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May 8, 2001
The Monk on the Wind-Swept Hill


The road hugs the coastline, stately homes semi-hiding behind short walls covered with ivy. Through gaps between houses you can see the water, and the passenger ferries carrying people from the big city, flocking to the islands for relief. There are no cars here, which is part of the appeal, but somehow all those weekend tourists don't think of leaving their vehicles behind and walking to places when they return to the mainland and confront their workweek.

Where the horse-drawn carriages congregate, close to the geographical center of the biggest island, a narrower, unpaved trail rises toward the summit. There, next to an outdoor cafe (where I photographed the kitties in the photograph above, one late fall when the place was closed) sits a newly renovated Greek church, commanding staggering views of the city to the north, and open, deep blue, choppy sea to the south. The houses below, dotting the valleys, almost all face the city; the south face, by contrast, is just trees, trees, trees. A precious commodity in and around Istanbul.

Historically these islands (the four biggest ones) have been havens for minorities, and even today their populations hold significant numbers (as percentages of the islands' population) of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and other Christians. No doubt aware of this, a Turkish political party with impeccable fascist credentials picks the island with the largest Armenian community to hang its banner come election time. The one pictured below is positioned to greet people as they come off the boat. It reads, translated literally,  We are coming -- for "Turkish Unity" and for the World Domination of the Turk.

Meanwhile, up on the hill a monk stands next to icons of Jesus and Mary and crosses and burning candles, greeting visitors. I assume, at first, that he's a Turkish-born Greek, but when I ask him a question he tells me he doesn't understand Turkish. We chat in English for a few minutes. It turns out he's from Mount Athos, the autonomous enclave of monasteries in eastern Greece. It seems odd to me that the Greek school (currently closed) on the neighboring island of Heybeli (Halki) is such a flash point of conflict between Turkish and Greek governments, yet monks can come from Greece and staff this place. They're probably considered harmless; there are less than 3,000 (three thousand) Greeks left in Turkey today, and just a century ago they must have constituted half of the population in the western part of the country.

The monk is in a friendly place, if it's any consolation, because the people of these islands have been a gentle sort, refugees and exiles -- regardless of their religion or ethnicity -- from the big, rude city across the water. Sait Faik, our best short story writer, lived here unmolested as a gay man from 1939 until he died in 1954, and so did Trotsky, fleeing the murderous Stalin, whose thugs ultimately found and killed him, in Mexico. A Turkish man steps inside the church and asks of a certain Father X, and the monk pantomimes sleep, and utters an old Turkish word for death. The visitor's mouth forms a silent "O." I buy a candle, light it (for what, I don't know), and stick it alongside others lining the hallway. As I'm leaving, we shake hands and the monk wishes me a Happy Bayram (the day happens to fall on the holiest Muslim holiday) and I respond, reflexively, wishing him same. Doh. Well, I console myself on the way down, I don't qualify as a Muslim anyway, though it's a lame excuse.

The discomfort pales in comparison to the general feeling of nausea I feel with regard to how the country has turned out overall, though. In the end it's easy to blame rebellions and wars and such, but the bottom line is we had a chance to create a multi-ethnic society and we failed, spectacularly. And I don't mean to promote the idea of a multi-ethnic country in a way that denies nation-state aspirations of people who'd rather not be minorities anywhere, but even as separated, divided nations we have failed as neighbors in the most basic sense. We're like surly Siamese cats, fighting over land, history, over everything. And we're putting up our racist banners in our respective languages, beating our chests, when we should be beating our heads.

Damn it all.

Nationalist banner

And we walk by these signs, and we do nothing...

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All text and images © Aziz Gökdemir's Archive unless otherwise indicated or credited.
The current banner photo was taken at the summer restaurant by the Greek monastery atop the summit of Büyükada (Prinkipo Island), off the coast of Istanbul. 1998, I believe.


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