Tag Archives: Salonica

Memo to: a certain generation of “progressive” Turks

4 Aug

From: NikoBakos

Re: the final and total castration of the Turkish military

Date: August 2017

Ataturk Mausoleum Yildirim Chiefs of staffPrime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, front right, and the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, third from left, visit the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Mausoleum before the Turkish Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???

I have two groups of friends in Constantinople:* one a group of mostly Alevi**, first-generation urbanites (from Dersim and Antiocheia); another of at least several urban generations, who are pure “White” Turks in every way.

A sub-category of this second group of friends (who are fast becoming ex-friends) are/were or considered themselves to be “leftists” (“I should cough” as one of the characters in Hester Street says).  These were always violently allergic to anything that had to do with the military, Turkish or otherwise.

Peaceniks, of course, our rift began when it proved completely in their interest to paint me as a super-American hawk during the Iraq war, even if I’m deeply un-American in my self-identification and was never a supporter of Bush’s adventure.  I simply did not know what to think about the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and took issue with their knee-jerk, anti-American attitude, with their facile certainty they knew what to think.  In the end I just decided that anybody who was automatically against the completely justified invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban — and if that’s a tragically uncompleted project, that doesn’t mean the initial result or victory was not worthwhile…ASK ANY AFGHAN — was going to be a robot-thinker about any kind of American intervention or just about war of any kind, so I couldn’t be bothered.

Of course, these types DON’T KNOW ANY AFGHANS to ask, because they’re shameless hypocrites living in their pleasant, sheltered suburbs in C-Town, who know our Cyclades better then they know the rest of their own country — certainly better than I do — and wouldn’t dare head out to Afghanistan, even on a dare.  Why do they irritate me so much?  It’s simple.

If the original sin of the Right is selfishness, the original sin of the Left is self-righteousness, by which I mean the need to see one’s self as morally correct no matter what, even if this means a breezy indifference to the realpolitik or the reality of what’s really happening on the ground.***

Of course, they were steadfast in their belief that the Turkish military was an institution of bastardized Kemalism that was the greatest anti-democratic force in their society.  This was their justification for eventually rejecting their parents’ admittedly corrupt CHP as well, Turkey’s Kemalist Republican party.  And yet it’s ironic that the Turkish military’s “anti-democratic” orientation has repeatedly prevented the complete descent of that society into chaos.  One of these types has a whole sob story she used to recite to me about how, as a young girl in the 70s, she was terrified every day when her father left the house that he wouldn’t come home because of the terrible and constant terrorist violence that was then occurring on the streets of Constantinople.  But it was the military that put an end to that violence in 1980, like it was the military who got rid of Menderes, architect of the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom, in 1960.  And as soon as Erbakan started exceeding his limits (btw, he was the first who tried talking about limiting alcohol consumption and tables on the street in Pera and Galata), the military got rid of him too in 1997 — not exactly cause and effect there.

As a Greek, there’s obviously little love lost on my part for the Turkish military.  I just feel that if Turkey’s twentieth-century history, culminating in the Erdoğan phenomenon, has proven the country to be incapable of forming a democratic civil society that doesn’t spin out of control into violence, corruption and chaos, then you just don’t have the luxury of being anti-military.  Furthermore, from our perspective, Erdoğan’s pre- and post-“coup” military is a far more threatening force than it was previously.  Violations of Greek air space have increased exponentially under Erdoğan’s tenure, as has his, and formerly Davutoğlu’s, irresponsibly imperialist Neo-Ottoman language.  And just like it wasn’t a military junta that organized the pogrom of 1955, it wasn’t a military government that invaded Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing and occupying 40% of the island to protect a Turkish minority that is only 18% of the island’s population.

Lately there had been a weird shift in their attitudes though, as it has slowly sunk in that they had supported (“I voted for him!  My God!!”) the most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid (photo below).  After the takeover and purging of the daily Zaman in March of 2016, I ran the idea past a few of them: “do you think it’d be a good idea for the military to step in? …they already have more unconstitutional dirt on him than on most Turkish heads of state.”  And even the Teşvikiye girl who had worried so much about her father, didn’t get apoplectic on me like she would’ve done in the past; she simply mumbled passively, in the static cadences of Turkish passivity: “I don’t even think they’re in a position to do anything at this point.”****

AbdülhamidAbdülhamid

Worse was one who said to me: “What Turkey needs now is unity.”  Well, your compatriots have actually shown a quite impressive amount of unity in the face of the Erdoğan challenge.  Every time he has engineered some sort of spectacular violence to terrify them over the past almost three years, they have unitedly come back, in elections and referenda and the mob-mobilization they have always been so good at, to give this “most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid…” an even greater mandate on power than he had before: Daddy please save us!

Infantile beyond belief.  Is that the “unity” you wanted?  There was great unity in the mob hysteria that this supposed coup was met with (no, I don’t believe it was Gülen; no, I don’t think it was the army, unless it was army that already knew it was going to be sacked; no, I don’t think he didn’t know; I’d probably refuse to believe that Erdoğan wasn’t the architect of the whole thing — see the New Yorker‘s great Dexter Fillins’ “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup”).  They displayed impressive unity lynching poor little Mehmetçiks just following orders on the Bosporus Bridge (scenes guaranteed to make the hair of Greeks and Armenians stand on end), impressive unity in the Nazi-style rallies the Great Leader has convened, impressive unity in heckling men from the army and journalists and writers being led into a show trial that can quite possibly end in their execution or certainly life sentence (see “Inside Erdoğan’s Prisons” in the Times) and with the kerchiefed teyzes screaming for blood outside the courthouse in Ankara — and I’m sure they’ll show impressive unity in supporting the reinstating of capital punishment if that goes up for a referendum soon.

Turkish thugs and soldiersTurks beating up young conscripts on the Bosporus Bridge, defending their democratic right to elect a dictator who has abolished Turkish democracy for the most part and soon will have the power to go after whatever’s left…Turkish “unity” in action.

IS THAT THE UNITY YOU WANTED?  The unity of Kristallnacht? (or the “Septembriana” — same difference.)  The unity of Nüremberg?  The unity that comes with thinking that you can enfranchise the newly rich, provincial pious, those with absolutely no democratic education — or education of any kind — and that they won’t turn on you like swine before which pearls have been cast?  (Plato said that the “demos” — the people — shouldn’t have the right to vote because they’ll always vote for the tyrant — τυραννόφρων; Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says precisely the same thing.)  Did you want the unity of the Italians and the Germans who respectively put Mussolini and Hitler in power with their vote?  Or the Americans who voted for Trump?  Or the Russians who voted and will again vote for Putin?

Tabrik migam, then.  You got it.

And this is the cherry on your birthday cake: Erdoğan replaces the military chiefs of staff with his own men.  Good luck ever getting rid of him now.  He’s now in a position of total control, with no challenges whatsoever.  You’re stuck for life.

