Starting from the late 19th century, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, along with the Austria-Hungarian empire, did give way to a new world order around the Mediterranean while sweeping millions of people off the lands they knew as home. The borders are still somewhat volatile and the maps are at a constant change in this part of the world. That’s why we call the Middle-East the slippery zone, I guess. What the maps do not bear is the stories of ordinary people. Tragedies untold. Millions of people were forced to leave the land we call home today in the same way my ancestors had to emigrate to this land all the way from Caucasia because of their ethnic origin. As I say more often than not, karma is heavy here. I will stick to the stories of this city as this is a blog on Istanbul, but this does not mean other stories are less tragic. The population exchange between Greece and Turkey marks one of the biggest forced migrations of the 20th century, forcing 2 million people to leave their homes. Fortunately, Istanbullites were exempt from this procedure until…
Until it became apparent that there was no longer a multi-cultural empire but one nation state advocating one language, one religion, one sect, and one ethnic identity. Many unfortunate incidents forced non-muslim communities to leave Istanbul in the first half of the 20th century, but the final blow was in 1964, when the tension concerning Cyprus escalated between Turkey and Greece. Under the false pretense of Cyprus dispute, Istanbul Rums of Greek nationality (Etymologically, the word Rum means Roman in Arabic, referring to people of Roman origin. Later in the modern times, it is used to refer to the people of Greek origin living in Turkey and Cyprus) became the target of black propaganda and were expelled in 12 hours. The initial number was 12,000 but with family members of Turkish nationality, the number added up to 50,000. Their bank accounts were frozen, their assets were seized… They were allowed to take only 20 dollars and 20kgs luggage allowance with them. Another chapter opened in the history of Istanbul: muslim bourgeoisie, homogenization of the society and provincialization of Istanbul. But, that’s another story.
We grew up in a city of haunted mansions (yalis) by the Bosphorus, or abandoned monumental buildings in the then-dodgy Pera, the vernacular Turkish imitated by Turks with a strange accent but not spoken by anyone else, some people that appeared only in my father’s childhood memories but never in real life. We kept on hearing the word Rum, though we never got to meet any Rum. I never dared to ask my grandma where their Rum neighbors had gone. You wouldn’t have gone further with one state channel, two newspapers and no internet following the military coup d’etat of the 80s, anyway. Nobody told us why they were gone. They were gone, and that was it! It took a long time for me to put the pieces together, and it took a long time for people to openly talk about the deportation of Istanbul Rums. Today, when I walk in the old neighborhoods of Istanbul and meet elderly Istanbullites, I see that they are so eager to talk about the past. Rums had joie de vivre, they say, we lost our joie de vivre when they left.
Today, march 16th is the 50th anniversary of the mass expulsion of 1964. I cannot help but think that one day I might be off to somewhere else for similar reasons: not fitting into the new identity. It is not a topic you could turn your head and easily dismiss. When I see Syrian refugees in the streets of Istanbul, I realize how easy it is to get displaced. Maybe overnight? What if you are to leave your home city with 20 dollars and 20kgs-luggage one day like Rums of Istanbul or Syrians?