It’s been said that when you travel, there’s only one thing you can’t leave behind: yourself.
But I’ve been traveling through the world of Islam for almost two decades now, and have surely left quite a bit of my old, kaffir American self behind. Before taking shahada at age 35, I lived a life that was footloose and free, though not especially fancy. I used to travel a lot just for the hell of it; learn languages mainly for the poetry (and to hit it off with the local women); swill alcoholic beverages on a regular basis; and deal with the absurdity and meaninglessness of it all by laughing at just about everything.
I’ve left most of that behind–though I must admit I still get a chuckle out of absurdity every now and then. Like Brion Gysin’s protagonist in The Process, I have learned that the password for entry into the brotherhood of Islam is: “No baggage.”
But that’s not a literal and inviolable commandment. Earlier this month, when I arrived in Turkey for a two-week speaking tour, I was hauling two gigantic duffel bags stuffed with books to sell, clothing, and Allah knows what-all.
I suppose I could have left all that behind, just as I long ago left behind my old rambling, boozing, bohemian self.
But there is one thing that I cannot possibly leave behind when I travel: My gnarly, malodorous size 14-and-a-half feet. And on my trip to Turkey, those feet kept getting in the way.
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For as long as I can remember, my feet have always been…sticking out. For whatever reason, perhaps as a private joke, Allah made them several sizes too big for my body.
As a small child, my parents measured the size of my feet, looked at a chart, and told me that I would grow up to be at least six foot eight. Imagining that I had a shot at professional basketball partly made up for all the sprained and broken toes, the taunts about why would I bother wearing skis, and the humiliation of walking around in what looked like clown shoes.
Another thing about my feet is, not to put too fine a point on it: They stink. Yes, I know everybody’s feet stink, but some feet, like some farts, are stinkier than others. And mine (feet, not farts) are among the stinkiest. My brother and sister, among others, told me when I was a teenager that Frank Zappa must have written “Stinkfoot” about me. As a Zappa fan, I took it as a compliment.
Now, as a gimpy old guy with end-stage osteoarthritis of both hips, I have another problem: It’s difficult and painful to bend over far enough to get my shoes and socks on and off. That, and not nostalgia for youthful bohemianism, is the reason I usually wear slip-on sandals (with no socks, so my fetid feet can air out) any time the temperature is above freezing. Unfortunately, due to the formalities of a speaking tour, I would need to wear dress shoes while in Turkey.
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For air travel especially, I strongly favor sandals, which are easy to get in-and-out-of quickly at the TSA ritual-humiliation checkpoints. Ideally, they should be set off by the black “9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB” T-shirt Alex Jones gave me. But for the Turkey trip, my wife convinced me to “dress nicely” even on the plane. So when I found myself in the requested aisle seat with size-15 Hush Puppies velcro-strapped to my enormous feet and no place to put them — the Turkish Airlines plane featured some kind of metal box bolted under the seat in front of me — I gobbled a couple hits of “Favre’s Demise” and settled in for a long half-painful, half-narcoticized flight. “Should I take off my shoes? or would the fumes bring down the plane?” was the last thought that flitted through my brain before I lost consciousness somewhere over Greenland.
Upon arrival in Turkey, I discovered that my feet’s problems had barely begun: Everywhere I went I was fêted while my feet were fetid. Turkish people, like Europeans, judge you, at least to a certain extent, on the quality of your shoes; and they are not big on sandals, or other exposures of hairy naked feet in public. So I was obliged to wear real shoes, with socks, during my two-week stay. As in all Islamic cultures, those shoes had to be removed every time I visited a house or living area, and put back on every time I stepped back out into the public sphere. Additionally, most Turks follow the Hanafi school of Islamic law, which mandates that the feet be carefully washed as part of the ablutions before each of the five-times-daily salaat prayers. (Other law schools allow you to just wash your feet once in the morning, then pass your hands over your socks to impose ritual cleanliness on your feet for the other four prayers.)
All of this meant that my shoes and/or socks would have to go on and off many times every day. Yes, I know I could have followed another law school’s practice while in Turkey, though if I led the prayer any Hanafis praying behind me would then have to redo their prayers. But frankly, with feet like mine, washing them carefully five times per day is probably not a bad idea.
The Turks in general, and our hosts in particular, are hospitable and solicitous people. (Perhaps someone ought to start a Turkish restaurant called “The Solicitous Turk,” advertised by a neon sign depicting a Turkish waiter holding a tray piled high with delicious food in one hand, while bending over to tie the customer’s shoe with the other.) Everywhere I went people were eager, sometimes too eager, to help me with my shoes and socks. At Rumi’s tomb in Konya, which has become Turkey’s second-largest tourist attraction, I became an obstacle to foot traffic at the entrance, where you have to put on little stretchy plastic shoe-condoms, which are basically miniature foot-shaped versions of the produce bags you put carrots in at the grocery store. Is the idea is to protect the ancient floors, or the dignity of Rumi? Would Rumi start whirling in his grave if he saw tourists walking all over his mausoleum in uncondomed footwear? Wasn’t this the guy who said something like, “Come, come, whoever you are, whether you’re well-shod or barefoot, come! Come, come, even if you’ve broken your shoelaces a thousand times…”
In any event, rather than sensibly making everyone take off their shoes, as in mosques, the authorities cater to tourists by having everybody stretch these filmy little transparent plastic things over their shoes. The problem: Turkish shoe-condoms are one size too small for my feet. My Turkish friends, exerting themselves to no end, would bent over to yank and tug and heave at the shoe-condom until it finally stretched over my gigantic foot…and then burst into a wispy plastic scrap. Then another…and another…I counted five busted shoe-condoms before they finally gave up and let me walk through Rumi’s mausoleum with the little plastic bags stretched tightly over just the front halves of my shoes.
