On Trojan horses and Greeks bearing gifts

lindos-view-2009The proverb tells us to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This dates back to the legend of the Trojan horse, when something that was apparently benign, perhaps miraculous, and surely harmless, turned out to contain all manner of nasties. The gullible Trojans willingly pulled the horse into their city, only to be overrun by the Greek forces hidden within.

Appropriately enough all of this took place on the Aegean shore, where today refugees arrive in large numbers, assembling in the Turkish city of İzmir, not far from the ruins of Troy, to attempt the sea crossing to the Greek islands, toeholds in the EU. The refugees, many of whom hail from Syria, are sometimes portrayed as a modern-day Trojan horse – feigning refugee impoverishment but really the vanguard of an Islamic cultural inundation that threatens European identity.

Such a characterisation is utter tosh, of course, and to further turn the Trojan horse on its head this time it is the Greeks who are doing the welcoming.

In fact, the stories of generosity and compassion coming from Lesbos, among other islands and other locations on the Greek mainland, are legion. As reported in The Conversation, one fisherman from Lesbos explained, “There is not much choice when you find a boat full of scared people in the night.” Caught up in the immediacy and the drama, Greeks have responded with a largeness of spirit that The Conversation says has become contagious amongst Greek communities – but that appears to be in short supply elsewhere at present.

In Lesbos, islanders’ welcoming of refugee communities is said to be having a detrimental effect on the forthcoming season’s tourist bookings in Lesbos, but that doesn’t appear to deter the locals from their good deeds. This speaks volumes of the humanity of the residents of Lesbos. A recent article in The New York Times urges travellers not to turn their backs on the long-suffering Greeks.

It’s not as if Greece doesn’t have enough troubles of its own at the moment. For years it has been wracked by financial turmoil, but neither does this deter Greeks at large from extending a supporting hand to refugee arrivals. In fact, as the government is stretched it appears that individual volunteers and private donations are filling the breach.

Some of this generosity stems from the personal histories of many Greek families. For many Greeks the refugee experience is not that far removed – in the early decades of the 20th centuries significant numbers of Greek families were uprooted from Anatolia, where they had lived for centuries, and made their own passage across the Aegean as refugees to forge a new life in cities such as Thessaloniki and on islands such as Lesbos. The memory is fresh and their empathy (which comes from the Greek ἐμπάθεια, meaning “physical affection”) is strong. In fact, one Greek woman in the mainland town of Idomeni remarked that lending a hand to refugees is a “moral obligation”.

This all stands in marked contrast to the reactions of countries like Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia, which have thrown up razor wire fences to prevent refugees moving northward into Europe. It was these very countries that not so long ago languished on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and who hankered for the freedom that the West offered. That they offer no passage to refugees now is nothing short of mean spirited. They appear to have forgotten that geopolitical fate operates without mercy and sometimes leaves the deserving on the wrong side of artificial boundaries.

But the Greeks at the rocky fringes of Europe are fully aware of the power – and necessity – of the humanist gesture and they seek no recourse in cheap retellings of Trojan Horse allegories. And as this video demonstrates, the refugees arriving are not warriors with evil intent hidden within any metaphorical horse, but people who are filled with hope and gratitude for the hospitality and benevolence that the Greeks are bestowing upon them.

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On borders, or the crossing thereof

Gjirokastra-01

Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]

epirus-01

Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]

van-train-station

Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]

 

[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1

 

 

On football matches: to mark silence or to boo

Greek-Turkish-trinkets

FOOTBALL IS known as the beautiful game. There are plenty of people who like to see sport as metaphor for life. Like many things, football is really just one of many *parts* of life, so perhaps we should recognise it as such and not read too much into it.

Still, based on several recent incidents, I can’t help but wonder if people’s behaviour at football matches doesn’t offer a perspective on societal dynamics, perhaps on a nation’s psyche or even the deeper workings of the human spirit.

Last Friday, a football match in the Greek city of Larissa was delayed when players, coaches and officials sat down as a protest to urge authorities to work harder to cater to refugees coming to Greece and as a mark of respect for refugees who had lost their lives in recent days attempting to cross the Aegean.

It was the Greeks, after all, who gave us the concept of philanthropy (φιλανθρωπία), which translates literally as “love of humanity”.

Apparently in Greek, there are four different words for love, one of which is agápē (ἀγάπη) from whence we get “agape”, but which translates as a sense of brotherly love and charity. Thomas Aquinas saw agápē as the wishing of good upon another.

