Camels wrestling…and how to lie your way onto a ministerial flight

Camel wrestling in Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My career in journalism didn’t start with a bang. It started with camels wrestling.

After I finished university I moved to Istanbul to become a foreign correspondent. I had no employer, I was freelance. No newspaper was interested in sending a complete novice abroad.

But I wasn’t going to let that stand in my way. In my mind, I was going to be the fearless foreign correspondent of myth, the sort you see in the movies exposing wrongdoing, giving a voice to the oppressed, and standing up to governments armed with nothing but a notebook.

In my first six months, I sold one article. It was about camel-wrestling.

Every year there is a camel-wrestling festival in Epehesus. I went; it was susprisingly dull. The camels squared up to each other impressively, frothing at the mouth, but they didn’t fight. One of the camels would invariably back down before it got to that. The stands were full of men with moustaches betting on which camel would back down.

The highlight of the day was when one camel — who presumably had not been told there was not to be any actual fighting — lost his nerve and bolted.

If I didn’t sell more serious articles, it wasn’t for want of trying. I flew to the Kurdish south-east, to research a story that the Turkish government had armed and trained Islamic extremists.

I was naive and inexperienced. I walked into police headquarters and asked to see the police chief. I asked him if the allegations were true. There was a long silence. He stared at me.

Then he went out of his office to make a call. I was driven to the regional governor’s office. The governor told me I had no permission to be in the area and, in the ordinary way of things, I’d be arrested, but he’d make an exception if I flew straight back to Istanbul.

I grew despondent. I got to know the bars of Istanbul too well. Then, one night, after a long drinking session, I was smoking shisha with a group of friends when I saw a story on the television in the corner. There’d been an earthquake in Adana, in the south of Turkey.

“I have to go,” I told my friends.

“Where?” they asked.

“Adana, of course.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” one of the girls told me. “It’s the middle of the night. How are you going to get to Adana?”

But through my drunken haze, I knew I had to get there. A few days before, some one had called from The Independent in London to say they were looking for stories from Turkey, and to send them anything I had. This was my chance.

The only way to get to Adana in time was to fly. I got a taxi home and called the airline.  All the flights were already full.

“I have to get there, I’m an international journalist,” I told the woman from the airline. “I’m the Istanbul Correspondent of The Independent, a famous newspaper.” At this point, I’d never written a word for The Independent.

“Well, there’s the minister’s flight in the morning,” she said doubtfully, “I could put you on that, but–”

“Yes,” I said. “Put me on that.”

“Are you a fully accredited journalist with the Turkish government?” she asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

She put me on the flight. At dawn, I found myself, badly hung over and half asleep, sitting next to an official on a plane packed with dignitaries. But I made it, and I got my first story in The Independent. Later I went back to the south-east and wrote that story too.

I don’t think I could have lied myself onto that flight sober.


  1. Amazing story about a first break in journalism, really inspiring! I’m guessing this is the kind of brave move I’m going to have to make if I want to succeed as a foreign correspondant. And if there’s shisha and camel wrestling involved, all the better.

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