[At the conclusion of the previous installment in this series, our Aramcons adventurers had floated past armed Turkish sentries guarding the construction site of a new dam, ignoring their orders to stop. We pick up their story there, speaking in the voice of AXP president Vicci Turner for a final time as we conclude this series.]
Not far past the dam site, we spied suitable ground to camp, pulled in to shore, and bedded down for the night. Mike estimated we had 60 miles left to go and only a day and a half to do it in—a formidable challenge. There would be no time for dawdling as our journey neared its end.
Early the next morning, shortly after we launched, a group of five Kurds waved to us from shore, signaling for us to stop. They looked friendly, and this time we did what we were asked, despite the shotguns two of them carried. They turned out to be fishermen looking for help rounding up their day’s catch. Forsaking lures and live bait and nets, their weapon of choice this day in man’s eternal war against piscine foes was dynamite.
The group’s leader pulled out a bright red stick of TNT and with elaborate gestures pretended to light it and toss it in the river. He threw his hands up in the air and cried out whatever the Kurdish word is for “Boom!” With help from Vic, we got the message. Their plan was to kill or shock every fish within the blast zone and have us retrieve them as they floated lifeless or stunned to the surface before the current swept them away. We made it clear we wanted no part of his scheme. The leader looked genuinely crestfallen as we continued on our way.
A separate encounter later that afternoon had a different flavor altogether. The incident involved three boys who’d been watching us approach for some time from a cobble beach downstream. The first two rafts passed without a problem. But when the third, helmed by Mike, drifted into range, the tallest of the trio commenced a modern-day reenactment of the David v. Goliath story. Bending over and carefully selecting a golf-ball-sized stone from the riverbank, he placed it in the pocket of a three-foot-long leather sling and began twirling the age-old weapon in an underhand motion similar to that of a softball pitcher’s windup. With an ever-so-slight, well-timed flick of the wrist, he sent the projectile whizzing Mike’s way, missing his target by 20 feet.
Cupping his hands around his mouth, Vic stood up and yelled “Hayir, yok!” (Turkish for “No! ”) at the top of his lungs. Stop the lad did not.
Undeterred, the youth, who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old, selected another rock, twirled his arm and sling again, and launched a second sling stone, coming a few feet closer this time. The hooligan kept up this fusillade the whole time Mike’s raft was within his sight. Steadily, inexorably, the Avon drifted closer to the assailant.
“Everybody get down on the floor,” Mike shouted, “and put your life jackets over your heads. This kid’s crazy!”
Rowing as hard as he possibly could, Mike strained to propel his charges past the sniper before anyone was injured or killed. The stones being slung were capable of inflicting lethal harm if they hit a person just right. According to the Book of Samuel, after all, David once slew Goliath wielding this same weapon, and herders and modern-day hunter re-enactors have been known to take down predators and small game with it.
The channel ahead was rapidly narrowing, and if this juvenile delinquent made it to the bottleneck first, it would be “like shooting fish in a barrel” for him. He was slinging stones for no apparent reason, with deadly intent. Mike and Vic continued to scream at him, to no avail. The missiles just kept on coming, faster and faster, one after another. Sooner or later, a stone would strike someone. It was just a matter of time.
Belatedly realizing Mike’s escape plan, the Kurdish Kid, as Mike referred to him later, began sprinting toward the bottleneck, hoping to beat his prey there before they escaped. Pausing every few feet to sling another stone, he began to lose accuracy in his frantic rush to score a kill. Each time he paused, Mike’s lead increased. Just when it looked like the KK might win the race, he ran out of shoreline as a protruding cliff blocked his path forward, setting the raft and its five occupants free.
That attack was the only hostile moment we experienced on our entire trip, and we were baffled at the time as to what could possibly have provoked such bellicosity from this stone-throwing devil incarnate, a complete stranger to us. In retrospect, applying the added wisdom time and experience brings, I surmise that, most likely, he viewed us as outside Turkish agents entering Kurdish waters uninvited with nefarious intentions in mind. That made us his enemies, and he was defending his home turf with the only weapon he had. What else in his way of thinking could otherwise logically have explained our presence that day? Had we told him that we’d drifted the Kemer Khan and Serpent’s Mill just for the thrill of it, he would have thought us crazy—and he would have been more right than wrong. Mike summed up my thoughts exactly when he muttered in distaste that the Kurdish Kid was the perfect advertisement for the virtues of corporal punishment.
