My paternal grandparents were born in Cyprus as subjects of the sultan in Constantinople, albeit under British colonial administration. Cyprus came into British hands in 1878, but it remained officially part of the Ottoman Empire until 1914. The island had a mixed population of Greek Orthodox Christians and Turkish Sunni Muslims, and my father grew up with Turkish Cypriot playmates. One of them, Abdullah, remained a lifelong friend. The separation of Christian and Muslim Cypriots would not come until 1974, when the island was divided irreparably.
My grandparents’ history came to mind recently, when I read Louis de Bernières's Birds Without Wings, a sprawling epic on a Tolstoyan scale. The story takes place in the final years of the Ottoman era—during the Great War, the Greco-Turkish War, and the aftermath. The setting is the small Anatolian village of Eskibahçe, in what is now southwestern Turkey.
Eskibahçe contains a colorful cast of characters known by their occupations and religions. Iskander the Potter is a Muslim who so thoroughly submits to God's will that he does not plan his products in advance, allowing the clay to decide what it will become under divine guidance. Father Kristoforos is an Orthodox priest and leader of the village Christians. He mixes with and ministers to the Muslims as well. The book's title is an allusion to two boys, Mehmetçik and Karatavuk—a Christian and Muslim respectively—who are best friends eventually separated by war. They adopt the names “Robin” and “Blackbird”—after the clay bird whistles fashioned for them by Karatavuk's father, Iskander.
In Eskibahçe, Muslims and Christians are aware of their differences. They good-naturedly call each other infidels, yet form a single community whose members bond across sectarian lines. The Muslims even light candles before the icon of the Panayia Glykophilousa in one of the village churches, reasoning that it is “wise to back both camels in salvation's race.” When the Christians are deported near the novel's end, and take the icon with them, the Muslims feel as though they have lost a protecting presence.
To the villagers all western Europeans are “Franks.” When the Great War begins, all they know is that they are fighting one group of Franks while allied with another group of Franks. When the sultan calif declares the war a jihad, the Muslim villagers cannot understand how fellow Muslims from India could oppose them in battle. The sultan will not allow Christian men to fight in the Ottoman armies, conscripting them instead to work in labor batallions under harsh conditions. Mehmetçik is forced into one of these, despite his desire to fight alongside Karatavuk.
When the conflict stops in 1923, with Greece's failed attempt to conquer western Asia Minor, Greece and Turkey agree to exchange populations to make the two countries more homogeneous. The Treaty of Lausanne divvies them up according to religion: Christians are sent to Greece and Muslims to Turkey—even though Christians and Muslims in the village had long ago learned to live side by side, practicing their respective faiths in relative peace. Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Jews, and Armenians lived and worked side by side in the Ottoman Empire until modernizing efforts sought to homogenize the populations along ostensibly European national principles. This is when the troubles began.
Bernières illustrates well the destructive potential of ideology—the danger of forcing real people with traditional customs into artificial molds dreamt up by intellectuals. We see this in the character of Leonidas, who instructs the village's Christian children and conspires with others on behalf of the Meghali Idhea, a vision of an expanded Greece, a revived Byzantium. Leonidas tries to inculcate an artificial Hellenic identity in his charges, and is displeased when they are unable to learn the Greek language—a tongue they know only vaguely from their liturgies. Leonidas pathetically tries to convince the puzzled Christians that they are Greek and that their land is part of Greece. He is a caricature of the early twentieth-century ethnic nationalist.
My Cypriot relatives became refugees in 1974 due largely to the misguided efforts of Greek nationalists to unite Cyprus to Greece, so I have little sympathy for Leonidas’s character. Like Eskibahçe, my father's native village lies largely in ruins in Cyprus's occupied zone adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. Our family's long-abandoned orchards lie near the shore. The house where my grandmother was born is empty, with a mosque next door whose minaret points to the heavens. The churches are empty, and our ancestors' grave stones have been knocked over.
Still, despite the misguided efforts of ideologues, friendship continues to transcend sectarian lines. Fifteen years ago my father was able to renew his relationship with Abdullah and was even able to visit him several times after the green line was opened in 2003. I pray that God will allow them once more to drink kafe tourkiko together at the table of a kafeneio in the redeemed world to come.
David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions, and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.
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