7th October 1970. William Hayes is all set to board the Pan American Flight No.1 at the Yesilkoy International Airport in Turkey. The incoming flight from Teheran will take him home to New York via Frankfurt and London. The prospect of homecoming, however, would need some providential co-operation and laxity on the part of the Turkish airport security. For, taped to Hayes’ chest underneath his turtleneck sweater is two kilos of the recreational drug, hashish. Hayes luck runs out as a last minute ‘surprise’ body check at the tarmac to deter potential ‘skyjackers’ results in both the detection of the drug and detention of the passenger.
“Midnight Express”, is the harrowing real life story of William “Billy” Hayes and his incarceration in some of the most inhospitable conditions a man convicted of a crime, can ever envisage. Tried and sentenced to a ridiculous term of 30 years for attempting to smuggle hashish, Hayes finds himself tossed away into the bowels of an unhygienic prison manned by a trio of inhuman wretches, who are euphemism for guards. Sagmalcilar is a resting place for the damned and the degenerate. Filthy, raucous and chaotic, it is segregated into various ‘kogus’ (dormitories or wards in Turkish). The privileged and tidy kogus is reserved for the ‘kapidiye’ (the much feared Mafiosi who keep even the prison authorities in constant dread). The left over kogus is for the lesser mortals.
Hoping to get an “insanity certification”, Hayes, gets himself transferred to an observatory named Bakirkoy. If Sagmalcilar is hell, then Bakirkoy is an absolute inferno. Deranged people, wallowing in filth and hallucinations, openly defecating wherever it pleases them and wandering about without a stitch on rambling to themselves, is a sight which Hayes cannot stomach for long. Failing in his endeavour to get a “crazy certificate”, Hayes moves back to his old prison. He finds solace in the company of four foreign inmates, Arne, Charles (a fellow American from Chicago), Max and Popeye. Spending time in their midst provides him with a sense of solace and suffuses a surge of optimism.
Hayes however finds a glimmer of hope when he is transferred to a prison on the picturesque Imrali Island after serving out 5 years of his sentence. A new Turkish Government has put in place an amnesty scheme that takes away 12 years from Haye’s original sentencing period of thirty years. Considering reward for good behaviour as well, and a possible US-Turkey agreement to deport American prisoners, Hayes is assured by his lawyer and the American Consulate that he would be required to serve, at the maximum, just three more years. But having experienced Turkish mendacity on more than one occasion, Hayes is wary of any promise that would only flatter, to ultimately deceive. He decides to take matters into his own hands. He formulates an escape plan, that is audacious in its sweep, and downright deadly in its wake. Rough weather usually results in a multitude of boats being moored off the coast. Many of these boats have attached to them small rubber dinghies. Hayes would wait for one such night where the weather is rough, before swimming towards the nearest dinghy and rowing it away from the island. He would after reaching the nearest island make a run for the Greek border via Istanbul. All this if he even survives the rough seas and the dangerous rocks dotting the coastline. In spite of repeated entireties from a distraught family, an obdurate Hayes is hell bent on pulling off a Houdini act. After a patient wait for over two weeks, the weather gods oblige him with a torrid night and Hayes puts his plan into action. Whether he will succeed in not just taming the elements but triumphing in his efforts to gain freedom forms the climactic portion of the book.
A fast paced one sitting read, Midnight Express is definitely not for the faint hearted. Whether it be the torments that are a way of life at Sagmalcilar, or the jaw dropping intransigence of the Turkish legal system, where the word “justice” transcends from being a noble concept to a n impotent misnomer, to the insane escape itself attempted by Hayes, the book is gasp inducing. Beads of sweat automatically form on the brows of the reader as the suspense and anticipation leaves her absolutely poleaxed and stupefied.
Midnight Express – A James Bond saga in real life!