A Stranger in Two Places
18 June 2007
'The core of every migrant's statement remains the same: birth in one place, growing old in another place. And feeling a stranger in two places.' This haunting thought comes at the start of a book that I've just read*, about the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey after the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. It's from a Turkish professor whose family had to leave Crete at that time.
In this first great government-sanctioned ethnic cleansing of the 20th century, 400,000 Muslims were forced to move from Greece to Turkey, while at least 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians had to leave Turkey. It has been estimated that in the last ten years of the Ottoman Empire, some 20% of the population of Anatolia met violent deaths: some 2.5 million Muslims, up to 800,000 Armenians and 300,000 Greeks. The internationally approved population exchange of 1923 was only the last stage of a terrible process of suffering and violence. Bruce Clark, long a journalist in the region for The Economist, shows great compassion for both sides, and balance.
At this distance, one of the things that strikes Clark, and the modern reader, is that governments had the right to tell people what they were, while individuals had no rights to situate their own identities. And plural identities were impossible. Muslims were Turks, and had to leave, even if they spoke no Turkish, but only Greek. And Turkish-speaking Orthodox were classified as Greeks. Villages in Western Thrace changed language, as Greek-speaking 'Turks' left their homes and their fields to arriving Turkish-speaking 'Greeks' from Anatolia. There were some desperate last-minute attempted 'conversions' of those who wanted at all costs to stay where they had been born, where their families were buried. The deceptively simple and falsely straightforward identities of the modern nation state – mono-lingual, mono-cultural, mono-religious – were imposed on the complex patchwork that had been the Ottoman Empire.
As Clark underlines, the deportees in this exchange were given no choice. 'Nobody asked them whether they would have preferred to stay put, with all the attendant risks of being a small minority in a state where a majority was bent on affirming its domination. The personal feelings of the people involved were the last thing considered by the politicians who decreed the population exchange.' 'People are easier to shift than buildings or civilizations; and once moved, they can be reprogrammed,' Clark sadly concludes.
Today, we struggle with the aftershocks of this and other moves of populations or ethnic cleansings – the words are never innocent, are always wrapped up in the official ideologies of states. But there is a tide in human rights that has moved a long way in the direction of 'you are who you feel you are, what you say you are'. And everywhere, the mono-cultural nation state is threatened by the growing complexity of globalization. The mono-anything culture belongs to the past. The future lies with handling diversity – and with honestly facing the painful and ambiguous chapters of our pasts.
On holiday in Crete last year, in the lovely old town of Rhetymnon, our strange Venetian hotel room looked out directly onto the domes of a 17th century mosque. We walked all around the block, trying to find a way in, to discover that the mosque had been walled in and is completely inaccessible to the visitor. When we talked with our host, I said, 'This is part of your past.' 'No,' he replied, 'it's the Turks' past, not ours. We respect that people have prayed to God there, so we do not destroy it.' The largest mosque is now used as a concert hall; a third, more easily seen from the street, but still closed off. Fierce Greek pride revels in the years of bitter resistance to Ottoman/Muslim/Turkish rule. The guide books talk of 'the Muslims leaving in 1923' – not of people, many of them Greek-speaking – who loved this land, were born and lived here, being driven out. An almost invisible chapter of the past.
On my return, I tried, with the help of the Internet, to find one history that would tell the stories of both sides – and found that there were almost none, at least in English. The encouraging thing about the bibliography at the end of Bruce Clark's book is to see the number of Greek and Turkish historians who have at least started on the truth-telling, beyond the founding-myths of their two states. And who have started to leave a place for the pain and suffering of the other.
Perhaps there is a peaceful re-programming that we can all do, must all do, in searching out the suffering of others at the hands of our nation, our people, our faith. The ethnic cleansing of 1923 cannot now be undone. The youngest of those who experienced it are now seriously old – but in the last few years, there has been a moving number of exchange visits. Geography cannot be changed. Greece and Turkey remain neighbours. England and Ireland will remain next door to each other for all time, as will India and Pakistan. But can we learn to live as neighbours and not as enemies? And can we all live at home, and as neighbours with those next to us, wherever we live?
* Twice a Stranger, How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark, Grant Books, London, 2006
You don't have to go so far or go to throuhg such great injustices to feal the same, suffer strongly and have the same experience.
helena von Arnim, 18 June 2007
I'm colombian; I'm married to a man whose father was German, he feels a half of him doesn't belong here and is always nostalgic of Germany; his other half fights against the superiority in him towards all what is sub- developed or latin american, so he is never satisfied and sees very easily the black dot on the tabe cloth. I'm a huge black stain in his table cloth for I am so Latin. It has taken us 45 years of marriage to start undrestandig who we are and enjoy the other one as we are. If this is so, for people who think they love each other, we can imagine why these terrible things happen. There is so much to forgive and be foregiven in a marriage..... Lets hope and work for the future of the world.
Andrew ;thank you for this article. It has made me meditate on a lot of things.
Compassion, Neighbourhood, Politics, Truth, Honesty to call things by their name.
Helena von Arnim
I enjoyed reading this article - just very true. I am glad to find out other people feel the same way.
Djamila Amellal, 20 June 2007
Thank you again.
Thank you for your very thoughtful and provocative article.
John Rayment, 03 July 2007
My view is that the historical and current role of nation states is at best
questionable, and their future far from clear.
You may be interested in a model that a colleague, Jonathan Smith, and I
have created, called the Global Fitness Framework. It looks at the physical,
mental and spiritual fitness of individuals, groups and societies for
carrying out their roles / achieving their objectives.
One of the applications of the GFF we are interested in is to look at the
role and attitude of nation states along the lines discussed.
We will be launching the GFF in March next year, in Chelmsford, England, and
are looking for interested people to join us.