I can’t help but compare the actions of the footballers in Larissa with the Turkish football fans in Istanbul who booed and jeered during a pre-game minute of silence for the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris last November, just as fans at a match in Konya had earlier disrupted a minute’s silence for the (mostly Kurdish and leftist) victims of the Ankara bombing in October.

Observing a moment’s silence as a mark of respect is not a commonly recognised practice in Turkey, but the actions of the Turkish crowds raised eyebrows around the world, to say the least.

In considering the Turkish crowds, the uncouth behaviour of a portion of a football crowd should not be taken as a reflection of an entire nation or people. The Greeks and the Turks have much more in common – in cultural, social and culinary terms – than nationalists of either strip would ever admit. But for a fleeting second I wondered if, after years of living, travelling, working and researching in Turkey, perhaps I should have been spending my time on the other side of the Aegean…

Until I stumbled across the reaction of Fatih Terim, the manager of the Turkish national team, who decried the “cruelty” of the booing Konya crowd and said better that Turkey had lost the match (after which it qualified for UEFA 2016) and not one life had been lost.

 

 

Hopeful thoughts to end a torrid year

02-ist-bos-ferry

Bosphorus, Istanbul, October 2014

It has been a fallow couple of seasons for this blog. Time commitments and motivation have been against me, so this will be my only post for the year.

The blog is an outlet for abstract and meandering thoughts, for optimism in a grim world. But for a blog that is predicated on highlighting the comingling of peoples, and the beauties that they can create, it has been a depressing year.

We’ve seen the rise of ISIS, the quagmire that is Syria, the deteriorating political circumstances in Turkey (once seeming so promising, but now gone so spectacularly awry), and of course the rise of divisive and hateful voices in Europe and America. (Because – it must be noted – that that shit happens in the so-called “modern” “civilised”, post- Enlightenment world too!)

05-diyar-mosque

Diyarbakir, November 2014

An annual post is a token effort, to be sure, but hopefully this one will re-ignite the blog.

For next year, I will take a new approach, aiming to post more regularly, but more succinctly – and hopefully more pithily!! I plan to use, where and when possible, some of the literature I encounter in my work life as platforms for short reflections – vignettes, if you will.

Here’s one to get started. Petr Pithart, former prime minister of Czechoslovakia, wrote in 1994,

‘In the last 55 years the Czechs have lost – as co-tenants of their common house – Germans, Jews, Ruthenians, Hungarians and Slovaks. They are now in effect an ethnically cleansed country, even if not by their own will. It is a great intellectual, cultural and spiritual loss. This is particularly true if we consider central Europe, which is a kind of mosaic. We are still living touristically from the glory of Prague, which was a Czech-German-Jewish city and a light that reached to the stars. But you cannot win elections with that kind of argument.’[1]

04a-prague-christmas

Prague, Christmas 2007

At present we see plenty of instances where people are intent on ethnic cleansing by their own will. Demagogues and paranoiacs howl for it in the West. But it seems most intense in the region once known as Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilisations, where pluralism was a reality for millennia, but where, now, various nasties under various banners are seeking to homogenise in Syria, attempting to put to the sword peoples previously little known. And in Turkey, where I have visited repeatedly in recent years, while ethnic cleansing may be a thing of the past, another concerted social engineering project of cultural homogenisation appears to be under way.

07-ist-halay

Dancing the halay, Istanbul, June 2015

All this “cleansing” stems from fear: fear of the other. But as Pithart notes, when “others” come together the end result so often is something remarkable. He mentions that you may not win elections by highlighting the beauty and richness of cultural diversity and achievements of cultural interplay, but they are real and more dispassionately resilient than often thought.

And it may be noted that attempts to “cleanse” rarely achieve their desired goals, i.e. safe, secure homogeniety. They generally result in a great deal of anguish for all concerned. But after and despite the trauma, humanity, in all its diversity, trundles on and evolves in new directions.

Long may it prosper!

 

 

  1. Cited in Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular, (Oxford University Press), 2001, page 117

Reasons to be cheerful

01-diyar-boysANOTHER YEAR ends. Hallelujah to that!

It’s been a torrid year in many regards, but it strikes me that there are always reasons to be cheerful.

02-blue-mosqueSkylines, cityscapes, landscapes, wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Hope.

04-galata

First love, broken hearts, bad poetry.

03-deyrul-zafran

Reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption, revenge.

06-sulukluhan

Conviviality, community, living-together-ness.

08-kuzguncuk

The changing of the seasons.