I began to feel really sorry for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who, we were told, was also traveling in Turkey. Those Turkish shoe-condoms, I imagine, would barely cover Kareem’s big toe.
The next day, still in Konya, I was told — or so I understood — that I would have the day off. During the previous ten days of our stay in Turkey, my American companions and I had been giving talks to overflow crowds every night, and occasional afternoons as well. Our days were crowded with traveling and sightseeing. We usually didn’t get to sleep until 1 a.m., and then were up again at 4:30 a.m. for the pre-dawn fajr prayer. We were making good use of every available minute in Turkey, and sleep was not a priority.
So when, on May 15th, I was told I would have the day off, and the younger guys in our party would be doing the public speaking, I kicked back and relaxed and threw on a pair of size 15 rubber sandals over my bare feet. Just as I was sinking into the easy chair in the hotel lobby, Brother Najat, our scheduler, grabbed me by the arm and said “Come on, they’re waiting at the convention!” I hastily threw on my suit jacket, but neglected to put on real shoes, assuming that since I wasn’t on the speaking program, it wouldn’t really matter.
On the way to the auditorium, someone showed me the latest edition of the national newspaper Yeni Asya. My face was plastered at the top of the front page.
When I got out of the van at the convention, in the middle of a crowd of 5,000 people milling around outside, I was immediately mobbed. It seemed like every one of the 5,000 people wanted to shake my hand and have my picture taken with them. They had all read the newspaper story about how the Zionists had destroyed my academic career because I had spoken out for 9/11 truth.
As the people in that enormous crowd saw me, broad smiles lit up as they recognized me from the newspaper. Stepping up to shake my hand, their eyes would drop to glance at my bare, gnarly feet protruding every which way from the size 15 plastic sandals. For a split second, their jaws would drop and their eyes would bulge. Then they would put the smile back on and murmur as we shook hands: “Do you need socks? Do you need shoes?”
Soon the rumor was going around that the Zionists had deprived me not only of my career, but along with it everything I owned, including my shoes and socks.
Someone quickly showed up with a spare pair of socks. They were almost as difficult to stretch over my feet as the shoe-condoms had been, but after a few minutes of tugging and heaving they made it without bursting. A frantic search for size 15 dress shoes then commenced. Since it quickly became apparent that the only place to find size 15 dress shoes in Konya, Turkey was in my luggage, which was in one of the vans in the convention parking lot, the search narrowed down quickly and, within a half-hour or so, I was once again suitably shod.
Suleyman Abi, my Turkish-American colleague, explained to me, between bursts of uncontrollable giggles, that in Turkish culture, wearing a suit and jacket with plastic sandals and no socks is completely incomprehensible. And to do this on the day that you were the top front-page headline in a national newspaper… (More uncontrollable giggles.)
When I was a kid, I once dreamed I was on the school bus and suddenly realized I had forgotten my clothes. Now I was suddenly front page news in a foreign country, standing in front of thousands of people, realizing I had forgotten my shoes.
What could I say? “I thought I was getting the day off?” “Hey, they’re treating us like rock stars, so why not act like rock stars?” In the end, all I could do was laugh along with Suleyman Abi.
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Postscript: On our way back to the USA, while standing in line at the security checkpoint at Attaturk International Airport, I explained to the British-Pakistani-Nigerian guy next to me that I had been on a 9/11 truth speaking tour. “I might agree with your perspective on 9/11,” he said, “except that I once sat next to the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, on a flight from Pakistan to the U.K. And let me tell you, he was one scary guy.”
“Scary?” I said. “Richard Reid, scary? Are you kidding? He was a typical patsy — an unstable guy with a room-temperature IQ who couldn’t even get a match lit to set his shoe on fire!”
“He kept ranting about all this jihadi stuff the whole way to London,” my new acquaintance said. “He had this terrifying, glazed look in his eyes. And he stunk! It was like he hadn’t showered in months.”
“Come on!” I said. “Reid was just a typical patsy — straight out of the MI-6 finishing school at their ‘Finsbury Park Mosque,’ where they recruit unstable, suggestible morons to take the fall for false-flag terror hoaxes. This was a guy who couldn’t even get a match lit — and his shoe wouldn’t have blown up even if he had!”
“He wouldn’t have needed the shoe to explode,” my friend chuckled. “All he’d have to do is take it off. His feet stunk so badly, he could have just taken off his shoes on the plane, and…BOOM! Everybody’s dead.”
It was a warning from Allah. On the flight back from Istanbul to Chicago, I kept my shoes on the whole way.