The Contrasting Images of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Fiction versus Memoirs
Print

This article appeared originally and in a different version as: ‘The Image of Greeks in Turkish Literature: Fiction and Memoirs’, in Oil on Fire?, Studien zur Internationalen Schulbuchforschung, Schriftenreihe des Georg-Eckert-Instituts, Hanover: Verlag Hansche Buchhandlung, 1996. 

The Contrasting Images of Greeks in Turkish Literature:

Fiction versus Memoirs 

Hercules Millas (8/2009)

     Negatively portrayed individuals who belong to a neighbouring nation in texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is not a surprising phenomenon. One can even argue that the negatively portrayed national stereotypes of the "other" in textbooks, literary texts etc., are probably the rule. My findings confirm the above. The image of Greeks in Turkish literature and the image of Turks in Greek literature, generally consist of stereotypes. There are exceptions, of course. Some writers, mostly under the influence of Marxist ideology and/or humanism, present a rather balanced picture of the "other". In general though, the "other" is far from being a “normal” or an "average" personality.[1]

       However, when at a certain point I tried to categorize my findings, I noticed a surprising recurrence. Three Turkish authors presented two completely different and contrasting pictures when dealing with the "other" in two different types of literary texts: in fiction the Greeks were very "bad", in memoirs the Greeks were "good".[2]

      The three Turkish writers are Ömer Seyfettin, Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu and Halide Edip Adıvar. They are well-known authors in Turkey and representatives of  "national litera­ture" (milli edebiyat), a dominant school of the first half of the 20th century. In Turkey the term "national" literature does not mean nationalistic literature (even though there are many nationalistic characteristics in their texts).

     There are very few writers who have written both fiction (novels and short stories) and memoirs (reminiscence and autobiographies). Here I will refer to all published texts of the three writers presenting direct or indirect references to Greeks and finally all findings in a general table.[3]

Ömer Seyfettin

 

     Ömer Seyfettin (1884-1920) lived and produced his short stories during the most turbulent period of the Ottoman Empire: the Ottomans faced the revo­lution of Crete, the movement of Young Turks, territorial losses in West and East (almost all the Balkans, the last African lands, the Arab lands), the Bal­kan Wars, the First World War and the defeat, the partition of the Ottoman Empire etc. Ö. Seyfettin was an army officer and had been a prisoner of war in 1913 after being captured by the Greek army. Even though he died very young, he produced 163 short stories. In present day Turkey he is considered as the Maupassant or the Chekhov of Turkey; the Ministry of Education rec­ommends him as an exemplary writer and his short stories appear in almost all reading textbooks.[4]

     Greeks are presented in 43 of his short stories (i.e. in 26 % of his short stories). These Greeks are presented basically as enemies of the Turks: they do not like Turks, they hate Turks, they want to extend their land against Ottoman lands and they commit atrocities in order to accomplish that. The Greeks exploit the Turks by establishing disreputable businesses (gambling and whore houses). The Bulgarians are probably even worse. In these short stories there is not a single male or female character that exhibits any positive side. Excluding the "neutral" references, we meet nine women and seven men in some detail in these short stories; they are all negative personalities.  The women are either prostitutes or house maids who act extremely "freely".[5] There are twelve incidents where in all cases the Greeks (who are not personally named or described but only mentioned in general as Greeks) behave in a negative way.[6]

      Ö. Seyfettin also wrote some memoirs during the time he was in Greek custody as a prisoner of war. The surprising finding is that, even under these extreme circumstances, almost all the Greeks whom he presents are character­ized as gentle, kind and amiable. He praised the way the Greeks treated him and he expressed his sympathy even "for the chief of the hospital, who, poor man, had a son in the army". Of course, this son at that time was fight­ing the Turks![7]

Halide Edip Adıvar

      Halide Edip Adıvar (1882-1964) is an authoress who took part in the liber­ation war against the Greeks. She had an intimate relationship with Mustafa Kemal. She was a member of parliament during the years 1950-1954 and published 21 novels, 2 volumes of short stories, a play and two volumes of memoirs. The memoirs were originally written in English.[8] Her novel Sinekli Bakkal is considered as a classic of mod­ern Turkish literature.

     The case of Halide Edip with respect to the image of Greeks is a complex one. The picture of the neighbouring nation in general is negative: Beyoğlu, vicinity in Istanbul mostly inhabited by Greeks and Christians, is presented as a degener­ate place; the Greeks are ruthless during the war and they enjoy killing children and raping women; Greek women are almost all either prostitutes or house maids who act like prostitutes. In her novels and short stories, there is only one positive Greek who appears in her first novel where a Greek advocates loyalty to the Ottoman State. On the other hand, eighteen Greek women and eight men, and 46 incidents all show the “other” extremely negative.