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* The days when in the p.c. stupidity of the metapoliteuse we used to refer to Constantinople as “Istanbul” — I mean when speaking Greek…airport announcements and newspaper by-lines used “Ιστανμπούλ“…in Greek…are over.  I’ve now taken to calling it Constantinople in English as well, as Turks are free to call Salonica Selanik or Bulgarians and Macedonians Solun and I have no problem.  I’m not going to tell others what to call cities historically important to them; it actually makes me happy.  For more on this see my: Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay! and keep an eye out for my “Boycott ‘Mumbai” campaign” post.  In general except an upswing in South Asian posts as we approach the seventy-year anniversary of Partition.

** My friends bear out the truth that Turkey’s Kurdish-Zaza Alevis and Syria and Lebanon’s Alawites are religiously the same branch of semi-Shia Islam.  The ones from Dersim have recognized that Syrian Alawites are also Alevi like them, even if that hasn’t made them Assad supporters; and the ones from Antiocheia (Antakya in Turkish or Hatay province in the logic of Turkish science fiction nationalist narrative) are just plain Alawite Arabs, who have understood that if there’s anything separating them from Syrian or Lebanese Alawites, it’s only the Turkification campaign they were subjected to when Turkey annexed that part of then-French-mandate Syria in the 1930s.  If papers like the Times feel the need to add the caveat that they’re different in every article they publish on the subject, it’s because they’re ignorant, the Turkish Press Office has made a fuss every time they don’t add that caveat, and it’s easy to think that people separated into difference by the ethnic nation state aren’t religiously brothers.  I’ve written extensively on this in a Twitter dialogue I had with a Turk who thought everybody should fight “lies and defamation” against their country when they appear in the media:

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis: closer than I thought

Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange

Alevis and Alawites addendum: a “p.s.” from Teomete

More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or…

Look out for Alevis in the current struggle in Turkey.  Whereas Kurds proper are not trusted by the political establishment or most Turks because they’re convinced they’ll never give up their separatist aspirations, Alevis, who suffered terribly under the Ottomans and the early republic and still do on some level, are still loyal to the Turkish Republic and Turkey itself.  This puts them in the position to become the secular backbone of all democratic impulses that still exist in that country, something like African-Americans in the United States were in the mid-twentieth century, since their form of Islam does not aspire to becoming the State itself, as all forms of conventional Sunni Islam do.  They were a disproportionate share of the casualties and deaths that occurred during the crackdown of the 2013 protests, not because they were targetted specifically, but simply because they were already a disproportionately large percentage of the protesters.

*** It may seem irrelevant, but this type always reminds of a passage in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he trashes this kind of moral correctness by trashing the New Agers of his time:

“Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper
of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its
armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of
bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner
Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an
exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last
Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in
the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care
for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due
to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do,
upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love
enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just
as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the
morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of
the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus
Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish
egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of
passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what
these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most
horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body
knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher
Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light;
let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street,
but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in
order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a
divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian
was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely
recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible
as an army with banners.”  [All bold emphases mine.]

**** “yanlış oldu” — See Loxandra‘s amazing “duck with bamya” chapter; I never tire of recommending it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Belgrade: Random notes from July 2014

7 Sep

beograd-1910Belgrade 1905 (click)

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“Post”-something. Not post-apocalyptic or Blade Runner-ish or all the nonsense that people used to write about the city in the nineties or after the war (when, maybe, I don’t know, it did feel like that), but definitely the sense that something is over and no one has any real idea of what this is now or what’s coming next. A certain optimism about the future though, which is probably just an inherent trait of its inhabitants, both leavened and sobered by the kind of biting black humor that’s not the only thing that reminds me of Russians.

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You’re already one foot out of, or may have already left the Balkans here. This was particularly striking to me after seeing so much of the southern Balkans just a month or so ago. Where I have come from, I mean, to compare to? Argyrocastro is an Ottoman jewel in stone; Ochrid a truly archontiko little city. The rest: Tirana, Podgorica, Tetovo, Skopje, the garish hideousness of Priština; were all obviously Ottoman wood-and-plaster hovels until the communist cement blocks went up.

Here you’re in Mitteleuropa already, in a city in that never was — except for temporary occupations — but could’ve been, a handsome Hapsburg town. It’s most beautiful from the opposite shores of the rivers that hem it in all around, with the city high on the bluffs overlooking its entire region. It reminded me of Kiev a little in this sense, though a much more recent city in terms of basic architectural stock and without Kiev’s glut of spectacular Baroque churches; in fact, until the first Serbian uprisings of the early nineteenth century, the population was predominantly Muslim. (Actually there’s hardly any religious architecture of any quality or beauty at all. There’s the small, pretty Baroque cathedral of the city just outside the walls, in what was probably the suburb where Christians were allowed to live in Ottoman times and that’s about it. All the city’s other churches that I saw are these genuinely grotesque Neo-Serbo-Mediaeval monstrosities of Orthodox nationalism; the kind they’re building all over Greece now too.)

Knez Mihailova and Kralja Petra Streets — the main pedestrianized drags — and the Cathedral spire at bottom.  (Click on all)

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But you understand a great deal about Serbian history just by standing up on the peak of the Kalemegdan fortress, the sprawling castle that covers the highest, northernmost peak of the peninsula and you realize that you’re standing on the last, frontline hill of Balkan rock, where the Danube meets a whole huge complex of river networks from north and south and that the expanse of green mixed with suburb spreading out in front of you is the beginning of the vast Pannonian plain that stretches out to the Carpathians in one direction and eventually the northern European flatlands that flow all the way to the Baltic in the other. (See map at top.) Apparently and according to Misha Glenny, the Ottomans called Belgrade the “darul-al-jihad,” the House of War (though why this wouldn’t apply to so many other places, I don’t know) and you can see how easily defensible but also temptingly assailabale the site is; it’s the one place you have to control to continue your drive either north or south.

Belgrade-Kalemegdan-at-dawnThe Kalemegdan (click)

Kalemegdan from across Sava(click)

You also realize just how far north – when you think that Stefan Dušan’s empire stretched as far south as the Gulf of Corinth and he often held court east of Salonica at Serres – the center of gravity of the Serbian nation has shifted over the centuries, to lands so completely different, even ecologically, the flora and fauna, that it becomes easier to isolate a glorious mediaeval past in some mythic compartment in the nation’s head – the two sides of the Aegean, in our case, for example, were never so different – and that that can have all sorts of psychological consequences. I’m, of course, thinking of Kosovo mostly, but more on that later…

DusanTerritory_14cStefan Dušan’s empire at its height (click)

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Lots of leafy attractive streets, at least in the neighborhoods that stretch immediately south and east of the Kalemegdan. Funky sidewalk cafes and bars. Only a couple of very late nineteenth-century neo-classical structures. Most of the city seems to be a twentieth-century creation: attractive Art Nouveau and Art Deco apartment houses; some later stuff that could kind of be described as late Bauhaus-y even, like some neighborhoods of Tel Aviv; more proof that Yugoslavia was far cooler than any other communist country and more reason to be pissed off that things ended they way they did. A certain shabbiness, that I thought only added to its charm, but that made me wonder what’s going on economically. There’s way too much high quality housing stock in potentially high quality neighborhoods sitting there looking empty and uncared for and under the right circumstances the whole place seems primed to launch into a massive gentrification and real estate boom. If I had any extra cash lying around I’d buy something now. In any event, for a city that’s been beaten up badly three times in less than a century – maybe not as bad the third time but in a manner just as morally reprehensible – it’s looking ok.

