‘Greco-mania’ in Turkey

The Turks call the recent surge in cultural and social interest in their neighbor to the west «Greek mania.» Greek names are appearing on shop signs, hotels and restaurants. Interiors are designed with Hellenism in mind, featuring statues of ancient heroes or even imitations of icons of the Virgin Mary. The songs of Haris Alexiou, Evanthia Reboutsika, Angela Dimitriou and Sakis Rouvas are echoing out of windows and blasting out of radios. One radio producer even said that Greek music is not considered foreign. In Istanbul, the phenomenon is linked with nostalgia for the good old days, when the city was a cosmopolitan mix of communities. This sense of whimsy has even spread down the west coast, where Greek communities thrived before the population exchange 80 years ago. Just 15 years ago, tour guides would tell Greek tourists visiting the ruins of Ephesus that these ancient Greek towns had been settled by Ionians, a non-Greek tribe. Greek inscriptions were described as being written in «ancient Turkish.» Smyrna Greeks Journalist Mine Kirikkanat, a Kemalist and sworn enemy of Islamic fundamentalists, has had a lot to do with this new attitude toward Greece. Greeks are surprised that someone who is both a Kemalist and the daughter of an army officer would support Greece like this. But this mind-set is not limited to the Turkish middle classes, some of whom view the Greeks as intellectual and cultural equals. «When they say they miss us, they mean they can’t abide living alongside the Kurds and provincial Turks who took Greeks’ place in the Phanar district and Pera and who are now in the majority,» said a civil service official who decided to become an Orthodox Christian even though he did not speak Greek. «I consider myself Greek, although I have a Turkish name and Turkish is my mother tongue, because I feel closer to the West and reject anything to do with Islam,» added the civil servant, saying he did not tell people he was baptized because he did not want to deal with the repercussions. The writer Orhan Pamuk has accused those nostalgic for the Istanbul Greeks of insincerity. The Armenian-Turkish journalist and publisher Hrant Dink, speaking at a conference, had accused the majority of «treating us minorities like antiques,» adding that since the Turks couldn’t make them leave, they were now trying to save the few who remained so Istanbul wouldn’t lose its character. Another Armenian, Sevan Nisanyan, the best-known writer of tourist guides to Turkey, explains that everything Greek is in fashion, particularly among the educated urban classes. «It is no doubt a class phenomenon – and it is cool and chic to drink ouzo instead of raki, to listen to rebetika songs instead of Turkish art music,» he said. Nisanyan says the island of Tenedos in particular has become the focal point for Turks’ fascination with all things Greek. Journalist Aris Hadzistefanou, in his book «Turkey, East of the EU,» explained the sociological nature of this latest fashion. The name Pera is used by restaurants, hotels, art galleries and even grocery stores. One of the most trendy cafes in Yenikoy (Neohori) is the Nea Hora. Two Jews from Izmir have given the name «Smyrna» to the new cafe-restaurant they have opened in the fashionable district of Jihangir. Greek place names are being revived along the Aegean coast. Many hotels and shops bear the name Levissi or Makri in the towns that used to bear those names. Embroideries bearing the words «Kali Mera» (Good day), or «Kalo Pascha» (Happy Easter) grace the walls of a cafe in Alacata. «Greeks are the Europeans best known to the Turks; they envy them and want to imitate them,» said one Turkish woman. Another Turk, Mehmet, claims to be Greek. «My family is from Crete. We were Greeks who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule,» he said. A professor of sociology at a private university added: «Look at me carefully. Do I look as if I am from Central Asia? We are descendants of all the people who lived in Asia Minor, those who converted to Islam and became Turkish. We are as Greek as you are on the other side of the Aegean, because we are the descendants of Asia Minor Greeks who converted.» The aforementioned and other philhellenic Turks said they do not have the same reference points as other more Islamic-minded Turks. «I’m not saying that in order to claim another culture for myself,» the sociology professor continued. «I simply want to remind my compatriots that these ancient monuments are ours and we should make sure they are protected. Our points of reference are not only Islam and [philosopher and cleric] Nasreddin Hodja, they are also Byzantium, the word Constantinople, ancient Rome and the Ionian philosophers.»