     Nevertheless, the reader is presented with a surprise as he/she reads her memoirs where completely different Greeks appear: they are gentle, kind, humble, amiable. Even the same events are evaluated in diametrically opposite ways in her fiction and in her mem­oirs. I will limit myself with a few examples.

     In her memoirs Helena is a real person who is exalted. This old Greek teacher is presented as a lady who taught her to love life when she was about ten and gave her courage when the authoress had lost her mother. In her memoirs she wrote that she had never forgotten and could never forget Helena. In her novels, however, one meets eight Greek women who are called "Helena" (Eleni), and they are all prosti­tutes or simple maids. One of them, according to the writer's description is even "disgusting, because she has hairs on her chin".[9]

     In her novels there is not a single Greek soldier who behaves in a humane way; one reads only of barbaric actions."[10] In her short story titled Fatma, Stop Hitting!" a Greek officer is lynched. The reader feels a catharsis, a just punishment, since the officer is pictured as a real monster. In her memoirs we read that  she is against lynching "under any circumstance". She even criticizes Mustafa Kemal on this topic.[11]  The Greek soldiers in her memoirs are humane, and the reader is moved reading how Greek military physicians risked their lives to help wounded Turkish soldiers, how they fired at their own soldiers to stop atrocities, how Greeks and Turkish soldiers were found dead, having embraced themselves as if making peace at the last moment.[12] The authoress clearly states that "there are no nations which can be guilty".[13]

     Even Beyoğlu, the vicinity where the Greeks lived, is mentioned in the memoirs, in contrast to her novels, as the place where she had her happiest moments of her life as a child. There her father had bought her a doll and she visited a theatre for the first time in her life.[14] In her memoirs we meet an old Greek doctor who helped the authoress when she was in Egypt with her two children and faced all alone a very diffi­cult situation; and an old Greek lady, the only person who bade her farewell when she left Turkey for exile.[15] We also read that a Greek translator from Anatolia fought on the side of the Turks.[16] None of these positively portrayed Greeks appear in her novels or in her shorts stories.

Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu

 

     Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu (1889-1974) does not present a very different case.  He, too, participated in the liberation war against the Greeks, he collaborated with H. Edip investigating the damage done by the Greeks during the occupation of West Anatolia, he was close to Mustafa Kemal and a member of the parliament and a diplomat. He pub­lished nine novels, two volumes with short stories, one play, and five volumes of memoirs. His novel entitled Yaban (The Stranger) is considered a classic in Turkish literature.

The Greek women whom we meet in his novels and short stories are usually prostitutes (6 out of 9); the other two women sexually excite some Turks.[17] The Greek neighbourhoods are almost always connected with sexual adventures. Beyoğlu, the area in Istanbul inhabited mostly by Christians, is seen as related to unpleasant characters and incidents. The men have a greater variety of occupations: some run ill-famed bars, some have grocery stores etc. However, they are almost invariably portrayed as negative personalities.

The following derogatory adjectives, nouns, verbs and actions are related to Greeks and appear in his texts of fiction: dirty, disgusting, bloodthirsty, contemptuous, pedant, violent, savage, spoiled, enemy, shameless, ungrateful, cunning, barbarous, appalling, "gavur" (infidel), scoundrel, pitiless, degener­ate, thief, rapist, ex-servants of ours, ex-slaves of ours, atrocities, treason, tor­ture, killing, massacre, microbe, murder, beast, loot, beating, stealing, sab­otage, hate, base ambitions, cadaver, strangler, killing by bayonet, killing by stoning, cutting breasts, nailing up by breasts, spitting in the face of Turks, setting fire to villages, and many other highly insulting expressions which make it difficult to find the corresponding words in translation.

The picture of Greeks is different in his memoirs. There, we find the respectable Greek doctor of Yakup Kadri's father and some of his nice Greek friends (diplomats). These "positive" characters are few but there is not a single Greek in these memoirs who can be classified as negative.

An assessment

 

     I composed a table out of these findings. The shortcomings of such a table are evident.  A persons portrayed in great detail had to be taken on the same status as a person briefly mentioned. Light faults and grave crimes were both grouped as equally negative. Characters had to be grouped out of context. There might have been subjectivity involved in classifying events as negative or positive. Still, presenting the results in a table form is useful. The table presents findings distinctively. Furthermore, the results are so clear and outstanding (not margi­nal) that any probable distortion does not seem to be decisive.