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IMG_0828The Rakia Bar, my favorite spot in all of Belgrade, delicious rakia made from anything imaginable, quince was my favorite, lugged three bottles of it with me, supposedly to share with friends in New York, but they all got swilled down in Russia.  The Rakia Bar is the site of the famous: …rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković… post from July.  (I think whether you say ‘rakia” or rakija” is a regional dialect difference, with the palatization that the “j” represents more common in “south-western” dialects: — western Bosnian, Herzegovinan, Montenegrin. — but not sure.  I know that “river” is “reka” in some regions and “rjeka” in others.)

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And some of the city’s few remaining Ottoman-era, or at least Ottoman-style, buildings.  The top being the residence of some saint or something — the bottom the royal residence of some Obrenović mistress I think.  Very uncharacteristically of me, I just wasn’t into too much historical research while there.  The city is just too much fun.

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The food is great; predictable but always competent and consistently delicious. A bodybuilder’s paradise: every plate comes piled so high with a mountain of grilled protein that no normal-sized person can be expected to pack it away, but appetites here, in every sense, are big. A vegetarian’s nightmare: and if you persist in your adherence to that silly creed, expect to eat a lot of very good tomatoes – in the summer at least – with huge grated piles of a great cheese they have that’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between feta and brindza. If you’re a vegan…and/or have gluten issues too so you can’t eat the great bread either or even try the börek, then maybe arrange for sessions to be fed intravenously at a local hospital or just don’t come at all.

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On the sign and menu of an otherwise sedate, old-fashioned feeling Bosnian restaurant with great ćevapi, the ubiquitous little köfte, a homey cellar place that feels like an old Moscow traktir or something… If anyone can explain the symbolic intention behind it, they get my Umberto Eco semiotics award for 2014.  Really, can anyone tell whether this is supposed to be a joke or not?

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Much more in keeping with Serbs’ smart, cerebral, black humor: this t-shirt, marking the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, which I thought was priceless: “It’s a matter of Princip.” Fantastic…

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The language is – excuse my language – a total hard-on. I’ve already got my affinity for Slavic phonemes from my Russian days — though sometimes it seems they came out of the womb with me – and on top of it it’s tonal, too, with rising and falling stress and long and short vowels like classical Greek. The combination is magically sexy and something I could listen to for hours dumbly without understanding barely a word. It also makes it, unless you’ve dedicated some serious study to it phonetically, almost impossible to pronounce correctly. The street I lived on was called “Dobračina,” for example, in Dorćol (from the Turkish “dört yol” — “four roads.”)  And taking my cues from my Russian, which is really no great help since it has free stress and constantly surprises you also, I would say: “Do-bra-či-na.” But whenever it was repeated back to me it sounded like “Do-bra-či-na” or Do-bra-či-na” or even some combination of both, but never like what I had said; the lack of dynamic stress makes it sound like emphasis comes scattered in varying degrees of strength all over a word and not just on one syllable. Tempting to take it up. But I have to resist NikoBako tendencies to scatter my energies all over the place at once and never quite acquire full mastery of anything. Maybe later.

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The place’s greatest pleasure is its people. They have a quality that I’ve always struggled to express in English but is nearly impossible and makes me constantly have to resort to other languages. The somewhat dated Spanish “altanero” works – “alto” is your cue there – as does the more popular term still in use in Spain, the complex of traits referred to as “majo,” which I’ve tried to describe several times elsewhere (such as in this post: Un Verano en Nueva York).  “Αγέρωχη” works, the word Cavafy uses to describe Anna Comnene, which Keeley and others, I think, mistakenly translate as “arrogant” or “haughty,” but which for me means something like “breezily confident” and again could almost be a cognate for the Spanish “airoso.” But it’s a type of confidence that isn’t entirely about your ego, but one that obliges you to be open and generous and welcoming with others as well. The media and its pundits have fed us so much crap since the nineties about Serbs’ pathological and self-aggrandizing sense of their own heroism, that it’s impossible to even tell what’s true or not. But if they are that conscious of their heroic mantle, they certainly wear it lightly, like a people who have nothing to prove to you or really could give a shit about what you think of them. This means almost none of the tough guy, hyper-butchness we might be conditioned to expect. In fact, despite the borderline cockiness, women and men are almost always polite and unfailingly warm; sweet and tender even, like Russians when they get in their Russian moods. And with Serbs you don’t have to pry off the cast-iron mug first to get to the sweet part like you have to do with Russians.

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One great thing about Serbian women, aside from leggy and sexy and gorgeous and everything else you’ve heard: they’re real pals. This is going to sound totally sexist to some, but I didn’t mind the first time I was called sexist in my life and it certainly won’t be the last. They have this uncanny ability to hang out comfortably with guys. They’re not cloyingly clingy. They don’t demand attention through passive-aggressive silence or sulking and they speak freely but without forcing themselves into the center of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their man or his friends. It’s simply this extremely attractive capacity to go along with the rhythms and patterns of male camaraderie without sacrificing any of their femininity. Serbian men should consider themselves extremely lucky.

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And on a related and final note: it’s not a myth; it’s a fact that I’m sorry to report is true. One out of three people you pass on the street deserves a head-turn and a second looking-over; you simply can’t stop yourself. One out of…I dunno, I’m just stupidly throwing out numbers here…six or seven…or at least one person in every kompaniya/parea let’s say, are simply knock-outs: tall, long-and-strong-limbed, great noses, good jaws and a higher percentage of crazy green-hazel eyes than I’ve seen in any other country. It’s dizzying. And they know it too and there’s no false humility about it either and of course that only concentrates the effect.

Sorry, only the one pic below, which isn’t even mine.  I’m still too shy to photograph people without having a press i.d. round my neck.

Anyway, there are places you go to and say: “That was nice…” and then they go into your travel archives.  And then there are places that you know, as you’re leaving, you’re not finished with.  Belgrade I’m not finished with.

Belgrade street scene(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Screamers:” Genocide: what is it and why do we need the term?

