Re-appropriating the in-betweens: reclaiming the identity of “Turkish Seed”.


Christina Chatzitheodorou, an Istanbullu Greek Rum living in London, speaks about her experience of being a Greek person living and existing in the in-between, as a “Tourkosporos” or “Turkish Seed”. 

Moving to a Turkish neighbourhood in London three years ago, I was surrounded by small shops that had several similar products to Greek ones. Going to the Turkish butcher or the bakkal to buy products that reminded me of home while I was away from it (a good quality karpuz, some feta, gozleme with spinach), I was communicating in Turkish. Yet, identifying as Greek when asked, I had some explaining to do regarding my Turkish language skills. People seemed curious to know why, as Greek, I was able to speak Turkish in the first place. You see, they have imposed on us (Greeks and Turks) narratives about rivalry, and here I was, defying those strict boundaries through a story of immigration and in between. I had to narrate a story of what it meant to be a Turkish seed. And that story always started with my grandmother, as it does now.

Born in Istanbul, Turkey, and coming to Greece in the 1970s, my grandmother was a proper Istanbullu Rum prior to her immigration journey. She lived in Istanbul her whole life, speaking Greek at home, going to a Greek school, hanging out with her Greek Rum friends. The term is widely used to describe the Orthodox Christians of modern Turkey and Christian minorities of the Near East, such as members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria. In Turkey, her Rum identity, caught up in a history of conflict and rivalry between Greece and Turkey, meant she was not only viewed as a Christian living in Turkey, but as a Greek- a potential enemy within the Turkish territory. But upon being forced to leave her beloved homeland of Istanbul, her Greekness was questioned: her immigration trip from Turkey to Greece transformed her into a “Turkish Seed”. Before her and the last few Rums who immigrated to Greece in the 1970s, three waves of Anatolian Greeks (“Turkish Seeds”) had already arrived in Greece during the 1920s, 1950s and 1960s/1970s. 

The first big wave of Anatolian refugees arrived in Greece in 1922-1923 after the Lausanne Treaty and as a result of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), with approximately one million refugees arriving in Greece. Alarmed by the escalating Turkish violence, thousands of Ottoman Greeks from Asia Minor and the Black Sea fled Turkey following the defeat of the Greek army, leaving behind most of their material possessions, which seriously hampered their ability to overcome the some of the economic hardships awaiting them in Greece¹. 

Upon their arrival, the “native” Greeks were by no means welcoming to the millions of refugees who arrived to the “motherland”. Markos Vamvakaris, one of the most well-known musicians of the rebetiko music, illustrates this in his autobiography when he talks about the prosfyges [trans. refugees]: “And the locals didn’t look kindly upon them [ the refugees]. They actually called them bad names… Get out of here! Get lost! They wouldn’t look at them. They didn’t have the love to say wait a minute, they’re our relatives, [they are] real Greeks. Let’s give them a hug. That’s not what happened”². 

Several other narrations demonstrate this hatred towards those yalanci [trans. fake] Greeks. Domna Maskalidou, a refugee from Asia Minor, mentions in an interview: “Here, in Greece, they are treated as Turks, [like] Muslims”³. Eleni Dinia, originally from Asia Minor, describes how a yiayia [trans. grandmother] berated her: “Come here, ah, you are a Turkish girl and [that’s why] you do not listen”⁴. Kyrilos Terkenidis, a second-generation refugee from Cappadocia, explains that his father “was expelled from school because the other kids called him Turkish Seed and attacked him”⁵.

Slowly, by narrating my grandmother’s immigration story, I started thinking about my identity not only as a second/third generation Istanbullu Rum, but also as an immigrant living in the UK. The closer I was to other first/second/third generation immigrants, the easier it was for me to feel at home. Was it the common struggle with the language that made me feel that way? Probably: I felt more comfortable around people who made mistakes too. The more immigrants I met, the more interesting stories I encountered. 

While Greece and Turkey would have wanted us to fight each other based on whose narrative is more true, we chose to focus on the common experience as immigrants and share stories of forced displacement and violence. Was it the stories of immigration and displacement that made us bond? I have no clear answer to that day but I truly believe it was kismet/qismat. 

Indeed, it seems to me that it is no coincidence the word xenitia/gurbet/gurba (Greek/Turkish/Arabic) exists in some languages and not in others- or at least it cannot transmit the same feeling. Some people seem more destined than others to become refugees, immigrants, displaced. Others can always identify as expats. The difference between the two is that the former have no choice but to leave, and the latter have plenty of choices to choose from. The problem, however, concerns the difficulty of the latter to understand the struggle of the former- not because it is humanly impossible to be empathetic. It is a choice made, political and inhumane in nature. A choice that the UK seems to have made. Differentiating between “good” and “bad” migrants; implementing push-back policies for people who escape strife and prosecution and “housing” them in off-shore floating prisons; increasing visa fees for people who wish to come to the UK due to the economic crisis in their home countries to prevent them from coming; all cruel choices in an already cruel world.

How one becomes an ‘Other’: What did it mean to be a “Turkish Seed” in the “native” Greek imagination? How were Anatolian Greeks constructed as “Others’?

