Hope springs from Salonika

FOR THE TIME being there is a sense of relief – not yet amounting to optimism – that the formation of the new government in Greece by Antonis Samaras may bring some stability to the local and European economies.

Meanwhile, as the New York Times reports, Yiannis Boutaris, mayor of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city and to my mind its most fascinating, is providing an example of how Greece might be able to get back on track by demanding accountability from his workforce and imposing elementary budgetary discipline.

Boutaris is also working to see the city realise its economic and tourism potential. Facing the Thermaic Gulf, the city’s port is a gateway to the Balkans. Of interest to this blog, Thessaloniki, like many cities in the Balkans, has a multicultural history. Until 1912, as Salonika, it remained part of the Ottoman Empire and was a truly multiconfessional city, home to many nationalities. Leon Sciaky’s memoir of the city in the late 19th century, Farewell to Salonica, is full of tales of a polyglot world, of Albanian baklava sellers, Greek priests, Bulgarian farmers, Turkish shoe-shine men.

And until the horrors of the Holocaust in 1943 Thessaloniki was home to the largest Jewish community in the Balkans. The Jewish community had largely arrived in Salonika at the invitation of the Ottoman sultan, Beyazit, after 1492 when they were expelled from Spain at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Thereafter the city became known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, and busy streets rang with the sound of Ladino, the Sephardic Jewish dialect of Spain. Painfully little evidence remains of that long and significant Jewish presence, but for Molho Bookshop, located in the heart of the city at Tsimski.

Under the Ottomans for over 400 years, Salonika maintained a confessional balancing act; whether this was a graceful balance or ever fragile is something for historians to debate. But here was a city where Muslims ruled, Jews dominated the business and merchant communities, and Christians made up the masses, particularly in the hinterland. Yet for all of the diversity and diffusion of power and competition between interest groups, the city enjoyed a dynamism and creative fervour.

It also maintained an aura of inter-confessional spirituality, hints of which, I would contend, persist to this day, particularly in the narrow streets of the Ano Poli (Old Town). Mark Mazower, in his triumphant history of the city, Salonica: City of Ghosts, recounts tales of Greek Orthodox monks who were often seen in the company of Mevlevi Sufis in the Ano Poli. I can’t help but imagine a clutch of bearded fellows loitering in a cobbled street, muttering quietly, pensively, an air of sanctity and serenity hovering over them – a blur of cassocks, crucifixes, tesbih (prayer beads), turbans.

Mazower reports that there were several Sufi tekkes (lodges) in the Old Town; as well as the Mevlevi, there were sizable groups of Nakshibandis, and Bektashis. The Bektashis, who remain of great import in modern Albania, were notable for being particularly powerful in Anatolia (where Bektashi spirituality continues to underpin the philosophy – for want of a better word – of the Alevi minority); they were often remarked upon for their adoption of Christian traditions and their conspicuous veneration of figures within Christianity, praying and making pilgrimages to Christian shrines and holy sites.

Thessaloniki now has an overwhelmingly Orthodox tenor, but during the Ottoman centuries the city’s skyline bristled with minarets. Many of the first mosques, after the Ottoman capture of the city in 1430, were established in converted churches. This practice can be interpreted as a desecration, an attempt by the victors in war to lord it over the vanquished, to eradicate their – necessarily inferior – faith – all aspects of what came to be seen in later centuries as the ‘Ottoman yoke’. Mazower approaches the topic with more nuance, saying that the Ottoman tendency to appropriate churches for their own spiritual purposes rather reflects their reverence for Christian tradition. Churches and shrines were deemed suitable locations for worship because the Ottoman Muslims recognised that ‘God lingered already in the holy places of their predecessors’.

This intercommunal exchange apparently worked both ways. Salonika saw considerable traffic in Muslims from all over the Balkans en route to Mecca to perform the Hajj; Christians took inspiration from their example, taking the title of Hadji after making a pilgrimage to Orthodox holy sites such as nearby Mt Athos. A look through a phone book (remember them!) will reveal many such names: Hatzidakis, Hatzigiorgis etc etc.

The multicultural ambience of Salonika was considerably reduced after the city was incorporated into the new Greek state in 1912, then more so after the Greek-Turkish population transfers of the 1920s. The city at that time received a new transfusion of blood from the Orthodox immigrants who had arrived from Anatolia. It was at this point that the city assumed its overwhelmingly Greek character and in this milieu – an era of relocation, separation, post-war hardship and economic deprivation – that rembetika, the earthy, soulful, heart-wrenching form of Greek music, was born.

Rembetika might make a suitable soundtrack for the plight of many Greeks in the current economic climate. Some worrying political currents have been swirling, not least in the recent electoral success of the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party. Here’s hoping that politicians of the ilk of Yiannis Boutaris come to the fore. He has been prudent enough to recognise Thessaloniki’s multicultural history and exploit it to the city’s advantage, attracting tourists from Turkey and Israel, and his back-to-basics approach to good governance may well be what is necessary to see Thessaloniki, and ultimately Greece, back on the road to recovery.

For more on the attractions of Thessaloniki, you can read a piece I wrote for Neos Kosmos in 2011, here.