7 Nov

Screamers

I watched “Screamers”* the other night, a 2006 documentary by Carla Garapedian about an Armenian-American synthpunk group based in California, who go around, among other things, “screaming” about the Armenian massacres of the early twentieth century and issues of genocide recognition generally.  They’re shown on tour, comparing Armenian experiences to those of Rwandans, Cambodians — Jews conspicuously less so — soliciting the support of U.S. congressmen, interviewing British aristocrats, Harvard professors and their own great-aunts and grandfathers telling their own story of the events they describe as the Armenian Genocide, all in an effort of course to get the Turkish government to acknowledge the “Genocide” as such.  And it left me with the usual thoughts I have on this issue: that this word – “genocide” – which is supposed to name an evil particular to our time and by naming it hopefully eradicate it, has come to be so overused as to be meaningless, was vague from its beginnings and has come to obscure more than it reveals about the phenomenon, if there is such.

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor who originated the term, described it as such:

By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of an ethnic group . . . . Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups . . ..

T. Marcus Funk in Victims’ Rights and Advocacy at the International Criminal Court says genocide is “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part of an ethnic, racial, caste or religious, or national group.” 

“…in whole or in part…” is controversially vague enough.  Then, how “deliberate and systematic” does it have to be to qualify?  And if its victims are members of any “ethnic, racial, caste, or religious, or national group,” is that not so all-encompassing as to include most of humanity?  What sets genocide apart then from any mass killing?  That it’s done to a socially or ethnically identifiable group?  Mass killing – apart from shootings in American shopping malls or movie theaters – is usually committed on such a group.  And by emphasizing that a “group,” usually an ethnic or minority group, is the object, it creates the unspoken assumption of irrationality, though most of the events we call genocides have and had a very rational end and, to be effective, must have used fairly rational means.  And thus I wonder if the word mystifies and, more importantly, decontextualizes to a point that ultimately may do more harm than good.

Obviously, our region gives us a variety of useful examples to look at.  Now, I often get emails here — most simply rants that I don’t bother publishing — in which I’m told that I am defeating the stated purpose of this blog by favoring one group over another or being so obviously preferential in some of my affections or animosities.  I’m told that I’m panderingly philosemitic; I don’t know about the “pandering” part, but otherwise, yes.  I’m accused of being both pro-Israeli and anti-Israeli, and anti-Palestinian and possessed of a blind good faith in Palestinian intentions and an enabler of their “tactics,” whatever that means; I guess if I can be all those things at once I may be doing something right.  I’m accused of being anti-Croatian: let’s leave that one to the side for a moment.  But mostly I’m accused of two things: that I’m pro-Turkish — this usually by angry Greeks — and that I’m a shameless apologist for Serbian criminality.

And here there is some truth: the two peoples may not much appreciate being linked in my heart, but one of the many reasons that I may have a special affection for Turks, or at least find myself defending them so often, is also one of the many reasons I have a special affection for Serbs: I think the two have historically been the most unfairly maligned groups in the region.  And that brings us back to the larger genocide discussion obviously.

It has always irritated me that critics of Serbia, both in the nineties and to this day, dutifully rehearse the main highlights of the “Serbian myth”: traumatic defeat at Kosovo; continued resistance to the Ottomans; among first to struggle for independence in the Balkans; a sincere if often faulty and undemocratic attempt to actually go through with the noble experiment of South Slav unity, only to have those attempts undermined from the get-go by a Croatia that was always a member of that union in bad faith; always supporters of Western causes only to be stabbed in the back after; further traumatic WWII memories – and then just blow them off as if none are legitimate, that they’re just the “mythical” or fictional building blocks of a national pathology that explains Serbs’ vicious behavior during the breakdown of Yugoslavia.

Nobody is denying the unscrupulous manipulation of the Serbian group ‘psyche,’ starting in the late eighties, by some of the most criminally opportunistic, thuggish politicians to emerge out of post-Cold War Europe.  Nobody denies the horrible war crimes of Serbs and Serbian paramilitaries, especially in the great victims of the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia and Kosovo.  But the simple fact is: Serbs had absolutely no reason to feel secure about their future in the states that emerged from the break up of Yugoslavia, especially not in Croatia, the West’s darling.  During WWII, the NDH, the Independent State of Croatia, the Ustaša, had a greater percentage of its population—Serbs, Jews and Gypsies — slated for elimination than any other of the Nazi’s puppet states in Eastern Europe.  The plan for the Serbs specifically was the famous “thirds” plan: kill one third, expel one third, convert the other third to Catholicism (the Ustaša was also fanatically Catholic and its support by the Vatican is one of the Catholic Church’s ugliest twentieth century moral “lapses”).  The numbers are uncertain, as always in these cases, but several hundred thousand Serbs were killed by the Croatian regime and – unfortunately – its Bosnian collaborators during the war.  Ustaša Croatia was the only one of the Nazi puppet states whose tactics even the Germans found excessive, and had to be told by Berlin to “tone it down” a little, because their viciousness was giving undue impetus to a Serbian resistance movement that was becoming increasingly difficult for the Germans to keep under control.  The reasons that post-Yugoslav Serbs might have felt insecure in independent Croatia or even an independent Bosnia are not simple “myths,” pathological obsessions with historical wrongs – especially when Tudjman’s Croatia started making all kinds of fascist noises again as soon as it gained recognition from its German buddies.

Turkey.  It’s maddening that what happened in early twentieth-century Turkey is never put into the broader historical context of the previous two centuries by groups like the Screamers or others who are bent on forcing Turkey to acknowledge the events as genocide.  You can talk and talk and argue and explain and then you come across a passage somewhere that condenses and puts it all into perspective.  The following is from Karen Barkey’s Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective.  Towards the end of a chapter where she’s discussing the deterioration of interethnic relations in the nineteenth-century empire, the penetration of European economic influence and the benefits that that created for Ottoman Christians and from which Muslims were excluded, she writes:

“If major misgivings regarding ethnic and religious difference and disparity were already well-rooted in the empire, competition and communal strife only got worse as Muslim refugees from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Crimea were settled in Anatolia.  Between 5 and 7 million refugees, mostly Muslims, were settled by the Ottoman government throughout the nineteenth century, mostly in Anatolia.  Kemal Karpat argues that between 1856 and 1876 at least 500,000 Crimean Tatars and 2.5 million Muslim immigrants from the Caucasus were settled in Anatolia, the Balkans, northern Syria and Iraq.  Not long after, in 1877-1878, the Caucasian population that had been settled in the Balkans was resettled in Anatolia together with a million others, mostly Muslims from the Balkans.  Another 2 million took refuge in Anatolia until 1914.  By the time of World War I, the immigrant [refugee] population of Anatolia represented nearly 40% of the total population. Such immigration, originating in the nationalist movements and independence politics of the Balkans, the Russian Wars, and the Ottoman defeats, brought in another element of Muslim discontent that not only altered the demographic balance of the empire, but also exacerbated social and economic tensions.”  [emphases mine]