The hostility towards Anatolian Greeks (“Turkish Seeds”), who were considered “inferior”, “less Greek” or even “non-Greek”, was based on and justified by the distinct (imaginary or not) characteristics of the Anatolian Greek refugees, such as variations in physical appearance and difference in dialect. Those characteristics were essentially racialised, with the aim of depriving the refugees of their Greekness, and Whiteness. The first Anatolian Greeks that arrived were seen as “less Greek”, but in order to be characterised as “less Greek”, and therefore as “Turkish Seeds”, they had to first be deprived of their Whiteness. The Elladites (Greeks that were born and resided in Greece) used the labels of “ksenomerites [trans. foreigners]”, “memetides [trans. Turks]”, and “varvaroi [trans. barbarians]” in order to deprive the Anatolian Greek refugees of their Whiteness, but also to reaffirm their own Whiteness: they could not be White without the less White.

Where skin colour and physical features failed to differentiate someone as a “Turkish Seed”, identity, language and dialect came to be used as points of differentiation and “Otherisation”. The dialects spoken by the Anatolian Greeks were influenced by their everyday, cosmopolitan experience in the Ottoman Empire (and later the Turkish Republic), and their Greek sounded different, with many Turkish and Arabic words being used in everyday language. To be a “Turkish Seed”, one had to speak differently.  

It was obvious that my grandmother was an Istanbullu Rum from Turkey by the way she spoke. Etel Adnan writes in a letter to Fawwaz Traboulsi while visiting Skopelos that the Greek she was overhearing there did not resemble her mother’s, or, at least, what she remembered of her mother’s Greek. She then affirms that maybe the Greek dialect spoken in Smyrna was different, “more musical, more passionate…than the one I was hearing, which seemed too rapid, too neutral”⁶. Reading these lines, I could not help but resonate with her: the Greek spoken in Smyrna and, overall, the Greek spoken by Anatolian Greeks, is different. Indeed, as I am recalling now, they seem to me more musical and more passionate too.  

One of my most recurring childhood memories revolves around my grandmother’s unique way of speaking, which was her own way of reclaiming her heritage as a “Turkish Seed”. My twin brother and I, naively and ignorantly, would make fun of her spoken Greek, and the way her grammar, sound, syntax, and wording differed. Difference was part of her story: a story of immigration and forced displacement. Yet my grandmother never felt ashamed of her dialect, nor did she wish to change it: she was fully comfortable in her “Turkish Seed” identity, which was something imposed by others but embraced and reclaimed by her. She did not once stop speaking her Istanbullu dialect, and was always loud enough for the whole neighbourhood to hear her. No matter how many times she was called, both to her face and behind her back, a “Turkish Seed”, she never ceased to carry her heritage with pride. 

Fast forward to three years ago when I moved to London: as a non-native English speaker who attended Greek speaking public schools her whole life, I was speaking differently too. English with a Greek accent, making countless mistakes, trying to find the adequate words. And, as Etel Adnan recalls about her mother’s Greek, my English did not resemble a native speaker’s and it never will do for that matter. My first language is always there to manifest itself through my accent, no matter how much my English has improved since then. And as my grandmother always felt comfortable in her Anatolian heritage, I, too, embrace this duality.

What does it mean to reclaim the label of “Turkish Seed”? 

The first refugees that came to Greece, and the ones that followed them, hated such a characterisation. For many, such characterisation only brought back painful memories and stories of forced displacement, racism and poverty. Yet years and generations after, reclaiming the word “Turkish Seed” as something beautiful and unique is a defiance of White supremacy and racism. Embracing refugees’ stories is a source of power, and a mode of resisting against static conceptions of culture and identity. It is an embrace of the inbetween languages, cities and cultures of our world, and a rejection of rigidity. 
Reclaiming the word “Tourkosporos”, a word that historically has been used to marginalise, humiliate, and insult, is an important step in rejecting the narrow constraints of binaries on our identities. But this story also has relevance for the UK context: .in a country that imposes strict criteria of what it means to be British, categorises people into “good” and “bad” migrants, and characterises some migrant groups as unworthy of respect and protection , embracing our stories of difference is a necessity. In the end, what made London a home to me while I was away from it was its status as an immigrant city, being always around migrants. Everywhere around me there were stories as interesting as the people that narrated them. No “good” and “bad” migrants, just migrants with a reason to leave and a story to tell.


References:

¹Dimitra Giannuli, Greeks or “Strangers at Home”: The Experiences of Ottoman Greek Refugees during Their Exodus to Greece, 1922–1923, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 13, no. 2, October 1995, p. 273.

²The translation of the extract was initially published in a previous article I wrote. See more: Christina Chatzitheodorou, A Greek Rum from Istanbul Narrates, Bosporus Review of Books, May 2023, https://bosphorusreview.com/a-greek-rum-from-istanbul-narrates. Originally: Μάρκος Βαμβακάρης, Αυτοβιογραφία, επιμ. Αγγελική Κάιλ-Βέλλου (Αθήνα: Παπαζήσης, 1978), 95.

³Domna Maskalidou, Interviews with Anatolian Immigrants in Greece, Youtube Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwsMG59EALg

⁴Eleni Dinia, Interviews with Anatolian immigrants in Greece, Youtube Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwsMG59EALg. Translation my own. 

⁵Kyrilos Terkenidis, Interviews with Anatolian immigrants in Greece, Youtube Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwsMG59EALg. Apart from the translation of the second testimony of Eleni Dinia’s, which I translated myself to transfer her message better, the other two translations are taken directly from the video. 

⁶Etel Adnan, Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz), 2nd edition (New York: The Post-Apollo Press, 2022), 45.

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