Saturday, March 19, 2022



As my great-grandmother would cook in the kitchen, she would point to the dish she was preparing and say: «Αυτά μας τα μάθνεσκαν οι Αούτσες» (These were taught to us by the Aoutisses). An Aoutissa was a female refugee from Pontus, so named because of their use of the term «αούτο» instead of the ordinary term «τούτο» for “this.” 

It was not a term of endearment but rather was used in a pejorative sense, to denote someone so much an outsider that they could not speak the Greek language properly. As such, they were reviled for their lack of communication skills, their strange customs, their even more incomprehensible cuisine involving such great quantities of yoghurt that they were nicknamed: «γιαουρτοβαπτισμένες» (baptised in yoghurt). Living as they did, on the borderline of starvation, in tents, in the middle of the freezing Epirotic winter and thus prone to disease, they were also considered by many of the natives to be vessels of contagion. Accordingly, they were shunned. It just was not done for people of society to consort with their sort. 

Having lost her parents, a husband and two children, tragedies that placed her on the margins of society, my great-grandmother had no problems in fraternising with the Aoutisses. She observed that despite the parlous conditions in which they lived, (and indeed in many of the refugee villages, proper permanent facilities were not constructed until the fifties) they were almost obsessively clean and immensely dignified. They had knowledge of agricultural techniques unknown to the local inhabitants that resulted in greater efficiency and higher crop yields and their understanding of spices lent zest and interest to the otherwise bland and uninspired cuisine of the region. 

Then there were the dark things that my great-grandmother could not speak about, only hint at obliquely. The young girls that in desperation were sold by their desperate mothers to satiate the lusts of the local menfolk in order to feed their families. The refugees turned prostitutes who haunted a particular part of Ioannina, picking fleas off each other. The young women who were married off to local men and abused their entire lives because they had neither property nor family to give them station or afford them protection. The women who similarly disenfranchised, could not go about their daily business without being harassed by the local men or abused by the local women.  

When we make mention of the women of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, whose century we commemorate this year, our minds conjure up images of ladies experiencing the worst deeds that humans can inflict upon each other: murder, mutilation, torture, forced marches, rape, the loss of children, starvation, absolute terror and removal from one’s homeland. These unspeakably vile deeds were perpetrated by a genocidal regime that determined that the Greek people, among other Christian minorities no longer had a legitimate place in Asia Minor and had to be removed. As such the tragic outcome of the post-war settlement is invariably presented as a clash of civilisations, one in which our own people were vanquished, paying the price for policies that are considered variously as dreams of national fulfilment or imperialism, depending on one’s ideological worldview. Consequently, the traumas experienced by women are contextualised either as collateral damage or, more often, as proof of the barbarity of the perpetrator. In this scenario, the forced expulsion to Greece, however painful, is presented as a type of homecoming, in the sense that though wounded and broken, the women of the Catastrophe were able to find a refuge. 

This is especially so in the diasporic anglosphere, where the word refugee derives ultimately from the French for “hiding place,” a term that in turn comes from the Latin “place to flee back to.” In Greek, however, the πρόσφυγας, is he who flees towards a place or person. The element of that place already granting a sense of belonging so as to lend itself to a return is conspicuously absent. Not only were the women of Asia Minor thus carrying with them the anguish of their harrowing experiences, they were fleeing to a place that was largely unknown to them. In that place, their gender would render them vulnerable once more. 

«Μ' έχουν τρελό τα χάδια σου έμορφη χαϊδεμένη αχ Σμυρνιοπούλα μου γλυκιά και μικροπαντρεμένη,» (Your caresses make me crazy, my sweet, young-married, beautiful, pampered girl from Smyrna), proclaim the lyrics of a rebetiko song of the period. In his famous book “Orientalism”, Edward Said argued that the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not.  He examined how these attitudes have traditionally woven themselves through art where Eastern cultures and particularly women are presented as alien, exotic, and subversive. 