Do we understand that?  Charles Simic has written: “Nationalists everywhere are unmoved by the suffering of people they hurt.”  But are the above figures enough to penetrate the armor-plated narcissism of the nationalist or even dent it?  Might some clubbing over the head be in order?  Let’s repeat them and see: in 1914, the year we’re supposed to think that Turks suddenly had a collective psychotic episode and just started massacring millions of people for no reason, 40% — forty percent – of the population of Anatolia, roughly the territory of contemporary Turkey, consisted of Muslims who had escaped from the various parts of the shrinking empire, usually under conditions that could be clearly labeled “genocidal” or definitely characterized as “ethnic cleansing” though for some reason they are not, and often, as Barkey alludes to, after having been brutally displaced twice in one or two generations: like the Bosnians who had settled in Salonica after 1878 and again in 1908, in such numbers that they gave their name to a neighborhood in that city, only to have to move once more to Anatolia in 1913; or the millions of Circassians, driven en masse out of their Black Sea homeland by Russia in the 1860’s and settled in the Balkans only to have to move on to Anatolia after Bulgarian independence.  Forty percent!  That is almost twice the percentage of incoming refugee population that Greece staggered under in the 1920s after the Population Exchange, and in an Empire that had dragged itself into a World War it was woefully unprepared to fight.

And here’s where we get to the question that every ethically honest Greek or Armenian has to ask himself: what did we expect Turks to do at that point?  Give up even what they had left?  Pack it up?  Go back to the Red Apple Tree?**  To expect that at some point Ottoman Muslims/Turks were not going to fight back in order to hold on to something, a state and territory of their own, is delusional in ways that only as totalizing an ideological structure as nationalism can produce.

51kGIPmTZdL

(what was a really fascinating, eye-opening book for me — highly recommended…)

At no point during the long blood-soaked mess of the past two centuries have Serbs or Turks been guilty of anything that everybody else wasn’t also doing.  Thus, one of my primary objections to the use of “genocide” as a term is that it becomes part of a tool in a chronology of preference, a political expedient for stigmatizing the bad guy of the moment.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when European powers were obsessing with how they were going to divide the crumbling Ottoman Empire among them, there were only Muslim perpetrators of massacre in the region, never Christian ones, only the “unspeakable Turk.”  Only a tiny group of more objective observers at the time of Gladstone’s hysterical campaign asked themselves how “speakably” the Bulgarians and their Russian supporters behaved toward the Muslim population of Bulgaria in the 1870s; only Trotsky had the intelligence and conscience to report the truth about the degree and intensity of Russian/Bulgarian atrocities against the Muslim population of those lands in the 1870’s and nearly resigned from his assignment as a reporter of a Kiev newspaper as a result — he could no longer stand to physically be around the sickening violence (See Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova‘s excellent: “War and Memory: Trotsky’s War Correspondence from the Balkan Wars”  for an excellent account of Trotsky’s reporting and, through it, his brilliant and morally courageous mind; how that mind and its obvious compassion became so twistedly cruel when he turned it on his own people and country a few decades later is one of the mysteries of Bolshevik perversity.)

Later in the century, after the Cold War gave Turkey a kind of favored nation status in the Muslim eastern Mediterranean, Turkey could and still essentially can do no wrong, even if it does conduct, like in Cyprus, campaigns of what elsewhere would be called ethnic cleansing or violates the human rights of its minorities and majorities on a systematic basis.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Serbia was “gallant little Serbia” standing up to the Austrians, beating back two massive assaults by Austria-Hungary, almost crossing the Danube into Austrian territory itself; only when Germany came to its aid was Serbia successfully defeated, and even then while putting up some of the most suicidal and vicious resistance in military history.  Serbia was a staunch supporter of the Allies in both World Wars – essentially the liberators of the Balkans in the First World War especially.  But by the end of the same century, when Serbs refused to play along with the West’s plan for what the New Balkans would look like, they were turned into pathological savages, and locked into a pariah status from which they have still not been allowed to fully emerge.

(To switch regions and periods for a moment, and examine the selective use of terminology, we never speak of the “genocide” of urban Germans or Japanese, do we, though they were a civilian population subjected to barbaric, mass, incendiary murder on a staggering scale and of questionable strategic uses and motivations other than punitive ones.)

But perhaps my most important objection to the word “genocide” should have become obvious from the above: mass murder and expulsion is what happens during nation-state formation and labeling this kind of mass murder and expulsion with some rare-orchid terminology obscures that fact.  As long as the legitimizing principle of the modern state is ethnic/tribal identity there will be groups who by their very cultural and/or religious character cannot uphold that legitimacy and will be oppressed by it.  And the time will come when they will have to be dealt with in some way or other, either through acculturation or removal, especially if their status leads them to separatist desires.  There is no such thing ultimately as genocide.  To observe the former Ottoman sphere, which is as good as any for our purposes, the rules are: form a state by grabbing as much land as you can and keep it by eliminating those who would be opposed to being part of your state.  It’s painful to say, because Bosnians got semi-trapped and stumbled into declaring independence by their two ravenous neighbors and suffered more than any in the Yugoslav conflict: but there was no Bosnian genocide, no attempt to eliminate the cultural/ethnic group that Bosnian Muslims were from the face of the earth.  There was the brutal, systematic, cruel ethnic cleansing of Muslims from parts of Bosnia that Serbia — and, of course, Croatia — wanted to hold on to because those Bosnians wanted to be part of a separate state of their own.  There was no genocide of Anatolian or Pontic Greeks, as many Greeks have lately started referring to the events of the nineteen tens and twenties.  There were decades of chronic, inter-communal violence, a war by an invading state, and the elimination of those that supported that invasion, and mostly not even through violence or by force, but by mandatory fiat agreed upon by the leaders of the countries in question.***  It’s painful to say – they’re a familiar people, one I admire, like, am close to — but as extensive as it was, as systematic and vicious in ways that set a terrible precedent for the rest of the century, it’s hard for me to call what happened to Armenians in the early twentieth century genocide. The CUP — the Young Turks — have always seemed to me to have been a bunch of loose cannons: a nefarious, often eccentric, make-it-up-as-you-go-along group of giant egos who seemed to be talking past each other most of the time and did their best in essentially ending the Ottoman Empire in the messiest way possible; and the Armenians were their single greatest victims.  But the fact remains: a people (Armenians), in a state (the Ottoman Empire) that was being torn in a million different directions, tried to form an ethnically separate state of their own (though they constituted a majority in no single region of the territory in question), and yes, often did so through violence, armed means and with outside military help.  And they were stopped.  That it was horrifying and its dimensions staggering would be obscene to deny.  That it’s some “special” form of violence — qualitatively and not just quantitatively different — and not just an extreme example of what fundamentally happens during nation-state formation is simply unsustainable as a theory for me.  I had an Armenian-American friend, and we obviously didn’t see eye to eye on these issues.  I remember him once being incensed by what he called the “macho” insensitivity of a Turkish guy who had been arguing with him and who had said: “If we hadn’t done it to you, you would have done it to us.”  Well, it’s sad, but that’s probably the truth.

