8 APRIL 2006, Page 43

Relocation with a vengeance

Christopher Hitchens

TWICE A STRANGER: GREECE, TURKEY AND THE MINORITIES THEY EXPELLED by Bruce Clark Granta, £20, pp.267, ISBN 0199291055 ✆ £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 In 1975, a few months after the two Turkish invasions of Cyprus that had stormed across the northern tier of the island in the preceding summer, I stood in the square of Lawrence Durrell’s old village of Bellapaix and watched the Greek villagers being rounded up for deportation to the south. Within a short space of time, almost 200,000 people had been forcibly expelled, so this little uprooting job was more in the nature of a mopping-up operation, involving those who had been too old or young or ill to be removed the first time round. Many miles to the south, a comparable scene was being enacted in Turkish Cypriot villages near Limassol. With the assistance of British forces, but with very little say in the matter, Turks were escorted to our military bases and flown to Anatolia for onward shipment to the voided Greek villages of the north. The behaviour patterns, if I can employ such a neutral word for such a heart-rending thing, were strikingly similar in each instance. People would tearfully gather handfuls of earth and wrap them in handkerchiefs. They would take leave of their respective Turkish and Greek neighbours, often leaving them the key to the door and receiving tearful promises to look after the old place.

What I was witnessing was the last phase of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, whereby Greece and Turkey, at the prompting of the post-Versailles powers, conducted a rigorous ‘population exchange’. As part of a final settlement of their catastrophic war in Asia Minor, of which our main literary memory is probably Ernest Hemingway’s terse little story ‘On the Beach at Smyrna’, the two countries shipped about two million souls in opposite directions across the Aegean sea. The criterion for removal was religion: the treaty spoke of transferring ‘Orthodox Christians’ in one direction and ‘Muslims’ in another. Ever since that time, ethnic homogeneity in both countries has been reinforced by confessional uniformity.

In this marvellous book, Bruce Clark con trives to interleaf the macro (or megalo) story with the micro one. He presents a lucid summary of the events that led to this statesponsored deportation, and he also visits the places which still exhibit its scars and preserve its memories. The generation that experienced the disaster is fading from the scene, so his is a labour of exquisite timing as well as of — and this soon becomes apparent — love. Clark has a real sympathy for his subjects as well as his subject, he has a true facility in Greek dialects and he manages to evoke a genuine melancholy while avoiding the sentimental. Visiting the town of Ayvalik, on the Smyrna/Izmir coast opposite Lesbos, he finds the Turkish community who were removed from Crete. Some of their members and forebears had offered to convert to Christianity if they could stay on the island, but the Orthodox authorities spurned the plea. The Greek Cretan novelist Pandelis Prevelakis, an eyewitness to the scene at the age of 14, writes movingly of how the deracinated Muslims on the departing ships let out a huge moan of agony, ‘wild and full of entreaty, bitter and menacing, carried by the wind in great surges to the shore’. To this day, in Ayvalik, even fourth-generation Turkish Ayvali Cretans all know one Greek song: Kriti, mou omorpho nisi, to fiori tou levanti (‘Crete, my beautiful island, the flower of the Levant’). This — the unquenchable yearning for home — is the true meaning of the word ‘nostalgia’. And since both sides possess it so fiercely, it is mutually evocative. In Cyprus, I remember, it was the Turkish poet Mehmet Yasin who spoke most eloquently of the deserted villages and desecrated churches and frescoes of the vanished Greeks.

This triumph of realpolitik and harsh, monochrome state-building over the smaller human solidarities is sometimes reckoned a good thing. A clean break, a fresh start, no nonsense, everyone knows where they stand: peace in our time, in fact. It tends to happen when empires break up or decline. As Clark reveals, the Lausanne precedent directly informed the Churchill-Roosevelt decision to allow the mass expulsion of Germans from the Czech lands and Poland after 1945. Rough justice, you may say, though the hangover continues to poison German and Bavarian politics and German-Czech relations. But such a cruel decision would have been needless if the original mad German scheme — of trying to make state borders conform with ethno-nationalist claims — had not been permitted in the first place. It appeared to many people in 1947/48 that a population exchange would compose matters as between Hindus and Muslims in India, and Jews and Arabs in Palestine. From what historical perspective could one now say that this was true, let alone wise, and leave alone moral? (Auden’s poem on Lord Radcliffe’s hasty carve-up of the subcontinent would have made a fitting endpaper to this book.) Clark is an Ulsterman and understands that nasty, informal ‘population exchange’ is still going on in his own home counties. He forgets to add what we recently discovered when the relevant Cabinet papers were opened: the Heath government in the early 1970s considered a further ‘relocation’ of the nationalist population of Northern Ireland to the south. Imagine how well that would have ‘worked’. Almost all partitions and ‘exchanges’ lead to further partitions and deportations, vide most notably the nightmare of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1955 a dreadful state-sponsored pogrom in Istanbul burned out and dispossessed the tens of thousands of left-over Greeks, along with most of the remaining Jews and Armenians, and there are even now nationalist stirrings among the ‘Muslims’ of Greekheld western Thrace about which you will one day be reading more. British readers have a special obligation to notice this, because so many of these tragedies arise from what Sir Penderel Moon in his memoirs of India described as our policy of ‘Divide and Quit’. That’s why I was standing under the broiling sun in Cyprus, watching an unfolding post-colonial atrocity that has several times come close to provoking a war within Nato.

Despite what appear superficially to be unbridgeable differences, Greeks and Turks are still to a surprising extent symbiotic. (In Cyprus in Ottoman times there was a group called the linobambakoi or ‘linen-cottons’, who spoke both languages and observed both religious rituals.) The two peoples may both be descendants of vanished empires — both headquartered in the same great city on the Bosphorus — and they are as far as I know unique in claiming to have won wars of ‘independence’ from each other, but this does not change the fact that Kemal Ataturk was born in Salonika and that the coffee and the cooking and the vernacular owe much to ancient fusions. It may be an instance of what Freud called ‘the narcissism of the small difference’, whereby the very dialectical intimacy of the relationship conceals both filiations and schisms that are impalpable to the outsider. Clark performs very well in teasing these out.

‘There is no greater sorrow on earth,’ wrote Euripides ‘than the loss of one’s native land.’ All those Greeks in Piraeus whose names end in ‘oglu’, and all those Cretans in Asia Minor, could tell you the same. It may be better to lose one’s heimat than to be murdered — or than to become a murderer but the apparent choice can be a false antithesis in the long run. In Bosnia and in Kosovo most recently, international statecraft has been concerned more with redressing previous cleansings than with cementing or confirming them, and the Lausanne precedent is often cited as the negative one. Bruce Clark’s book furnishes ghostly and ghastly evidence that for all its difficulties this policy is probably more practical as well as more ethical. I must add that he writes in that almost invisibly good and clear English that I thought had begun to die out of our journalism.