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A taste of common history between Greeks and Turks

Thursday 25 November 2010, by Selahattin Sevi Xanthi

Villagers of Mandra, descendants of people who arrived in the area from Adapazarı during the last century’s population exchange between Turkey and Greece, greet Turkish visitors with Anatolian hospitality.

The village of Mandra in Avdira, a town near the northeastern Greek city of Xanthi, is going through one of its most joyous days.

This is the right place for anyone caught in the sweltering heat of June. There are tables set up around a great plane tree, covered with white cloth. We are in Thrace for the Turkish-Greek Friendship Festival, which is being held for the ninth time this year.
The villagers, descendents of people who arrived in the area from Adapazarı during and before the population exchange, greet us with Anatolian hospitality. We will break bread together again, as we have in the past. When the loaves of bread are put in the oven to bake, börek (salty casserole-like pastry), dolma (stuffed grape leaves) and other delicacies are brought to our tables. Then those who prepared all of this delicious food disappear and come back in the blink of an eye, clad in traditional Anatolian outfits brought by their mothers and grandmothers, with imitation gold necklaces around their necks. The coins have Ottoman Turkish phrases engraved on them.

As this group performs a folk dance to familiar folk melodies with lyrics in a different language, personal stories — most tragic and highly personal — are exchanged at the tables. Nannies Sultana and Kula, both 80 years old, speak of their children and grandchildren. Their last wish before they die is to see Adapazarı. They must have asked for this in a very heartfelt way because the general manager of the Metro Europe bus company promised to bring them to their motherland.

İrini Noti from Büyükada, or Pringipo in Greek, has a very different story. She starts by saying, “I left Büyükada, where I was born and raised until I was 16, in the year of 1975.” Noti and her family, including her 5-year-old twin sisters, moved to Glyfada, a suburb of Athens. Her father spoke of İstanbul until his last breath. This desire of his was realized by his daughter, who traveled to Büyükada in 1994, 12 years after her father’s death. She brought his bones back to Büyükada, hoping he would find some peace in his birthplace.

“What I miss most about İstanbul are its bougainvilleas and the gulls,” she says. Noti also speaks of her childhood friends Melike, a Turkish neighbor, and Sara, a Jewish neighbor, and the memories from their young adulthood with teary eyes. Although fate has parted their ways, they still come together on Büyükada over the summer. As a member of the last generation who remembers where she came from, she travels back and forth between the land where she was born and the land where she lives. Her brother, however, was 5 when he came to Athens and forgot his past in one day. “One day, when he was in high school, he went to his room and burnt all his belongings and toys that he had brought from Turkey. He told us not to speak of İstanbul or the island with him ever again. Indeed, he never visited İstanbul once after moving to Greece.

The giant plane tree in Mandra also listens to these stories. Like Sami Karabüyükoğlu, a journalist from Western Thrace who has been hosting a show on Greek state radio, says, “We are putting together these kinds of events not to scratch old wounds but to make sure no one ever has to live through them again.” Zaman columnist Şahin Alpay, the wise man of the festival, then gave a plain and emotional speech met with tears and applause.

This year’s festival started in Xanthi and continued on islands off the coast of İstanbul on which Daphne vines were planted to celebrate friendship. A panel discussion was held on the first day of the festival, where the panelists delivered moving speeches. Vangelis Kechriotis, an assistant professor at Boğaziçi University, delivered his speech in Turkish, while Yıldız Technical University’s Elçin Macar delivered hers in Greek. Both historians explained the historical development of Turkish-Greek relations from the perspective of minorities and nationalism. Some in the audience could be heard saying, “History is indeed the job of historians, at least the job of these two historians.”

Takis Kambalis of the Kathimerini newspaper and Oral Çalışlar from Radikal criticized themselves, pointing at the role of the media in creating tension between the two countries. Kambalis, who said Turkish-Greek relations have been stuck in a vicious cycle for many years, highlighted some concepts and perceptions that were created by media instruments during this time. “Newspapers and television stations go for the easy way out. They say they are sticking to the nationalist line and protecting national interests. However, this line is usually decided on by the elite of the foreign ministry and the defense ministry.” He added, “If someone writes outside this scope, he will be labeled a traitor in Greece.” In fact, his colleagues proved him right as they reacted to his speech when he finished.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kambalis some more at a reception. He broached the subject of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Greece, saying Greece was “squeezed and had to opt for friendship.” He says Greece should leave its general mentality that it would be bad for Greece if Turkey becomes an important player in the region.

The exhaustion of the long day was taken away by a concert of Ottoman music including a kemençe, a thin long lute unique to the Black Sea region, in the garden of the residence. The next day, Suzan Kardeş gave a concert at which people could dance the halay, a traditional footwork-oriented dance in which people hold hands, to songs in languages spoken all around the Rhodope Mountains that stood behind us.

While walking down the streets of Xanthi and Komotini, we saw meaningful activities organized by the locals. The Xanthi Turkish Union, which cannot officially use the word “Turkish” in its name despite a European Court of Human Rights decision granting it that right, passed out presents — from laptops to bicycles — to those who read the most books in a local competition. Idealistic teachers Orhan Aziz and Belkıs Mehmetali speak of educational projects undertaken in the villages of Komotini with a sparkle in their eyes. We also watched the graduation ceremony of the Komotini-based Elit Language School, where students make their parents proud singing songs and staging theater performances in Greek, Turkish and English.

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Source : Hürriyet Daily News, 20 June 2010

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