Shortly after our escape, we came upon a smattering of caves hollowed out long, long ago by the hands of men as abodes for eremites, and the deserted ruins of a pair of monasteries dating from the Byzantine era clinging to rocky cliffs beside the flow. Similar to what happened in the land above the Keban mega-dam when it was built, most of these and much of what else we saw during our descent of the Euphrates have long since been submerged beneath the backwaters of new dams such as the Karakaya and the 555-foot high, mile-wide Atatürk Dam— the sixth-largest in the world—named after the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and completed in 1992.
The Keban, Karakaya, and Atatürk dams are but three of 22 dams and 19 power plants strategically placed throughout the Tigris and Euphrates river systems comprising Turkey’s $32 billion Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), formally announced in 1980 and nearing completion today. Hundreds of hamlets and villages have been inundated and well over 100,000 people forced to relocate to new homes. Once a cradle of civilizations to a succession of Hittites, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Armenians, the region we floated past is now mostly covered by glistening lakes and slow-moving aqua ribbons well-suited for such things as water-skiing and boating, fishing and swimming, irrigation and flood control.
I count myself fortunate beyond measure to have viewed the archaeological gems and assorted natural wonders of the Grand Canyon of the Euphrates and the encompassing plains and valleys and streams before they disappeared forever into watery graves.
That evening, as we made the last camp of our journey at the foot of towering cliffs, a band of wary Kurdish rebel separatists appeared without warning from out of the gloaming. One of them carried an AK-47, the others an assortment of serious lethal weaponry, all of it no doubt illegal. The sight of such firepower would put normal people on edge, but, as ExPats living in Saudi Arabia, we were accustomed to the sight of soldiers openly carrying automatic weapons in banks and airports and bus stations and other public places. We should have been frightened, but we weren’t.
Discovering that we were Americans, our visitors relaxed, eased their fingers off their triggers, and turned friendly. One of them pulled out some ancient coins from a small leather pouch and tried to sell them to us at exorbitant prices. Declining his offer, we offered instead to share some freshly-brewed coffee with them, which they passed on. They preferred intense, finely ground, unfiltered Turkish coffee to our watered-down American brew.
Rising just before dawn on the morning of the 2nd of May, we concluded the final 20 miles of our journey at a brisk pace, encountering few rapids of any size, stopping nowhere, and tying our boats together to eat lunch while drifting. Just past noon, we extricated ourselves for the final time from the river’s embrace at the foot of the long-since-flooded Akincilar Bridge in Adiyaman Province near the site of ancient Samosata, capital in classical times of the Kingdom of Commagene. In the near distance stood a conical mound that looked more man-made than natural, and more than likely it was. This region of the Euphrates was dimpled by hundreds of such mounds, built thousands of years ago only to be worn down by weather and time and eventually abandoned, their histories soon forgotten. Only a relatively few had been excavated by archaeologists before disappearing forever beneath the backed-up waters of the Karakaya and Atatürk dams, their mysteries never to be answered.
Elsewhere in Turkey that day, violent demonstrations wracked Istanbul’s Taksim Square, historically the city’s epicenter for popular protests. Beginning in 1980 and for several decades thereafter, the government imposed martial law on eastern Turkey in response to the dangers posed by Kurdish insurgents such as those we’d just met. Kissed by serendipity, we safely completed our journey within a narrow, soon-to-close window of opportunity, arriving back home in the Kingdom unscathed despite the unrest afoot in Turkey at the time. Despite, too, the tumult gripping Iran, nine hours by car from Adiyaman, where revolutionaries had overthrown Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in January; and Syria, less than a four hour drive away, where deadly sectarian strife was rampant; and Iraq, three hours further distant, where Saddam Hussein would seize power that July and soon begin executing his enemies, real and imagined.
Only when preparing for this story did I at last fully appreciate the extent of the dangers we faced and the seriousness of the obstacles we overcame. There’s a popular saying that goes, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” What we didn’t know didn’t hurt us, it’s true, but it very well could have.
For me, threats like these were but distant rumors of little practical consequence at the time to how I lived my life. For the moment, I remained basically the same small-town girl I was when I graduated from high school in a town without traffic lights hidden away in the mountains of western Idaho. By the time the shock waves of an exploding Scud missile knocked me out of my bed in Dhahran in January 1991 during the First Gulf War, my awareness of the world and its complexities had deepened considerably.
The desire to travel and explore new places and meet new people consumes me yet today. Every time I grab my passport and head to the airport, I say a silent thank you to Aramco for opening my eyes to the world.