Within Greece, the process is more acute considering that the country occupies a liminal sphere between East and West and it is fascinating how mainland Greeks, who in no way would be considered as Western by the “West,” entered into the paradigm, imagining the female refugees from Asia Minor and especially from Smyrna as coming from a foreign land of sex, excess and exciting exotic experiences. 

Complicating the paradigm is the fact that Smyrna in Asia Minor was perhaps the most European of the cities inhabited by Greeks. In that polity, Greeks rubbed shoulders with the French, English and other European traders, espoused modern European modes of dress and engaged in European cultural pastimes such as the Opera, Theatres and Classical Music concerts. In that environment, the women of Smyrna mixed more freely with members of the opposite sex than was the case with the cloistered women of the Greek mainland, were, because of the culture of the city and the relative wealth of its inhabitants, better educated, more outspoken and relatively less inclined to passively allow their lives to be determined by the men in their family. 

These traits, which in other times would be deemed to be progressive, were considered subversive in Greece and especially among many women. Smyrnan refugees women recall being cast in the role of the “slut” by the local inhabitants in the areas in which they settled. True to the orientalist stereotype, local men believed that the women of Asia Minor were naturally lascivious and more sexually available, a prejudice reflected both in song lyrics and also by the fact that having had musical training, they were more prominent in the public music scene, which was considered decadent and morally ambiguous by the native inhabitants of the region. Similarly, there are accounts of local women hurling abuse at refugee women as they went about their daily tasks, as it was considered that their salacious ways would result in the seduction of their menfolk. As contemporary writer Asimakis Panselinos wrote: "When in 1922 the ladle of history poured the women of Asia Minor and Smyrna all over Greece, a hue and cry arose: "they take our men" as if the country was a canteen that had an obligation to supply men, only to local women.” 

Even the advanced housekeeping skills and domestic hygiene of the refugee women were suborned in order to feed the stereotype. The overly clean refugees were referred to as «πατρικές» literally meaning “clean” but in fact alluding to a “dirtiness” in moral fibre. Comparing them against the “virginal” and “demure” native ladies of Athens, writer Kostas Ouranis, in his infamous 1923 article “Women of Athens,” entrenched the derogatory stereotype further, even divesting them of their gender altogether, opining: “These women are either meaninglessly romantic or terribly flirtatious… they have something common and vulgar… They have no nobility… no instinct of subtlety. They are not "ladies". They are female. The climate of the East has made them soft, fleshy and flirtatious. And from Europe they have taken moral laxitude - and maybe nothing else… They do not have the instinct of the polite women towards the vulgar and the humble […] they love gossip, double entendres and dirty jokes.” 

Rather than being aroused by pity, Ouranis is clearly aroused in other ways by the refugee women who “go about with their arms and necks bare… having something of a Rubens model with long eyelashes… which stir the passions, attract mouth-watering attention to and awaken sudden desires.” Instead of understanding the trauma of their expulsion, he casts them in the role of invaders, instead of victims of catastrophe, harbingers of cataclysm: "These are the women who appear everywhere in today's Athens…the ones who set the tone.. are the women of the East. The young Athenian woman…. has been lost in this flood of women from Ionia and the Bosphorus…” 

Economic, sexual and professional exploitation of refugee women was rife in post 1922 Greece. Commenting on a photograph of refugee girls posted on the Internet, the daughter of a survivor commented ominously: “That reminds me of my mother’s story and the stories she told me about the lengths they had to go to secure some bread.” As we solemnly commemorate the centenary of the 1922 Catastrophe, let us facilitate a full and frank discussion not only of the trials and tribulations of the women of Asia Minor before their expulsion but also the immense challenges they faced in re-settling in their place of refuge. Their successful integration within Greek society against all odds and the manner in which they transformed Modern Greek culture in the process deserve to be studied deeply, but most of all, celebrated. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 March 2022