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.

Musing on İzmir, Aegean metropolis

The Journal of Turkish Weekly recently published a review I wrote of Ottoman Izmir: the Rise of a Cosmopolitan Port. You can read my review here.

It is an interesting book, a scholarly investigation of a period during the mid-19th century when İzmir (then generally known as Smyrna) experienced unprecedented growth, thriving as a multicultural trading port linking the fertile Anatolian hinterland and the markets of the eastern Mediterranean and Europe more broadly. Written by an art historian, Sibel Zandi-Sayek, the book aims to present a non-partisan view of the machinations and interactions of the city’s very ethnically diverse citizenry at a time when a centralising Ottoman bureaucracy and foreign powers were seeking to capitalise on burgeoning trade networks and shifting geopolitical dynamics.

İzmir is Turkey’s third city but it is generally outshone by the star quality of İstanbul and Ankara’s capital-city kudos. İzmir’s 19th-century boomtown persona was effectively extinguished in 1922, when triumphant Turkish armies expelled a Greek expeditionary force and the historical core of the city was put to the torch. Today it is a busy, workaday city without any particular distinguishing feature, its multicultural history all but eradicated. The wholly admirable Bir Zamanlar publishing house in İstanbul is currently holding an exhibition of postcards displaying the diversity and vibrancy of İzmir in the early 20th century.

İzmir was the city I lived in for a bit over a year in 1994-5, teaching at a private language college in the bayside neighbourhood of Alsancak. At the time I was blissfully unaware of its colourful past, spending my time generally underwhelmed by ranks of tower blocks and pedestrianised promenades lined with interlocking tessellated pavers where once stood the bustling neighbourhoods and “polyglot enclaves” of Levantine entrepreneurs, Greek and Maltese stevedores, Frankish merchants, Armenian traders and printing presses that clanged through the day to produce periodicals and flyers in five different scripts and many more tongues. Back in the day, Izmir even had its own dialect of Greek, known as Smyrneika.

In retrospect I can recognise that there is a significant historical imprint on the modern city. Looking at some of the 19th-century maps in Zandi-Sayek’s book I can see that the avenues of Alsancak, and the broad avenues of neighbourhoods nearby, follow the same routes as the streets of 19th-century Smyrna.  I recall once crossing a side road not far from the Alsancak waterfront promenade and realising with some amazement that the man-hole cover before me was labelled in Arabic script. Not far from here, was the Greek consulate, one of few remaining historical buildings on the waterfront. There has been some controversy about the consulate lately, with some media reporting that the Greek government has put it up for sale.

There were also some neighbourhoods of Ottoman-era houses climbing a hill behind the bazaar at Kemeraltı. I would wander there sometimes in the afternoons with a friend.  We would climb the steep, narrow streets spying the architectural accoutrements of an earlier age: wooden shutters, latticed balconies, window grates of wrought iron. Life was lived on the streets here. Women tended basil plants in empty olive-oil tins; aged men sat on doorsteps to watch the streetly goings-on; children giggled and kicked balls down steep flights of steps. Smiling locals would ask us where we were going, and we’d smile back and say we were just wandering, at which point they would decide we were crazy. One bemused child, skipping beside us, asked, “Why do you come here? Everything is dirty and ugly and old.” Everyone offered directions to us, convinced that we could only come that way because we were lost. I wrote in my diary at the time that after almost a year in İzmir I felt that I had finally found the beating heart…