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In the Wake of the Ottoman Empire

It would be hard to imagine a documentary making more of an impact on the mind, the heart and the eye than Maria Iliou’s “From Both Sides of the Aegean: Expulsion and Exchange of Populations, Turkey-Greece: 1922-1924” that opens at the Quad in New York on March 21.

When I ran into Ms. Iliou before a press screening at the Quad on Tuesday, she described her new film as a follow-up to “Smyrna: the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City”, a film that I reviewed for CounterPunch almost a year ago.  The first paragraph of that review referred to my personal connection to the terrible tragedy of September 1922:

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.

As in the first film, Iliou draws upon a treasure trove of historical photos and film footage, interviews with academic specialists in Greek and Turkish history, and reminiscences of the children and grandchildren who were driven from their homeland both through naked terror and through “legal” decisions made at the top by cynical politicians. Given the pain—both physical and emotional—visited on the Greeks and the Turks, the distinction between illegal and legal becomes moot.

While the film would be of particular interest to someone like myself, it has a universal message for those who cannot but be aware of the toxic after-effects of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims fought to defend statehood claims like vultures fighting over dead meat.

As someone who has a passing knowledge of the Turkish language, I was extraordinarily moved by the voice of Meni Aysikbasi, a Greek whose family was driven from Asia Minor, speaking Turkish. Sureya Aytas, a Turkish woman whose family was expelled from northern Greece, followed suit by speaking in Greek. Perhaps their sadness about suffering such expulsions is somewhat tempered by the revelation that such people have recently been visiting their ancestral homelands under the auspices of The Foundation of Lausanne Treaty Emigrants, to be welcomed warmly by locals who remembered their ancestors. It reminded me somewhat of the climactic scene of the Israeli film “Zaytoun” that shows a Palestinian boy who dreams of visiting the village of his parents in Israel and finally realizes his goal after bending Israeli authorities to his will.

I never made this connection before seeing Iliou’s second film, but there is a strong possibility that my wife’s family was part of this population exchange. I once asked her what her last name (Doyran) meant since it could not be found in a Turkish dictionary. The typical Turkish name is something like Hacıralfoglu, a family in Izmir close to my in-laws that means something like the son (oglu, pronounced olu) of someone who made a pilgrimage (hac, pronounced haj) to Mecca.

Without giving it too much thought, she said that Doyran was a lake in the Balkans—an indication that her family lived there long ago. A quick search on Google reveals that is a town near a lake in northern Greece, the part of the country where most Turks lived. Another place that Turks called home was the island of Crete. Despite their ethnicity, the Cretan Turks used the Greek language like everybody else. Ottoman officials, on the other hand, spoke Turkish.

Providing superb historical background on the ethnic cleansing in the name of “population exchange”, Çağlar Keyder (a Turk) made the case that the Greeks in Turkey had widely divergent demographic characteristics. Drawing upon an obvious familiarity with Marxism, Keyder sees things in class terms. Those Greeks who lived in the west in cities like Constantinople (Istanbul) and Smyrna (Izmir) were ideally suited to benefit from the emerging global capitalist system where their education, connections, and entrepreneurial spirit served commercial and banking ambitions especially against Muslims who were economically more backward and hobbled by religious tradition. However, in the Anatolian east and northern Black Sea region, there was not much to distinguish the Greeks from the Turks. Both populations subsisted by farming and lived in fairly modest if not primitive conditions.

As might be expected, the film reprises some of the same narrative found in Iliou’s first film about the destruction of Smyrna. As part of its winning stakes in WWI, Greece sent its army to Turkey to basically turn the western part of the country into a colony. After Mustafa Kemal organized an army in the east to thwart Greek aims, the nation became embroiled in a terrible civil war where atrocities victimized Greek and Turk alike. The final battle of the war took place in Smyrna, the city that was renamed Izmir.

Long before I visited Izmir, I was haunted by Eric Ambler’s description of the holocaust in Smyrna from “A Coffin for Dimitrios”. I use the word holocaust in its original sense as a disastrous fire, one that led to a panicked stampede of the Greeks from the city followed by a more “orderly” exodus organized under the auspices of the Treaty of Lausanne. Ambler wrote:

At first, attempts were made to isolate the blaze. Then, the wind changed, blowing the fire away from the Turkish quarter, and further outbreaks were started by the troops. Soon, the whole city, with the exception of the Turkish quarter and a few houses near the Kassamba railway station, was burning fiercely. The massacre continued with unabated ferocity. A cordon of troops was drawn round the city to keep the refugees within the burning area. The streams of panic-stricken fugitives were shot down pitilessly or driven back into the inferno. The narrow, gutted streets became so choked with corpses that, even had the would-be rescue parties been able to endure the sickening stench that arose, they could not have passed along them.

Smyrna was changed from a city into a charnel-house. Many refugees had tried to reach ships in the inner harbour. Shot, drowned, mangled by propellers, their bodies floated hideously in the blood-tinged water. But the quayside was still crowded with those trying frantically to escape from the blazing waterfront, buildings toppling above them a few yards behind. It was said that the screams of these people were heard a mile out at sea. Giaur Izmir – infidel Smyrna – had atoned for its sins.