09-uskudar-ferry

The freedom to travel, nostalgia, wanderlust, longing for home.

10-mardin-kites

Dreams, disappointments, glorious failures.

11-giragos-candles

Those places where angels hover, unseen.

13-cay-evi-boys

Humanity.

14-deyrul-zafran-vault

Humanity!

Amen.

 

Twilight in Diyarbakır

walls-mardin-kapi So they pushed the clocks forward an hour, marking the end of summer, the changing of the season. In Diyarbakır darkness descends early now, and abruptly. We are some 1000km southeast of İstanbul, as the crow flies, but still in the same time zone. By five o’clock the gloaming (such an apt word, promising so much, somewhere between ‘glow’ and ‘looming’) is all but passed and the street lights flicker on.

It strikes me that at twilight you can see cities at their most candid. Not that the cities of southeastern Anatolia maintain any pretensions or artifice. But in the failing light, as people close up shops, or make their way home, or farewell workmates, or make a last dash to pick up necessities for the evening meal, life is revealed in all of its gritty, mundane, workaday magnificence. Shadows loom, cries seem to hover in the air. If you look up at the right time, a swallow zips overhead.

Clockwise as in a Buddhist pilgrimage, I continue a vague circuit within Diyarbakır’s city walls, an on-again off-again ramble, over several days, that has succumbed to diversions, zigzags, backtracks and unplanned stops. These are the second-longest land walls on earth, after the Chinese Wall. Mighty, in ominous black basalt, they bear the imprints and flourishes of dynasties, empires, fly-by-night warlords who have rumbled through this frontier territory where spheres of Persian, Arab and Turkish influence overlap like a Venn diagram. A litany of dynasties to fire the imagination, if you are given to such things: Seljuk, Ayyubid, Safavid, Artuklu, Karakoyunlu, Akkoyunlu. Seems everybody but the Ottomans.

pondering-mesopotamiaClimbing the steps to Keçi Burcu, a robust tower near the southernmost point of the walls. Inevitably, on the parapet, there is an open-air tea salon. Wooden banquettes against stone walls, and tables with knee-high stools. Locals gather for çay, for countless infernal cigarettes, to chatter and take selfies, while ignoring the view as darkness descends. One young guy sits cross-legged on the battlements, as if he is sentinel over all of Mesopotamia. Below, the Tigris snakes southward.

I descend again, passing Mardin Kapısı, the southern-facing of the city’s four main gates. Further on there is a large fissure in the walls. Outside are sprawling suburbs of cheap, concrete apartment blocks and gecekondu houses. Overhead power lines, rubble-strewn, dusty kerbs. Voices carry on the breeze, snatches of song, a radio broadcast, a dog barks. Even these neighbourhoods, under an eye-shadow-blue swirl of sky and cloud, stippled with pools of orange street light, seem somehow homely, welcome, beckoning at this hour. (Perhaps I’ve been away too long.)

As I reach Urfa Kapısı, the western-facing gate, above a roadside watermelon stall a sickle moon rises, the most perfect of clichés, as if someone has sunk a fingernail into the velvet expanse of sky to let in a crescent of yellow light.

Back inside the walls, passing traffic raises dust and puffs of exhaust, and throws beams of light across shopfronts, trees, the city walls, like search lights perennially seeking out some elusive target. At the centre of town where the east-west and north-south routes cross, dolmuşes gather passengers, everyone headed home, burdened with packages, plastic bags, tubs of produce. And as each vehicle roars off I experience that fleeting shudder of exhilaration that I used to feel as a backpacker. An understated euphoria, a butterfly in the stomach, at the beginning of each new journey, at the anticipation, the what-comes-next that each departure promises.

meryemana-syriacAnother evening, at the Meryemana Church, a Syrian Orthodox church that has stood here, in various incarnations, for nigh-on 1800 years. A flight of pigeons swoops above the belfry. (Shouldn’t that be bats?) By chance, I am here in time for evening prayers, Vespers (another redolent word). I am invited to stay. ‘You can sit,’ the priest, a man who somehow embodies resilience, with a black beard and white prayer cap, tells me.

It’s a small congregation, just the priest, his two children, his wife, a single older parishioner. And me, observing. Prayer is informal, slightly chaotic, not unlike Islamic ritual in its casual aspect. The priest’s genuflections and prostrations resemble nothing so much as Islamic salat, but for the fact that he crosses himself as he rises from each prostration. He then pulls back a curtain to reveal the altar, a sumptuous recess of velvet, electric candles, gilt and almost-baroque ornamentation, all topped with muqarna that would not look out of place in the Alhambra in Granada.

