Monday, September 26, 2005


The twentieth century was supposed to be a century of enlightenment and progress. Instead, it turned out to be one of increased environmental devastation, destructive warfare and most importantly one that signaled the violent, mass displacement of people. In the case of the Greek people, the 1922 catastrophe in the invasion of Cyprus caused the displacement of vast masses of population and here in our antipodean community print media, the September 1955 pogrom against the Greek community in Constantinople has lately achieved great prominence and indeed, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of that tragic manifestation of human brutality and intolerance.
Several writers including myself in 2001 and most recently, SAE president Costas Vertzayias have been astounded not only in the absence of basic humanity that caused the demise of Constantinople's Greek community but also the relative lack of remorse and efforts to make amends exhibited by successive Turkish governments. A short walk through the Fanari quarter of Constantinople in indicative of the great demographic catastraophe that was the 1955 pogrom. The intricate wooden neoclassical facades of the suburb are crumbling to dust, either locked with rusty padlock or squattd by economic refugees from Anatolia, too poor to effect much needed renovations. Churches are locked though here and there one can discern faint Greek inscriptions on buildings. The edifices of Fanari are as crumbling and careworn as the faces of their owners and they seem to be slowly sinking into the ground.
As continuing Turkish prevarication over the fate of the theological school at Halki and other assets of the Oecumencial Patriarchate continues while courageous Patriarch Bartholomeos resolutely and fearlessly campaigns for his diminish flock's basic human rights, Greek portrayal of the pogrom has shifted from the nationalistic and sloganistic to a deep analysis and understand of human suffering, dislocation and characteristic to the Greek psyche, nostos. The acclaimed film 'Touch of Spice,' is a key representative of this new way of interpreting and dealing with trauma and one would venture to say that its focus on pain rather than on blame is a mature and passionate one.
It is encouraging to note that such feelings of nostalgia and sadness rather than hatred and recrimination are not only felt by the victims or their would-be defenders. Despite the traditional reluctance of the Turksih people to talk openly about inter-ethnic strife, must commonly with regard to the Armenian, Pontian and Assyrian genocide, this year hundreds of concerned Turkish citizens, professionals and academics among them flooded their newspapers with letters and articles condemning the 1955 pogrom and expressing a sympathy for the victims of the pogrom that is quite moving. Indeed, the yearning of some of those letter writers to make amends and the hole that the expulsion of the Constantinopolitan Greeks left in the hearts of many of their Turkish neighbours has done the unthinkable: It has usurped the traditional roles, with the aggressor becoming the victim of its own bestiality and realizing this, humbly seeking forgiveness.
Mehmet Ali Birand's letter to the Turkish Daily News of 7 September 2005 is a pertinent and profoundly humbling manifestation of this new willingness to admit mistakes and reach out to one another in a spirit of brotherhood. It also shows how the Turks of Constantinople also suffered psychologically as a result of the hysterical racism and ultranationalism of the age:

"I am one of the living witnesses of what happened in Istanbul 50 years ago. I was 14 years old. I did not know what it was all about. However, the passage of time made me understand the seriousness of the incidents, and I always carry the shame. Even though it was the only such incident in which the Turkish state officially admitted its culpability and tried to compensate its victims, it still continues to weigh on our conscience.
I can never forget.
I can still remember what I saw in Beyoğlu on the morning of Sept. 7, 1955. When I went to Tunel from Karaköy, I just was flabbergasted. The scene was shocking.
The huge street seemed like a war zone, with windows of the shops on both sides of the street shattered and all their goods strewn all over the street. Bunches of clothes, books, notebooks, chandeliers and much more. People were taking home whatever they could find. The scene was like judgment day. I was a child, and I had no idea what had happened.
What I noticed immediately was that while some shops were plundered, others were not even touched. I had a look and saw that there was a Turkish flag hanging on the windows of the shops that were not looted. Those that were had Greek names.
People with long beards and those who were dressed very shabbily were walking around. I saw that some people who were dressed normally were hiding in the shops, looking outside. The police and the soldiers seemed like they were saying: “Enough is enough. You did what you did, but now just leave.” They were both intervening and not intervening at the same time. That scene has always remained with me. Even though half a century has passed, I still shiver when I remember it. When I read the newspapers a day later, I realized the extent of the matter.
Similar incidents had occurred also in Taksim and Şişli, where most of the citizens of Greek origin lived. Not only the shops, but also churches, even cemeteries were damaged and plundered. Jewish citizens also got their share of trouble, but the main targets were Greeks. Newspapers were writing about people waving Turkish flags, pleading with the looters: “Please don't do it. I'm a Turk. I am a Turkish citizen.” It was a disgusting, belittling and tragic affair.
My mother and other adults were criticizing what had happened, while officials were talking about “the placing of a bomb at the house in Thessaloniki where Atatürk was born, which had been turned into a museum, and the anger felt against what was happening in Cyprus,” explaining that the people had become enraged.
We were living on Ethem Efendi Street at the time. Our neighbors were mostly Greek. They were my best friends. All of a sudden, they shut themselves in their homes. They talked to no one. I can never forget Madam Eleni when she asked, “Can we seek refuge in your home if they attack us?” The barbershop she managed with her husband was in ruins. They were in shock. My mother sent them food for a week. We let them live in one of our rooms.
I was too young to make sense of what had happened. Why should they attack Madam Eleni? What could they ask from them? Why were they different from me?
As I was seeking answers to these questions, the Greek families in our neighborhood started to move to other places or go to Greece. After 1963 none of them were left. They left Istanbul.
They took with them an important culture, a color and a different lifestyle. They left us alone in Istanbul to live our colorless lives. Later on we were full of regret, but by then it was too late. Turkey admitted all culpability, accepted responsibility:
Much later, we learned the Sept. 6-7 incidents were the doing of the infamous “deep state.” It was planned with government approval in order to let diplomats say “The people are reacting” during the U.N. discussions on Cyprus. However, it later got out of control and turned into a shameful plunder. It became a crime that the deep state could not handle, and it shamed the Turkish nation… Sept. 6-7 shamed us and hurt us and tainted us as a nation….
In the later years, whenever the incidents were mentioned, I felt an overwhelming shame and I always apologized to the victims I saw at international meetings. During the incidents our Turkishness was trampled underfoot. It was then I realized that if we don't criticize such incidents and apologize to the victims, we can never feel proud of ourselves.
Apologizing is enriching. It shows self-confidence. Discriminating due to religion, language or culture or using force on the weak is belittling one's self.
I don't know you, but I apologize to our neighbor Madam Eleni from Erenköy."
Well Mehmet, you and others like you can feel proud of yourselves because finally after fifty years a little balm has been applied to the festering wounds of those hundreds of thousands who have been unable to return to their homes. What is no incumbent upon you is to manifest that remorse practically by petitioning for the last remaining minorities within Turkey to be awarded their basic human rights and to be left free from persecution. They have suffered enough.

First published in NKEE on 26 September 2005