Narrating Identities across the Aegean: From Lausanne to Netflix

Narrating Identities across the Aegean: From Lausanne to Netflix

[Dimitrios A. Kourtis has a PhD from Aristotle University and is an Adjunct Lecturer at Hellenic Police Academy.]

*TW: This piece contains mention of rape and sexual assault as is depicted in the Netflix Series, The Club (Kulüp).

Identities and Narratives

Narratives can articulate and perpetuate identities, both individual and collective. They tend to ‘index’ a set of practices, meanings, and symbols to a particular identity. In this sense, narratives provide the ‘craft objects’ that constitute, but also represent the referent. Moreover, narratives prompt the interested actors (identified subjects) to perform their identity by reiterating the associated practices or complying with the ascribed behavioral patterns. This process is of course dialogical, connecting the identified subjects both with the collective author of the narrative and with one another. This can be called the mediatory function of narratives. This mediatory function qualifies not only the performativity, but also the embodiment and the interactional nature of the narrated identities.

In the present contribution, I will touch upon two distinct narratives, one normative (international law) and one representational (popular culture) to analyze how the collective identity of Anatolian Greeks, and more specifically the Greeks of Istanbul (Polites), is mediated. My hypothesis is that, despite its attempts to challenge state-authored normative narratives, pop culture in both Greece and Turkey actually feeds into the dominant paradigm. I will first address how international law mediates the collective identity of the Polites and then proceed to critically assess the representational narratives provided by two popular cinematic works, namely the 2003 movie A Touch of Spice (Politiki Kouzina, PK) and the 2021 Netflix series The Club (Kulüp, KLP).

PK focuses on the life of Fanis, a young boy from Istanbul whose family is deported to Greece in 1964. He never forgets the city, his first love, and his grandfather, Vassilis, who is a spice grocer and a culinary philosopher. After many adventures, Fanis reclaims his identity through remembering and cooking. KLP focuses on Matilda, a Sephardic Jew, and her quest to regain her life after prison. Nevertheless, I will not discuss the story of Matilda. My interest lies in Orhan aka Niko, the owner of the club, who is a Greek from Izmir pretending to be a Muslim and Tasoula, a member of the Greek minority and dancer at the club.

Who are the Polites?

The Polites have a multi-layered identity, which challenges the dominant perceptions on both sides of the Aegean. Their collective and individual narratives draw from their rich history and their confrontational identity, defined in contradistinction to the two national communities that came to dominate their fate, i.e. the Greeks of Greece (Elladites) and the Muslim Turks. Moreover, these narratives are cross-fertilized by other communities of shared trauma and their experiences, including the Armenians, the Kurds, and even the European Jews. For example, the pogrom that took place between 6-7 September 1955 targeting the Greeks of Istanbul, their life, limb, property, and freedom is usually referred to as the Kristallnacht of Greekdom in direct reference to the 1938 November pogrom in Nazi Germany. The pogrom is an important plot element for both works under review. KLP ends with it, whereas PK starts a few years after the fact.

In a nutshell, the pogrom was the outcome of multiple factors. It was directed, instigated, and tolerated by state authorities. It was framed as an act of ‘retaliation’, a forcible answer to Greece’s support and fomentation of the Greek Cypriot struggle against Great Britain. Hundreds of ordinary people, especially young unemployed men from rural Turkey floating Istanbul in search of a better future, were the direct perpetrators, whereas parastatal organizations and secret services also played their part in instigating and organizing the persecutory attack, e.g. by spreading fake news regarding a Greek attack against Mustafa Kemal’s childhood house in Thessaloniki.

But why did the deep state of 1955 Turkey decide to retaliate against a relatively small community, whose ties with the nominal kin state have been severely curtailed after Greece’s failed attempt to dominate Anatolia?

International Legal Narratives

Greek Polites acquired an official minority status defined in negative terms. The community was one of the ‘non-Moslem’ minorities whose rights were constitutionalized under the Lausanne Treaty. By dint of the law of Lausanne, they also acquired a right to remain or return to Turkey. This right was inextricably linked to their ethnic affiliation. As ‘Greek inhabitants’ they were exempted from the obligatory population exchange of 1923. A unilateral declaration on behalf of Turkey read by İsmet Paşa (İnönü) completed the identitarian mosaic. Christian elements would be allowed to return, but only if they were peaceful and loyal subjects. The Lausanne Declaration of Amnesty also elaborated on this particular fragment of the narrative. The amnesty was seen as part of a continuum of remedial solutions protecting and depoliticizing vulnerable groups, including communities that –according to Turkish mainstream perceptions– embodied foreign irredentism.

