“The civil war had driven us all the way to the edges of the sea and left us there. Our families had been decimated in one way or another. What struggles lay ahead of us? We had no way of knowing. So it was quite natural that on some nights, as we sat together at Nuri’s place, facing into the darkness of our futures, we would raise our glasses and loudly toast, “To us, to the children of war!”
– Ahmet Yorulmaz, Children of War
Without doubt, the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 is an important part of Turkish and Greek histories.
In Turkey, I, like my peers, began to study the history of the Ottoman Empire/the Republic of Turkey at an early age. Whenever we covered WWI and the decline of the Ottoman Empire in high school (many, many years ago), we took great pride in the victory of the Turkish Great Offensive that ended the Greco-Turkish War and gave birth to the Turkish Republic.
A remarkable moment in history, for sure–one that needed to be studied and remembered. As we delved into the facts, the dates, the ramifications, and so on in high school, I realized later in college that we had not gone beyond history textbooks.
There’s so much that is left out when we study the history of the age-old rivalry between two neighbors, Greece and Turkey in general and the Greco-Turkish War in particular. For example, I don’t remember us covering the emotional, mental and physical challenges that Greek and Turkish refugees faced during the Great Population Exchange. I don’t remember us humanizing the process– nor do I remember us delving deep into the injustices the two governments had inflicted on the refugees as they were compelled to leave their home, properties, friends, lovers and memories behind.
Children of War fills this gap in the historical record by presenting an honest narrative about war, identity and collective trauma.
Penned by Turkish journalist and author Ahmet Yorulmaz (1932-2014) in 1997 and translated from the Turkish by Paula Darwish in 2019, this brief work of historical fiction sheds a light on a forgotten part of Ottoman/Turkish/Greek history: the forced migration of Cretan Muslims from Greece to Anatolia.
By signing the Lausanne Peace Treaty in 1923, Turkey and Greece agreed to displace two million people (app. 23.000 of whom were Muslim Cretans) on the basis of their religion. Yorulmaz’s beautifully written story explores the ramifications of the population exchange through the perspective of a young Muslim Cretan, Hassanaki.
Hassanaki narrates his experiences of love and loss, as he explores what it means to straddle two identities at a historical conjuncture characterized by the rise of nationalist trends. As the number of anti-Muslim/Turkish hate crimes increases on the Island of Crete, Hassanaki struggles to comprehend the polarizing rhetoric that divides the Cretans into “us” and “them.”
“We were always immersed in both worlds. You can say as often as you like that it is religious unity that makes a nation a nation, as I’m sure in most cases is true, but the Cretans were an exception to the rule and in the most positive way.
We said, “We are Turks!” but that was as far as it went.
It’s not that I want to put down our other communities of Turks, I just want to demonstrate how strong both our religious beliefs and our sense of community were.”
Elsewhere, he writes:
“If someone asked a Cretan Turk, in Greek of course, “Mehmed, are you a Turk?” the typical reply would come, in very poignant Greek, “I swear in the name of Mary that I am a Turk!”
As Muslim Cretans are increasingly viewed as a threat to Greek unity, it becomes more and more challenging to maintain peace on the island. Thus, Hassanaki is forced to flee Crete, and he emigrates to Ayvalik, Turkey, a coastal city located right across the Island of Lesvos, in 1923. In Greece, Hassanaki, like other Muslims, is seen as “the Other” in his homeland. Once he is compelled to “swallow the poison of leaving our homeland behind us” and relocates to Turkey, his struggle to belong continues.
“Believe me, I know how pointless it is for me to sit here in the land of my distant ancestors, reminiscing about Crete. So what if about fifteen generations of my family lived there? In the end, the Greeks cried ‘Turks out!’ They wanted to throw us from the land where we were born and bred and that’s just what they did.
So we ended up here, in Anatolia, where the people, our fellow Turks and Muslims, tell us we are ‘half infidel’ or ‘spawn of infidels.’ ”
Although he never tells the reader, it is evident that Hassanaki writes to remember–and to reclaim his Greekness and Turkishness. We can then say that the book that we are reading, which is based on the diaries of a Cretan refugee found in Ayvalik, serves as a tool through which Hassanaki preserves his hyphenated identity.
Through Hassanaki’s reflections, Yorulmaz points to the essence of the Greek-Turkish rivalry: expansionism and political power. As Hassanaki’s mentor, boss and dear friend Kiri Vladimiros tells him:
“This battle for territory started with my ancestors […] When your Turks arrived from the East, we scarpered and shrank. Now my people have got foreign powers behind them and are starting to chase yours back. Where it’s all going to end, I don’t know. […]
Whether it’s Turks or Greeks, the ones who suffer are always people, the ones who are crushed, are always the people, just the ordinary folk. If it wasn’t for the people in power constantly devising these diversions to feather their own nests, all of us, the ordinary people, we’d get along just fine-either living side by side or all jumbled up together. But they won’t leave us alone, my lad, they’ll never stop setting us against each other.”
Kiri Vladimiros’s words horrify Hassanaki, but soon he comprehends the insidious ways in which history repeats itself.
Children of War is one of the most important translated works released in 2020. Hassanaki’s story encourages us to resist the politics of demonization that breeds polarization and fear—fear of difference and of change.
Through all the marginalized characters whose voices it recovers, from the Black Cretan couple Mullah Mavruk and his wife Cemile to Hassanaki’s lover Husniye who is of North African descent, Children of War reminds us to challenge normative assumptions about ethnicity, race and identity.
In this spirit, if you’re looking for a book to read during World Refugee Day (June 20) this year, as a work of historical fiction that speaks to the present, Children of War would be a wonderful start.
Thank you to #NeemTreePress for the copy!
To all “the children of love,” here’s one of my favorite Turkish-Greek songs:
Paula Darwish on translating Children of War: