IN PURSUIT OF SMYRNA (A HAPLESS TRAVELLER’S TALE)
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
It was meant to be a well-prepared quest to visit modern-day Izmir in Turkey. I was supposed to have been mentally immersed in history books and literature, poised to delve into the old city known to Greeks as Smyrna, which was as much a place as an idea. Smyrna, synonymous with the dwindling days of the Ottoman empire. La belle époque. The old place. Smyrna. The beginnings of a twentieth century fascination with partitions of people, defiling and dividing humanity in the hunt for pure religious states. Until now, I had only had the possibility of constructing Smyrna through the rembetika music, known colloquially as the Greek blues.
No quest could have had less pure beginnings.
Our holiday plans swept away by the floods in Istanbul, my friend and I descended south to a small village called Yaklivak, some 20km outside the glitzy resort town of Bodrum. Obviously, the sensible and well-planned types amongst you would have warned us that glittering towns filled with Turkish nightlife might find themselves waning during the holy month of Ramadan. The forearmed amongst you may have predicted the holidaying hordes of Englishmen and women who landed (off-season of course) upon our gorgeous hotel, nestled in the hills amongst silvery olive groves, watering themselves all day with cheap Turkish beer and reserving their sunbeds at first light of dawn. Suddenly, this sweet boutique hotel – a term much overused in Turkey and which for now I leave nameless – had transformed from Turkish Delight into Cheap Chip Heaven. No, a week of R&R was clearly beyond us. We needed a car, and we needed out.
And quite simply, that is how the pursuit of Smyrna began. A place that has captured my imagination through history and the haunting sounds of the oud was about to become a modern day reality as the steeply winding roads that hugged the coastal cliffs and spectacular countryside led us out of the Bodrum peninsula towards Izmir.
Rembetika and “population exchange”
My way into Smyrna’s past began as a love for rembetika music, which the immigrants into Piraeus and Thassaloniki in Greece brought with them on the ships after they were deported in what became known cynically as the “population exchanges” of 1922 between Greece and Turkey. Practically speaking, it is true that what took place was an unprecedented “population exchange” legitimised internationally by the Lausanne treaty, allowing the Turkish government to “return” between 1.5 and 2 million “Greek Christians” to the newly emerging modern state of Greece and the Greek state to “return” perhaps half a million “Turkish Muslims” to Turkey. Returning people to places which they have never visited, still yet lived in, is an astonishing term in the political landscape created at that time. In the 1990s, that same desire was labelled ethnic cleansing, or genocide. There is much blame, much bitterness and much nationalistic jingo on both sides and this is not the place to recite that. Nothing I say in this piece is to exonerate either side, or to blame one side more than the other. But this visit was to Smyrna, not to Thrace in Greece, where perhaps similar thoughts in reverse would enter my mind, as the Greek flag is raised in an unquestioning assertion that to be Greek is to to belong to the Christian Orthodoxy. Suffice to say that the quest for ‘pure’ states – as it has done in Bosnia, India, Rwanda, Israel and others – leads to a catastrophe of human suffering. In the port cities of Piraeus and Thessaloniki, the sadness and misery of that enforced migration was brought alive through rembetika music, drawing on the tunes, instruments and sentiments of the Asia Minor, and particularly the burning city of Smyrna, left behind.
Followed by the finger of an oud
We bypassed the city’s beckoning finger at first, choosing the more hedonistic splendours of an afternoon at glamorous beach resorts in Alaçati and Çesme. But even there, I was not to escape my fate. Nor indeed could my luckless friend, whose idea of a beach holiday had been converted into an 850km trek though she cannot abide the nostalgic strains of rembetika. Arriving late at night in the Turkish equivalent of Capri, with not a single English voice to be heard, the winding melody wrapped itself into the autumn air. It was Independence Day in Alaçati, and although we were too late to witness the spectacle of the grand Efes dancers, twirling their noble moustaches in the Aegean equivalent of the zebekiko dance, made famous by Zorba the Greek, the strains of the oud would float over us over dinner. A local Turkish restauranteur, whose origins lie in Salonica, is one of many urbane Turks who take an deceptive pride in their Greek roots. Amongst old Levantine families and an upper strata of Turkish society on the Westernmost coasts, it’s suddenly chic to be Greek. So it was that we stayed in another gorgeous place, the Tashmahal hotel, whose six rooms and pomegranate-laden courtyard had nothing to do with India and everything to do with the house’s origins as a Greek winemaker’s hostel before, before.
Through sunglass-tinted eyes, it is clear that my pursuit of Smyrna was hardly the planned pilgrimage I had envisioned over the decade in which its underworld music has placed an inexplicable longing deep inside of my stomach, an aching which almost breaks my heart as the chords transport me to a world where once-elegant men and women remembered the society left behind forever on the shores of Asia Minor. The pursuit of Smyrna just happened.
Almost by mistake.
But it did happen. And I did finally reach Izmir, if only in a glimpse and promise of return.
Smyrna, Izmir, unfolding out of a bay
The city unfolds out of a bay, shrouded perpetually in a wistful mist that descends over the climbing colourful houses, an array of pastel blues, greens and pinks that line the arc from the sea up steep slopes. It is impossible to fail to notice that the Turkish flag is draped across every door, building and natural peak in the district, demanding absolute unity and loyalty.