The children chant from the Bible (in Aramaic, the ‘language of Jesus’, as I am later told), as the priest struggles to light a taper with an oven lighter, repeatedly firing the trigger until a shot of blue flame emerges. He then lights a censer, which his son takes and approaches the altar, while continuing his chanting, proceeding to swing it and send clouds of fragrant incense heavenward.

Observing all of this, I can see the seductiveness of faith, the comfort and reliability of ritual as a crutch in the every day, although it must be said that the chanting had an air of going-through-the-motions. At prayer’s end the priest teaches me my first word of Aramaic: ‘towdi’. Thankyou. And I depart into the evening.

Later, in a backstreet, in the darkness, a woman in baggy şalvar and headscarf fans a fire in a cobbled alley, placing torn pieces of cardboard on to her fire, over which she is roasting narrow purple aubergines.

The next afternoon, to see Yeni Kapı, the eastern-facing gate, the only one I haven’t visited. This is a poor part of town. I am warned by a local about thieves, as I have been repeatedly all over town. I never encounter anyone who appears even slightly inclined towards theft. Here the stuccoed walls of humble homes are painted burgundy, puce, pastels in unlikely, exuberant combination, in contrast to the dour black granite of the city walls and the grand konaks, stately homes with  alternating black and white striped door and window arches. From Yeni Kapı I look out over the Hevsel gardens, green plots on the flood plain of the Tigris.

mar-petyunIn Mar Petyun, Chaldean Catholic Church of St Anthony. I had visited here in 1992. Then it was sombre and dilapidated. Now the lights are ablaze, all appears refurbished. An air of rejuvenation. A sign says photography is not allowed, but some locals come in and immediately take selfies, so I too pull out my camera, which I hadn’t done at Meryemana.

On my last night in town, a Kurdish wedding. Hearing, rather than finding it. Drum kit, saz and davul. Amps on 11. Feedback roaring. The drumbeat is so loud I can feel it in the pulse in my throat. On a concrete floor, under a tin roof decorated with coloured fairy lights, this isn’t steam punk. Perhaps dust punk.

The saz rages in wiry, sinuous lines and trills, climbing and crescendoing, occasionally plummeting to sound a fat whoomp. The saz, drum kit and davul, move in different rhythms and sequences, but coming together to mark the end of each stanza with a clattering, clamorous full stop. Boom ka-ka ka-boom!

I can detect no sign of a bride or groom. Seated along the walls are older men, sipping tea. On another side, on knee-high stools, women wearing coloured headscarves are massed, watching. Like coloured birds roosting.

wedding4The centre of attention is the young men, dancing, arms linked, in line. Slim youths, sweaty and raucous, in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. A red tinsel tassel is handed around, giving the bearer permission to break from the line and free form. Each takes their turn in a flurry of jaggedy movements, all bending knees and pointy elbows, shoulders swaying and skittish feet stamping.

The scene strikes me as an outpouring of joy. Of communality. Of shared intent. Some sort of release. I can’t say if it’s appropriate or symbolic, or if it’s just plain poetic. But I am ending my time in Diyarbakır in a blaze of music, light, adrenaline.

Ka-ka ka-BOOM.

wedding2 wedding1

 

 

 

Sokakta hayat var: streetlife in İstanbul

THE GRAFFITI on the wall in Kadıköy said, ‘Sokakta hayat var’: life is on the street.

In Gedik Paşa, down the hill from the Grand Bazaar, the cobblestones run rough. A Georgian woman serves me breakfast. Churches domes – Armenian, Greek – emerge above the roof lines, looming over shops, workshops, teahouses and streetfronts. Set back. Hunkered down.

In the shop, buying fruit. The shopkeeper is unusually frank, not mincing words about Turkish history, the untoward things that have gone on; of course, he’s Kurdish. Locals come and go; he speaks openly, not holding back. Then I realise, it’s a Kurdish neighbourhood.

Near Süleymaniye Mosque. Cats under the trees in the graveyard, and rooks hovering. Gypsy children. Girls in headscarves and mantö, presumably devout, arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

pomegranate-stallBetween the bazaar and Eminönü, the man selling pomegranate juice. From Mardin. Untalkative. The Türkmen women, with their elaborate head dresses, as if they are concealing beehive hairdos under floral patterns. Serene countenances with an Asiatic cast. They hover over the flagstones, gliding like swans.

