Friday, 25 April 2008

Politiki Kouzina: the Greeks of Constantinople

See here for same clip with English subtitles

Above is a clip from Tassos Boulmetis' film, Politiki Kouzina (2003), concerning a Greek family from Constantinople, expelled in 1964. It’s a good film. Hermes and I had a small exchange about it here. In the clip, Savvas relives the worst five seconds of his life when the Turkish police told him that he and his family were to be deported from Constantinople and that he could avoid this fate if he were to become a Muslim. So in love with the City was Savvas, so distraught at the prospect of leaving it, that for five seconds, Savvas says, he thought about the Turk's offer.

Watching Politiki Kouzina reminded me of something I wrote quite a few years ago on the Greeks of Constantinople following the publication of a Human Rights Watch report called Denying Human Rights and Ethnic Identity: The Greeks of Turkey. I dug the article out and am reprinting below:

“Today’s Greek community in Istanbul is ‘elderly and frightened,’ their fear related to an ‘appalling history of pogroms and expulsion’ suffered at the hands of the Turkish government. Their numbers have declined from 110,000 at the time of the signing of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 to about 2,000 today.

These statistics of long-term ‘ethnic cleansing’ are cited by the US human rights organisation Human Rights Watch in its recent report on the plight of the Greek population in Istanbul and on the islands of Imvros and Tenedos.

For Nikolaos Atzemoglou, president of the Constantinopolitan Society in Athens, who was forced to leave the city Greeks still refer to as Constantinople in 1966, the report ‘puts an end to Turkish attempts to distort the facts by alleging that the Greek Orthodox minority left its homeland voluntarily and that they are welcome to return if they desire to do so’.

The exodus of Greeks from Turkey is usually associated with the events of 1955 and 1964.

In 1955, on September 6 and 7, violent anti-Greek riots took place in Istanbul. The American Consul-General informed the US Department of State that the destruction was completely out of control. ‘I personally witnessed the looting of many shops while the police stood idly by or cheered on the mob,’ he said.

A British journalist reported that the Greek neighbourhoods of Istanbul looked ‘like the bombed parts of London during the Second World War’.

Fifteen Greeks were killed and damage estimated at US$300m was inflicted on Greek property.

George Lefkaros, then a 10-year-old, recalls that ‘the front of every Greek house was marked in chalk with a cross. Excited groups of 100, 200 people were trying to break into our homes, our schools, our churches. They were shouting against Greeks. The next day in the street, there was a carpet one metre deep of debris and goods from Greek shops’.

The next major event in the lives of the Greeks in Turkey occurred in 1964. On March 16, the Turkish government began expelling ethnic Greeks who had Greek citizenship, on the grounds that they were dangerous to the ‘internal and external’ security of the state. These people were Greeks who had been born in Turkey but who had elected to retain Greek citizenship; some had never been to Greece.

In the years that followed, thousands of other Greeks who held Turkish citizenship left the city and settled in Greece or other parts of the world.

As well as pogroms and expulsions, the Turkish authorities tried to challenge the ethnic identity of the Greek community, choosing education as the battlefield.

Lefkaros recalls the methods used by the Turkish state trying to enforce its authority in Greek schools. ‘Before the start of the school day, Greek students from the ages of six to 18 were obliged to sing the Turkish national anthem. When the Turkish teacher came in to the classroom, we had to stand up and sing another anthem; very militaristic, that “we are Turks, we are the first in the world, nobody can stop us”’.

History lessons, always given in Turkish by a Turkish teacher, were, according to Lefkaros, ‘a propaganda exercise. We were taught that all races were derived from the Turkish race, that the Turks were the first people in the world, that every civilisation is a Turkish civilisation. Even Homer was a Turk. Alexander the Great, we were taught, was a Turk.’

Today, according to Lois Whitman of Human Rights Watch, the Greeks in Turkey are still subject to police harassment, restrictions on free expression and are denied religious and ethnic rights.

‘Not since our first report into Turkish human rights in 1982 have we encountered so many people afraid to talk to us, or who would talk only anonymously. This is the first report we have issued on Turkey in many years in which we have had to disguise the identity of almost every person who talked with Human Rights Watch,’ Whitman said.

Greeks in Istanbul who met the Human Rights Watch team looked over their shoulders apprehensively, afraid their conversations were being observed. A principal of a Greek school continually asked a teacher to lower her voice as she described the problems faced by the Greek children. A businessman shook with fright as he related conditions and concerns. Some Greeks who were asked by intermediaries to meet Human Rights Watch in Istanbul spoke of being harassed by police, called in and threatened.

One businessman reported that he had left Turkey in 1980 because of psychological pressure.

‘The chief of police called me into his office in Istanbul and gave me coffee and cigarettes, then said: “It would be better if you leave, since you have a daughter. We won’t shoot you, but maybe a car will hit you while you’re out walking.”’

Human Rights Watch found that such intimidation continues. One man reported being visited recently by a member of the secret police, who put his gun on the table in front of him and questioned the man for three hours about the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the committee for the Greek hospital.

Education is still subject to Turkish interference. Orthodox priests are banned from entering Greek schools. Morning prayer is outlawed. Greek textbooks and encyclopaedias are not permitted in classrooms.

According to Lois Whitman: ‘The Greek children who attend Greek schools cannot speak Greek freely or learn about Greek history. The teachers who are supposed to be allowed by the Treaty of Lausanne to come from Greece to Turkey are either not allowed in, or come late in the year.’

However difficult life was, and still is, for the Constantinopolitans, loyalty to their ancient Greek city is intense. Greeks had lived in the city for 2.000 years before the Turks arrived and Constantinople is still the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, spiritual leader of the world’s 300m Greek Orthodox Christians.

Constantinopolitans on being forced out of Turkey had to abandon homes and businesses. Bank accounts were frozen. They arrived in Greece as refugees. But most have flourished in their adopted country. Barred from public service in Turkey, most brought with them business skills that have stood them in good stead.”


Hermes said...

That is a good scene. Very emotive.

Have you seen this documentary about another Diaspora?

Anonymous said...

I've been wanting to see Politiki Kouzina for several years. Seeings as John and Hermes have given it the thumbs up, I'll be ordering it this weekend.

Thanks for the thought provoking discussion.


john akritas said...

Obviously, the documentary's the official 'from poverty to success through hard work' version of the Cypriot presence in the UK – I recognise a lot of things in it (I also recognise a lot of the old-guard AKEL communists who typically managed to get themselves involved); but immigration is a far more complex and ultimately disastrous experience. The first generation Cypriots who came to England have interesting stories – more interesting than the documentary will allow for – but the second and third generations have nothing to say and nothing to offer. It's tragic that so many souls that should have had a Greek identity will end up with an Anglo-Saxon one. All these immigrants should have stayed in Cyprus or gone to Greece.

Hermes said...

Correct. Like other Diasporas from other Greek island and regions, the 2nd and 3rd generation begin to see the world through the lenses of their new patrida even when it is detrimental to their real patrida's interests. Some Greek Americans are a case in point.

There was a very interesting transnational debate in Greece recently between Vassilis Lambropoulos (Greek American), Antonis Liakos (Greek) and Stathis Grougaris (Greek American) versus Georgasopoulos (Greek). A Greek academic from London also chimed in. The debate eventually ended up in name calling but it raised some very important issues using a sort of Cavafy-Elytis interpretative framework. Cavafy the cosmopolitan and Elytis the Greek Greek. Fixed identity and changing identity. Localism and globalisation. Multinational funded university programs and Greek universities. Secularism and Neo-Orthodoxy. Americanism and Hellenism. Critical theory, hermeunetics and traditional literary analysis. Despite ending in a slanging match at least we are talking and talking about impotant issues.

Here is Xydakis's summary but one can follow it by looking up the names.

john akritas said...

I think it's absurd to compare the Greek diaspora communities of the 19th and early 20th centuries with contemporary Greek immigrant communities. The diaspora had the wherewithal and institutions to resist integration in Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, etc, and develop societies within societies; whereas today's Greek immigrant communities are completely exposed to assimilation and loss of identity and those of us – a tiny minority – who insist on our Hellenism are fighting a losing battle.

Hermes said...

Yes, I thought about this too. Agreed. Toronto, Melbourne, Chicago do not resemble Smyrna, Alexandria or Constantinople and to believe that is pure self indulgence or denial of reality. The diaspora Greeks of yesteryear did not conduct the Orthodox liturgy in any other language than Greek. There were other significant differences but this is symbolic. Anglo-Americanism is much more powerful than Ottomanism. Genocide is being conducted right in front of us and most of us are oblivious. Some even celebrate it.

Stavros said...


Great post, especially in light of the increasing agitation of the Muslims in Thrace by Turkey which claims that their rights are being violated by the Greek government.

Hellenic Antidote is a much needed Greek voice in the wilderness of the English-speaking blogosphere. BTW, thanks for bringing my attention to the Perry Anderson article.


Genocide? The difference between Diaspora communities in Turkey or Egypt and those in Anglo countries is subtle but important. Greeks could never see themselves as Turks or Arabs, they could never be assimilated into those societies, whereas in Anglo societies they are slowly absorbed over the generations. The reasons are complex. The lack of insulated society within a society, the lack of a Greek school system, and in the long run the realization that you can't go home again because you have changed in fundamental ways.

I agree that dialogue is indeed very important. Unfortunately Greeks in Greece and in the Diaspora are disinclined to talk, let alone solve, these problems. People like us who have a working knowledge of the issues involved or even care about them are in the minority.

You are worried about losing the Greek language in the liturgy, I am worried about losing the liturgy, especially in Greece.

Hermes said...

The Greek language is more important than the liturgy. If it was not for the pliable Greek language the liturgy would not be possible - which was then bastardised into English.

You are showing your neoliberal universalist colours again. We are definitely heading for catastrophe with that stance.

Hermes said...

