Christian refugees from Samsun, Turkey in train cars at Patras, Greece, starting their journey to the interior

This article is a preview from the Summer 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Last March, history repeated itself on Turkey’s Aegean coast after a 94-year hiatus. Across the water that separates the country from the northern Greek islands, boats carrying refugees – the vast majority of them victims of today’s wars in the Middle East – traced the journeys of the boats that carried unwanted Muslims and Christians between the newly formed Republic of Turkey and Greece in 1923, when the two countries agreed to exchange their respective minorities by mass deportation. It seems to be the fate of this misleadingly tranquil coastline, dotted with olive groves and fishing villages, to witness politicised human traffic on the borders of Europe.

Ayvalik lies just ten nautical miles east of the Greek island of Lesbos, on which thousands of refugees are still held in detention camps. The island of Cunda, accessible via a bridge from the main town of Ayvalik, is a sleepy harbour town of vague nostalgia and faded beauty, of crumbling villas converted into cheap hotels, and abandoned churches converted into mosques or automobile museums. The town has largely resigned itself to tourism, and several high-profile industrialists have built discreet holiday homes on its shores.

Until 1922, Ayvalik was an entirely Greek Orthodox town in the heterogeneous hodgepodge of the Ottoman Empire; a hive of trade and commerce, bustling with merchants, olive farmers and black-robed priests. All the Christians who once lived there were either killed in the last years of Turkey’s War of Independence (1918-22) or shipped off to mainland Greece in 1923, to be replaced by Muslim Ottomans, many of them from nearby Lesbos. In total, 1.2 million Christians were “exchanged” for 400,000 Muslims – almost the totality of each minority residing in the two countries, with the exception of those living in Istanbul and Western Thrace.

Today, the elder generations of the imported Muslims who replaced Ayvalik’s former Orthodox inhabitants sit playing backgammon under slowly turning fans in seafront cafés: weather-beaten but upright, dignified men chatting quietly in a mixture of Turkish and a Greek dialect learned from their parents, who were brought here from the Greek island of Crete in 1923. The dialect is Cretan, or “Giritli” as the Turks call it – a rougher version of standard Greek, incomprehensible to other Turks and to mainland Greeks.

In common with most of the Turks who live on the Aegean coast, Ayvalik’s current locals are not religiously conservative; the call to prayer from Cunda’s single mosque is inaudible, and the only covered women here are day-tripping tourists from the mainland. The newspapers in the seafront cafes are all copies of Hurriyet or Sözcü, Turkey’s traditionally left-leaning dailies. The blue eyes of the old men who read them signal an obviously different ethnic makeup to Turks from Anatolia, and indeed it is debatable how clear the difference is between “Greeks” and “Turks” on either side of the Aegean – both from a cultural and a genetic point of view.

Nevertheless, at 5pm every Friday and Sunday, to mark the beginning and end of the weekend, the Ayvalik Municipality plays the Turkish national anthem on loudspeakers in the town square. As the first few bars of the Istiklal Mar?? (Independence March) ring out, everyone stops what they are doing and stands in complete silence for the duration of the recording. Most of the fishermen living here today are ultra-loyal followers of the Turkish Republic’s secularist founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, despite (indeed, because of) their Greek roots: they are steeped in the uniquely fierce patriotism of an adopted nation state, a patriotism which has grown stronger is the generations have passed and the memories of displacement have faded.

The inhabitants of Ayvalik have always been aware of the historical and ethnic interweaving between the Turks and Greeks of the Aegean, but it is only fairly recently that younger generations have started to look back at their family history with more detachment than those who remember traumatic details of the exchange, or heard it directly from their parents. These younger generations are less vehemently patriotic than their parents, because they have less to prove. They readily admit that they are not “pure-blooded” Turks, while being comfortable in their identity as Turkish citizens. They are light years ahead of the regressive, knee-jerk nationalism still spouted by the government of Turkey, just as the Aegean Greeks are ahead of theirs. People move on; governments do so more slowly.

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Murat is a tour operator in his forties who ferries Turkish tourists to the Greek islands in the summer season on a little boat. He speaks good Greek, not because his family still speak it but because he needs it for work. His pale blue eyes squint against the sun in a tanned face wreathed in premature wrinkles.

“Look into my eyes and tell me – am I a Turk?” he demands rhetorically. “No way.”

Murat’s parents’ generation would not dream of uttering such a statement – the incoming Muslim Ottomans in 1923, who had lived in Greece for generations, were told that they were Turks now, coming “home” to live among their brothers. Their status as refugees – people who had left their homes, their possessions, neighbours and friends, and arrived in a strange place where they had difficulty speaking the language – was swept aside as a mere practicality. These Greek-born Muslim Ottomans were Turks now, expected to be unquestioningly proud of their identity and new home. Their “return” had been fiercely negotiated by envoys of Atatürk at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. They were hostages won from the enemy, expected to be existentially grateful to the new Republic of Turkey.

