18 July 2000

Easing tension in Aegean
brings hope to Greek Muslims

from Kos

The new rapprochement between Turkey and Greece has been drawing the two neighbours closer to each other in a way that has surprised Greeks and Turks in equal measure.

As a consequence of generous mutual responses to last year’s earthquakes, Greece is advising Turkey about its application for EU membership; Athens and Ankara are now talking about co-operation in a wide range of fields that go beyond trade and tourism; travel between the two countries is becoming much easier; and for the first time in decades Turkish troops landed on Greek sovereign territory this summer to take part in a joint military exercise.

The unexpected outbreak of goodwill has brought hope to the hard-pressed Greek minority in Turkey and to the mainly Muslim Greeks of Turkish origin. Greece is in the midst of a bruising national debate about official identity cards, with church-organised street demonstrations in support of the demands of Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, who is close to identifying Greek nationality and membership of the Greek Orthodox Church.

But in recent years the government has become more sensitive to the needs of Greece's minorities, and is supporting plans to build a new mosque in Athens, the first since Greek independence in 1821.

Traditionally, Jews have had an easier time in Greece than the Muslim minority. Thessaloniki was long a centre of Ladino or Sephardic Greek culture, and despite the decimation of the Jewish population during the Nazi occupation of Greece, there are important Jewish museums on a number of islands.

But, until recently, Muslims found it difficult to gain acceptance for their contribution to culture and society. Now the thaw in relations in the Aegean is bringing hope to Muslim communities throughout Greece.

The island of Kos in the northern Dodecanese lies a few short miles off the Bodrum peninsula of Turkey: Turkish towns and houses are clearly visible, and in recent months, an increasing number of yachts with Turkish flags have been docked along the marina in Kos harbour, beneath the walls of the medieval Crusader castle. Kos has always had a sizeable Turkish population, and because the island only reunited with the rest of Greece after the second World War, the Muslim minority mercifully escaped the cruel exchanges of Muslims and Christians between Turkey and Greece in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Today the island has about 2,500 Muslims, many of them living in Platania. The village lies 2km from Kos town, on the slopes up to the Asklepion, the temple of Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine, founded just after the death of Hippocrates.

For generations the village was known as Kermetes, or Germe in Turkish. But in the wake of Greek-Turkish conflict in Cyprus, its name was changed to Platania in 1964 and the Turkish school became a Greek national school.

And yet the village has lost none of its Oriental charm and mystique. Many of the houses look like houses in once-Turkish villages in Crete, and the square, with its working Ottoman fountain, is surrounded by tavernas run by local Turks, serving traditional Turkish fare, including Arap, Moustafa and Neriman, Gin’s Corner and Serif.

Ali Karavezer (35), who helps run Serif, his father’s restaurant on the square, recalls more difficult times. After uncles and aunts migrated to Bodrum, Kusadasi and Smyrna (Izmir), his father considered sending the young Ali to Turkey, and later as an 18-year-old conscript he was sent to the farthest corners of Greece. His fellow islanders, who were Greek Orthodox, were allowed to stay closer to home.

“Now I don’t think we have many problems,” he says, as we watch army trucks on manoeuvre making their way through the narrow streets. “Things are getting better. This year was really good,” he says, and gives the credit for many of the changes to the Prime Minister, Costas Simitis. In recent months, his aunt was able to return from Bodrum to Platania to visit her 92-year-old mother for the first time in 12 years.

He says his family has lived on Kos for 1,000 years. Today his many Greek friends no longer see him as a Turk and “few people from Kos see us as second-category people”. A banner for Galatasaray hangs in the house, but Ali supports the Greek team Panathanaikos – the only point of disagreement with his closest friend, Niko, a Greek Orthodox who supports Olympiakos.

In a side street, the parish priest of Aghios Athanasios sits outside his church in the summer sun while the imam climbs the minaret of the mosque to call out the mid-afternoon prayers.

Down the hill, on the way back into Kos, the Muslim cemetery is an oasis of quiet, with neat graves shaded by strong plane trees. The older, Ottoman-era graves are marked by traditional, tall, slender gravestones, leaning in rows against each other, carved with inscriptions in the traditional Arabic-style Turkic script and capped with turbans, dated according to the Islamic calendar.

But the newer graves have surprisingly modern stones, with their names carved, surprisingly, in neither Ottoman nor Greek letters, but in the modern Roman alphabet, and the dates following the Western calendar.

Dotted among the graves are a few unexpected symbols: the star and crescent which serves as both a Muslim and Turkish symbol; or a photograph of the deceased (an unthinkable grave decoration in many Muslim societies).

A few fields farther down, the gates of the Jewish cemetery are locked. The last remaining Jew of Kos was buried here about 10 years ago. He was the only Koan Jew to survive the transportation of the local community, along with the Jews of Rhodes, to Auschwitz in 1944.

Back in Kos, close to the ancient Agora, the former synagogue is a beautiful Art Deco building, but it has been disused since 1944 and stands locked in bleak isolation in the midst of the bustle of “Bar Street”. The prospect for future generations of Muslims on Kos looks more promising.

This news feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 18 July 2000.

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