Istanbul, A City Of Spies In Fact And Fiction

Sep 9, 2012
Originally published on September 9, 2012 10:43 am

Headlines today in Turkey feature stories of alleged Iranian spies, gathering information about Kurdish militants who are responsible for many deaths in Turkey this summer.

But these tales of deception and intrigue pale in comparison with the city's storied past as a mecca for spies. Turkey's golden age of espionage was World War II, a period that continues to serves as a muse for writers of historical thrillers.

A favorite setting for spy scenes is the bar at the Park Hotel, which stood next to the German Consulate. Had you poked your head in during the mid- to late- 1940s, you might have spied Elyeza Basna, the Albanian from Kosovo who became a legendary World War II Nazi spy known as "Cicero."

You might also have bumped into Kim Philby, said to be one of the most successful traitors in British history. As it happens, one of the British agents exposed by Philby to his Soviet masters was David Cornwell, better known as John le Carre, who dramatized the hunt for Philby in the classic thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The story was re-filmed last year, with Gary Oldman starring as head mole hunter George Smiley.

A recent addition to the thriller genre is Joseph Kanon's Istanbul Passage. In a promotional video posted on his website, Kanon makes clear that this exotic and much fought-over city is a major character in the book.

"Istanbul was a city of Greeks and Armenians and Sephardic Jews and Circassian slave girls — all the peoples of a vast empire," Kanon says. "It was also a city of spies."

Kanon is following in some well-known footsteps. Ian Fleming had 007 drop in, and a modern master of the World War II spy thriller, Alan Furst, mentions Turkey and the Black Sea as well.

But aficionados of the genre tend to look back to the man who influenced le Carre and Graham Greene before him: Eric Ambler.

Ambler's Journey Into Fear, adapted for the screen in 1942 by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, opens with a camera zooming in on a dingy Istanbul apartment, where a repulsive-looking assassin is combing his hair while ignoring the skips in his favorite phonograph record.

When an unknown assailant shoots Ambler's protagonist, a stolid but innocent engineer named Howard Graham (Cotten), he doesn't know what to make of the warning offered by Turkish police Col. Haki, played by Welles.

"You are a military objective," Haki tells Graham, who expresses confusion over what Haki means.

"Mr. Graham, has your excellent brain grasped what I am trying to tell you? Someone is trying to kill you," Haki responds.

After the war, as they say, things just weren't the same. In 1966, a bevy of naval attaches from Russia, France, Britain, the U.S. and possibly other countries lost their jobs tracking ships on the Bosporus when the government threatened to yank their diplomatic immunity if they didn't repair to the landlocked capital city of Ankara.

Spies may still be in Turkey, but the stories don't seem nearly as inspiring — unless you count the discovery by residents of one southeastern village this year. They spied a dead bird – a common European bee-eater – wearing a tiny metal band around one leg. It was stamped "Israel."

The police had a hard time convincing the villagers that there probably wasn't a microchip in the bird's nostrils, so they took the corpse away for examination — and declared it was not a threat to national security.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Turkey, at least 10 people are in custody on suspicion of spying for Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. is reportedly sending more diplomats and spies to the Turkish-Syrian border to advise Syrian rebels in their fight against the regime. In this letter from Istanbul, NPR's Peter Kenyon says today's tales of deception and intrigue pale in comparison with the city's storied past as a mecca for spies.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The charges against the alleged Iranian spies are serious, if they really were gathering information about the PKK, Kurdish militants behind many deaths in Turkey this summer. But it seems a far cry from Turkey's golden age of espionage during the Second World War, a period that to this day serves as a muse for historical thriller writers.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

KENYON: A favorite setting for spy scenes is the bar at the Park Hotel, which stood here, right next to the German consulate. Had you poked your head in during the mid- to late-1940s, you might have spied Elyeza Basna, the Albanian from Kosovo who became a legendary World War II Nazi spy known as Cicero. You might also have bumped into Kim Philby, said to be one of the most successful traitors in British history. As it happened, one of the British agents exposed by Philby to his Soviet masters was David Cornwell, who dramatized the hunt for Philby in the classic John le Carre thriller "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." The story was re-filmed last year with Gary Oldman starring as head mole hunter George Smiley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY")

GARY OLDMAN: (as George Smiley) Moscow's planted a mole. It is one of five men.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (as Peter Guillam) He killed our man in Istanbul.

KENYON: A recent addition to the thriller genre is Joseph Kanon's "Istanbul Passage." In a promotional video posted on his website, Kanon makes clear that this exotic and much fought-over city is a major character in the book.

JOSEPH KANON: Istanbul was a city of Greeks and Armenians and Sephardic Jews and Circassian slave girls - all the peoples of a vast empire. It was also a city of spies.

KENYON: Kanon is following in some well-known footsteps. Ian Fleming had 007 drop in, and a modern master of the World War II spy thriller, Alan Furst, mentions Turkey and the Black Sea as well. But aficionados of the genre tend to look back to the man who influenced le Carre and Graham Greene before him, Eric Ambler.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I wouldn't mind...

KENYON: Ambler's "Journey into Fear," adapted for the screen in 1942 by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, opens with a camera zooming in on a dingy Istanbul apartment, where a repulsive-looking assassin is combing his hair while ignoring the skips in his favorite phonograph record.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SKIPPING)

KENYON: When Ambler's protagonist, a stolid but innocent engineer, gets shot by an unknown assailant, he doesn't know what to make of the warning offered by Turkish police Colonel Haki, played by Welles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JOURNEY INTO FEAR")

ORSON WELLES: (as Colonel Haki) You are a military objective.

JOSEPH COTTEN: (as Howard Graham) I don't understand you.

WELLES: (as Colonel Haki) Mr. Graham, has your excellent brain grasped what I am trying to say to you? It's perfectly simple. Someone is trying to kill you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENYON: After the war, as they say, things just weren't the same. In 1966, a bevy of naval attaches lost their jobs tracking ships on the Bosphorus when the government threatened to yank their diplomatic immunity if they didn't repair to the land-locked capital city of Ankara. So, the spies may still be here, but the stories don't seem nearly as inspiring - unless you count the discovery by residents of one southeastern village this year. They spied a dead bird - a common European bee-eater - wearing a tiny metal band around one leg, stamped Israel. The police had a hard time convincing the villagers that there probably wasn't a microchip in the bird's nostrils. So they took the corpse away for examination and declared it was not a threat to national security. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.