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Billy Hayes' next stop on his "Midnight Express"

Billy Hayes returns to Turkey for the first

Billy Hayes returns to Turkey for the first time, as a guest speaker at the Istanbul Conference on Democracy and Global Security. He was invited by Turkish National Police, organizers of the conference. (June 15, 2007) Credit: AP

North Babylon native Billy Hayes, a former drug smuggler whose nightmarish incarceration in Turkey was portrayed in the 1978 film "Midnight Express," is pitching to publishers a compilation of letters he wrote his parents from prison - and he says while going through them was unsettling, it was cathartic, too.

"There's a very interesting arc to the letters," said Hayes, 63, who spoke this week from his California home. "As soon as I started reading them again - and you've got to understand, these are crazy letters, which I wrote from jail out of need, desperation, insanity - it was like I was transported back there, to that prison cell. The smells, the sounds. I could feel the blanket beneath, could see the cell."

Rereading his letters, Hayes said, he wondered who was the "idiot" writing them.

"I was in my 20s," he said. "I think back now, 'What do you think you know about life?' "

Getting together the letters, as well as the airing of a new docudrama, has helped Hayes turn a fresh eye on the past. On June 30, the National Geographic Channel showed "The Real Midnight Express," an updated - and, Hayes said, more accurate - version of his hellish story, part of the channel's docudrama series "Locked Up Abroad."

Harper Collins and National Geographic books are considering his collection of letters, tentatively titled "Letters from a Turkish Prison: 1970-1975," Hayes said. He has also put together a one-man play, "Riding the Midnight Express."

He says his main income sources are writing, acting and playing poker.

Hayes was a student at Marquette University in Wisconsin when he was caught attempting to smuggle 4.3 pounds of hashish out of Turkey in 1970 and received a 4-year sentence.

In 1973, a judge apologetically sentenced Hayes to an additional 30 years amid a political dispute over U.S. aid to Turkey.

In the movie, Brad Davis, playing Hayes, uses the moment to curse all Turks. In real life, Hayes says now, that never happened.

"I actually loved Istanbul, loved Turkey," he said. "The Turkish people always treated me well and I really loved the country until I was arrested. But that didn't change my opinion of the people."

When the Turkish National Police invited him to speak at the Second Istanbul Conference on Democracy and Global Security three years ago, he used the moment to apologize for how the country was negatively portrayed.

"It's been nice to tell the real story my way," Hayes said - like the fact he didn't kill a prison guard to escape, as shown in the movie.

"The hardest thing was how much it hurt my family," he said of the prison ordeal. "In prison, you have the dirt, the violence. You learn to live with that.

"But the fact that my dad and my mom . . . knowing that every night they went to bed thinking about it . . . I've considered that a lot since."

His father has since died and his mother, Dorothy, 86, still lives in West Babylon. His younger brother and sister live on the same block in West Islip, he said.

The best thing about telling his story, Hayes said, is it has helped him deal with it. He's hoping the book will give readers a sense of what he went through and how he's changed.

"It's liberating," he said of getting older. "You get comfortable in your own skin. It's nice."


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