“Got off river. So nice to have a shower & a Coke!” Charlie wrote in his abbreviated notes from the trip about our exit from the Euphrates. From the Akincilar Bridge, we were supposed to take a bus back to Malatya, but none showed up, despite previous assurances. Forced to improvise, we stood by the roadside and waved to passing vehicles, hoping someone would stop and give us a lift. At last a farmer with a lumbering 2-ton flat-bed sheep truck answered our call and agreed to take us to our destination. Before setting out, he backed his vehicle up to the river and we flushed out the bed, scraping off the sheep droppings as best we could.
Ignoring a smell we could do nothing about, we spread out a tarp and commenced loading. In went the deflated rafts; in went our oars and tents and sleeping bags; in went everything else, last of all our team, including everyone but me. I rode shotgun in the cab of the truck alongside the driver. He spoke as much English as I did Turkish, i.e., zero. Wordlessly, the man put on a memorable show.
The road to Malatya was twisted and mountainous in places, and the sound of him grinding through gears on our way uphill grated on my ears. Respite from the noise came whenever we headed downhill. The instant we started a descent, he switched off the ignition, shifted into neutral, and let gravity do the work, saving on petrol and wear on my eardrums. When I looked at him quizzically the first time this happened, he just smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and continued on like everything was normal. Nothing was normal about that drive, just as nothing was normal about anything that happened to us the entire trip. Everything was magical.
But we had run out of time, we had a plane to catch, and we had seen and experienced enough for one adventure tour. Real-world responsibilities known as jobs and children beckoned us home to the Kingdom.
For members of the great Aramco Upper Euphrates Expedition of 1979, returning to ExPat life in KSA was something akin to a flock of migrating European Bee-eaters seeking refuge on tree branches and phone lines within an Aramco residential camp. Aramco saw to that. Life for ExPats like us working for the company in Saudi in the late ’70s was good. No, I take that back, it was great, and no doubt still is. That helps explain the deep affection and undying loyalty we annuitants feel toward Aramco and its people years after retirement.
According to Charlie Franck’s calculations, we rafted 90 miles of river in those four-and-a-half days; according to Mike Ghiglieri’s, we rafted 102—12 the first two days, 30 the third, 40 the fourth, and 20 the final morning on the fifth. Whether 90 or 102, it felt much further measured by people met, places seen, and experiences collected along the way.
The road back to Malatya on that sheep truck added 120 more miles to our travels, while the flight home to Dhahran via Malatya, Ankara, Istanbul, Beirut, and Jeddah upped our total by another 8,200. In sum, traveling to the Upper Euphrates from the Kingdom and back took us on an epic 17,000-mile odyssey which none of us who were fortunate enough to have taken part in that once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage will ever forget.
Sometimes, after listening to me tell my Euphrates story, astute movie buffs have brought up the John Boorman film from 1972, Deliverance, based on the James Dickey novel of the same name. In the movie, a buoyant weekend outing suddenly turns deadly as Lewis, the instigator of the expedition played by Burt Reynolds, and three city-slicker friends of his from Atlanta played by Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox, cross paths with a pair of savage redneck moonshiners on a canoe trip down Georgia’s Cahulawassee River shortly before it’s scheduled to disappear beneath the backwaters of a new dam.
In the book, Ed (Voight’s character in the movie) describes his feelings after the Cahulawassee has been dammed:
“The river and everything I remembered about it became a possession to me, a personal, private possession, as nothing else in my life ever had.... It pleases me in some curious way that the river does not exist, and that I have it. In me, it still is, and will be until I die, green, rocky, deep, fast, slow, and beautiful beyond reality.”
Like with the Cahulawassee and Ed, the Euphrates as I remember it no longer exists. Yet, partially echoing his sentiments, the river as I knew it in all of its grandeur and fury for those four glorious days, while largely erased from view, lives on in my memory in shining splendor. Unlike Ed, however, I take no pleasure from knowing that the Euphrates and its world I experienced is no more. Our float trip brought us in contact with friendly, peaceful, helpful shepherds and villagers and children—with nary a wrathful bootlegger insight—and ended on a far happier note than did Lewis’ and Ed’s deadly misadventure.
The theme song to the movie Deliverance was “Dueling Banjos”; the theme song to our conquest of the Euphrates was the ringing joyful laughter of those village children. That haunting melody plays on in my memory to this day, “beautiful and beyond reality.”