When I first heard the term “infidel Izmir” from my wife’s relatives there, I assumed that it was what other Turks called them since they loved their alcohol and their nightlife, and only stepped foot in a mosque to show friends from another country like me around. I also found it interesting that two of them, musicians by trade, loved to play Greek tunes on their guitars, another affront to “Turkishness”. But it turns out that the term infidel applied to the Greeks, who in 1922 were seen as cannon fodder by a Muslim army bent on ethnic cleansing.

I could not help but think of Jews leaving Czarist Russia to escape pogroms as I watched the archival films that make up much of “From Both Sides of the Aegean”. The film is marked by great visual storytelling skills that underscore the history lesson that is at its heart. Just as effectively, the film uses the “Ken Burns” technique of panning a camera across a still photo for dramatic effects. Some of the expressions on the faces of people getting on tiny boats as they depart for Greece are enough to make you weep.

As an indication of how toxic nationalism had become in both Greece and Turkey in this period, the immigrants were treated not as brothers and sisters but as second-class citizens as they returned to their respective nations, especially in Turkey where a Muslim who spoke Greek, as was the case from those leaving Crete, was a sign of lacking proper “Turkishness”.

Alexander Kitroeff, a Greek who teaches history at Haverford College and who is one of the film’s deeply knowledgeable interviewees, served as historical consultant on “From Both Sides of the Aegean”. If you are too far from New York to make it to the Quad, I strongly recommend a visit to http://www.aegeandocumentary.org, where you can read Kitroeff’s statement:

Little by little the populations that were exchanged overcame all the obstacles, despite the difficulties they encountered in their attempt to carve out a new life for themselves in a foreign and frequently hostile environment.

Within a few years they had sprouted roots and were contributing to the progress of their new homeland. The refugees brought to Greece entrepreneurial know-how and various skills as well as the manpower that led to an economic boom and industrialization. The refugees also contributed to the enriching the country’s artistic and cultural life. In Turkey, the Muslim refugees also represented valuable manpower while the absence of the Greeks created a void that led to the appearance of a new Turkish entrepreneurial class.

Notwithstanding the eventual adjustment made by both Greek and Turk, I cannot help but mourn what was lost when the Ottoman Empire gave way to fiercely contesting nationalisms that sought ethnic purity. For me, Turkish super-star singer Sezen Aksu, who has defended Kurdish rights with little concern about how that might rub her nationalistic fans the wrong way, symbolizes genuine Turkishness.

As a proverbial “rootless cosmopolitan”, I have always felt a powerful draw to cities where a virtual “gumbo” of races, nationalities, and religions can not only co-exist but also cross-fertilize each other’s cultures. That, after all, is how jazz emerged out of New Orleans.

I am also reminded of the degree to which dogmatic Marxism errs in this direction through its linear conception of history in which the replacement of a “backward” Ottoman Empire by modern states like Turkey or Syria are as much of an improvement as homo sapiens is over the chimpanzee. In its crudest form, it approximates social Darwinism.

With its tendency to create national armies that protect the capitalist class’s interests within carefully guarded borderlines and its drive to impose official languages, a pristine culture, and a working class bamboozled enough to put the interests of the boss over its own, you can say that the current stage of society we are living under is made for rapid-fire production and efficiency but little else.

Marx and Engels posited capitalism as a necessary stage between feudalism and socialism but the older I get and the more destruction and cruelty I see in the name of the nation-state, the more I am convinced that it is necessary to get to socialism as quickly as possible.

Toward the end of his life, Marx developed a close relationship with Russian populists who questioned whether their nation would be forced to go through a capitalist phase, a reasonable interpretation given the more dogmatic understanding of his writings propagated by his chief disciple Plekhanov. Marx wrote a letter to Vera Zasulich clarifying his ideas. Asked whether the archaic rural commune’s disappearance under growing capitalist encroachment was a good thing, he replied:

If the spokesmen of the “new pillars of society” were to deny the theoretical possibility of the suggested evolution of the modern rural commune, one might ask them: Was Russia forced to pass through a long incubation period in the engineering industry, as was the West, in order to arrive at the machines, the steam engines, the railways, etc.? One would also ask them how they managed to introduce in their own country in the twinkling of an eye the entire mechanism of exchange (banks, joint-stock companies, etc.), which it took the West centuries to devise?

As fate would have it, the USSR failed to exploit the rural communes and proceeded rapidly toward modern statehood and industrialization using many of the same bulldozer tactics as Victorian England. That being the case, it was not difficult to understand why the USSR and Turkey developed close ties in the early 1920s just as both societies were about to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. You had “primitive accumulation” in both nations despite their somewhat different socioeconomic origins. Stalin’s forced collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture led to the resentments that are still present to this day, while Mustafa Kemal’s attempt to break the back of Kurdish national aspirations has yet to succeed. To make a slight adjustment to the slogan “Another world is possible” that emerged during the anti-globalization protests, I would say that just as urgently “Another world is necessary” since wars between the bourgeois nation-state, a relic of our barbaric past that began in the mid-19th century, is just as much of a threat to our survival as the environmental crisis, which in the final analysis feed each other.

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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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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