The table includes all references to Greeks, fiction (novels and short stories) and memoirs of each writer separately shown. "Neutral" refer­ences are not shown in order to simplify the presentation. Women, men and incidents are shown separately:

  

 

 

Novels & Short Stories

 

 

Persons

Incidents

 

 Women

Men

 

Pos.

Neg.

Pos.

Neg.

Pos.

Neg.

Ömer Seyfettin

Halide Edip Adıvar

Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu

0

0

0

  18

9

0

1

2

7

8

  18

 0

 0

 0

 12

 46

 47

SUM

0

36

3

33

0

105

 

 

 

Memoirs

 

Ömer Seyfettin

Halide Edip Adıvar

Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu

0

2

1

0

0

0

3

8

3

0

3

0

4

    17

0

3

8

     30

SUM

3

0

    14

3

    21

41

 

Looking at the general results presented in numbers, we may conclude the following:

1. In the texts of fiction there is only a single positive woman and 36 negative ones. In contrast to that, there is not a single negative one in memoirs where we find 3 positive women.

2. The ratio of positive/negative for men is 3/33 (more than 90 % "bad" Greeks) in fiction and 14/3 (more than 80 % "good" Greeks) in memoirs.

3. The incidents (or characterizations) which are not directly connected to per­sons but are more general, show the same tendency but not the same extreme contrast. There are no positive actions in fiction, with more than one hundred negative characterizations; whereas there is a 21/41 ratio for memoirs. This ratio is, of course, determined by the heavily influential 0/30 ratio of Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu. The other two writers have an average ratio of 21/11 which means 64% "good" actions by Greeks in memoirs.

     All three writers show a similarity in having negative or "bad" Greeks in their novels and short stories and positive or "good" ones in their memoirs. One may suspect that fiction is the product of war periods and the memoirs of peace periods. This is not the case. Halide Edip wrote her memoirs right after the war and most of her novels much later. Yakup Kadri wrote his novels much after the war, whereas the "good Greeks" of Ömer Seyfettin appear in memoirs written when he was a prisoner of war, under Greek custody. The type of text (novel and short story) by itself cannot be the determinant factor, either.  There is nothing intrinsic in literary texts enforcing national stereotypes. There are many examples in world and in Turkish literature where stereotyping is transcended.[18]  Coincidence does not seem to be the answer either, since the figures persistently point towards the same direction, showing that there is an apparent differentiation between literary texts and memoirs.

In one of her novels where she describes two Greek women (prostitutes) Halide Edip wrote this revealing sentence: "These women were realistically representing the local prostitution as if they had just come out of the novels of Hüseyin Rahmi".[19] H. Rahmi (1864-1944) is a novelist. The authoress, naturally (and to her honour), did not have first hand information about local prostitution. She had to rely on preceding novels; and literature for her was a source of "reality", picturing the real world.  Stereotyping in literature may be the reproduction of socially existing images. Whereas memoirs, on the other hand, are written based on personal experience.  One does not feel the need to refer to general predetermined "truths” and “realities” when she/he narrates personal experience. Memoirs are about “really real” persons.

The writers are conscious of their readers. The changes that Halide Edip made in her memoirs when she translated the English version into Turkish are revealing. In the English version she presents her family close to the royal family of the Ottoman Empire, to the Greeks and to the Christians. She mentions her disagreements (on lynching) with Mustafa Kemal. All these changed when she pre­pared her text for Turks who had chased away the Sultan and the Greeks and who were governed by a strong military hero, Mustafa Kemal.[20] We may suspect that writers write what they are expected (by their readers) to write. Maybe she wrote the short story defending lynching as a plea for excuse for her initial opposition to this act. The fictitious texts of the authoress were written for the Turkish public, whereas the memoirs were originally written for English speak­ers. Also the memoirs of Ömer Seyfettin were not originally written for publi­cation and they were published for the first time forty seven years after his death.

A third factor that gives birth to national stereotypes is the nationalistic ideology and its premise that nations are “homogeneous” groups. The three writers that are known in Turkey as representatives of "national lit­erature" are also famous for trying in practice to strengthen the Turkish lan­guage, the Turkish state and the Turkish national consciousness. Nationalists do not seem to be interested in “details” and “exceptions” that injure their basic premise. Their “reality” covers all of “us” (as positive), as well as all “others” (as negative).  As nationalist writers create – on paper - their ethnocentric world, they present "reality" according to the ideological stereotypes and not in accordance to the "few" inci­dents in life which may contradict their worldviews.  So even though they may have met only "good" Greeks during their life time, their ideology (or their "education" in general) dictates them to portray only negative personal­ities - not as they may appear and present themselves but as they "really" are.

