Antakya, Turkey - Wednesday, Oct. 29
My head snapped around to look when I heard the familiar sound of Arabic being spoken. "Keefak, ya doktor?" the waiter at the restaurant shouted to an acquaintance. "How are you, doctor?"
Arabic, the language that (along with Hebrew) has surrounded me for the 3 1/2 years I've lived in Jerusalem, has been rare on this trip. And since I was still in Turkey, I didn't expect to start hearing it hear either.
But national borders in the Middle East are a poor way of judging who lives where. In fact many of the region's most persistent troubles can be traced back to the half-mad way the lines were drawn in this part of the world back in the colonial era.
Many Iraqis, for instance, curse the day in 1920 that the British united the predominantly Sunni province of Baghdad with the Shia province of Basra and the largely Kurdish Mosul area to form what is now Iraq. Similarly, though less explosively, the line that divides Saudi Arabia from Jordan cuts right through the ancient territories of several tribes who are now split by the border. And that's without discussing (for now) Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Antakya, known during the Roman era as Antioch, is another one of those places. Historically part of Syria, it was arbitrarily made a separate territory (the sanjak of Alexandretta) during French colonial rule.
In 1938, under Turkish pressure, this tiny patch of land declared independence from France and became known as the Republic of Hatay, a country with its own flag and parliament (best known as the fictional setting for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which unfortunately for the local tourism industry, was actually filmed in Petra, Jordan.)
A year later, a referendum was held — during which Turkey is alleged to have moved in busloads of Turkish "residents" — and Hatay voted to join the Turkish Republic. France, anxious to keep Turkey neutral in World War Two, meekly acquiesced.
Flash forward seven decades, and it still doesn't make much more sense than it did in 1938. The street signs are in Turkish and the red-and-white Turkish flag hangs from every shop in an over-the-top display of nationalism. But on the streets, this is still an Arab town that ended up in Turkey through a string of events almost to strange to be depicted in film.
"Ninety per cent of the people here speak Arabic better than they speak Turkish," my cab driver, Fouad, told me as we left Antakya and headed south towards the Syrian border.
In this region, where history is never forgotten, such anomalies have a nasty habit of flaring into bigger problems. But with Turkey rapidly modernizing and flirting with the possibility of European Union membership, no one is agitating for reunion with isolated Syria just now.
"Life is good here in Turkey, thank God," Fouad said. "We are Arabs, but we don't want the troubles the have in Syria and Lebanon.