No one in Screamers, not the experts or the humanitarians, not the musicians themselves, link what they want to call ‘genocide’ to the dominant political state formation of our time.  No one sees it as inevitable that if an “ethnic, racial, caste or religious, or national group” serves as the principle legitimizing force of state organization, that then some other “group” will have to be removed.  And the Helsinki Agreement’s contradictory support of both “minority rights” and “the right to self-determination” has, needless to say, been of no help in sorting out issues of this kind; Yugoslavia was the best proof of the amateurish, do-gooder thinking behind such ideas.

In fact one wonders if it was a Jew who invented the term because he and his were really the only one victims of the irrational beast we want to call genocide and are now using rather indiscriminately all over the place.  Because I can think of only one case in history where a people were not engaged in war with another country, nor in armed or any other kind of civil conflict with the surrounding population, who did not have a separatist agenda within the states they lived in or irredentist designs on parts of neighboring states, who did not constitute any kind of threat – at least real threat – to the society around them (were, quite the opposite, in fact, among those societies’ most productive and talented members), and yet became the object of a villainizing myth of incomprehensible irrationality  that marked them for complete extermination anywhere in the world they were to be found — and that is the case of the Jews.  And since we have “Holocaust” or “Shoah” for that singular episode of human horror, do we need  “genocide” at all?

I hope I haven’t insulted — worse — hurt anyone.  I hope this is the beginning of a bigger discussion.

************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

* Check out the film’s Wiki site; one slightly unethical thing it does is to link the great Hrant Dink’s assassination in 2007 with the the fact that he appeared in the film the year before.  There’s also some slight misrepresentation in a scene where they show Turkish nationalists trashing a fifty-year commemorative exhibit here in Istanbul of the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955 and call it an “Armenian and Greek exhibit.”

** I have no idea of the origin of this myth, or whether it developed in late Byzantine or Ottoman times, but in Greek folklore the homeland of the Turks is a place in some distant indeterminate East called the Red Apple Tree, He Kokkine Melia, and in traditional messianic thought, when the City and Romania (what the Byzantines called their polity) were brought back under Christian rule, the Turks would go back to “the Red Apple Tree.”  Ironically, Constantinople itself was known to Muslims as the Red Apple, the prize conquest, in the centuries before the fall.  I have no idea if the two myths grew out of each other or are some kind of bizarre mirror images that paradoxically developed in opposition to each other.

*** And let us all here be disabused at once of the idea that the Population Exchange agreed to at Lausanne was something that Venizelos and his government reluctantly agreed to because circumstances had made any other solution impossible.  Lefterake, our Cretan levente, was enamoured of population exchanges and similar plans far before Lausanne or even 1919.  He thought that the section of the Aegean coast that the Allies gave Greece at Paris in 1919 was eventually going to be Hellenized through exactly such a voluntary departure of its majority Muslim population, thus giving a kind of tacit approval to the atrocities committed during those years by the occupying Greek army, and, always the careerist and opportunist, one of his earlier strategies at the Paris Peace Conference had been to promise Bulgaria eastern Macedonia (Kavalla, Drama), and move its Greek population into western Macedonia where they would offset the Slavic majority of those regions, in order to coax the allies into giving him Ionia — he was a twentieth-century nationalist social engineer of the crudest kind from the beginning.  For the definitive placing of responsibility for the disastrous Asia Minor campaign on Venizelos’ shoulders, plus an extremely competent analysis of the destructive consequences of his egotistical, polarizing political style on twentieth-century Greek political life, see Michael Llewellyn Smith’s Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922 — an excellent account of the entire period and a great place to start if, like me, you have embarked on a minor ideological mission to dismantle the entire Venizelos myth.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ionian Vision

Salonica and Izmir “…the absence of history.”

23 Jun

From my previous post’s comments on Salonica and Izmir…

A great book on the Population Exchange, with both extensive historical background that helps a reader from outside the region understand the events; a deep theoretical analysis on nationalism and ethnicity as concepts; the wars involved; the mechanics of the Exchange itself and its consequences, both large-scale and personal; how it would be considered the most objectionable kind of Ethnic Cleansing today and would raise howls of protest from the international community, but was then considered a perfectly rational way by our two Great Leaders to solve a problem and “nation-build” — move almost three million people against their will –setting a horrible twentieth-century precedent (which we’ll later see in Eastern Europe, Palestine, most tragically of all, India, in Yugoslavia…); and all somewhat miraculously condensed into a book of less then three hundred pages, is Bruce Clark’s Twice a Stranger: the Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey.

And if there’s a first book I recommend to anyone who wants to understand our complicated, often beautiful, mostly dysfunctional romance, and how it continues even after the Great Divorce, it’s this one:

Clark strikes the absolute perfect balance between historical and journalistic research and poignant personal accounts of both the Turkish and Greek refugees.  But these personal accounts are made even more moving by Clark’s own deep, emotional sense of loss and time and violence and his investment in his subject matter (his first chapter on Ayvalik, with it’s haunting, closing quote from one of his subjects: “It’s too early to remember,” is a masterpiece).  When you find out that Clark is Northern Irish, so knows of what he speaks when it comes to inter-communal viciousness, another layer of profundity is added to the experience of reading this book.  Many thanks to him for his generosity in allowing me to reproduce sections of his work.

I thought of one passage in particular, like I said, when mentioning both Salonica and Izmir’s sterility in the previous post:

“In this region of ancient settlement and civilization, there is often an unhappy mismatch between where people live now, and the places to which they feel the deepest attachment; and that mismatch is reflected in the physical environment.  Monuments and places of worship seem to be in the wrong place, or to be used for the wrong purpose.  In contrast with European cities like Bologna or Salamanca, where the past and present seem to blend quite seamlessly, the Aegean landscape is full of odd, unhappy disjunction; places where people have lived, prayed and done business for centuries feel as soulless and ill-designed as a strip development on an American turnpike.  That is partly the result, of course, of ill-managed and corrupt forms of economic development; but the legacy of an artificial exercise in social and ethnic remodeling has played a part.” [my emphases]

Some older photos that might help:

Salonika

Solun: from a Bulgarian website.  That Kievan mosaic in the previous post should actually be titled Dmitiri Solunskiy, as he’s known throughout the Slavic world, where he’s widely venerated, but especially by Bulgarians and Macedonians.

Smyrna before the twenties

Stuff like this below, though, doesn’t really help, but I find clownish and borderline offensive: Izmir’s “Aegean Greek Wine Tavern” (though the food looks great and probably is)*; I mean, if it were in Istanbul, where there’s still a living memory of Greeks, it wouldn’t be so weird, but in Izmir, where there haven’t been any Greeks in almost a century, and from where they left under horrific conditions that can’t be compared to Istanbul Greeks’ slow exodus…plus, where due to the Exchange and the flood of refugees from Greece, there are probably hardly any native Izmirli Turks to remember them either (try finding a true native Salonikan who’s not of refugee origin) makes it a little creepy.

