Twice a stranger: the children of Lausanne

Whether we like it or not, those of us who live in Europe or in places influenced by European ideas remain the children of Lausanne; that is to say, of the convention signed on a Swiss lakeside after the First World War which decreed a massive, forced population movement between Turkey and Greece.

A bold opening, to what is one of the best books I have ever read by Bruce Clark.  Put it on your list for understanding the modern history of Greece and beyond.  …there are still many people inside and outside the Balkans who would like to see the ‘Lausanne principle’ reapplied; for example, by allowing Bosnia to break up into one or more states, or by dividing up Kosovo.

It is a serious legacy.

For the remainder of the century, the memory of the giant Greek-Turkish exchange was a powerful influence on policy makers all over the world. It was taken as proof that it was possible, both practically and morally, to undertake huge exercises in ethnic engineering, and proclaim them a success. Massive population exchanges, agreed by governments over the heads of the ordinary people, became a conceivable and often attractive option for world leaders. As the history of the 20th century shows, the temptation to use such methods is especially strong in certain types of political or geopolitical situation. For example, it can arise where one form of imperial authority (from Soviet communism to British colonial rule) is collapsing; or when a new nationalist power wants to consolidate its authority; or when a new strategic order is being created in the aftermath of war.

The beauty of the book is that after shooting off these bold claims, the author takes a quite different tack.

All over Turkey and Greece, you can see the physical remnants of a world whose component parts seem to have been broken apart, suddenly and with great violence. On remote hilltops in the heart of Anatolia, there are gutted shells of stone whose original, sacred purpose is revealed only by a few streaks of ochre paint on an inside wall; the last remains of a Christian fresco. In a nearby village, amid the wandering livestock and muddy tracks, you can often find a sturdy building of two or three storeys, now used as a hayshed or stable but clearly designed for some nobler purpose. On enquiry this turns out to be the remains of a school where Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians were taught to be a little more Greek by teachers dispatched from Istanbul or Athens. And in the stark, featureless towns of northern Greece, the evidence from buildings is equally startling and puzzling. 

And he doesn’t just cover the topic with flowery prose.  It is the human stories that make it real for the reader:

Believers in a traditional Hellenophobia-Turkophobia would have stared at the sight of the Mytilene Greeks spreading farewell meals for their departing neighbours, and later accompanying them to the quay, where Christians and Mohammedans, who for a lifetime had been plowing adjacently and even sharing occasional backgammon games at village cafes, embraced and parted with tears. Then, seated on their heaped up baggage, with their flocks around them – the women weeping, the children hugging their pets, the gray-bearded babas all dignity, as is their wont – the Mytilene Muslims set forth for unknown Turkey.
– National Geographic magazine, November 1922

The book has the magical ability to transfer us from the touching episodes between people, to international diplomacy in the same page:

At the beginning of October 1922, a young Turkish officer called Kemaleddin went down to the harbour of a deserted Aegean port and bade an emotional goodbye to a distraught Greek woman. As he did so, he murmured the name of one of his three sisters who had been killed recently by the Greek army in his home town of Bursa. He also promised the Greek woman, Agape, that he would do whatever he could to ensure the safety of her eighteen-year-old brother, Ilias, who was one of the 3000 Greek men and boys from the town who had been taken prisoner, supposedly to engage in forced labour. This encounter between Kemaleddin and Agape, recounted by her many years later, was the culmination of a poignant human story which unfolded against the background of the momentous, and for many people, unspeakably painful events which took place that autumn on the western edge of Anatolia.

If schools in both countries were serious about education, this book would be compulsory reading.  For a Greek it is shocking to read about the masses of Muslim populations and their expulsion, yet:

In today’s Ayvalik, there are not many people with detailed knowledge of that period. If a local person wants to talk history, it is more likely to be the history of Crete, and of what it was like to be a Muslim there. Among Cretan Muslims, the memories they cultivate most strongly are almost a mirror image of those cherished by the Orthodox Greeks. The moments which official Greek history celebrates, they lament – and vice versa. In their collective memory, the advance of Greek nationalism is an unfolding tragedy.

Clark not only has a great understanding of modern Balkans but a unique capacity for empathy:

These deportees were given no choice in the matter. Nobody asked them whether they would have preferred to stay put, with all the attendant risks of being a small minority in a state where the majority was bent on affirming its domination. Nobody asked them how they felt, or to which nation or community they felt most attached. The personal feelings of the people involved were the last thing considered by the politicians who decreed the population exchange. What they wanted – and this was not an ignoble desire – was an arrangement that would be durable and minimize the risk of further war, either in the immediate future or in a subsequent generation.