The beneficiaries of the amnesty clause and the ayants droit of the right to remain/return were framed as ethnically Greek elements of non-Muslim faith who acquired Turkish citizenship. They owed a duty of loyalty to their home state. However, their protection was premised on a nexus of reciprocal obligations between Turkey and Greece. This effectively meant that the Polites were both objects and subjects of international protection. As objects, they embodied Greece’s claim to preserve the minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in situ. As subjects, they were distinguished from the rest of the national community, due to their specific entitlements and juridical connections to another nation state. Both qualities would prove disastrous for the community. Finally, the collective identity of the minority was further mediated by the modalities of a set of 1930s bilateral treaties. The Final Settlement Treaty and the Treaty of Establishment recognized as ‘established persons’ individuals who were technically Greek nationals (§19), but established themselves in the Istanbul zone before the Mudros Armistice (30 October 1918). These treaties guaranteed the right of such persons to enter, sojourn, acquire property, and trade as if they were Turkish nationals. This bifurcation was particularly important, since during the 1950s and 1960s, Greek passport holders were deported, while their families –even if they belonged to the minority sensu stricto (ethnic Greeks of Turkish nationality)– followed them to the other part of the Aegean, leading to the decimation of the Greek community.

Pop Culture Narratives

Both cinematic works under discussion seemingly espouse a positive approach vis-à-vis the Polites and aspire to bring the forgotten community to the limelight. However, if we look beyond the façade of visibility, we might start to discern some disconcerting patterns.

Let us start with KLP’s Greek characters. Tasoula, the Greek cabaret dancer, follows a familiar leitmotif of traditional Turkish art and literature, namely the conceptualization of the Greek woman as the embodiment of the ‘other’, who is both eroticized and depersonalized. Another traditional motif projected onto Tasoula is that Greek women are more promiscuous than their Muslim compatriots. Tasoula performs her ascribed identity by being both vulnerable and eroticized. Her choice to flirt with a vagrant petty criminal named Bahtiyar seals her fate. Bahtiyar belongs to a nationalist criminal gang. He sexually assaults Tasoula as the pogrom unfolds. She escapes only to be gang raped by the mob. However, her negative representation is not absolved by her victimization. She takes revenge from Bahtiyar by framing him as Greek. The mob kills Bahtiyar, while Tasoula survives. The last impression left to the viewer before the scene ends is Tasoula’s vindictive gaze as she is being dragged into an alley. In KLP’s narrative, Tasoula performs her negative identity until the end. Hours after being brutally raped, she is shown to participate in a feast as if nothing happened.

Tasoula’s identity –that of a non-exchangeable mediated through international law– is thus complemented by the archetypical ascriptions of the out-group. She is vindictive, seductress, exotic, and libertine. Moreover, her status under international law is a harbinger of her plight. Her embodied identity and her individual vulnerability become the symbolic locus of revenge by the spiteful mob. She is targeted because she is a woman and a Greek Politissa. By raping her, the attackers assert their Turkishness and perform an act of material violence on her body and soul and one of symbolic violence on the collective body of her community. She is victimized not only for being a woman in a patriarchal world, but also for a being a member of the minority, which purportedly owes a debt of blood to atone for actions beyond its members’ will or control.

The owner of the club embodies another vulnerable identity, that of the Greek ‘passing’ as Muslim. Niko (alias Orhan) came to Istanbul from Izmir in 1922, after the fire and the forcible flight of the Greek population. He is an aspiring entrepreneur performing his identity through hiding and lying. He also resonates a traditional literary motif, that of the cunning Greek who hides true intentions and engages into shady business. He catches the attention of a deep state agent named Kürşat, who approaches him and offers his partnership. Later on, Kürşat uncovers Niko’s true identity, after following him back to the place he hides his mother. Niko’s mother suffers from Alzheimer’s. During her crises, she speaks Greek and is therefore a constant threat to his ‘passing’ identity. She also keeps an icon of Virgin Mary on her wall, a symbol of her true identity. Minutes before threatening Niko’s life, Kürşat alleges that the only right Niko has qua Greek in Turkey is to be a slave, an aphorism reminiscent of yet another literary archetype, that of the Greek qua former servant or slave.

Why did Niko have to hide his identity? KLP remains silent, but international law holds the answer. Niko was a non-subject, an exchangeable who came to Istanbul during the 1920s. He was thus excluded from the protective scope of the minorities clauses. As an exchangeable he had lost his right to live, develop, and even return and visit his former home. Niko and his mother created a ‘passing’ identity in 1922 to remain in their ancestral lands. The identity that international law mediated for them, that of future Greek subjects eternally banished from Anatolia, was rejected by an act of defiance, which uno actu fulfilled two distinct literary archetypes, that of the perfidious Greek and that of the hero whose identity is hidden to escape destruction. In his quest to secure his precarious status and keep on ‘passing’, Niko appears willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. After his mother kills Kürşat to save her son, Niko strangles her. In a deeply Orestian moment, the crypto-Christian Greek son passing as Muslim commits the gravest of sins, matricide, to remain a Turk.

