Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013 - No comments

Two Homelands, No Home

“See that island over there?”  I looked across the moonlit waves to where tiny pinpricks of light shimmered in the late July humidity.  “That’s Greece.”  

The smoke stack at the olive oil factory 
My friend’s mother and I were sitting on chaise lounges on a beach in Bademli on the Aegean coast of Turkey.  The sizzle of the grill could be heard from a hundred yards away where her sons were cooking us up a feast of freshly caught fish and fried octopus.  The aroma of our dinner mingled with the salty sea air and whiffs of honeysuckle as it danced in the evening breeze.  

“They say there was a Greek man who owned the olive oil factory here in town.  When the order came for all the Greeks to leave, he rowed his boat to that island over there.  And every morning, he would look out over the sea to Bademli.  And he would hear the bell clang from the tower of his factory and he would cry.”

This conversation took place two years ago.  I had read books about the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, but this was the first time I’d had a human face to put to it.  Arife Teyze herself was the daughter of a man who had come over from Greece during the exchange.  A Turkish Muslim, he and his family suddenly found themselves living on the wrong side of a newly drawn border and were forced to “return” to a homeland that wasn’t their homeland at all.  

An abandoned Greek 
building in Bademli
Following the First World War, when the fallen Ottoman Empire was being carved up by the Allied countries, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose up for the cause of “Turkey for the Turks.”  He led his troops in a bloody war against the Greek army for the rights to the Aegean coast, then mostly populated by Greeks.  By 1923, hundreds of thousands of Greeks had been violently driven out, and that year, the Treaty of Lausanne made official what had already been taking place:  a mandatory population exchange based on religion, rather than ethnicity or mother tongue.  

In accordance with the newly drawn national boundaries, the Muslims of Greece and the Christians of Turkey were forced to trade places, uprooting them from their communities and sending them with little more than the clothes on their back (and no small amount of trauma, loss and disease acquired along the way) to begin new lives in countries where, despite being among people of their own religion, they were seen as strangers.  There are still pockets of transplanted Greeks who, to this day, speak Turkish as their first language, and even a generation later, the Turkish descendants of this tragedy were often still referred to as "infidels" because of where they had come from.  

The house Arife Teyze grew up in, and raised her children in, was the house of a Greek family who had been forced to leave Bademli.  The family had taken most of their valuables - whatever they could carry - but their furniture and animals had to stay behind.  Many people left their possessions in the care of their Turkish neighbours in hope that “the whole thing would blow over” and they would be able to return to their homes.  That day never came.  

There were plenty of empty Greek homes to house all the newly arrived Turkish immigrants from Greece, though many refused to live in “infidel houses,” thus leaving many to be looted and fall into decay.  For the Greeks that crossed over to Greece, housing options weren’t as plentiful.  For the 500,000 Turks who had left, there were nearly three times as many Greeks, and thousands died of typhoid and cholera while waiting on ships or in refugee camps in overcrowded port cities to be assigned a new home.

That morning, Arife Teyze’s grandson had shown me that old Greek house where his father had lived as a child.  It was made of solid stone with wooden shutters, now all boarded up.  “My dad says they heard there was treasure buried under the house from when the real owners left,” he told me with the wide-eyed wonder of a seven-year-old.  “I wish we could go in there and dig it up!”

Living in Turkey is like living in a museum of inhabited exhibits, and the past is never more than a layer of paint or a renamed village away.  One can visit mosques that used to be churches, Kurdish slums that used to be centres of Jewish commerce, and streets lined with houses crafted by Armenian architects, none of whose descendants are anywhere to be found.  1923 is not so long ago at all, and the violence and deportations through which the republic of “Turkey for the Turks” was formed has left stains on today’s population that won’t soon fade from common memory.  Said stains may not be discussed out loud, but they don’t have to be.  The wounds that caused them are on display in plain sight.

Last month, I had to opportunity to visit one such “exhibit” - the ghost town of Kayaköy near Fethiye in the province of Muğla.  The town, which dated back to the 1400s, had been called “Levissi.”  It was bustling and prosperous, with Greek craftsmen and artisans living in the town on the hillside while their Turkish neighbours, with whom they lived in peace, farmed the land in the valley below.  But despite the degree of closeness experienced between the inhabitants of this town, their lives were being lived out against the greater backdrop of a war in which their two nations were enemies.

The Turkish village of Kayaköy today,
as seen from the Greek town above

It is said that when the news came that all the Greeks were to be deported, the Turks sent a plea to the government in Ankara to let their neighbours stay.  The Greeks packed up their belongings, locked their doors and headed towards the harbour to await the news of their fate.  When word came from Ankara that the request for exemption had been denied, they made their way weeping down to the sea and, boarding whatever vessels could be found, they set sail for Greece.  

The Greeks from Levissi (Kayaköy) landed first at Crete and continued to make their way through Greece until finally settling just north of Athens in an area that reminded them of home, which they name Nea Levissi (New Levissi).  Muslims transplanted from Thessoloniki in Greece were assigned to settle in Kayaköy, but most chose to continue on to other parts of Anatolia more suited to the rural lives they were accustomed to.  Rumour has it that superstitions about “the Christian houses” played a part in this decision as well. 

Thus, those once-loved houses remained empty.  In 1957, an earthquake destroyed many of the buildings, and the government gave the Turks in the village below permission to use the wood from the roofs and floors of the Greek homes to repair their own.  Wind and weather aided in the process of their decline, and now all that remains are the stone skeletons of their formerly beautiful selves.

