on my doorstep in Istanbul one day and asked for a favor.

“We’re leaving,” she said. “Moe and I.” She told me about the train.

“We’re going to meet in Thessaloniki. Moe left last night, without his backpack of course, so he could jump. It’s in our hotel room with mine. I was wondering if you’d help me get our stuff down to the station.”

“Sure,” I said, “but no drugs. No drugs! I suppose Moe has learned his lesson, but just in case, I want you to go through his stuff and make sure there are no drugs.”

“There aren’t any drugs,” she said, “but I’ll check again just to be sure.”

I hesitated, then asked, “Are you really doing the right thing? I mean, with Moe. Do you really think he’s good for you?”

“I love him,” she said. “Yes, I’m doing the right thing.”

“I’ll meet you at your hotel an hour before train time,” I said.

When I got to her room in Sultanahmet, she was tying up the top of Moe’s backpack.

“I checked,” she said. “It’s clean.”


I lifted the pack and strapped it on. It was heavy. Mary strapped on hers and we hiked down to Sirkeci Station. We climbed aboard the train, found an empty compartment and stowed the packs.

“Good luck,” I said, giving her a hug. “I hope it works out. Mary, stay away from drugs. It’s a dirty business and everybody in it knows more than you do. The winners are the people at the top. The little people at the bottom are expendable, and everybody except the little people knows it.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I’ve got my head screwed on right this time.”

It was a beautiful system. American politicians were happy: Turkish arrest and conviction statistics were up. Turkish politicians were happy: they were saved the expense and media headache of incarcerating the foreign criminals. The criminals were happy: they were back on the road. Drug users were happy: when it got tough to trade in Turkey, they looked to Thailand and found a new, abundant source of supply.

Hollywood was happy: it got together a group of Turkish-speaking actors with Greek and Armenian surnames, cast them as “Turks” to Oliver Stone’s racist anti-Turkish screenplay, and produced a movie that magically transmuted the Turkish police—who had acted in response to, and for the good of, the American public—into perverts, and a convicted American drug smuggler into a suffering hero.

The movie was a box office hit, and no one who saw it ever wanted to set foot in Turkey. For helping to curb America’s drug problem, Turkey lost millions of dollars in tourism revenue.

Several months later I got a thank-you letter from Mary. She wrote that she met Moe as planned and they hit the road. A few weeks later he dumped her for another girl and she was alone.

“By the way, when you carried it to the station, his backpack had two kilos of drugs in it,” she wrote.

Of course it did. I felt exceedingly stupid.

But not as stupid as Mary.

Click here to order an autographed copy of the book online with credit card or PayPal.

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

(The next episode is Aladdin’s Lamp Shop.)

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