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When Madness Swept the Mediterranean

In my one and only visit to Izmir to meet my wife’s relatives, we walked along the quay to see some of the picturesque city’s landmarks including the statue of Mustafa Kemal that looked toward the sea. My wife’s cousin Ceyda, the daughter of a General assigned to NATO and a rock-ribbed Kemalist, paused in front of the statue to inform me that this was where their war of independence was won. The quay, from which the city’s Greek population was literally driven into the sea, is as important a symbol of that country’s birth in the early 1920s as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is to an American.

Although I have been very critical of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s “Empire”, I am tempted to agree with their argument that the nation-state is a toxic formation when I think about Turkey’s origins over the mountains of Armenian, Greek and Kurdish skulls. Like the Native American corpses that are vomited up at the end of “Poltergeist”, that’s the chilling spectacle you get in the powerful documentary “Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City” that opens on April fifth at the Quad in New York. With previously unseen photographs and film footage, the city is revealed in both its cosmopolitan glory and the immolation in 1922 that changed the character of the city forever. Henceforth it would be referred to by its Turkish name—Izmir—just as Constantinople would be known as Istanbul.

Despite its focus on the great fire that cost the lives of up to 100,000 Greeks and Armenians, the film is just as much about the city’s gloried past evoked through vintage film footage of its wonderful street life and culturally diverse population—a true gumbo in the spirit of New Orleans. Director Maria Iliou poses these questions on the film’s website (http://smyrnadocumentary.org) and answers them with grand panache throughout the documentary:

What was cosmopolitan Smyrna on the coasts of Western Anatolia like at the beginning of the 20th century?  How did the Greeks, the largest Christian community, live side by side with the Muslims, the Levantines, the Armenians and the Jews?

What was so unique about this Mediterranean port in the Ottoman Empire, which even today, 90 years after the Destruction is still linked to a joie de vivre during the good times and dirges for the Destruction that came so suddenly in September 1922?

Smyrna and Salonica were two of the most genteel, tolerant and culturally advanced cities of the Ottoman Empire, a state that ruled its subjects with a light footprint. With their mixture of European citizens (the Levantines), Greeks, Jews and Turks, there was a cross-fertilization of cultures in these cities that would remind one of New York City, London or Paris at their best. When I arrived in Izmir back in 2005, my Kemalist in-laws informed me that as a socialist I
S-postwould feel right at home in gavur Izmir since gavur means infidel and there was no bigger infidel than me. The term gavur is something of a double entendre. Originally it was a reference to the city’s non-Islamic population but eventually was understood to include the Izmir’s less than observant Turkish citizens. Leyla Neyzi, a Turkish sociologist who is one of the film’s cast of deeply informed interviewees, interviewed Gülfem Iren, a Turkish woman born in Izmir in 1915. Iren confirmed that being cosmopolitan was tantamount to being an infidel:

They named Izmir “Gavur Izmir.” In Izmir, Muslims lived within a Levanten world. My grandfather was educated in Al-Azhar in Egypt but he read books in English and French, played the piano, rode horses. In the Izmirian dialect, nouns commonly derive from Greek, Italian or French. For example, an oval serving plate is known as piyate. A fork is peron, an apron, prostela. The cuisine of Izmir is mainly Greek and Armenian.

Speaking of horses, the people of Izmir were distinguished from the rest of their Turkish brethren by refusing to get on the observant AKP’s bandwagon. This was reported by Suzan Erem and Paul Durrenberger in Monthly Review back in 2007:

On May 31, Izmir hosted the first-ever night horse races.  Thousands of families attended opening night, children perched on daddies’ shoulders, women pushing baby carriages, teens waving to the cameras that broadcast the live entertainment and the races.  A full moon glowed from orange to white as it rose beyond the illuminated track to complement a beautiful and festive night.  The giant television screen that ran replays and photo finishes of the races flashed a photo of the moon rising behind the minaret of a nearby mosque.  The Izmir region is the only one where AKP did not gain seats in the last election, and the crowd went crazy when one of the entertainers launched into what has become the ballad of secularists living the last few years under national AKP rule.  It is the song Ataturk had commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the republic, and like the “battle of the national anthems” scene from the movie Casablanca, the crowd stood and sang boisterously, cheering when it was over.

