Twice a stranger: How mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey (Granta Books, London 2006)

Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger: How mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey (Granta Books, London 2006)

My old friend Bruce Clark is a British journalist who writes regularly for The Economist. He frequently visits Greece and has even been received into the Greek Orthodox Church. I first encountered him in person in the village of Limni where I live in Euboia. To get to Limni from Athens you drive through Prokopi where a contingent of Cappadocian Greeks were settled in the 1920s.  They soon built a large church to house the relics of Saint John the Russian they had carried with them from their homeland. It attracts crowds of pilgrims to its festival on May 27th, especially Russians, and gypsies who come to baptize their babies in a mass ceremony. That is all material for another blog. But it was through Prokopi that I got interested in the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1922-24. For Bruce the trigger was ‘travelling in northern Greece, and Thessaloniki in particular – I was aware that it was impossible to understand the social reality of this region without knowing that two-thirds of the current population actually has roots in another part of the world’ – as he informed me in an e-mail he sent me while I was writing this blog.

   After a lot of fieldwork and archival research in both Greece and Turkey, Bruce published his book Twice a stranger: How mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey in 2006. It was immediately translated into Greek as Δυο φορές ξένος in 2007, and into Turkish as İki Kere Yabancı in 2008. He kindly gave me a copy at the time, but I only just now got round to reading it. I feel the need to reacquaint myself with the whole story of Greek-Turkish relations not just because of current tensions in the eastern Mediterranean or because I have an interview for Greek citizenship coming soon, but also because of the two impending (bi)centenary celebrations, of the Greek uprising of 1821 and the end of the Greek campaign in Asia Minor in 1922 and the burning of Smyrna/Izmir. 

   Reading with MOHA’s interests in mind, my attention was caught by the passages in which Bruce describes the on the whole quite positive relations between Greek Christian and Greek Muslim communities in Greece before the exchange – which of course made the exchange itself all the more painful. Much of his material comes from northern Greece because substantial numbers of Muslims lived there – it had after all been under Ottoman rule until 1912. When they left, their houses and fields were taken over by Christian deportees from Asia Minor – or as many as survived the traumatic journey into exile. 

Take for example the Macedonian town of Drama: 11.000 Muslim inhabitants in 1911, 2500 Orthodox Christians. In the early 1920s the Muslims were replaced by Greek Orthodox – but often only Turkish-speaking – Christians from Samsun on the Black Sea. Others reached Drama from Eastern Thrace in a ‘silent, ghastly procession’ documented for the Toronto Daily Star by Ernest Hemingway (read his punchy dispatches in By-line: Ernest Hemingway, 1967). The Pontic ‘Greeks’ (who did not all necessarily identify as that) of Samsun had grown prosperous on tobacco, and once settled in Drama they plied the same trade. 

If the inhabitants of independent Greece had been working hard on their new national identity during the nineteenth century, the Muslim inhabitants of what Greeks still prefer to call ‘Asia Minor’ were later starters. It was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who, as his adopted surname suggests, was to push the Turkification process decisively forward.

Fotis Kontoglou, ‘Hatzi Oustas Iordanoglou from Cappadocia and his son Homer. This picture was painted at Prokopi’ (1937)

So at Lausanne in 1923 it still made sense to make religion – not language let alone ethnicity – the primary identifier. Bruce quotes the American doctor Esther Lovejoy’s description of Cretan Rethymno that same year: Greek-speaking Muslims crowding into the town seeking refuge from Christian fellow villagers enraged by the Asia Minor campaign, encountering on the quayside Turkish-speaking Christian refugees just arriving. ‘So as part of the ‘cleansing’ of Greece’, Bruce comments, ‘Turkish-speakers were sailing into Greece, and Greek-speakers were about to be expelled from Greece’. Some Cretan Muslims even sought baptism so they could stay, but Athens resisted this stratagem.

From the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 until as late as 1924 in some places, substantial and long-established Greek-speaking Muslim populations continued to co-exist with Christians and Jews in newly-Greek Thessaloniki and Macedonia. In some cases, Muslim families were obliged to hand over part of their house to incoming refugees and co-exist with them, cheek-by-jowl, until transport to Turkey could be arranged. But the impoverished Greek state’s inability to support the arrivals from Asia Minor for long made urgent the Muslims’ departure – usually by sea from either Thessaloniki or Kavala. The wrench was all the greater because, in northern Greece as in Crete, many of the Muslims had only converted recently during the nineteenth century. They still retained Christian habits often under cover of Bektashi Sufism, or even comparable in some ways with the crypto-Christians of Pontus. But again, last-minute retro-conversions to Christianity were not encouraged by the authorities.

In his book, Bruce records an interview with a sister and brother in Grevena, born in 1910 and 1915 respectively. Eleftheria told him

I can still recall the time before the Muslims left our town in 1924. They spoke Greek and did the same jobs as us; they were small traders or shopkeepers, or else breeders of sheep and goats. I remember the day they went away. Some kissed the earth, some took bowls of soil with them. They were decent types; their menfolk used to attend our funerals, and we would exchange presents of food on each other’s feast days. They used to say politely that they would accept any food we gave them as long as it wasn’t pork. They were regular people and they cried as they left us …

As for Athanasios:

The refugees who came to live among us seemed quite strange to us at first. They spoke Turkish, or a dialect of Greek we couldn’t understand, and their food and clothing and manners were different. We were mountain shepherds; they kept calves and made yoghurt. They made kitchen gardens and grew tomatoes and peppers and all kinds of vegetables, and they taught us new things about cooking. But in the end, they were Greeks like us; it was our obligation to help them and we accepted one another. After a generation or more, we locals began to intermarry with the refugees. But as for the Muslims who left, that was a different story. They were Turks, and it was inevitable that they should go away.

   The psychological confusion induced by this uprooting of communities that had long lived intertwined is illustrated by a story from Kozani about a tiny but strong-willed and pious grandmother ‘preparing busily for a divine liturgy which the local priest was going to celebrate at her behest. Only at the last moment does she disclose to the priest the reasons why she has requested these special prayers: both for the Christian refugees who were pouring into the region from Anatolia, and also ‘for the others, for the ones who are leaving’. Initially the priest objects: ‘For the Turks? But they are anti-Christ!’ For a moment, the pious woman hesitates: ‘You mean it’s not right?’ But then the priest, impressed by the lady’s sincerity, changes his mind. ‘God is for everybody – for the Christians, and for the anti-Christ ones as well…’

In other words, things were not as bad as some nationalist historians on both sides like to assert. Sometimes it was harder for local Greeks to relate to their new Anatolian neighbours, despite their shared faith, than to their old Muslim fellow-villagers. And there are still substantial Muslim populations in Thrace, even though Christians have largely been obliged to abandon Constantinople/Istanbul despite the protection offered them in the Treaty of Lausanne. Probably few would doubt today that on balance, despite the brutality of the experience, the exchange helped Greece and Turkey (Kurds apart) to become more cohesive, self-confident nations and to normalise their relations when Venizelos and Atatürk met in 1930. But the Thracian Muslims are also proof that co-existence is still possible, despite politicians’ attempts to create problems in order to facilitate nationalist schemes.

Garth Fowden

Athens 15.11.20

Garth Fowden is an historian. In 2013 he became the first holder of the Sultan Qaboos Chair of Abrahamic Faiths in the University of Cambridge.