As if this coctail was not good enough, the author also has an uncanny ease in attaching the past events to current developments:

Religions, languages and national traditions that used to co-exist now live separately, because no new terms of co-existence could be found. For better or worse, the Sultans provided a sort of shelter under which Muslim sheikhs could receive the faithful in Salonika, and Christian mystics could work their miracles in the villages of Cappadocia. When that authoritarian roof collapsed, people on both sides of the religious divide had to flee for their lives.

The sad fact is that multinational empires have given way not to multinational democracies but to sharply defined nation-states; and the process of redefinition has often been a violent one. 



A great introduction to modern Greece

It could almost be a travel guide but it has a story as well.   “Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens” by Sofka Zinovieff is a great answer to all those Greeks which get over excited about anything in international media even remotely negative about this country.

Athenian friends had told us we were mad to want to bring up our children where they were bringing up theirs. ‘Greece is good for holidays but not for living,’ they said. ‘It’s impossible to work, and it’s unbearably hot.’ I recalled various British friends who just thought that Athens was hideous and polluted.

Yep.   Indeed a common start to any conversation.   Ι will pack some copies next time I go abroad on business to answer them.  Her international experience and eye for detail puts it all in perspective.

Athens may be an ancient city, but it is also uncompromisingly modern. And there’s hardly anything else in between the two extremes. It’s almost as though the Athenians went straight from carved marble to reinforced concrete, skipping the intervening centuries. 

 The vehicle is perfect.   Her husband is Greek and she has two daughters to explain Greece to.   So it reads less like a pedantic travel guide and more like a novel.   From the beginning it is amusing:

Searching for somewhere to rent quickly got depressing. We enjoyed the fireplaces disguised as the Parthenon and the plaster caryatids and classical columns that were scattered around brand new houses like icing sugar decorations on wedding cakes. And we laughed about the ubiquitous and horrible, dungeon-like room known euphemistically in Greek as the playroom. But we didn’t want to live in these places. Friends from the more traditional, inland suburbs of Kifissia, Maroussi and Psychiko, in northern Athens, were sardonic. They told us pointedly that the seaside areas we were exploring were especially popular with ex-basketball players, the nouveaux riches, and Russian mafiosi.   We’d never get through a winter there, they said.

She doesn’t always manage to blend in.   But even the failures show the limits of differences:

Even I (who have always needed my sleep) was becoming accustomed to going out to dinner at ten or eleven p.m., and staying up until three a.m. or later. I remembered, somewhat ashamedly, how I had once requested to meet some friends for dinner at eight-thirty. I had been howled down:

‘What do you take us for, Germans?’ 

The author does love Greece.   But not in the exaggerated way some foreigners do.   She always has a deep reason and a simple fact to illustrate things:

As I walked down into the centre of town, I marvelled at how Athens has managed to keep so much charm in spite of the abuse it has suffered. Even in the most modernized districts there is often a sense of neighbourhood. You still have the same neighbours, even if you now see them across fourth-floor balconies instead of on the front door steps, and the local kiosk, grocery, coffee shop and church still hold central positions in daily life. 

I assume this new breed of Grecofanatics will find some bone to pick in one of her descriptions.   But as far as I’m concerned they are almost always spot on.   Insightful in ways that people living here can hardly understand, particularly since everybody is cutting down on international travel lately.    Here she walks into the civil service:

He invited me to see his office one day, and we walked through the old, scruffy building which was just about to be renovated. Long, dusty corridors gave onto rooms where civil servants sat drinking the ubiquitous frappe (iced Nescafe), smoking furiously, and playing patience on their computers. They were perhaps the bureaucrats known as ‘chair-centaurs,’ who are supposedly so inseparable from their desks that they seem to be welded to their chairs, as the centaur’s human top is joined to his horse legs. 

And the author’s anthropological background obviously comes in useful.   Admire this succing description of the most popular of Greek words:

They insulted the boys by using the word for ‘wanker’, malakas, and became highly adept at using this astonishingly versatile and common epithet. It is not only a slur on somebody ignorant or incapable, but is used by friends as an affectionate equivalent to the English ‘mate’. Thus, teenage boys can interject ‘ela malaka’ (‘Come on, you wanker’) between every other word, but it is still strong enough to be used as a satisfying insult by an angry driver or an abandoned girlfriend.

 In some ways, as I look at the quotes I chose, I am not sure anymore if this is “a great introduction to modern Greece”.  The economic crisis is changing most of these carefully painted portraits.   But if anyone can do a good description of the next phase of Greek life, my vote goes to Sofka Zinovieff.