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April 23, 2001

My mother's actually from Florina [now in Macedonia, Greece]. When I was a twenty-day-old baby, I was told, we left Monastir [Bitola, now in (Northern) Macedonia]. My father, who'd been assigned to Aleppo [now in Syria], met up with us in Thessaloniki. We were going to take a boat. Me, my mother, my grandmother, my two-year-old brother Kemal. Some winter's day, must be November [1913].

I don't remember much of Aleppo. I had another sister born there, but she died when she was six months. I was four when we left. When the British came, in 1918.

I remember the train station. It was chaos, and we lost my grandmother. We were looking for her frantically. She was already on the train, but we didn't know. I saw a kid in the crowd; they were carrying him, someone or something had run over his foot and it was all bloody. I almost fainted, I can't look at blood even now. I looked up at the sky to avoid looking at the blood and on the roofs of the carriages I saw Arabs with their long garbs. One of them was very big, had a black beard, black headband. I told everyone about him later, I kept saying "I saw God."

Then we piled into the carriages. Not real passenger cars, but more like open wagons, for cargo maybe, or animals. They had a curtain drawn down the middle, for women and children on one side, and men on the other. I remember food being given from underneath the cloth, some kind of soupy liquid, and old bread. We would dip the bread and eat it. I can't remember how many days the trip took.

When we got to Konya [now in Turkey] we found my grandmother. We were beside ourselves with joy. We talked about how we lost and found each other in the family for a while, then forgot about it. In those years it was common for people to lose each other in all this fleeing and migrating and maybe not ever see the other person again. My mother never heard from her parents again, who'd been left behind in Monastir. So my father sees my mom silently crying one day.

"What is it, Behije?" he asks.

My mother says, "There's no news from my folks, I worry," and my father says, simply, "They're dead."

She was devastated, but never brought it up again.*

October 5, 2000. We left the ever-stylish Thessaloniki behind and drove west, toward Greek towns that resembled the country's less fortunate neighbors. We were going to Florina, looking for our past, tracing an exodus that had repeated itself across the Balkans for centuries -- the actors changing frequently as if the whole thing were a pilot for a TV show whose producer kept tweaking it.

We would stop in little towns on the way, take pictures, talk to people. We took pictures of a peasant woman standing proudly next to her house. When I asked her to write down her address for me (hunting for the word in the Greek phrasebook -- simply trying to wing it by approximating Latin roots doesn't work in Greek the way it does in Spanish, French, or Italian) she performed an elaborate pantomime to tell a simple story: She had worked the fields all her life, and never learned to read or write. We solicited the help of a Canadian visiting his hometown, "chilling with the boys" at a cafe, who wrote down the address for us (which was just the woman's name and the name of the village) and lamented being on the wrong side of the Macedonian border. He was a Slav, see, not a Greek Macedonian, and things were complicated.

The woman hugged us goodbye when she found out we were Turkish, and then went back to tending her garden. We moved on.

The Florina we found turned out to be a medium-sized, kind of down-and-out town, certainly not a tourist destination. We parked the car and walked the streets. One of us dropped a wallet; four construction workers picked it up and ran after us. We got thirsty and spotted a bar -- it looked out of place, a little too fashionable for this modest town. We walked in, put our bags down, looked around. The walls were covered with reproductions of turn-of-the-century photographs, specifically of the Turkish quarter, now transformed. The owner, a young man, stepped forward and told us about his friend, an amateur archivist. We gave him our story, and he said please snap photos of as many photos as you like. We sat down and talked about our fucked-up history, and blamed the higher-ups, predictably. He didn't have business cards for the bar yet, but he gave me a menu instead. On its back was an old map, never to leave us alone.

He told us how to get to the ruins of the old mosque in the picture below. Between beers he said, "My first name is too long, so everyone calls me by my last." When he wrote down his name and address I understood why.

We stepped outside and blinked in the daylight, said goodbye to Alexandros, and left.

* From My Mother's Story   by Oryal Gökdemir (Istanbul: Arkin, 1998). The mother in the title is my grandmother, and she's the narrator in the excerpt above.

Florina's Turkish Quarter

One of many historic photos on the walls. The caption reads "Campagne D'Orient 1914-1918, Florina - Quartier turc." In the foreground is a Muslim cemetery, identified by thick, pole-like gravestones.

Greek and Turkish homes side by side in Kavala

Greek- (left) and Turkish-style homes side by side in the eastern Greek city of Kavala.


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