Twenty years after the two countries almost went to war over a tiny islet in the middle of the Aegean Sea, relations between Turkey and Greece have become pleasantly boring.
Mainstream politicians no longer exchange veiled threats or make boogeymen out of one another. Dreadfully tired, quasi-historical debates on the origins of products such as yoghurt, baklava, or coffee, as well as patent wars between Greek and Turkish businesses, are less frequent. Dogfights between Greek and Turkish pilots, once a staple of the Aegean skies, are increasingly rare.
In the place of the quarreling F-16s, there are an increasing number of tourist-packed commercial flights between the two countries. The number of Greek tourists visiting Turkey has jumped 40% in the past ten years. In turn, Athens removed visa requirements for Turkish tourists on day-trips to many Greek islands in 2012. As a result, more than one million Turkish tourists visited Greece last year. It is hard nowadays to run into a restaurateur in a touristy-enough Greek town who doesn’t know at least a few Turkish phrases, and Greek taverns themselves are becoming more and more popular in Istanbul.
And then, of course, there are Turkey’s famous television series. As a stroll into any video store in Athens will make clear, the drawn-out Turkish melodramas and their heart-throb leads are as popular in Greece as across the Middle East. In fact, Greeks very much started the entire trend when the series “Foreign Groom”, a comedy about the “impossible love” between a Turkish girl and a Greek guy became a massive hit in Greece as early as 2005. Countless others followed, especially after the financial crisis struck in Greece, and TV bosses realized importing series from Turkey was up to ten times cheaper than producing them in Greece itself. The craze has since showed signs of fading, but the shared experience of popular culture continues to catalyze conversations between members of the two nations.
As these examples suggest, there is a growing mutual interest among Greeks and Turks that cannot be denied. This, perhaps, hints at the start of a new social and cultural relationship between the two peoples – one which defies the conventional understanding that Greeks and Turks despise one another.
Fascinations and Histories
In my experience, this mutual interest between Turks and Greeks, especially those of my own generation, often borders on total fascination. Upon getting over the shock that I am a Turk who speaks passable Greek, most Athenians will display their surprising degree of knowledge on Turkish geography, ask fairly informed questions on the country’s politics, show off the Turkish phrases they know and ask me to teach them a few more, or describe their own wonderful last trip to Bodrum or to Cappadocia. Readers of Orhan Pamuk, those who have tried or will try to learn Turkish at one point, and advocates of the sentiment “We would be just fine, Greeks and Turks, if not for those crooked politicians” are abundant. Replace Bodrum with Chios and Orhan Pamuk with Dido Sotiriou, and the formula holds almost as true in Istanbul (except for the part about geographic knowledge, but we’ll get there soon.)
People on both sides of the Aegean, as I have observed, are immensely interested in one another’s lives and cultures, and search actively for connections these may have with those of their own. But why?
I believe that the answer lies in the shared history of Greeks and Turks, and its sudden, traumatic end in the 20th century. After almost a thousand years of conflict and peaceful coexistence, following their last war in 1922, Greece and Turkey signed the largest population exchange agreement in the history of the world. The exchange uprooted close to 1.5 million Greeks from Anatolia and 500,000 Muslims from Greece. Removed from the lands they have lived on for countless generations, these forced migrants often faced abject poverty and alienation in their new homes.
With a population of only 17 million, contemporary Greece has many citizens whose families have been scarred by the exchange – many Greeks know their “Turkish” geography well because the names and locations of ancestral hometowns continue to be passed down from generation to generation.
The descendants of Muslim migrants to Turkey, who were fewer in number, are perhaps better absorbed into the country’s much larger population of almost 80 million. Nonetheless, the memory of coexistence, of a mode of cultural production that had its roots in Greeks and Greekness, also exists in many parts of Turkey. This is partly a byproduct of the large Greek communities that existed in the Ottoman Empire before 1922.
As such, when a Greek or Turk shows interest in the other’s life or culture, they are often trying to discover more about themselves, their own roots, their own histories–all of which, in a sense, were “interrupted” in the past century.
As nationalisms based on vilifying those on the other side of the Aegean give way to different political rallying calls in both countries – largely because Turkey and Greece both have problems more important than one another at the moment — people in Greece and Turkey are able to investigate the causes of the “interruptions” in their relations by engaging with one another on a much larger scale. This, I believe, is potentially much more productive and conciliatory than the debates of the past.
Dreams and Fears
I say “potentially” because there are a number of pitfalls and obstacles, as Turks and Greeks continue to engage with one another in greater numbers and in a wider variety of settings.