 

*The classic seafood-meze-raki meyhane was almost exclusively a Greek insitution in Turkey, and clearly the association lives on.  For obvious reasons, the tavern has always been default “gavur” territory, since the beginnings even of Islamic poetic culture.  The fish tavern continued to be mostly Greek terrain (and Armenian) in Istanbul itself until well into the sixties; in what little modern Turkish fiction I know set in C-town the only Greeks are waiters in seaside restaurants.  There are still a couple of Greek-owned ones left.  Which doesn’t mean that the genre doesn’t live on without us.  It flourishes in fact, and a good Turkish seafood-meze-raki meal in Istanbul is one of life’s sublime experiences.  I pity those who die without having experienced it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay!

21 Jun

I reckon I’ve now received enough emails complaining about my use of “Constantinople” that it’s time to address the issue.

Constantinople – Kwnstantinoupoles — is Istanbul in Greek.  It’s the Greek word for Istanbul.  Istanbul comes from the word Constantinople.  It’s that simple.  The way Moscow is the English word for Moskva.  The way Parigi is the Italian word for Paris.  Constantinople is the Greek word for Istanbul.  It’s that simple.

That the Republic chose to change its official name to the time-honored Turkish name of Istanbul in the 1920’s does not obligate speakers of other languages to call it that, especially not those with as heavy an emotional, historical and spiritual investment in their own name for it as we have.  Just like the world will hopefully never be obligated to call Greece “Hellas” by the idiots who are attempting to do so.  Where Istanbul is concerned, the Ottomans themselves were content, at least for official purposes, with using the Arabic Costantiniyye until very late – till the very end, 1923, if I’m not mistaken.  And it took the rest of the world several more decades, as well, to abandon “Constantinople” and conform to the Turkish Republic’s new orders — for those who thought the name just disappeared in 1453.

What exactly is the problem?  If readers think I have some nationalist, much less irredentist, reasons for referring to the city as Constantinople, then they haven’t read anything else on this blog, and know nothing about me.  If there even is any discernible pattern in my switching back and forth between the two names, it’s not easy to identify.  I mostly refer to the city’s Greek community as Constantinopolitan Greeks, usually when I’m talking about a time when there was a community.  When the present is involved I usually say something like “Istanbul Greeks.”  I call Greeks from Istanbul “Polites” and will often say “Pole,” or even “the City” in English to evoke some sense of its importance to Greeks – and to me.  And all sorts of various combinations of the above.

In both print and speech I never hear Turks call Salonica “Thessalonike” but Selanik – except for the occasional overly p.c. Turk who thinks that “Thessalonike” is what I want to hear.  And not only does Selanik not annoy me, not only do I not take issue with it or get offended by it, but it moves me.  Obviously, when a Turk calls Jiannena — one of my many hometowns – Yanya, it moves me even more.  A Turk who says Yanya is asserting his connection to that city, and that assertion becomes an immediate bond between me and him: a bond we both share to its streets, its lake and its mists, its mosques, its churches, its synagogues, its borek, the mahallades my mother used to tell me were Turkish before the twenties, including the one where she grew up, the parks she used to tell me were paved over Muslim cemeteries, that used to scare her as a girl when the region’s interminable rains would expose bones and skulls in their mud — all told with her peculiar sensitivity and strange sadness that would make you think these things were all her own; I never heard a word of ethnic animosity or hatred for anybody out of her mouth — not ethnic or any other kind — and not from my father either.

Yanya: the lake, mosques, the beautiful gate of the Ic Kale, streets, the front gate and interior of the Old Synagogue, 18th c. (The New Synagogue, 19th c., outside the city walls, was blown up by the Nazis.)

And when a Turk says Selanik, he’s asserting his deep historical connection to that city; whether he’s from there or not, he’s using a name which carries all his historical references to that place, which I’m nothing but happy to grant him.  I don’t even call it Thessalonike, but ‘Salonike.  When I think of Byzantine Thessalonike, of Selanik, Salonico, Salonica, they all evoke for me a great and ancient Mediterranean city; for a long time, the second city of the Byzantines, of St. Gregory Palamas and Nicholas Kabasilas; Salonico makes me think of the heir to the philosophical and poetic heritage of Jewish Spain; the great center of Sephardic learning, both rabbinical and the deep Kabbalistic learning that Jews brought with them from their previous homeland; I think of a Turkish city that was a flourishing center of a variety of Ottoman Sufi orders; the city where so much of Turkey’s new Republican bourgeoisie came from, just as ours came from the other direction.

Frontispiece of a Salonican Zohar, a seminal Kabbalah text, originally written in Leon, Spain.

Salonican Jews

Great caption; “the fanatical sect of Islam” being referred to are the Mevlevis!!!

 When I think of modern Thessalonike, on the other hand, I think of an unattractive, humid Balkan town with a serious second-city complex. 

But I’m a “manic lover” of St. Demetrius, its patron, so I have to visit every now and then.

Mosaic of St. Demetrius, originally from the church of St. Sophia in Kiev (or is it Kyiv?), currently in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (or is it Leningrad? or Petrograd? or just the name that everyone who knows her and truly loves her calls her, Peter…)

Funny that it took me so long but I recently realized why I dislike both Salonica and Izmir so much; despite their history, despite Salonica’s plethora of classical and Byzantine monuments even, neither of them — for reasons we all know — feel like organically old cities, the way even Athens does, though in its modern incarnation it’s far newer.  They both feel like one city was removed from that location and another one hastily put in its place.  Remade.  They don’t feel grounded.  What you feel in both of them mostly is the absence of history.*

Can you even tell which is which? — except for a few giveaway signs…

With all that said, therefore, I think we have to be very careful about whether it’s the renaming of places or persevering in the old name that represents the more nationalist impulse.  I recently confirmed for an Indian friend that, yes, Greeks still refer to Istanbul as “the City,” and he shook his head and mumbled something about the “narcissism of nationalism.”  But an increasingly fundamentalist and nationalist India may be the perfect example to start with.  Granted, Calcutta was always Kolkata in Bengali.  But what was wrong with Madras?  And what nationalist Tamil mythology does Chennai justify?  The BJP (fundamentalist Hinduism.…you’d think it’d be an oxymoron) in fact, has a list for changing the names of almost all the cities of India to more appropriately Hindu ones, not just obvious targets like Allahabad, but Delhi itself and others: see the list if you’re interested.  Aung San Suu Kyi calls her country by its perfectly legitimate name of Burma, yet for a couple of decades we were content to use the name imposed on it by its military dictatorship, Myanmar, and never asked why or by whom it had been changed.  The State is not to be questioned.  If you said “Burma,” people looked at you like you were uninformed.