Lights blazing at night; traffic continues, shadows, fumes, beams of light. People in the street, children, old men; cries and exclamations. The world afoot, each individual on their own vitally important errands; independent yet synchronised. Islam is the religion of trade – every one buying, selling, lugging shopping, offloading something, haggling, bargaining, reaching a deal. Pushing carts laden with fruit, socks, stationery, nail clippers, sunflower seeds in brown-paper bags. The bearded hoca sitting opposite the church, with his wares laid out beside him on the footpath. The small boy manning the till at his father’s corner shop.

The next morning, the call to prayer. Seagulls hover and squawk. A view of the Blue Mosque from an attic window.

On the hill between Kadıköy and Üsküdar, the cemetery with its cypress trees and family plots. The scent of lopped fig trees. On Nuh Kuyusu, the stonemasons tapping away at marble headstones. The barber in his basement-level shop, looking wistfully at the street.

mihrimar-sultan-2In Üsküdar, by night. Mopeds going the wrong way, on the footpath, through red lights. The blind men, one in dark glasses, sitting outside the mosque, smiling benevolently, their canes folded neatly on the bench beside them. The wind through the plane trees.

Turkish women, with their dark eyes, their chatter and inflected vowels, aswirl around me, like shades. The Mihriman Sultan Mosque, a drab tortoise in the daylight, now illuminated in pastel shades, peach, saffron.

So many shops, so many specialising in one thing: çiğ köfte, chicken kebabs, börek, baklava. The street pedlars with mussels or simit. The büfes, with their wet hamburgers and cheesy toasts and sosislis. But nowhere to get a drink.

The Syrian refugee family, sitting, cross-legged, on cardboard boxes on the grass, presumably where they will sleep for the night. The little girl, perhaps eight years old, sitting so upright, so proudly. So heartbreakingly proudly. As the commuting masses rush past her unheeding. Night descending. The ferries moving across the dark waters. The lights on the Bosphorus Bridge flickering.

Next day. Karaköy. Scents of the sea, of the fish in the bazaar, of diesel fumes. The cries of the fishmongers. And the growl of the ferries.

Meeting my new Kurdish friend. Sitting on the little stools. Talking so intently that we keep ordering more tea, glass by glass.

st-anthony-churchIn St Anthony’s. Muslim pilgrims in a Catholic church. The headscarved girls taking selfies with the altar as a backdrop. Lighting candles that flicker in the water trays. The attendant telling people not to take photos and pointing at the pictures of forbidden activities, proceeding to answer his phone when it rings.

On İstiklal, the folksingers. He with red hair, playing a güsle; his rich baritone perfectly in harmony with her soprano. Gypsy junkies nodding amid the assembled crowd, jerking awake to clap politely after each song. The 3/4 (or perhaps 7/8) rhythms and tapping feet. Of course, the singers are Laz – his red hair.

The blind man busking with his recorder, his wife, with eyes unseeing, clutching his arm and talking on her phone. Heading down toward the Galata Tower. Nargile smoke. Wisps of coconut and cherry bomb.

singers-istiklalLeaving Karaköy again on the ferry. The silhouettes, the cardboard cut-out canopies, the domes, the minarets, like silverware: candlesticks, salt and pepper pots. The sun emerging from behind the clouds to set the Bosphorus ablaze, a flickering sheet of beaten gold.

On the Asian side again. The fire truck, siren blaring, stuck in gridlock.

After dark, the flagstones slick with rain. No moon in the sky.

Life is on the street.

Remembering İsmail Gaspirali: Tatar man of letters

IT HAS BEEN a big year for anniversaries. It’s a hundred years since the outbreak of WWI, of course, and recently we saw the 13th anniversary of September 11, a date which must be nigh-on globally recognised. That particular day this year also marked a centenary, one that received little attention. On September 11, 1914, İsmail Gaspirali (Gasprinski) passed away after a lifetime as an intellectual, educator and politician.

A great man of letters and polymath, Gaspirali was a Crimean Tatar. The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Eurasian people living, as their name would suggest, in the Crimean Peninsula. Another of those fabled/clichéd crossroads, Crimea through its history has seen Greek and Genoese colonists, Armenians, Bulgarians and nomadic peoples including Scythians, Cumans, Kipchaks, Khazars and the descendants of Genghis Khan, the Golden Horde, all of whom to different degrees have contributed to the Tatar gene pool. They are counted as a Turkic people, speaking a language that is related to Turkish.