Memoirs profess an altogether different world. They do not rep­resent, according to the understanding of these writers, the ultimate, the general, the basic "truth" but only some particular or coincidental incidents. In philosophical terms, one may recall the controversy of nominalism: particular occurrences can not constitute a universal reality. A nationalist author feels comfortable when s/he writes about "nice" neighbours since we all know these do exist. However, in a text of fiction we do not record (nom­inalist) particulars but basically the "ultimate reality", the symbolic expression of what really exists beyond appearances. Nationalist writers therefore reproduce predetermined nationalistic stereotypes, as these have been built up in a nationalistic discourse.

     The belief that literary texts present the ‘essence’ (the universals) beyond the ‘facts’ (the singulars) is at least as old as Aristotle. In his Poetics he wrote that (read fiction for “poet” and memoirs for “historian”): “it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the things that happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse . . . it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”[21] Hence, authors of novels in their depiction of the Other seem to voice the “universals”, as these are conceived by them, irrespective of ‘singulars’.

The demarcation line between fiction and memoir becomes apparent. In texts that are heavily influenced by nationalism, the difference is not in the style, nor in the content. It is in the meaning given to the narration, to novels/short stories on the one hand and to memoirs on the other: the first is the essence, the other is the appearance.

*



[1] See: (1) Εικόνες Ελλήνων και Τούρκων - σχολικά βιβλία, ιστοριογραφία, λογοτεχνία και εθνικά στερεότυπα, (Images of Greeks and Turks - textbooks, historiography, literature and national stereotypes), Athens: Alexandria, 2001. (2) “The Other and Nation-building – The Testimony of Greek and Turkish Novels”, in Representations of the Other/s in the Mediterranean World and their Impact on the Region, Edit. N. K. Burçoğlu / S. G. Miller, İstanbul, The Isis Pres, 2004. (3) Türk ve Yunan Romanlarında Öteki ve Kimlik, İstanbul: İletişim, 2005.

[2] In many cases adjectives such as "good" and "bad" do not encompass any doubts; the words used are straightforwardly complimentary or derogatory. In some other cases though, where Greeks were mentioned without any particular value judgement/evaluation, the attributes were classified as "neutral". There are, however,  some more complex cases. How should a Greek who runs successfully a tavern be classified? He gives pleasure, but drinking alcoholic beverages is a sinful act in a Muslim society. A Greek, who presented such dubious evaluations or where the value judgement attributed to him was not clear, was classified towards the positive side of the scale; i.e., in case of any doubt between "negative" and "neutral" or "neutral" and "positive", the second case was preferred. In other words, if there is a bias in this article, it is rather towards showing a bigger number of "good" Greeks than "bad" ones.

[3] Naturally, many other interesting findings come to light in these texts: the phases of the formation of a national ‘identity; the perception of an east/west or Christian/Muslim con­troversy; paradigms related to history; ways of rationalization national targets, etc. In this presentation the scope is limited.

[4] For the complete works of Ö. S. see: "Ömer Seyfettin, Bütün Eserleri", Bilgi yayınları, Ankara, 1988-1990 (volumes 1-14). On the first page of each volume the recommendation of the Minis­try of Education appears, dated 1987, where Ö. S. "is recommended to the schools".

[5] For Greek women see the following short stories: Ashab-i, Kehfimiz, Efruz Bey, Yüksek Ökçeler, Kıskançlık, Ay Sonunda, Primo Türk Çocuğu, Harem, Türkçe Reçete, Zeytin Ekmek, Perili Köşk, Balkon. For Greeks in general the following short stories can be consulted: Primo Türk Çocuğu, Asiller Kulübü, Ashab-ı Kehfimiz, Beyaz Lale, Bomba, Mehdi, Bir Çocuk Aleko, Boykotaj Düşmanı, Memlekete Mektup, Lokanta Esrarı, Hürriyete Layık Bir Kahraman, Yaz Geceleri.