The Lausanne negotiation came at the end of a long and bloody war of independence, during which Atatürk’s soldiers managed to fight off Allied forces and save at least the Anatolian heartland of the previously vast Ottoman Empire to form a secularist republic, populated overwhelmingly by Muslims. In this barely-there but proud new nation state, there was no room for the foreignness that refugees inevitably brought with them, only state-branded Turkishness. The new motto of this country was a kind of compulsory pride in a freshly minted identity: “How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk.”

This motto can still be found on the walls of military camps, in school books and even on keyrings today. It can look embarrassingly jingoistic to an outside eye, and indeed many Turks and Kurds living in Turkey are beginning to question a message that seems increasingly out of step with the times. In similar vein, until very recently Turkey’s almost deified founding father was above reproach among citizens and politicians alike, but in October 2016 Turkey’s current president explicitly criticised the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, and, implicitly, Atatürk’s negotiating efforts.

“We gave away islands to Greece that we could reach with a shout in Lausanne. Is this victory?” he said at a conference in Ankara on 29 September. Three weeks later, he vowed that Turkey would not “ignore” its kinsmen in Western Thrace, referring to the descendants of the Muslim Ottomans who were exempt from the 1923 exchange, and who identify as Turks. Greek defence minister Panos Kammenos retaliated by calling Erdogan’s statement an example of Ankara’s “Ottoman revisionist and hegemonic ambitions.” From Thrace to Cyprus, the messy residue of Greece and Turkey’s territorial struggle has been exacerbated today by domestic crises in both countries, as well as a refugee crisis which has made bogeymen of those who are seen to threaten the fabric of the nation state.

In 1923, both Greece and Turkey haggled hard over the terms of the Lausanne Treaty. No love was lost between the two countries, fresh from war. But 94 years have passed since then, and in a time when the citizens of both countries are growing more aware of what connects them, as opposed to what divides them, it seems horribly inappropriate that their respective governments are slipping into the tramlines of nationalism. Nearly a hundred years after the 1923 exchange, we are seeing a new wave of refugees, not of the coveted nation-building kind: more desperate and unwanted. Ayvalik is one of the harbours from which tens of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees have departed under cover of night for the past few years, hoping to reach Lesbos undetected – and alive. It is also near the harbour where these same refugees have been brought back under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal of 20 March 2016, by which Turkey agreed to take back “irregular” migrants in return for billions of euros of aid, visa-free travel in the Schengen area and renewed EU negotiations. On 16 April 2016, Pope Francis visited Lesbos and took 12 Syrians away with him on his Papal plane in a symbolic gesture of rebuke to European governments who have failed to welcome refugees through their borders.

* * *

What of the local reaction on Lesbos? Some Greeks who have seen their livelihoods drop dramatically with the corresponding demise of tourism might be forgiven for resenting the incoming refugees. But residents of Lesbos who have helped to feed and clothe the refugees have said that they were inspired to act by the knowledge they are of refugee stock themselves; around 60 per cent of the 90,000 current residents of Lesbos are descended from Christians deported from mainland Turkey.

While brutal, the 1923 Turkey–Greece exchange made sense according to the logic of the time. In the early 20th century, newly formed nations were intended to be religiously uniform and ethnically uncomplicated, united and strong. The motley remnants of the polyethnic Ottoman Empire in 1923 were not fit for nationalistic purpose. The apparently obvious solution was to cleanse these new states of “unsuitable” minorities, resulting in a Turkey purged of the Christians who had lived there for centuries, and a Greece purged of the Muslims who had lived there almost as long. However misguided or wrong we may consider such a ruthless uprooting today, that infamous population exchange of 1923 was at least partly conducted in a constructive spirit. 2016’s deportations have been a desperate attempt by European nations to deflect a crisis to a non-European country (Turkey) in exchange for money and political favours – which are largely yet to transpire.

The deal is yet to be fully ratified and indeed looks increasingly precarious as President Erdogan repeatedly threatens to break it off, in response to the European Parliament voting to freeze Turkey’s accession talks, and unless the EU fulfils its promises to grant Turks visa-free travel in the Schengen area. But for many people the efficacy of the deal is not the point: they argue it has a phoney morality, which is essentially Europe paying Turkey to deal with Europe’s problem, and using refugees as bargaining chips. The question of what might be best for the refugees themselves is not even entertained as a criterion for consideration, so that the resulting bulk-transportation involves little more than political cargo.

* * *

Of course, there are crucial differences between these two exchanges: today, those earmarked for deportation are refugees from outside Turkey and Greece, and their religion is theoretically irrelevant (though the EU’s resettlement scheme will favour Christian or secular families, in keeping with resettlements to Western countries already carried out by the UNHCR). This time round, the sticking point is whose responsibility it is to absorb homeless people coming from outside Turkey and the EU, and how nakedly one can pass on that responsibility.