Books like “Twice a Stranger”  and “Birds Without Wings” and conversations like the one I had with Arife Teyze in Bademli had torn at my heart and brought the stark historical facts about the population exchange to life for me.  But nothing prepared me for the weight of what I experienced in Kayaköy.  Seeing an entire town of gutted houses utterly devoid of life brought home the sheer magnitude of the loss and grief that had been played out there when all those thousands of people were uprooted and then just....gone.  

Kayaköy is now an “open air museum” run by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, and it costs 5 TL to wander the town-turned-graveyard.  From the parking lot, houses were piled one on top of another on steep hills stretching to the left and the right.  As we began our ascent towards the Upper Church, it became clear that the houses were in fact not as haphazardly jumbled as I’d first assumed; instead, they were arranged so that each home had a view of the valley below, with no one roof blocking another’s window.  

The expansive town was empty, and we only saw four or five other tourists during the two hours we were there.  I wondered if this was because it was the off-season, or if it was simply because a tragically abandoned town is a depressing thing to see on one’s vacation.

Built of solid stone that has withstood natural disasters and time, most houses had two floors - the upper storey for living and the lower one for keeping animals.  Some still had conical fireplaces and staircases intact, and faded paint in blues and oranges still clung to the interior walls.  There were overgrown wells and rainwater cisterns, now choked with weeds and litter, and many houses had outside nooks that we assumed had been used as iceboxes.  But the floors, roofs and window panes had long ago been removed, and there was not a rug or a curtain in sight.

As I stood at the top of the hill, I noticed a two-storey house inside which a fig tree had taken up residence.  Its branches poked out through the empty windows and its top had long since pushed up through where the roof should have been.  

In the town below, I heard the faint voice of a hurdacı with his wooden cart, calling out for people to bring out their “old things.”  I laughed a sad laugh at the irony of his request.   It would seem that anything of value here had long since been carried away.  

The Upper Church, 17th Century

The Upper Church, built in the 17th Century, was a shell of what must have been a beautiful building.  Portions of mosaics made of tiny stones still remained on the floor and peeked out from the grass in the courtyard.  Traces of painted frescoes still clung to the high arches of the nave’s ceiling, but nearly all the others had long since been scratched off.  The Lower Church has undergone restoration as part of the UNESCO “World Friendship Village” project, and was much better preserved.  Signs written in Greek were set in new stone over the entrances.  Images of Jesus and the apostles adorned the front of the apse, framed by Turkish children’s names scratched into the sacred stone.  In the churchyard, a small cell housed the bones of Greek ancestors who had been evicted from their graves when space was needed for more recent arrivals.

Interior of the Lower Church

I hiked up to what looked like a small chapel atop a hill above the village and was rewarded with a hazy view of the sea below.  I assumed the small stone structure had been the tomb of a saint but there was no signage, so I asked a couple of Turkish tourists if they knew what the building had been.  

“An old Ottoman lookout,” came the reply.  
“Oh.  Not a Greek chapel?”

“No.  Ottoman.”  Of course.

On another hill, the Turkish flag waved over the expanse of the ghost town below me.  The sight of that crescent and star, emblem of my beloved second home, left a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as it proudly staked its claim over what was formerly someone else’s home. 

It was easy to imagine what the town must have looked like when it was filled with lives and hearts and voices.  I kept expecting to see a lady leaning out her window and calling a neighbour in for tea, or a child running up the hill to his house carrying a loaf of fresh bread from the bakery.  But no shadows graced the windows, no footsteps rung out on the cobblestones.  There was only silence.  And not the peaceful silence of a sunny day-trip - no, this was the mournful silence of loss and grief and absence.  Where once had been potted flowers gracing windowsills and mothers in doorways calling children in for dinner, there were only gaping holes, each house staring back at us like a wide-eyed, open-mouthed skull - a specter of the life it once housed.

Just after noon, the silence was broken by the call to prayer, carried on the wind from the mosque in the Turkish village below, echoing off the hillsides and filling the valley.  The ezan was followed by an announcement for a funeral to be held after Friday prayers.  “Mehmet So-and-So, son of so-and-so, born on such and such a date, Allah rahmet eylesin....”  (“May he rest in peace.”)

I winced.  Was there an announcement like this for those who were forced to depart from Kayaköy in 1923?  Were their lives honoured when they were torn from their homeland?  Did anyone list off the names of the ones whose lives had suddenly ceased to exist?  

What was it like for those left behind - for those Turkish neighbours who had pleaded with Ankara not to send their friends away?  Did they weep for the ones with whom they’d once drank tea and played backgammon with in the town square?  Did they feel guilty when they finally ate the cows that had been entrusted to them when it became obvious the Greeks weren’t coming back?  Did they say a prayer for their old friends as they warmed themselves beside fires fed by the wood from the roofs and floors of the abandoned houses?  How long did it take until they claimed the dishes and picture frames and dowry chests for their own?

And at what point had enough time passed to where their children’s children weren’t ashamed to charge 5 TL to let tourists come see the town their grandparents’ friends used to call home?

Kayaköy today
P.S. For further reading, check out this heartbreakingly informative article:  Abandoned Kayaköy a Symbol of War's Painful Consequences (Hürriyet Daily News)