On the other hand, PK narrates most of the stereotypes and identitarian ascriptions that Polites faced in their home and kin state. The plot is set in motion, when Savvas Iakovides, Fanis’s dad, receives a notice of deportation. Savvas is an ‘established person’, ostensibly a Greek national, whose family has no active bonds with Greece. Fanis’s mum, Sultana, is a Turkish citizen and a member of the minority. However, she chooses to follow her son and husband, leaving her dad, Vassilis, behind. Again, the normative narrative forms the arrière plan of the representational one. The identities that international law mediated for the Iacovides family (Polites, refugees, subject to the principle of reciprocity between the home and the kin state) are those the characters must perform all through the movie. These very identities are also a point of constant friction. They lead to the family’s forcible flight. Once settled in Greece, these identities make them different, if not suspect. All through the movie, people of authority, including a priest and a high-ranking police officer, suggest that the Iacovides, and by implication all Polites, are either Turks or of dubious national allegiance. Fanis’s teacher even states that his parents’ Anatolian accent, their foods, and their ways prevent the boy from developing a proper Greek national conscience. Finally, the only way to become a citizen is to assimilate and forget, as Fanis’s adult life, accent, and ways confirm.

Narratives and Ideology

Both representational narratives convey indirect ideological messages. KLP ends with the newborn grandchild of Matilda qua narrator referring to ‘that gruesome night’ when ‘the country lost so many of its colors’ and ‘greedy shadows swallowed their lives, their dreams, their hopes… but not all of them’. This highly poetic and abstract formula frames as responsible for a very unpoetic moment of modern Turkish history some ‘greedy shadows’. Moreover, the idea of having figures representing different ethnic communities sitting around a table smiling and celebrating (the frame that accompanies the final moments of the series) aims at conveying a message of hope, a promise of a colorful inclusive future. What is missing from this narrative is the actual lives, dreams, and hopes of those lynched, brutalized, raped, or even killed during the pogrom. In the same vein, the overall political-juridical context that made Niko change his identity is suppressed and all we are left with is the shadow of an arriviste who would not hesitate to kill his mother in his quest to protect his secret and secure social and financial success.

Similarly, all characters in PK are strikingly apolitical. Even when PK introduces into the narrative a fragment of politics, e.g. the plight of 1922 women refugees, it stops shy of addressing the underlying question of responsibility. For example, at some point Fanis as a young scout enters a brothel to sing the Christmas carol. There he meets the madam of the house, Varvara, a refugee from Aydın who fled to Greece in the 1920s. Many women refugees, especially those who lost all or most of the male members of their families, became victims of trafficking (a practice that even led to a LoN inquiry) or –with the connivance of Greek public services– were placed in brothels, including the state-administered ‘house’ of Vourla in Drapetsona. As one among thousands of Anatolian Greek women, Varvara was forced to become a sex worker. However, PK remains silent regarding Varvara’s double victimhood. All we are given is her performative practices, baking a stuffed tomatoes dish, as her ancestors used to do.

On a more profound level, PK’s characters display a noticeable lack of agency. They do not discuss politics, they do not hold grudges against either Elladites or Turks, they do not openly protest their collective targeting, and they do not speak back to those Elladites or Turks that offend them. They are ideally weak and meek. One of the most active political communities between 1918-1922 and during the early post-Lausanne period that dared to defy the Turkish governmental pressure and reject the complete abrogation of its collective rights under the law of Lausanne is represented as an aggregate of middle-class individuals who only want to be left alone. If KLP takes away the characters’ backstories and replaces it with the promise of a ‘colorful’ (but bruised) future, PK takes away the characters’ agency and replaces it with nostalgia and culinary practices as a token of the former self.

Nevertheless, both narratives dovetail with the identity that international law mediated for the minorities: vulnerable, politically agentless, reluctantly loyal, and in need of an interpellator, be it the international community or a state. Even though both works try to evoke some kind of historic reckoning, they remain bound to the symbols and idioms that both Aegean states and –under their authorship– international law ‘index’ to the collective identity of the Polites. Thus, narratives of reckoning become mere iterations of prior processes of othering and belonging. In the final analysis, both works confirm the long-standing effects of the international legal narrative and the persistence of the assumptions of both Greece and Turkey regarding the minority’s identity and role. Art narrates social life, but it is quite possible that it also projects state-authored normative narratives. In either case, what is actually popularized is the dominant perception with which the minority might –yet again– be expected to comply.

[The author would like to thank Mr. Carlos J. Bichet Nicoletti for generously sharing his views on a previous version of this blog post.]

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