Billy Hayes Talks About Visiting Istanbul After Being the Most Hated Man in Turkey

The New Yorker became famous in the 70s for 'Midnight Express,' his autobiographical account of escaping from a decrepit Turkish prison after getting caught with two kilos of hash.

Lance Scott Walker

For three decades, famed drug smuggler and writer Billy Hayes was reviled in Turkey. He was on their terror watch lists, Interpol had a warrant out for his arrest, and he basically couldn't travel. Last week, however, the American helped raise the Turkish flag up over Wall Street.

If you've seen the  Oscar-winning  1978 film Midnight Express, you have a decent idea of what happened to Hayes. Oliver Stone's screenplay and Hayes's best-selling autobiographical book of the same name both recount his 1970 arrest, imprisonment, and escape from a Turkish prison five years later--but they differ in two crucial spots, and the differences helped Hayes become an object of scorn in Turkey. 

"I think it was the courtroom scene," Hayes said of Stone's dramatization. "Cursing out the 'nation of pigs' and 'fucking their sons and daughters' that most incensed the Turks,  even more than me killing the guard, since he was not the most sympathetic of characters."

Stone's embellishments didn't make Hayes's story better, but they certainly made his life harder.

The whole ordeal started in Istanbul on October 6, 1970, when Hayes was 23 years old. The Long Island native was arrested for attempting to board a plane to New York with two kilos of hashish taped to his torso, then convicted of smuggling drugs and sentenced to four years and two months in a Turkish prison. But only weeks from his scheduled release in 1975, a high court extended that sentence to 25 years. The extension put Hayes in escape mode. 

Because of the length of his new sentence, he was able to arrange for a transfer to the island prison of İmralı. Three months after he arrived, Hayes slipped out one night during a storm, cut loose a small boat, and rowed 17 miles across the Sea of Marmara. He got to the coast of Turkey by morning, made his way through the country over the next few days, and then crossed a river into Greece almost five years to the day of his arrest.

Back on American soil, Hayes was an instant celebrity. His autobiographical book Midnight Express was released in 1977. The following year he attended the premiere of the film adapation of Midnight Express at the Cannes Film Festival, where he met his future wife Wendy West. Hayes was free, he was in love, and nobody was beating his feet with a stick. Life was great.

But the barbaric portrayal of the Turks in the film garnered the country a sordid reputation in the US. American tourism to Turkey dropped sharply, never truly recovering, while Turkish Americans in the States were discriminated against in the wake of the film's success. Many Turks placed the blame for this spat of xenophobia on Hayes and he was held in contempt in Turkey for decades. It wasn't until he was able to make a semi-official return to the country in 2007 that he was able to make amends to the people of Turkey through the media. His redemption in the eyes of the Turks seemed complete last week when the Turkish American Cultural Alliance asked Hayes to raise Turkish flag up over the Charging Bull on Wall Street in a ceremony commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

Over the next month, you'll be able hear more about Hayes and  his incredible story in the writer's one-man show at Manhattan's Barrow Street Theater. In Riding the Midnight Express, Hayes eloquently lays out his life and takes questions from the audience, clearing up the differences between the book, the film, and reality--including anecdotes about how he actually smuggled hashish into the US successfully three times before he was caught, and how he didn't kill that prison guard.

I had breakfast with the Hayes at a Manhattan diner one week into his show's two-month run to talk about what it was like returning to Turkey, how junkies used to get loaded in Turkish prisons in the 70s, and more.

VICE: So your one-man show is not freestyle storytelling, right?
Billy Hayes: ​
It's been freestyle storytelling for 40 years! These are the same bullshit stories I've been telling for 40 years. People get me at a party somewhere and give me a joint and the next thing they have me telling them stories.

Sorry I didn't bring a joint. When you were locked up, were you able to write? Was there stuff taken or lost?
Oh, a bunch of stuff, like a novel about a madman underground with a monkey named Vito. 

With the monkey rolling the joints?
And the monkey knew sign language... That all got lost. I gave that plus a bunch of other stuff to this Italian guy, Pino, who was going free. I knew somewhere down the line, one way or the other, I was gonna be out of there. And he was supposed to take all that stuff to the American counsel. We never knew what happened to it.

But were you writing before you went in?
Yeah. I went to the journalism school at Marquette University. I wanted to be in advertising. Then I realized what advertising really was and said, Fuck that.

Being in prison saved you from advertising.
There you go... I used to write short stories and send them off and get pink slips or yellow slips back. I had a bunch of Field & Stream, Boy's Life, and Adventure magazines and shit. Everybody sent my stuff back. It was very discouraging. And then I went out into the world to experience life and really write about it.

So you were allowed books in prison.
Yeah, a lot of books, but every so often they would come by and there would be a control. The guards would rush in and they'd tear everything up. Later on I found out that they would take all the books and send them out to the local bookstore in Istanbul, selling them to tourists at the [Grand] Bazaar. So we always had quite a few Light on Yoga books. They'd come and go. They'd take them away and then somebody would order one or send it in, but it kind of made the rounds. Quite a few guys ended up doing yoga for a while in there. But you know, people come, people go. There were quite a few foreigners. If you got busted for a joint or any small amount of pot, the minimum you got was 20 months. So there were a lot of guys who would come in, do 20 months, and leave.