The first of these is a tendency to romanticize the past. I have known both Greeks and Turks who, when interacting with one another, swell with nostalgia for an imagined past of perfect, harmonious coexistence. This is often accompanied with a “If only those politicians/Americans/Germans/Brits hadn’t interfered” attitude, which is a projection of contemporary anxieties onto history. It also avoids some hard historical truths, of willing bloodshed and cruelty and injustice by both Greeks and Turks towards one another, that we all have to confront if we are really to “engage” with one another.
A second pitfall is that perhaps, as a byproduct of this romantic attitude toward history, many Turks and Greeks see themselves reflected too precisely in the other. This attitude, one of saying “Oh, they are just like us!”, is in reality a way of looking at the other without moving one’s eyes away from the mirror. It ultimately limits cross-cultural engagement to only those parts of both cultures that are similar, whereas “understanding” truly begins only when differences are embraced.
This fallacy takes on a particularly sad form when politically-disillusioned secular Turks are amazed by how Greece seems to be a place where religious conservatism plays a less visible role in politics, and where life seems to have a more liberal spin to it in general. With the countless (real or assumed) cultural commonalities between Turkey and Greece in mind, many of these Turks approach Greece primarily as the place Turkey could have or should have been. This too is, of course, counterproductive to a realistic engagement, for it is not an exploration of Greece and Greekness but of an imagined Turkey and Turkishness.
The Dogfights That Remain
The most severe obstacles facing the formation of true understanding and even kinship between the two neighboring peoples come from nationalisms that are still strongly engrained within the institutions of both countries. Yes, anti-Greek or anti-Turkish sentiments are no longer the mainstream nationalistic war banners they once were. But, the fact that politicians are busy looking elsewhere doesn’t mean either state has done enough to challenge the many ways nationalisms proliferate.
The education system in both countries is one area where there has been little progress on this issue. These curricula often embrace a national exceptionalism that borders on racism. As early as my primary school days, I remember being “taught” about the seemingly limitless virtues of the Turkish people and how I was supposed to take an immense amount of pride in the “privilege” of being born Turkish. Many in Turkey take these lessons feverishly to heart.
A Greek colleague summarized, for me, the corresponding message given in many Greek schools as: “Everybody else was running around being barbarians while we were building the Acropolis.”
Many Turkish pupils are taught about the Greek movement of independence from the Ottoman Empire and Greece’s post-WWI invasion of Western Anatolia as a form of treason, an unforgiveable, insensible betrayal. In the Greek educational system, as the same colleague puts it, “The main storyline of ‘Turks are bad’ never changes.”
While school curricula in both countries are not overtly anti-Greek or anti-Turkish, these nationalistic lessons and teachings often sow the seeds of hostility and reinforce corrosive stereotypes and anachronistic ways of thinking about history and culture. The excessive national pride and righteousness against “the other” engrained in the minds of pupils, on both sides, creates individuals who are unable to intellectually process, let alone discuss, less flattering realities, such as the against Istanbulite Greeks or the in Turkish villages in 1922, which are absent from the history textbooks of each country.
These contested, official narratives are, therefore, not only the engine behind a regressive nationalism. They are also incomplete histories that create chasms between Greeks and Turks themselves, and prevent true mutual understanding.
Two Less Distant Coasts?
Despite all these problems, it is important to remember that things are, indeed, better between Greeks and Turks than they have been in a long time.
When the Bishop of Thessaloniki , because “watching Turkish soaps is tantamount to telling them we surrendered,” the ratings of these shows did not suffer. When the head of a Turkish tourism association urged Turks to stop going to the Greek islands and, instead, patronize the services of “patriotic” Turkish businesses this past August, he was laughed off, as Turkish holidaymakers kept on reserving trips to the Dodecanese.
As these anecdotes reveal, petty appeals to nationalism and othering are losing ground among ordinary Greeks and Turks.
Sure, lines of communication and understanding between the two peoples remain imperfect, and nationalisms operate in subtle, long-lasting ways. But ordinary interactions between Greeks and Turks, intensified and enthusiastic as they are, have the potential to keep bringing the two peoples closer together. As an oft-heard Greek saying goes, etzi einai i zoi: So is life. Left free as it is nowadays to take its own course, life will keep reminding Greeks and Turks how irreplaceable they have been to one another for centuries upon centuries. The two peoples will see –they are perhaps already seeing– how getting to know one another helps them understand themselves better. Hopefully, the next time it is politically convenient for Turks to be “against Greeks” and Greeks to be “against Turks,” each will realize that it really means they are against their own selves.
It is a long, uncertain journey; and things will surely get uncomfortable along the way. They do for me in Athens sometimes, like when a cab driver asks the most explosive question of them all: “Which one is it…Istanbul or Konstandinopoli?” (Istanbul being the Turkish name of the city and Constantinople its name during the Greek Byzantine Empire.) But I don’t actually mind. I find it quite satisfying to turn to the grinning cab driver, even though I know the resulting conversation might go beyond the limits of my Greek, and answer: “Both.”