Caught in the crossfire: the Pain of Exile and Friendship in Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land
I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land.
Facing the Past
I’ve blogged quite a bit about Turkey and about one or two of my favourite books about it (see my Amazon list of fave Turkey books). In fictional realms, Pamuk’s Snow and de Bernières’ Birds without Wings really stand out. De Bernières encapsulates the horrors of the aftermath of the First World War for millions of Greeks and Turks in the post-Ottoman seismic upheavals. The fact that I have Greek and Turkish friends who love that book indicates how remarkably fair and non-partisan it is. For we’re dealing with very painful historical and contemporary realities.
Mother Land takes this story on by a couple of generations, and it is telling that Kakmi quotes William Faulkner towards the end:
The past is not dead. It’s not even past. (p197)
Go to any part of the world that has suffered great conflict and the same will be true: Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, etc etc. And in the region of ancient Asia Minor, history is a difficult subject for Turks, Greeks and Armenians alike. Kakmi grew up in a Greek family on the island of Tenedos (in Turkish, Boczaada) in the 1960s. Despite half a century having passed since the Ottoman empire’s demise, the ethnic aftershocks were still being felt. The family ended up cutting their losses and emigrating to Australia while Kakmi was still a boy – and Mother Land is a heart-felt, and at times heart-rending, reflection on his memories, friendships and fears. A friend’s photos of his old haunts are now on his blog here. It is clearly a beautiful place – but then aren’t all the world’s real trouble spots?
Is this book autobiographical? Well, not in the strictest sense. For while it is clearly about his own island boyhood, the large central section of the book relates it with such striking vividness and dramatic detail that it must rely on more than mere memory. But is this fiction? Well, not really either. It is fictionalised certainly, but I’ve no doubt that it is rooted in reality and experience. Difficult and traumatic memories are perhaps conflated, but it all rings true. After all, as he says in the end note, he has combined conversations and encounters (on his return to Boczaada in adulthood) for dramatic and narrative effect. I suppose, then, if pushed, one would have to call this semi-fictionalised autobiographical childhood memoir!
Whatever it is, the result is a beautifully crafted and deeply poignant book which powerfully conveys the Greek side of ethnic prejudice. As his mother says early on:
‘They want to drive us out… They want us to go. What better way to get rid of us than to fill the neighbourhood with cutthroats and maniacs? How quickly they forget what their precious Atatürk said. “You don’t have to be a Muslim to be a Turk.” That’s what he said. A shared language, culture, tradition and connections to the land, that’s enough to make a Turk of anyone. But these nationalists won’t rest until we’re all Muslims or dead, God forbid.’ She goes quiet, as if a great bird has swooped in and carried her away. (p28)
For an 8 or 9 year old boy to experience such raw hostility from those in authority must have been utterly bewildering. The police were biased. And so were those in the schools. The Ankara government closed ethnic schools in the name of social cohesion – but it meant that Greek children in Turkish schools found themselves in a very difficult situation. (I was very struck by the description of a Greek teacher called Mihalis, now unable to get work, as ‘like an unopened book. It sits on the shelf, gathering dust. Its knowledge locked in.‘ p58). Here young Dmetri is shocked by his class teacher:
‘Because you’re not a Turk, may the bread you eat be poisonous.’ That’s how grade three at Independence Primary School started, first thing in the morning, before the class had its regulation bread roll and milk at ten. ‘Because you’re not a Turk, may the bread you eat be poisonous.’ It’s a shame because until then, I thought she was going to be a good teacher, this blonde tall-as-a-poplar woman. (p35)
It doesn’t bear thinking about. It didn’t stop Dmetri nor his illiterate fisherman father having friendships across the ethnic divide – although there were those on either side who frowned on such things.
But as so often, it is innocents who suffer the consequences of the actions of others, whether contemporary or historical. So Kakmi’s mother reminisces:
In nineteen sixty-four, when you were smaller than you are now, and your sister was only three months old, Greek Cypriots killed many Turkish Cypriots. Since then Ankara has been looking at the Greeks that live in Turkey with a jaundiced eye. We didn’t do anything wrong. What happened in Cyprus had nothing to do with us. Still, we had to pay for the sins of others, like we always do. (p44)
As one of those closest to him (I won’t say who as it will spoil the story) remarks when they meet in adult life (after she has become a Muslim and married a Turk):
‘Dmitri,’ she calls. ‘Let me tell you something.’ I turn to face her. ‘You and I,’ she says. ‘We are caught in the crossfire. We are Greek and Turk at the same time. We are like a person who loves two people at the same time. Let us share in the ouzo and the raki.’ She realises what she has said and smothers a laugh with her hand. ‘Not that I touch the stuff, mind you.’ (p225)
Pains of Exile
Further on, a narrow track and high walls separate the Christian dead from the Muslim dead. Still, nature has found a way to bring the disintegrating bodies together. My father’s Turkish friend Ezet says ants are busy carrying Greek hair across the road to play cards in Turkish graves. Likewise, worms roll Turkish eyeballs under the wall to challenge Greeks at backgammon. ‘All day and all night,’ he says, ‘the dead are visiting one another in secret and in defiance of man’s laws. Beneath our feet is a network of tunnels, a hive of activity, an entire city, as those who’ve passed on chortle at the folly of those above. In death,’ he ads tapping the side of his nose, ‘we realise we’re all alike.’ (p62)
And for Kakmi, ethnic Greek in Turkish territory and now Australian citizen, the attachment to that land where his family are buried and he grew up is strong.
Usually I can’t distinguish Tenedos from my body and the air that I breathe. I never want to leave, despite the fact that we live with the threat of expulsion hanging over our heads. Strange, inexplicable things have been happening. Nothing makes sense any more. (p148)
So all in all, this is a wonderful book. Haunting and yet somehow hopeful. It manages to capture a child’s wide-eyed curiosity, enthusiasm and confusion. I remember my mother-in-law once observing that children rarely miss anything, but can process or understand only a very little of it. And you certainly get that sense here. (To that extent, it reminded me a little of the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone, which describes growing up in Girocaster during the Second World War). The processing comes later, sometimes much later. And in Mother Land, it seems to take years for Kakmi to understand himself, and more poignantly, to understand others – in particular his mother.
One gets the sense by the end, however, that he has grown to appreciate what she went through even more, with both closure and gratitude. Or at least, I certainly hope so.