Gasprinskiy-headshotWith all those comings and goings, the Tatars have had a complicated and torrid history. They established themselves in the Crimea and the northern littoral of the Black Sea in the 13th century, before creating a khanate in the 1440s then becoming vassals of the Ottoman Turks in 1475. Under the Ottomans, the Crimean khans enjoyed a degree of autonomy, with their capital at Bakhchisaray (from the Turkic bahçe saray, literally ‘garden palace’). The Russians, under Catherine the Great, then annexed their territory in 1783, sending thousands of Tatar refugees to Ottoman Turkey, where they were largely assimilated into the Turkish nation.

Born near Bakhchisaray in 1851, Ismail Gaspirali pursued a modernising mission for his people and fellow Muslims of the Russian empire. He was inspired by the vision of the Islamic Modernists a movement that sought the betterment of Muslim societies through the employment of science, technology and education in a delicate coupling with and accommodation and reinterpretation of Islamic rulings and cultural norms.

Gaspirali became an eloquent and effective proponent – and exponent – of the Modernist vision. He saw education and the emancipation of women as the most important and immediate paths to progress. He also saw that it was necessary to educate and publish for people in their mother tongues rather than the Russian spoken by the educated elites across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Gaspirali is also credited as the founder of the Jadid movement (from usul-i jadid, meaning ‘new method’), which established new schooling models for Muslim populations across Central Asia.

The then-new technology of mass printing, in particular newspapers, was central to Gaspirali’s modernisation project. In 1883 – another centenary, this one marking the Russian annexation of Crimea – he established his periodical Tercüman (from the Turkish/Turkic for ‘interpreter’), publishing it in Russian and a modified Turkic. In many respects the underlying philosophy and intellectual bases for Tercüman served as a model for Molla Nasreddin, the celebrated Azeri satirical periodical established in Baku in the early 20th century, which adopted a much more scathing tone but which covered similar intellectual territory including advocating for women’s rights, curtailing the influence of conservatives clerics and championing reason over retrograde custom.

tercuman-imageThe vision of the Islamic Modernists appears entirely reasonable, laudable and practicable even today, all the more so in comparison to the nihilistic apparitions that so many modern-day jihadis espouse. But the Islamic Modernists of imperial Russia’s domain were smothered by the flow tides of history, not least among them the Bolsheviks. Tercüman ceased publication in 1918, four years after Gaspirali’s death. The Jadidists were largely purged and their innovations brought to an abrupt close. So began all manner of horrors.

As for the Crimean Tatars, the travails that began under Catherine the Great did not cease under the Soviets. This year marks the 70th anniversary of their enforced exile from their homeland by Josef Stalin on the pretext that they were Nazi collaborators. A quarter of a million Tatars (as well as other Crimean minorities including Armenians, Greeks and Bulgarians) were deported en masse to Uzbekistan, with thousands dying in transit or, later, in squalor and penury abandoned to the extremes of the Central Asian climate. Stalin’s allegations were entirely false something that the Soviets recognised in 1967. From the mid-1980s Tatars began returning to their homeland, with numbers accelerating after the collapse of the USSR. Still, as of earlier this decade, the Tatars constituted less than one-fifth of the population of the Crimean Peninsula.

The palace at Bakhchisaray

The palace at Bakhchisaray

With events earlier this year as Russia once again annexed the Crimea the Tatars are once again in a precarious position. It is generally understood that the Tatars supported the Euromaidan protests that shook Kiev, that they continue to see Kiev, rather than Moscow, as the capital city they should rightfully owe allegiance to, that Ukraine’s drawing closer to Western Europe would be in their best interests. Since the annexation Russian officials demanded that Tatars cede their land to Russians.  Many Tatars feared that a new round of ethnic cleansing may be in the offing and others are taking it upon themselves to leave before they are forced to do so, fleeing to the safety of Lviv, near the Polish border.

How Gaspirali would weep at the predicament that his people have found themselves in, how circumstances could have gone so spectacularly awry, so far from the optimistic, progressive, enlightened ambition that he had, where he saw the benefits of ‘modernity’ being shared and enjoyed across ethnic and religious and cultural divides by all the peoples of Eurasia… Still, Gaspirali stands as a beacon, proof positive that people of passion, of commitment to the betterment of humankind, of heart, of vision, of compassion are not restricted to any one faith or ethnicity or ‘civilisation’ but might emerge anywhere.

Would that there were more of them, and fewer shitty, malevolent idiosyncrasies in the unfurling of uncaring history and heartless fate…