The morning mist lingers over the Izmiri commuters, who grab tiny glasses of tea and bagel-like breads called simit, stuffed with salty goat’s cheese and tomatoes as they race for the ferries to work across the bay. Tugs lie moored along the choppy water’s edges, their funnels rising like the masts of the narghile water pipes, for now hidden behind kilim-decked wooden benches until nightfall. Giant cargo ships lie docked in the deeper waters, oddly resembling the port of Piraeus. The seafront is lined for kilometres with cafes proudly displaying battered backgammon boards, university students pretending that they are not holding hands, and the sturdy rows of fishermen casting invisible nylon nets out to catch the morning bream. A pleasing nonchalance spills onto the pavements, releasing the carefree spirit of the seaside and adventure of a port. Delicious food is found on every corner: Gözleme, a stuffed village bread, little kebab sticks of çöp sis and grilled chicken as well as fragrant lentil soups and pide, a Turkish pizza dressed in minced meat or cheese and peppers. As I sit and contemplate the unfolding cityscape, my morning sweetened by strong, sugary black tea, I am approached by a grandmother, Yaya, in her billowing trousers big enough to hide a harem, her head tidily covered in a village scarf and her features lined by the sun and worries of a century which moved forwards, backwards, and then paused. She asks me if she can read my tea-grinds, thrusting camomile flowers and wild sage leaves into my hair. I wonder what she has seen and what she will see again, for me, for her, for us all but since I don’t speak Turkish and she doesn’t speak English, we both shrug amiably and she goes in search of her next customer.
Kadifekele rises sharply on the city’s slopes, bearing the distinctive skyline of the city. From afar, its colourful buildings creep up the hill like an architectural jigsaw puzzle. Up close, daylight betrays its shanty-like existence playing host to the large communities of Kurds and Eastern Turks who arrive here in search of prosperity. Leaving the strains of Turkish pop by the shoreline, I choose the lazy option and climb the hill by the historical elevator. It was built in 1907 by the city’s once-strong Jewish community whose synagogues remain in the city today. Almost immediately, the tolerant, affluent city begins to disappear. In its place scrambles a vibrant street life borne of poverty and strict traditional values. A mishmash of pink, yellow and blue swirls between houses, headscarves and mosques. Orthodox stone churches, in their octagonal designs, are veiled by attached minarets constructed of newer stone, hoping to hide an inglorious past by the repetition of God’s name. This distinctive and fascinating quarter of Izmir is built out of the ashes of a city razed to the ground in 1922, part of the quest for purity for a modern state that would call itself secular but which had killed off its Armenian Christan population and was threatening to do the same to the Orthodox Greek population. Still today, the purity is not sufficient – for humankind is always too aware of its dirt, sin and tiny differences – as women on these slopes adopt the manteaux of their Iranian neighbours, and wear colourful floral headscarves in a modish nod to their country women.
This is the same district which a local trader ripping off leather-imitations of Prada bags warned us not to approach. He told us that the Kurds will steal from us, harm us, hold us, just as the trader himself would have been told that the Christians, the Armenians, the Greeks and others would harm him. A fifth of the population killed, destroyed, removed for being the other. The other who shared language, custom, food and culture eradicated from school books and official teachings.
History is here but not here as we head to the Kemaralti bazaar below, a market laden with the calls and clothes of another age. Famous Bursa black figs are literally bursting with flood waters, but peaches and pomegranates lie in perfect mounds amongst piles of black, green and red grapes as well as purple, yellow and turquoise headscarves. Turkey’s third largest city is a contrast of tone and texture, but one that has tried to erase most of the memories of her past.
Bittersweet, like Greek and Turkish coffee
There is an inexplicable sweetness in this shroud, however, for the souls of centuries leave their fond imprints on the shores of the bay. Energy pours out of the sea into the teashops which fill the bazaar and the seafront, fuelling the city’s folk with tiny cups of tea and potent coffee. Trays of baklawa lie adorned with green pistachios, baskets of freshly picked and peeled walnuts heap the pavements as they may have done for centuries. The outer edges of this unplanned, sprawling city ooze like honey towards the Aegean, a city so far west the fishermen can almost throw their nets to Greece.
If I close my eyes, I can hear a trembling wail rumbling in the wind. Maybe the voices of those who were forced to leave in a matter of days left their tears here, plastered on the breeze. Maybe those who were forcibly brought here looked westwards and cried. There are no graves, and no monuments to the dead, killed and buried. That is why the music lives on, in the weeping of the oud which defines this place which exists and yet does not exist.
Smyrna. History does indeed cling to her hills, rising and falling with the morning and evening mists. As daylight climbs out of the bay, however, Smyrna is no more. Izmir has marched straight in.
I have snatched but the briefest of glimpses into this city where history began in 1922. Life is still drunk in tiny coffee cups and served with bite-size chunks of apricot loukoum. The way it always was, but not quite.
In and out, just like that
My quest, barely begun, was already ending as the banalities of a flight to catch meant we had to leave before the dots could be joined, and so we headed for the easy hills of Sirinçe, to clean mountain air and goat shepherds, and the drummer who banged through the streets at 3am, in pursuit of centuries of tradition, to ensure the faithful rise to prayer, and the faithless are condemned to sleeplessness.
Where civilisation demands civilisation
There are no easy answers to these vexed and heated questions of nationalism which started the twentieth century on these shores, once known as Asia Minor. Memories lie dead or faded, myth become fact, barbarians become the civilised, civilisation rewrites history.
No, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Progress demands clarity.
To be continued.
September 20th 2009