In 1923 the concern was primarily logistical, attached to a supposedly idealistic nation-building agenda: how best to uproot previously settled residents of the Ottoman Empire, or manage the exodus or expulsion already taking place in certain areas. It was not a calculated response to clandestine cross-border movement. Today, the war-driven cross-border movement is happening under cover of darkness, because international law makes no provision for the passage of refugees before they arrive in a European country and become that country’s problem. No one wants these refugees. The situation was not much better in 1923 – it was worse in many respects – but the mere state of being a refugee was less leper-like, because both Turkey and Greece theoretically wanted “their” citizens returned.

The 20 March deal has effectively failed, but its terms speak of how much the EU needs Turkey to cooperate on the subject of refugees. Turkey is, again, relatively “triumphant” – not from winning a four-year battle for independence, but because Erdogan’s government successfully painted the deal to Turkish voters as a huge victory for the country, and theoretically holds the trump card in the form of the power to “unleash” 3 million refugees on Europe. Greece is again exhausted, not from defeat in war but from years of crippling debt, political instability and its role as gatekeeper to Europe during the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Today, as was the case in 1923, Turkey is extremely suspicious of Western involvement in the refugee crisis, even charities and non-governmental organisations. During the exchange of 1923, the Red Cross and American church-funded aid agencies in particular were seen to be far more concerned about the fate of Ottoman Christians than of Muslims; more than that, the new Turkish state was proudly nationalistic and understandably not inclined to welcome the presence of foreign entities whose countries had recently been engaged in trying to invade it. A similarly wary situation exists today, as Turkish authorities present complex bureaucratic challenges to the foreign NGOs operating largely in the southeast of the country, organising aid to Syria. These NGOs are no longer church-based but the idea persists that they look out for non-Muslims and seek to interfere with Turkey’s efforts.

Despite Atatürk’s best attempts, Turkey has never been accepted as part of Europe. Since its formation in 1923, it has been a country struggling on the brink, unwilling to be classed as part of the Middle East, and ready to deal with Europe even in the most distasteful of political compromises because of that insecurity.

It is convenient to talk of Turkey as a nation state with insecurities, agendas and identity issues, but what of those Turks ensconced in a seaside town nearly a hundred years after Muslims and Christians were made to swap places in a political game of musical chairs? The Cunda community in Ayvalik is peaceful and close-knit. Its members talk of the past when prompted, but do not spontaneously offer their family histories – some wounds are still too fresh, and Turkish patriotism allows only so much deviation from a central story of unity and cohesion. Many of the older generations congregate in Tasli Kahve (Stone Café), an old, high-ceilinged cafe on the seafront. An ancient stove sits in the middle of the café and swallows nest all around the eaves, producing a shrill cacophony as they swoop through the open windows in the early evening, busily feeding their young. Elderly men with knitted waistcoats and carefully parted strands of grey hair sit playing Yanik (“Burnt”), their favourite card game, or backgammon all day long, drinking çay and coffee. Occasionally they exchange a few words in Cretan Greek, before lapsing back into Turkish.

Husnu Bey, a retired state accountant in his early eighties, used to have a special green passport which granted him as a state employee visa-free travel to Greece. He made a habit of popping over to Lesbos, and 12 years ago visited Crete to find the birthplace of his parents. He explains with gentle regret that now he’s retired he has lost the right to a green passport and can no longer travel to Greece. He speaks in the Cretan dialect with his friends, all children of Muslim Ottomans who arrived in 1923 from Crete and spoke it to their children in turn. One of the men sitting playing cards with Husnu Bey does not feel comfortable speaking Turkish – he can understand it, but prefers to speak in Greek. Another is the opposite – Husnu speaks to him in Greek, and he answers in Turkish.

Bilgin Bey, the owner of the café next to Tas Kahve, is one generation younger than the old Yanik-playing gentlemen. He tells me he spoke Greek with his Cretan-born grandparents. On his first day in school, when the teacher pointed to a picture of bread, he automatically said its Greek name. There is a common belief that the Turks and Greeks of today hate each other, but Bilgin Bey is proof of the opposite. He tells me with pride that he has Greek friends from the days when he owned a shop selling ropes and galoshes to Greek fishermen in Ayvalik proper; for years he visited them in Lesbos. Ten years ago the visa rules changed and he can no longer make those visits.

A hundred years ago, the zeitgeist feeling in this part of the world – and much of the West, too – was for nationalism, unification and monolithic identity. Until recently, it was increasingly about multiculturalism, minority identity and inclusion. Now, the refugee crisis, and to some extent Turkey’s domestic problems since the failed coup of 15 July, have re-awoken the ugly beast of xenophobia, disguised as national pride, or protection – a mood sadly echoed in many parts of Europe, too.

What have we learned from the political lessons of the past, and how do we achieve consensus on the responsibilities of dealing with “other” people? The cynical deal between the EU and Turkey belies a fear of outsiders, and an acceptance of blackmail as a means of indulging that fear. The forced exchanges of the past – contrived and crazy though we now consider them – were in many ways more humane, and logical, than the deportations of today. The historian David Feldman has said that history “can explain to us why we are in the situation we are in today, [but] it cannot make choices for us.” Instead, we leave those choices to our leaders, who ignore both the past and the future in favour of instant political gratification.