Jul 22, 2011

Gökçeada (İmroz): a "successful" Turkification project

This is not a happy “go and visit” story. It’s rather a “go and mourn” story. Indeed, the feeling of sadness engulfed me one more time in my second visit to the island of Gökçeada (or Imroz), the largest of the two islands that belong to Turkey in the Aegean Sea. The island is incredibly beautiful with its untouched nature and old villages that are established in hills. However, as you drive around the island, it is heart wrenching to observe the abandonment of those villages since their once Greek residents have escaped “Turkification”.
An abandoned house from Dereköy in Gökçeada.

The Turkification efforts included settling non-Greek populations on the island, sometimes turning a blind eye to their looting the property of the Greeks or by encouraging  them to legally buy or illegally occupy Greek houses. A prison was built on the island, occupiers of which were released every now and then to stoke fear in the Greek population. Greek schools were closed down and land was expropriated that was used by Greek villagers , depriving them from their only livelihood. As a result of all this, very few Greeks are left on the island while few seem to enjoy a revival by opening restaurants and pastry shops especially in Zeytinli, the village of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul.

In front of the Zeytinli church in Gökçeada Atatürk says
"happy is who calls himself a Turk".
Photo: Ahmet Sel.

Greek women in Zeytinli, Gökçeada.
Photo: Ahmet Sel.

Their calling on passers by with their accented Turkish makes their presence appear almost exotic -in a reverse orientalist fashion- while turning them into “objects of affection”. It also creates a false pretense of multiculturalism and almost self congratulatory “tolerance” of a Christian minority in a Muslim country. When one takes into consideration that the average age among the Greek population on the island is well over sixty, the false pretensions are better highlighted.  

Entrance of Tepeköy Primary School in Gökçeada.

On the wall of the Tepeköy primary school again: "happy...".
And why exactly a Greek kid
would be happy to call himself a Turk?

All of this become heavy to digest for me as I drink Turkish coffee at Mustafa’nın Kayfesi in Kaleköy (Kastro), the first village where looting of property seems to have started. The  café is located next to the oldest church in the island, Aya Marina standing in ruins. Two years ago, its ceiling was fine, today it has collapsed. 1949 is the latest restoration date of it.

View from Kaleköy (Kastro) towards the harbor in Gökçeada.

Kite surfers in Kefalos (Aydıncık) in Gökçeada.

Aydıncık beach in Gökçeada, with wind surfers in the back. 

Attempting to shake melancholy, we hit the road to Kefalos (Aydıncık). This is a windy coast full with trailers who came for kite surfing. Given the license plates, one wonders when did kite surfing become so popular in Bulgaria or Romania? As there is no shade in the beach, we hit the next beach that is reminiscent of Kum Beach in Alaçatı with all the wind surfers. We stop at Şen Camping where Greek music reins. Another option to swim is Lazkoyu literally meaning the Bay of Laz because someone from Trabzon bought the land. Both places are great for sunbathing and swimming although Lazkoyu is smaller and quieter.

An unofficial street sign in Bademli in Gökçeada in Greek.

View of Samothraki (Greece) from Gökçeada.

In addition to Mustafa’nın Kayfesi in Kaleköy, an afternoon coffee can also be sipped at Zeytinli by sitting in the village’s main square. The nearby restaurants and cafés seems to have turned it into a touristic attraction. While sipping coffee, also taste the mastic pudding with sour cherry syrup and ice cream, yummy! As for dinners on the island, two options stand out. One is Son Vapur in Liman with its delicious octopus although it can be very crowded in the weekends. The other is Barba Yorgo in Tepeköy whose restaurant overlooks the valley.

Mustafa'nın Kayfesi in Kaleköy (Kastro) in Gökçeada.

In 2011, the Aya Marina church in Kastro.

The Aya Marina church in 2009.

Depite the beauty of its nature and Greek villages, only very determined souls can make it to Gökçeada. Not only there are very few places to stay on the island but it is the ferry that is the drag. Once we missed a ferry for lack of space, it took us an incredible 12 hours to get back to Istanbul despite the meager 340 km distance. Previous times also included lengthy waits for ferry under the sun as a car is a must on the island since public transportation is virtually nonexistent.

Views from Dereköy houses in Gökçeada.

While recently Borajet and Anadolu Jet seem to have started direct air connection from Istanbul, the island mires one in a conceptual confusion. You can be part of looting/illegal occupation by renting a room in the latest pansion that has been converted from a (Greek) primary school, brochures of which are handed off by a 14 year old boy to visitors just off the ferry. You can share the same beach with those who have religious swimming clothing as the island seems to be a popular destination with those close to God. You can sympathize with the soldiers ever ready for a never to occur military confrontation with Greece. Alternatively, you can admire kite surfers from Bulgaria and Romania -of all places. It remains to be seen what this conceptual confusion will lead to in the coming years…