[6] Looking at these literary texts from another perspective, different evaluations are also possible: Greeks are bad and harmful for the Turks; but they seem to be "good" to themselves. They act as members of a nation “should”. They are not personalities to be despised. There are many instances where the Turks in these short stories decide to follow the exemplary acts of the "national­ist" Greeks. The Greeks in these cases constitute examples to be followed. Actually, the whole West is considered to be barbaric but such a "barbarism" is also considered to be indispensable if national targets are to be accomplished. See for example the article "Edebiyatta Arz ve Talep" ("we will become a nation like the Greeks, the Armenians..."); and the short story "Bir Çocuk Aleko" (where a Turkish boy succeeds in a national mission by acting the way the Greeks do).

[7] "Balkan Savaşı Günlüğü", Bütün Eserleri, Ruzname, Bilgi Yayınevi, volume 8, 1989, p. 91-92.

[8] "Memoirs of Halide Edip", London, John Murray, 1926 and "The Turkish Ordeal", London, John Murray, 1928.

[9] For amiable Helena see: "Memoirs of Halide Edip". For negative women (and Helena) see the
following novels and short stories (where A stands for Atlas, R for Remzi publishing houses
respectively; 2, 3 etc, the edition of the book): "Heyula" (R2, 101-107); "Raik'in Annesi" (A5,
p. 132-136); "Sinekli Bakkal" (A44, p. 294 where “the disgusting hairs of Helena" are
encountered); "Yolpalas Cinayeti" (A7, p. 230); "Akile Hanım" (A4, p. 136); "Çaresaz" (A3,
p. 223), etc.

[10] Actually, the only positive character encountered in her literary texts is a Greek post official who
favoured a multi-national Ottoman state (Yeni Turan, Atlas, 5. addition, p. 81). For negative
Greeks see for example: "Ateşten Gömlek", "
İzmir'den Bursa'ya (short stories), "Dağa Çıkan
Kurt" (Short stories); "Vurun Kahpeye", etc.

[11] Compare "Vurma Fatma" (Fatma Stop Hitting!) in "İzmir'den Bursa'ya", on the other hand, and “Turkish Ordeal" (Türkün Ateşle İmtihanı, Atlas, 9. addition, p. 228), on the other, where she is clearly against lynching under all circumstances.

[12] See for example "Türkün Ateşle imtihanı", ibid., pages 195, 250, 195.

[13] See "Türkün Ateşle imtihanı", ibid., p. 196 where she also adds that exaggerated hysterical texts cause ill feelings in young people hindering peace. (Dünyada suçlu millet olmadığını söylemek isterim... Barışa engel olan şeylerden birinin de, siyasi emeller için isteriye kaçan abartmalı yazıl­ardır. Böyle bir hareket gençliğe kötü duygular verir").

[14] See “Mor Salkımlı Ev" A7, 35, 55 (The Turkish translation of "Memoirs").

[15] "Mor Salkımlı Ev" Atlas, 7. addition, p. 131  and "Yolculuk Notları/Dağa Çıkan Kurt", Remzi Publishing House, 7. edition, 1989, p. 184.  The second text is composed of notes from a journey.

[16] "Türkün Ateşle imtihanı", ibid., p. 191.

[17] For details and references see (1) my monograph on Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu and the image of Greeks published in Turkish "Türk Edebiyatinda Yunan Imaji", Toplum Ve Bilim, Istanbul, Winter 1991; (2) H. Millas. Türk ve Yunan Romanlarında Öteki ve Kimlik, İstanbul: İletişim, 2005.

[18] Sait Faik, for example, a well-known Turkish writer, portrayed bal­anced and mostly "positive" Greeks in his short stories. See: Nedim Gürsel, "La Communaute Grecque d'Istanbul Dans L'oeuvre de Sait Faik", in Le Different Greco-Turc, Edited by Semih Vaner, Paris, L'Harmattan, 1988. It is of interest to note that almost all of the characters portrayed by Sait Faik are "real", in the sense that they are recognizable by residents of the Prince Islands of Istanbul, i.e., of the milieu from where this writer selected his heroes.

[19] My translation. [Bu kadınlar] "Hüseyin Rahmi'nin romanlarından kesilmiş iki sayfa kadar gerçekçi bir biçimde yerli fuhuş alemini canlandırıyorlardı" (Yolpalas Cinayeti, Atlas, 1988, p. 194).

[20] The changes that occurred between the English and the Turkish versions of the Memoirs can be seen when the corre­sponding pages of the Turkish version are compared with the following pages of the English ver­sion: 3, 150, 153, 207, 284, 376, 574. For changes that occurred with respect to Turkish Ordeal compare pages 22, 300, 359 of the English version with the corresponding Turkish translation.

[21] Aristotle.  Rhetoric and Poetics, Modern Library, New York, 1954, p. 34/1451