Turkey: two steps forwards…

AT FIRST BLUSH it would seem that Turkey is taking a turn towards becoming a more pluralistic entity. Last week Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that elective Kurdish language courses could be taught in government schools. This follows on the recent announcement that one of the municipalities in Diyarbakır would offer courses in Armenian.

While students may now choose from a more diverse portfolio of language classes, Turkey’s diverse ethnic communities (indigenous communities, to all intents and purposes) are also finding voice. The ISTOS publishing house recently opened in İstanbul’s Karaköy neighbourhood. Run by members of the Greek minority, ISTOS plans to publish in both Turkish and Greek. Meanwhile, in the Midyat district of southeastern Anatolia, Sabro, a monthly newspaper created by the Christian Syriac community, began publication in March. (The headline on the front page of Sabro in this Hürriyet story translates as a rather endearing, declarative: “We Are Here Too”. The title of the newspaper translates from the Syriac as ‘Hope’.)

All of this is a far cry from the dark days of the 1990s when even musing about the teaching of language courses – other than those of Western Europe – was flatly and definitively declared to amount to ‘separatism’.

Meanwhile, a group of Turkish journalists joined with some of their Armenian counterparts at the end of May to tour cities on both sides of the closed Turkish-Armenian border in a move to promote dialogue and share ‘face time’ with their neighbours. Journalists of both nations called for the border to be opened, a move that would be highly symbolic as well as making a great deal of economic sense if the volume of Turkish-Armenian trade that I witnessed passing through Georgia in 2007 is any indication.

On the political front, the CHP, the party created by Atatürk, which has consistently pushed the nationalist-Kemalist barrow, seems to be making reasoned steps towards resolving the Kurdish issue in conjunction with the ruling AKP. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP, met with AKP’s Erdoğan to discuss the Kurdish situation and reported that some progress was made on the subject. Perhaps predictably the hardline MHP – more given to outrageous nationalistic statements and gestures than the CHP ever was – grumbled about attempting to solve a non-existent ‘issue’ through discussion and mediation.  Some people are musing that after decades in the political wilderness the perennial bridesmaid/opposition CHP, under the leadership of Kılıçdaroğlu, may be able to recast itself as a ‘New CHP’. Who knows? A more vital and vibrant opposition would certainly not be an unwelcome development in Turkish politics.

Of course, it remains to be seen how well attended any of these languages course will be, or how much of a readership Greek literature and Syriac newspapers will find, or how much progress will be made in resolving the Kurdish and Armenian issues…

But then, as always in Turkey it’s a case of two steps forward, one step back, and sure enough a worrying backward step happened. A group calling itself the Anatolian Youth Association recently rallied outside the Aya Sofya/Haghia Sophia Museum in the old city of İstanbul demanding that the Sultanahmet landmark operate as a mosque again. It should be recalled that the Aya Sofya/Haghia Sophia was built in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian and served as a cathedral for 800 years, not becoming a mosque until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.

One of the organisers of the rally, which included a large group performing the namaz (prayer) in Sultanahmet, claims that the proscription of Islamic prayer in the building is a symbol of ‘our ill-treatment by the West’. Just who he claims to be speaking for is unclear: Turks? Muslims? What is abundantly clear is that ‘the West’ had absolutely nothing with curtailing  any group from being able to prayer in the Aya Sofya. That was  a decision made in the early years of the Turkish Republic during Atatürk’s modernisation project, a central plank of which was a very clear attempt to decrease the role of religion within the public sphere.

It would be easy to see the bold move of the pro-mosque crowd as a symptom of the increasing ‘shariahisation’ of Turkish society that some say is inevitable under the Islamist-informed AKP. Alternatively, it may be Turkish nationalists who made up the numbers of the hitherto unheard of Anatolian Youth Association, nationalists bristling at all of the initiatives that have been allowed under the AKP’s watch that are aimed at allowing non-Turkish groups more air time and exposure and voice – something long perceived as a threat to national sovereignty by many a Turk-on-the-street.

It is certainly true that the AKP sees a greater role for Islam in the public sphere than earlier Kemalist-inclined governments. It may well be that the AKP sees Islam as a suitable replacement for the homogenous Turkishness beloved of the MHP (and ‘old’ CHP) and promoted as the only mechanism that will bind together the nation. The AKP is sometimes accused of conspiring in favour of a neo-Ottomanist model whereby homogenous Turkish ethnicity no longer underpins the republic, but Islamic identity, accommodating ethnic – and even religious – diversity, becomes the glue holding together the nation-state.

Perhaps this is true: we may be witnessing a flush of ethnic pluralism within the context of the increasing grip of Islam on Turkish society. Or it may be that the notions of social justice and equality that run through the Islamic creed, combined with the failure of the you’re-either-Turkish-or-against-us ethos of earlier years, are informing governmental and societal moves to accommodate disparate and diverse voices.

What is certain is that there will be lengthy debates on all of these topics. To say nothing of acrimonious name calling and general flinging of vitriol: just look at the comments field of the Aya Sofya story in Today’s Zaman

Interesting days ahead…