The Turkish Greeks Of Cesme

Feature by Willard Manus

Cesme is a resort town in the north of Turkey's Aegean coast, the entry point to Asia Minor from the Greek island of Chios. Since we had never been to Cesme before, we decided to stay a few days and rest up for the long bus trip we were intending to take to the interior of Turkey.

Cesme was nondescript but pleasant; nothing worth writing about, I felt--until I arranged to spend a morning spearfishing in the waters around the town. The advice I got was to head for a fishing village situated on what looked like a small island opposite Cesme but turned out to be an isthmus--a narrow strip of land with a long wooden bridge spanning a wide gap of sea. A taxi took me out to the village, which sat at the tip of the isthmus and had a rickety, weatherbeaten but not unpleasant feel to it.

A couple of dozen deepsea fishing boats rocked at anchor in the mid-day sun, their crews either dozing under awnings on deck or sitting in a nearby teahouse, playing cards and smoking. I approached one of the men and, using my few words of Turkish and much sign language, managed to convey that I was looking for someone to take me out diving.

A boy was dispatched to fetch someone. He turned out to be a tall, unshaven, gaunt chap named Ibrahim. He wore the faded, threadbare clothes of an Aegean fisherman and had the saddest eyes this side of a basset hound. He spoke a few words of English and quoted a fair price to take me out for the day, insisting that he knew exactly where "too many" big fish lurked under rocks.

His motorboat looked even shabbier and sadder than he did. It hadn't been painted in years and its inboard engine was a rusty old thing held together with strings and slats. It took Ibrahim ten minutes to get it fired up and no sooner did we reach the mouth of the harbor did it quit.

Ibrahim did not have a single tool aboard the boat. Fortunately I had pliers and screwdriver in my dive bag, enabling him to tinker with the engine and get it started. We went another hundred yards or so before it conked out once more.

As Ibrahim attacked the machine, the July sun beat down on us and he began to sweat and curse. It didn't take me long to realize he was cursing in Greek.

"How is it," I asked him, incredulously, "that you speak Greek?"

He threw the question right back at me. "How come you speak Greek?"

I explained that I was an American journalist who had lived and worked in Greece for many years. His explanation was much more interesting and poignant. Ibrahim had been born on Crete. In 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne went into effect after the Greeks lost the war against Kemal Ataturk, Ibrahim's family was obliged to pull up roots and leave Crete as part of the exchange of population agreement.

Ibrahim was just a lad then but he remembered Crete well. His family had lived there for generations and, as he said, were more Greek than Turkish. "We were completely part of life in Rethemnos, taking part in holidays, working side by side, being friends and even intermarrying, with Greeks. We had nothing to do with what went on in Turkey and that's why it was such a shock to be told suddenly we had to leave Crete and go back to 'our own' country. Turkey wasn't our country; Crete and Greece were. But it didn't matter, the Great Powers had spoken, and we had to get out."

At the same time, of course, most of the Greeks living in Asia Minor had to uproot themselves and leave their land and businesses behind to the Turks. This harsh human sacrifice to the realpolitik of national homogenization was a forerunner of what happened recently in the former Yugoslavia, under the name of "ethnic cleansing."

The Turkish government sent the Rethemnos refugees to Cesme. "There was no bridge from town then," Ibrahim explained, "so it was like living on an island. They wanted us cut off from everyone else, you see, as they didn't trust us. They knew we felt Greek in our hearts. I think they even thought we would spy for the Greek government."

From 1923 to the present, according to Ibrahim, the Turkish authorities had treated them as second-class citizens. "For a long time we were not allowed to take jobs elsewhere. We could only stay here and fish for a living or run a small shop."

Ibrahim, like his father before him, was a shoemaker. However, with just a thousand-odd souls living in his village, there was hardly enough work to keep bread on the table. So Ibrahim fished when he could, or repaired boats, or did odd jobs. He had never earned more than the equivalent of a thousand dollars a year.

"It was a long time before we got water, electricity and other basics," he said. "Life has been hard and that's why we still yearn to go back to Greece, realizing at the same time that it will never happen."

Ibrahim finally got the engine going and took me out to a dive spot which proved to be flat and barren as the Sahara. "You won't find much around here," he admitted. "Over the years we've dynamited every fish in sight."

It didn't matter; the spearfishing no longer interested me. All I wanted was to talk to Ibrahim and his compatriots and get more of their story. We returned to the village, where Ibrahim introduced me to some of his friends.

Over a bottle of ouzou (which is what they called it, not raki) I spent the next few hours talking to the local fishermen. Some called for their wives and children to gather round and listen as they questioned me about Greece, the current situation in the Mideast, American politics, and so on.

When I looked around, I noticed that many of the handwritten signs in shop windows were in Greek. The people certainly spoke Greek, not Turkish, in a Cretan dialect I found difficult to understand. The food they served was more Greek than Turkish. In short, I was sitting in the middle of a Greek village transplanted to Turkey.

Now I understood the sadness in Ibrahim's eyes; it was there in other eyes as well: a look of alienation, pain, longing. Nearly eighty years had gone by, but the old folks still talked of Crete and Rethemnos as if it were yesterday. The second and third generations evinced the same nostalgia for Greece, even though few had been there for even so much as a visit. Greece was home, Greece was good, Greece was hope. But they would never be allowed to experience the country again.

When it came time to leave, Ibrahim and his friends refused to let me pay for my coffee or food. One of the fishermen took me across the bay to Cesme in his caique. Before we departed, Ibrahim warned that the police might greet the boat when it docked and take me in for questioning. It turned out that it was technically illegal for a foreigner to visit this village, something no one had mentioned before.

"They might think you're a spy," Ibrahim cautioned.

Luckily, word hadn't got back to the Turkish port police about my unauthorized visit to the Turkish Greeks of Cesme. Nobody even so much as even looked at me when the boat docked.

I was free and clear, but unfortunately the same couldn't be said for Ibrahim or his fellow villagers.