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Is there room for Greek in our baggage?

18 Ekim 2012  |…

This article by Foti Benlisoy, a review of the Greek language novel ANABOΛEΣ κaι KATΗΦOPOI - Anavoles kai Katiforoi (Postponements and Descents) - published in Istanbul by İstos Publishing House, appeared in the Radikal newspaper on 13 October 2012. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

Is there room for Greek in our baggage? by Foti Benlisoy

At the end of the 1960’s, there occurred a historic breaking point that, with all of the political and social turmoil of the era, most probably escaped the notice of the residents of Istanbul at the time. Greek, which for years had left its mark on the city’s social life, shops, markets, coffee shops, taverns and streets, lost its status as one of Istanbul’s public languages. This obviously did not happen overnight. The removal of Greek from city life came about as the result of the cumulative effect of decades-long Turkification policies and the demographic erosion caused by these very policies. First Greek wording was removed from shop signs and place names were nationalised (not only the names of neighbourhoods such as Aya Stefanos or Samatya, but also dozens of street names). Then came the turn of people. By means of ‘Citizen Speak Turkish’ campaigns that were initially and essentially waged at the end of the 1920’s (although they occasionally returned to the agenda, including at the beginning of the 1960’s), minority communities, including the Greeks, were exhorted to speak Turkish in public places, and thereby adopt Turkish language and culture. This campaign, waged in particular by ‘vigilant forces’ within the student community, was the source of constant tension on trams, ferryboats, at places of entertainment and summer relaxation such as night clubs, tea gardens, cinemas, theatres, in the streets, squares, and alleys, and in neighbourhoods with large minority residential and working populations . Readers of newspapers in Greek or other minority languages had their reading material grabbed from their hands and torn up. Frequent brawls broke out as those speaking in languages other than Turkish found themselves being constantly targeted. In the atmosphere of constant threat, it became virtually impossible for two people to speak Greek in a public place for fear at any moment of being targeted. Self-censorship and control Use of the Greek language was far from purely restricted to the oral domain. It was a language that was underpinned by a massive written cultural tradition and, as of the 19th Century, had an especially important place in Istanbul’s publishing life. Greek books, newspapers and magazines were the backbone of Istanbul’s publishing life. Up until the 1950’s, the large number of Greek newspapers constituted an indispensable part of Istanbul’s press world. Without doubt, the picture was far from rosy. In the single party period, the constraints on the press, which in any case were stringent, exerted a crushing force on Greek and other minority publications.

Self-censorship and self-control became the sole survival strategy for the minority press. Several Turkish newspapers (especially in periods when the Cyprus issue came onto the agenda) employed Greek-speaking staff in the endeavour to catch Greek newspapers’ and magazines’ ‘slip-ups’, considering it their national duty to expose the ‘treasonous tendencies’ within the latters’ content. Newspapers could be closed, or, as happened during the ‘events’ of 6-7 September, printworks could be targeted. Under these conditions, Greek publishing became trapped in a vicious circle of indecisiveness and timidity and was one of the first victims of the rapid demographic disintegration that came with the 1960’s (especially with the 1964 ‘exilings’). As Greeks, reeling from one disaster to another each decade (punitive taxes, pogroms, exiles), were left with the sole remedy of upping sticks, Greek publishing-press life withered away. The number of newspapers dropped and magazines closed. As to the publishing of new books, it even became impossible for minority schools to find Greek books for use in class.

In primary school science lessons in the 1980’s, we had a text book that had been printed in Istanbul way back at the beginning of the 1960’s. I recall reading in the book, which had become ripped to shreds as it had passed from pupil to pupil over twenty years at the school, lines such as, “Man will most certainly one day set foot on the Moon.” As of the 1960’s, with the publishing of Greek books having ceased and the ever-decreasing number of newspapers restricting their content to little more than wedding, baptism and, especially, death announcements, Greek had by now ceased to be a read language. Reading material in Greek could now only be obtained with ‘external support’, in the form of books, magazines or newspapers brought from Greece. Since my mother, a teacher, did not wish for her children to lose their ties with this literary tradition, she found the solution in bringing large numbers of illustrated mythology books and (needless to say) comics (for this reason, I became acquainted with Red Kit as Lucky Luke, Captain Swing as Mark and Steel Black as just Black) from Greece. As such, the variety of Greek unique to Istanbul was removed from public life and left to wither, and it became hard to sustain even in the home setting.

Going back to the beginning, in the 1960’s a breaking point occurred in Istanbul’s social history of which the majority of us were most probably unaware: Greek ceased to be one of the languages of this city. With Greek sent into exile along with the Greeks, thinking, writing and speaking in Greek no longer imbued Istanbul’s public life. Our aim, as İstos Publishing House, in publishing a novel in Greek (and written by an Istanbul Greek), is to draw attention above all to this rupture, to the cultural destruction, or, more correctly, loss, caused by this rupture; to show that it is not only Greeks who have won or lost. This venture of publishing a novel in Greek, suicidal as it is in pure marketing terms, in a city with, however you go about counting, fewer than three thousand Greek inhabitants, is essentially a modest step in the direction of rehabilitating Greek. Do not get us wrong; our goal is not to reminisce about Greek as a cute voice harking from some long-gone good days. We are staunchly opposed to the ‘nostalgisisation’ of the Greeks or other ‘minority’ communities, to their being reduced to a quaint folkloric element disconnected from Turkey’s political and social agenda. In publishing a book in Greek, we are striving to remind ourselves, too, that it is not a luxury, but a richness, or even a pressing need, to find space for not two, but a great many more, languages in our shared baggage.

Two people from the ‘1964 generation’ Christos Agnastopoulos’s novel entitled Anavoles kai Katiforoi (Postponements and Descents) is the story of two people from the ‘1964 generation’. The previous sentence does not stand corrected: this is indeed the generation of 1964, not 1968. It is the tale of Dimitris and Giorgios, people who have been thrown out of their own country following the expulsion by the Turkish government of a significant number of Greeks, whom it used as a diplomatic trump card within the Cyprus crisis, and who, one of them in Greece and the other in Germany, are somehow unable to sort out their lives. It is about remaining rootless, being unable to settle in, not being ‘local’ and the inability somehow to feel at home. These two people, destined to remain foreign wherever they go, appear to lead suspended lives thanks to decisions which are postponed and thus somehow can never be taken. Their lives, full of postponed choices and decisions, take them willy-nilly on an ever downward descent. Agnastopoulos, whose own life has been split between Turkey, Greece and Germany, has in this novel made some extremely sharp and poignant insights into the mind-set of the Greeks who were forced to leave Istanbul in the 1960’s (that are absent in the minority works whose number has increased greatly of late).

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