The most unfortunate and vulgar change of all is “Mumbai,” but almost no one knows or cares about how that change happened.  It was once generally accepted that Bombay comes from the Portuguese “bom bahim,” or good little harbour, just north as it is from Portugal’s long-time colony of Goa.  But even if that etymology is bogus, it was under the name Bombay that it flourished and grew under the British into the most important and cosmopolitan city in South Asia.

Bombay (gotta click on this one)

But in 1995, the Shiv Sena party (the Army of Shiva…) won control of the state government of Maharashtra, of which Bombay is a part, though it’s so different in social and ethnic make-up from the rest of that state that it deserves a separate federal district type status like Delhi has, or Mexico City, or D.C.  Shiv Sena, being a party whose power base is rural Maharashtra and poor migrant Marathis who feel they deserve more power in the city, is actively hostile to Bombay’s dizzying diversity and especially its large Muslim population.  It’s essentially a Marathi branch of the BJP, only worse (and they haven’t been getting along lately): a virulently Hindutva bunch that have not only been found to be involved in Bombay’s drug, prostitution and extortion circles, but ordered and even carried out much of the more vicious anti-Muslim attacks during the Bombay riots of 1992-93: the kerosene-dousing and burning of individuals and the burning tire around the victims’s neck were a couple of their trademarks.

When, despite all that, Shiv Sena were voted into state office in Maharashtra, their response to the poverty, massive infrastructural challenges, crime and destitution of this barely manageable city of more than twenty million was to change its name to Mumbai.  This was based on the supposed fact that there was (or is, or if there hadn’t been, I’m sure there now is) a temple of a Marathi goddess of that name on the site before the colonial city rose up, which may or may not be true, but, given the fact that every square yard of India contains at least one shrine or temple to someone or something, doesn’t mean very much.

And yet the whole world fell in line.  Thinking that, like Myanmar, if it’s coming from there it must have some sort of indigenous, authentic root, filled with post-colonial guilt and worried about offending what we thought were Indian sensibilities, we all dutifully started calling it Mumbai.  Fearing that using the old name would immediately make others imagine us to be jodhpur-clad gin-swillers, we let a bunch of criminal thugs and violent nationalists change the name Bombay — the name by which this great, open-to-the-sea-and-the-world, mercantile, diverse, cosmopolitan, sexy metropolis, a microcosm of India itself and its modern face to the world, was known for almost three centuries – and nobody asked why or breathed a word of resistance.

Bombay — Marine Drive — Queen’s Necklace

So as for C-town, you choose which is more “nationalist.”  Calling the city the name by which it was known to most of humanity for more than sixteen centuries?  Calling it an also venerable name that the nationalist, anti-cosmopolitan, Turkification project of a military dictatorship whose attitude to the City, its legacy, history and population was actually hostile for much of the time decided the world should call it?  Or just calling it both?

Or how ‘bout who cares?  As long as we know which city we’re talking about.

* See next post

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


Egypt: The Other Homeland

6 Apr

Another people’s exodus from Egypt… 

I always feel like smirking a bit when I come across the title of Mark Mazower’s 2005 book: Salonica: City of GhostsIt’s not just that “our parts” with their ‘ancient, tribal hatreds’ always seem to be ‘haunted’ in the Western imagination; it’s just that, truly, which of our cities isn’t a city of ghosts?  Salonica, Sarajevo, Istanbul, Izmir?  Beirut, Alexandria, Lahore, Delhi?  Which?

Well, Al Jazeera has produced a beautiful little documentary by Giorgos Augeropoulos about the story of Alexandrian Greeks.  Augeropoulos is apparently the director of a highly praised Greek documentary series and has been pretty vocal in Greece’s recent political and fiscal crisis/rezili, but I had never heard of him before.

Al Jazerera, by the way, has now become my primary source of news.  It’s the only place one can get any serious international news, run from the idiocy of American politics, escape from MSNBC’s twenty-four hour liberal catechism class, and catch genuinely original and — I don’t know how else to put it — sincere documentaries like this.  Watch it when you have the chance.

Below are the complete texts of the two Cavafy poems used at the beginning and end of the documentary, “Candles” and “The City” in both Greek and English.  Single-accent Greek (the appropriately named “monotonic”) literally causes me visual pain — like, I can’t look at it, actually have more trouble reading it — and when used for Cavafy the pain reaches excruciating levels, but I couldn’t find the poems in polytonic versions anywhere on line; those who know what I mean, please forgive me.  And this from “The Official Website of the Cavafy Archive,” malaka: http://www.kavafis.gr/index.asp   …criminal, ntrope.  And I’m beyond certain Cavafy himself, so much of whose work was dedicated to memory, the past, and the continuity of Greek civilization, would have agreed

The English translations are by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard, still the best around, despite the attempts of many others.  Under the Greek version of “Candles” is the Greek actress Eirene Pappa’s performance of the poem set to music by Mimes Plessas.  Below the Greek version of the “The City” is a gorgeous reading of the poem by the truly great actress Elle Lambete, whose stunning Greek face I think readers should have a photo of as a visual reference:

Patricia Storace,  in her Dinner with Persephone: http://www.amazon.com/Dinner-Persephone-Travels-Patricia-Storace/dp/0679744789/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333821533&sr=1-1, the first book I recommend to anyone who wants to get Greece and Greeks (along with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s classic Roumeli: http://www.amazon.com/Roumeli-Travels-Northern-Greece-Classics/dp/159017187X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333821635&sr=1-1), writes:

“Greek is not a voluptuous language, or a lilting one, but stony and earthy, a language full of mud, volcanic rock, and glittering precious stones…”

Listen to Lambete and you’ll know what she means.

Κεριά

Του μέλλοντος η μέρες στέκοντ’ εμπροστά μας
σα μια σειρά κεράκια αναμένα —
χρυσά, ζεστά, και ζωηρά κεράκια.

Η περασμένες μέρες πίσω μένουν,
μια θλιβερή γραμμή κεριών σβυσμένων·
τα πιο κοντά βγάζουν καπνόν ακόμη,
κρύα κεριά, λυωμένα, και κυρτά.

Δεν θέλω να τα βλέπω· με λυπεί η μορφή των,
και με λυπεί το πρώτο φως των να θυμούμαι.
Εμπρός κυττάζω τ’ αναμένα μου κεριά.

Δεν θέλω να γυρίσω να μη διω και φρίξω
τι γρήγορα που η σκοτεινή γραμμή μακραίνει,
τι γρήγορα που τα σβυστά κεριά πληθαίνουν.

Pappa and Plessas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0DiYKzHHdY&feature=related

Candles

Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles—
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
 
Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.
 
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.
 
I don’t want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

Η Πόλις

Είπες· «Θα πάγω σ’ άλλη γη, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα.
Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.
Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή·
κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου — σαν νεκρός — θαμένη.
Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμόν αυτόν θα μένει.
Όπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω
ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,
που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα.»

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις—
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.

Lambete: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y32nzLanljY

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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