In the movie, who was the most accurate character?
Max. John Hurt's character. Down to the glasses with the cracked lens on it, and just being this gangly junkie who... He used to shoot up this stuff they called gastro. It was stomach medicine. My first night there, I smelled this stuff above me. He cooked it on a spoon with a little candle and then scoop it out and get these homemade needles and he'd shoot the shit. Nasty stuff. It fucked him up. Eventually they could get heroin. After I left, they had a big heroin epidemic in the jail. In The Midnight Express Letters, which are letters from my friends who I chronicle throughout the book, there's one point where this heroin epidemic took over the prison. But before that, it was very sporadic. It would come and go. There was always hash around and weird pills. I don't like pills, but people took a lot of pills. And when heroin hit, apparently it was really, really bad. Because it's small, you can smuggle it in easy. And of course the guards bring it in, the food cart people bring it in, anybody from the outside... Or they throw shit over the wall. I mean, there's millions of ways to get shit in, and there's this waiting market inside for it.

So what was the stuff you got nailed for? Was it processed marijuana? Like the Moroccan stuff?
In Morocco, it's probably kief--almost powdery? But this is pressed hard. Like a Turkish taffy. Really good hash. Now of course, the pot in the United States is so good. You've got all these herbalistic idiots out there growing this shit hydroponic, weavin' strains together--unbelievable stuff! But back then, nothing even came close to this hash, which is why when I brought it back and started sellin' it to my friends. They were like, "Holy shit! We want more of that!" In six months, I sold it all. I made about five grand.

When you went back seven years ago, was there an official pardon in place where you knew you weren't going to be re-arrested?
No, what they had was the Interpol warrant that had been issued. Interpol is a very loose thing. Different police in different countries react differently, so it's kind of hard to tell who's going to do what.

I think that's the way they like it.
I think so too. I had to go to London at one point and I contacted the English government and said, "We believe there's an Interpol warrant out for my arrest." And they said, "Well, we don't honor that warrant." So I could go there, but I had to be very careful where I went. Very selective. And for the most part, I didn't travel for about 20 years. But I wanted to go back to Turkey. I always wanted to heal the breach, connect, and change this thing. 

What happened?
​I requested permission  to go back to Turkey, and it was denied. They refused to let me back in. I'm an escaped convict, I've got an Interpol warrant out for my arrest, I'm asking to come back and they wouldn't let me in. The irony of that is still bizarre. And then these Turkish guys called me up and said, "We've seen YouTube where you talk about how you love Istanbul and you want to make a balance and correct things." There was a big conference and they wanted me to come back. The head cop guy, he said to me: "The best image we could have is you walking down the streets of Istanbul, free... The worst image is you walking down the street and having somebody jump out and shoot you in the head."

Were you scared something was going to go wrong?
Not really. It's life. You never know what's gonna happen. But once I got there, these guys were literally around me 24/7. One guy slept in a chair outside my hotel door. They were serious. They had a big conference, and all the newspapers and television stations were there. Then I got to say what I've been saying, that I loved Istanbul.

It's a different place now than it was in the 70s, isn't it?
It's a very different place. So much has changed for the better and worse. Erdoğan, the government that's in there now for ten years, has made Turkey a superpower. The economy is booming.

Their military is neutered.
Exactly. They're the geopolitical heart of Europe and Asia, and they have the strongest military anywhere over there except for the US and probably Russia. But the military doesn't run things the way they used to. Erdoğan has cut all the strings. He arrested generals who have spent years in prison and are all being released now by the Turkish courts because they say the charges were trumped up. It doesn't matter. He has all the power. He was the Prime Minister and now he's the President and he's assumed all this authority. They had all these riots last year over Gezi Park when the bulldozers...

I was there.
You were there?

I was there. How aware were you of the protests?
Very. I follow that news all the time. I was actually talking to a Turkish journalist back then. At one point, I was ranting about Malala, the Pakistani girl who got shot in the head... I said, "The prophet would weep if he knew what these cowards are doing in his name." He was recording all of this. And I said, "Wait, wait, wait, stop... that'll probably get a fatwah out against me," and he said, "I don't care. They need to hear this." He was in the park for ten days while they were gassing people. He said, "I don't know how it's going to turn out. They have all the cards, they have all the power, but the people are angry and there's this whole secular/religious thing." They have so much tension now over there. I'm afraid it's going to be violent. It already is.

Well you mentioned that about secularism and the military. I mean, the duty of the military in Turkey is to protect secularism.
It used to be.

And now it's been defanged. But if Turkey can't get Islam and secularism right...
They were the hope, and they still are. But if they can't, I don't know that anybody can. It's just not a form of government that's being used and being accepted. It's difficult to impose something--like these idiot neocons who try to "Bring American democracy to the Middle East."

Yeah, at gunpoint. They're kicking a hornet's nest.
Then they're just running away, and the hornets are flying.

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