On March 6, I was summoned to a far outer district of Istanbul, Büyükçekmece, to meet a most famous man who had very famously inserted himself into 20th century history when he tried and failed to kill Pope John Paul II. It was a crime for which he eventually spent 19 years in a Rome jail, learning Italian, and eventually walking free from only to declare, “I am Jesus Christ.” He now claims Ayatollah Khomeini put him up to the doomed assassination plot that has alleged ties to Bulgarian intelligence and a web of international Cold War intrigue.
I was fascinated the minute I set foot in the hotel, the Eser Premium, a fairly gaudy Turkish honeymoon palace complete with balconies that had a laser light that continuously changed from various shades of neon red, purple, green and blue. Out of nowhere, just when the reporter Anne-Cécile Julliet appeared, so did he, right behind me, startling me with his small frame, delicate head and protruding eyes.
He was very kind and perhaps rather medicated. He was not erratic but he did speak of a global religious organization that would teach Jesus Christ that was not Christianity, while denouncing Islam in the loudest possible whisper, such as when he suggested the Bible was not written by a god because it was full of mistakes. He said he felt similarly about the holiest books in other faiths. Overall though, he seemed lonely and rather grateful for the attention. His face lit up only once when he received a phone call in Italian and I could make out that he said he was seated with a journalist from Le Parisien for an interview. Afterwards, he obliged that one truly great portrait shot where he approximates a James Bond-type villain, a once dangerous terrorist responsible for the death of one left-wing Turkish journalist and that other, far more famous crime for which he is most notorious and for which he met with Pope John Paul II and was very publicly forgiven. The one thing that has never been made public is what the two men, the Polish Pope and his would-be assassin, discussed.
I was a student in college in Kraków when their native son, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, passed away one Saturday night and the bells of Wawel Castle, Zygmunt’s bell, did not stop tolling. I was playing chess at a café, but the sound of Zygmunt’s bell let it be known that John Paul II was mortal afterall. We rushed quickly first into the street and I watched as my friend, tall, slender, red-hair with very defining, chiselled features knelt to pray on the street like many others, only three or four news photographers surrounded him but he was as if in a trance and Kacper did not react to them.
Like everyone else, Kacper and I went to a spontaneous gathering for mass on the hilltop cathedral that was suddenly packed with Polish people taking communion, lighting candles, crossing themselves and praying profusely for their Pope. The week ended with a million person strong white march which brought Poles from across the region and the country to the exact spot where Pope John Paul II delivered his most famous mass in Polish history in front of the Hotel Cracovia (my drunken professor used to inform us that “it was the most elegant hotel in Kraków exactly 30 years ago,” – this was in 2005). It is the speech in which he is widely credited for ending communism in Poland because he prayed for the Lord to come and transform not just any earth, but this earth.
I once even heard John Paul II called a Catholic Ronald Reagan, another figure popular in Poland where the old Joseph Stalin Square in the Nowa Huta area of Kraków was renamed after the late American president and conservative icon. These are funny corners to find one’s self contemplating 20th century history and communism. It is as if the Cold War came to deliver modern man a world of intrigue and the limits of mortality from the sorrows of modernity. But history is always kinder in retrospect, when the actors are subdued and reflective, if delusional and misplaced, a sort of anomaly of a bygone era.