I also diagree with your thesis. We do not know the motivations of Greeks 300 years ago. Also, the lack of an "insulated society within a society" and a "poor school system" are our doing in a society that is relatively more liberal. It has not been foisted upon us. So why have we made this choice? Compare to Greeks of yesteryear who in some cases were under severe repression, and converting may have brought significant advantages, remained Greek.

Are you suggesting Anglo-American society is somehow more attractive than Turkish or Arabic? Personally, I think that is very debateable.

Also, Greeks in Arabic and Turkish society 300 years ago not only did not think they could not go back but there was nothing to go back too i.e. there was no independent Greek state for most of them.

Ultimately, θα πρέπει να ξεπερνούν τα εθνικά σύνορα που μας περιβάλλουνενώ, ενεργεί σαν πατριωτική Αμερικανοί για τα συμφέροντά μας. Actually, η σύγχρονη Άραβες αποτελούν καλά παραδείγματα

john akritas said...

Stavros, I am, indeed, 'a Greek in the English wilderness', and as you know the wilderness is a place of terrible ordeal. Is Politiki Kouzina a film that rings true for you?

I also think one of the tricks of Anglo-American society and ideology is to suggest that their way of life is more attractive than our more 'traditional' way of life and that we'd be better off shedding this 'antiquated' identity and culture and adopting theirs. Despite the Turks ruling us, we always felt superior to them; I don't think we feel that way towards the Anglo-Americans – even though we should.

Stavros said...


I find it interesting that you would put language over faith. I guess that would make Russians less Orthodox because they use Russian exclusively in their liturgy.

Trying to equate the Greek community in Turkey with the Greek community in the United States for instance is like comparing apples and oranges. Even our respective communities are quite different. I plan to write a post about it eventually.

I accept your point that a Hellenic identity is not confined to the borders of the Greek state, but I think we differ on what constitutes the criteria for claiming such identity.


Politiki Kouzina is indeed a film that rings true for me.

There are many things that are attractive about the Anglo-American way of life. It is not an all or none situation. There are many things I admire and want to emulate. Tolerance, freedom, respect for the individual, volunteerism, charity, adherence to law. There are some things I abhor: consumerism, abortion, narcissism, sexual license, the breakdown of family, Hollywood, the dumbing down of society.

Trying to negotiate the path through these things is the lot of all immigrants. The amazing thing about the societies we live in is that other than expecting us to obey their laws, a reasonable request, we are allowed to live in the manner that we prefer.

My own family came to America to escape persecution, not for financial reasons. America, for all her faults, has allowed us to live without fear and to prosper in so many different ways. Living in an Anglo society does not mean you cannot live a traditional life with Hellenic values, if you make the effort and teach your kids those values. Too many Greek parents in the Diaspora and in Greece, choose not to do so.

The Turks have been our historic adversaries. When we underestimate them we make a fatal mistake. We "used" to believe in the superiority of our culture. Unfortunately, the failures of the Greek State have created the Diaspora and the result is an inferiority complex of sorts where Greeks look for solutions elsewhere. If you read Greek history you will see that the more things change the more things stay the same. Greeks often make the mistake of looking to the Russians, the Europeans or the Americans to be their saviors. When will we learn to be self reliant?

The challenge for those of us in the Diaspora is to live like the old Greeks not the new ones, by being better not by acting superior.

john akritas said...

I'm saying that the depiction by the Anglo-Americans of Greece and the Greek way of life as 'traditional' and their way of life as 'modern' or 'progressive' is a lie, designed to get us to give up our culture for theirs.

As for 'tolerance, freedom, respect for the individual, volunteerism, charity, adherence to law' as characterising Anglo-American society, I can't see it. Freedom, respect for the individual and adherence to the law are Greek concepts. We gave them to the Anglo-Americans, not them to us. They have nothing to teach us in this regard.

Hermes said...

Stavros, language is more important than faith in remaining Greek (not Orthodox). The Russians do not come into this equation.

Our aim should be to elevate the Greek-Australian, Greek-American, Greek-German hyphenations to the status of Greek-Zakynthian or Greek-Cypriot which means a better command of the language, participation in the national life of the ethnos, knowledge of important events and persons, priority of Greek interests before others and much more. Ultimately, Greeks that look at each other as equals not Diasporan Greeks looking in towards Greece through the lenses of their colonisers.

I hope your sons are better. Very shocking news. Maybe because I am very close to my parents this hit home so hard. I sent my parents to Zakynthos for Easter. They have not celebrated the Anastasi in their home for over 25 years. They even smashed vikes (clay pots). And the island breaks out in incredible wildflowers in Spring.

Stavros said...


I have never felt pressured to give up my culture, perhaps you have and that is why you feel as you do. I think it is fallacious however, to characterize Anglo-American culture as all bad and Greek culture as pristine. Too many generalizations here. Let's just agree to disagree on this one.


Point taken.

Thank you for asking. We are all adjusting. It's hard. Reminders are everywhere.

When we grow up we have a tendency to get wrapped up in our own lives.
Spend time with your parents, talk to them while they are still capable of answering your important questions and most importantly, honor them.