Along with Leyla Neyzi, the film benefits from the commentary of Giles Milton, the British author of “Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922”, who unlike the Greek interviewees tends to a more even-handed treatment of the Smyrna catastrophe. While there is little doubt that the Turks set fire to the Greek district of the city, the assault was just the crowning injustice in a war that targeted citizens of all ethnic origins.

We learn from him that as Mustafa Kemal’s army advanced toward Smyrna, the retreating Greek army took vengeance on the Turks, especially in the city of Manisa near Izmir. Greek soldiers burned Manisa to the ground, killing and raping its Turkish citizens. In her interview with Leyla Neyzi, Gülfem Iren recollected the horrors of Manisa:

Coming from Manisa. Even today when I tell this story I am shivering. That same mountain road my father traveled on a year ago. We left at dawn, arriving in Bornova [a suburb of Izmir] by evening. A trip we could make in twenty minutes today. Imagine the tableau: An ox cart, and inside it an old gentleman in Islamic headdress, two ladies, three children, and a black nanny. The road, strewn with goods, the corpses of humans and animals. The smell. In the month of September, traveling through the mountains, our heads and mouths covered. I saw a crucified body in front of a burnt building. I don’t know if it was man, woman or girl, but at that age I saw that body.

Mustafa Kemal’s desire to ethnically cleanse Izmir of Greeks was part of his nationalist agenda to create a Turkish state. During the Ottoman Empire, there was no clear definition of a Turkish people. The term Turk referred mainly to the rural folk of Anatolia and had derogatory connotations bordering on “barbaric”, according to my Turkish professor at Columbia University. Kemal embraced this negative appellation on behalf of a new national identity that converted an inferiority complex and sense of victimhood into an overweening pride that some liberal scholars equate with fascism.

The Russian revolutionary movement did not share this view of the Young Turks. In a 1909 article, Leon Trotsky wrote:

What explains the resounding triumph of the “Young Turks” and their victory gained almost without either sacrifice or effort?

In its real significance, a revolution is a fight for control of the State. That rests directly on the Army. This is why all revolutions in history sharply raised the question: on whose side is the army? And one way or another, in every case, this question had to be answered. In the case of the revolution in Turkey – and that gives it its specific features – it is the army itself which put forward these liberating ideas.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Turkey was one of the first nations with which it forged an alliance, even regrettably throwing the far more socialist-minded Armenians overboard for the sake of short-term diplomatic gains. Lenin saw the USSR and Turkey as being united around the need to resist imperialism. Clearly this was something that Mustafa Kemal could agree on, given British support for Greece’s bid to annex Smyrna and other pieces of Turkish real estate.

As Mark Mazower points out in his masterful “Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950”, Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos had his own racially exclusivist myths upon which to unite his people. Turks were seen as “foreign” to a supposedly Occidental city like Salonica: “In the increasing racialized vocabulary of the late nineteenth
century, ‘Turks’ were seen as Asiatic and essentially nomadic, the antithesis of European civilization and by implication, merely a transient presence on European soil.”

After the defeat of the Greek army, the Turks and Greeks concluded a population exchange agreement that followed the patterns of India-Pakistan and Israel-Palestine (the last exchange of course taking place in a unilateral direction.) Henceforth, Greece would lose its Turkish minority and Turkey would no longer have a Greek presence. For those of us who believe that a polyglot and multicultural citizenry is its own reward, it is singularly depressing to think about the madness that gripped Greece and Turkey at the time. Of course, with a recently concluded world war in the name of “defending the fatherland” that left millions dead and impoverished, it is not too hard to figure out where Kemal and Venizelos were coming from.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9XkFCBZtOs

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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