20 May 2015
A Pontian friend relates a remarkable story whereby she once employed the assistance of a Turkish hairdresser in suburban north-west Melbourne for the purpose of taming her unruly tresses. Peering through the mirror, my friend noticed that her hairdresser had, pinned to her undershirt, a familiar triangular piece of cloth.
“Do you know what that is?” my friend asked.
After a slight hesitation, the hairdresser replied: “It’s a fylakto,” stressing the first syllable in such a way as to indicate that she was not familiar with the term.
“Where did you get it from?” my friend continued.
“My grandmother gave it to me before she died,” came the response. “She always kept it hidden under her shirt and I was the only one who knew she had it. For some reason, it was her big secret. She took it out, gave it to me and told me to keep it secret and safe. I’ve always worn it because it makes me feel close to her.”
This chance enquiry and the discovery of the fylakto led the hairdresser on a voyage of discovery where she discovered that her grandmother, also hailing from the Pontic region on the southern shores of the Black Sea, was in fact not Turkish but Greek and that she had been left behind during the genocide of the Pontic Greeks and brought up as a Turk by a Muslim family. While conforming outwardly to her adopted family’s culture, religion and language, it appears that she never forgot who she truly was, her fylakto truly living up to its purpose, watching over her to make sure that she never forgot who she was.
Given the secrecy in which she not only maintained her fylakto but also passed it on to her granddaughter, it is evident that she would have felt, if not fear, then substantial enough pressure from the society in which she lived not to be able to speak freely about her ethnic origins. This fylakto then, bequeathed in secret, was, more than a symbol, a veritable ark of truth and identity.
These days, Turkey has shifted its stance from a blanket denial of the genocide to a more subtle and no less insidious expression of regret for violence in which all communities suffered. This is an attempt to ‘spread the blame’ which no longer fools anyone, except those who have a vested interest in maintaining a silence about the genocide of the Christian inhabitants of Anatolia by the Ottomans, including a number of powerful nation states. In Turkey itself, more and more people are beginning to question concepts of ethnic affiliation and how this impacts on state-defined conceptions of ‘Turkishness’. This is particularly so given that while hitherto such subjects were taboo, an increasing number of people are looking at the events of the genocide, and in particular, at the plight of survivors, who, like the Turkish hairdresser’s grandmother, were forced to suppress their identities.
While that generation has largely disappeared, the discovery of a suppressed identity by their descendants is proving to be the catalyst for introspection and debate.
This is nowhere more evident than in Turkish film, which is displaying a remarkable willingness to return to the events of the genocide and consider them critically. In the most recent example, the 2014 film The Cut, which was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, director Fatih Akin examines the story of an Armenian genocide survivor who travels the world seeking his surviving children.
As a result, Akin has had to deal with death threats and has attempted to play down the message of the film, describing it to the Istanbul Armenian Agos newspaper as an “adventure movie”. Yet the desire for candour when assessing issues of identity within Turkey predates this movie by a decade, and in particular can be symbolised by a remarkable 2003 Turkish movie, Waiting for the Clouds.
Directed by Yeşim Ustaoğlu, it is based on a novel by Georgios Andreadis entitled Tamama, and was nominated in the Montréal World Film Festival of 2004.
Set in the 1970s, the plot revolves around issues of suppressed identity which come to the fore when an elderly woman, Ayshe, loses her older sister and mysteriously shuns the company of her fellow villagers and instead, seems to display a strange interest in a foreign visitor whose name is Tanasis. Soon after, Ayshe travels to Greece to seek her hitherto unmentioned younger brother. As her young neighbour Mehmet discovers, Ayshe was in fact born as Eleni in the Pontos and was adopted by a Turkish Muslim family during the events of the genocide. For the next 50 years, she has kept her identity a closely-guarded secret, as well as being racked with guilt over seeking the safety and comfort of a familiar environment over the protection of her brother.
Reviewers have pointed out that the film appears to be inspired by or constantly referring to a series of movies by Theodoros Angelopoulos: the borders and their impact on the lives of human beings, as in The Suspended Step of the Stork; a tedious Odyssean search for a family member, as in Landscape in the Mist; the long-lost identity and the fusion of different cultures, as in Ulysses’ Gaze and The Suspended Step of the Stork.
Even the differences between the films reinforce this intertextuality between them: In Waiting for the Clouds, the idea of distance is emphasised, whereas Angelopoulos emphasises the journey. We barely see Ayshe on the journey; rather, we see her at two different destinations. While the film does not permit us to see her cross the physical boundary, the border, her transcendence of the imagined boundaries that she, and others, had created is manifest. In this voyage, her plight is the reverse of the hero of the 1969 Xanthopoulos classic Η Οδύσσεια ενός Ξεριζωμένου.
Ustaoğlu states that her film was inspired by the repressive hyper-nationalistic political and social climate prevailing within Turkey in the ’70s. She states that it was around this time that stories began to emerge of suppressed identity, stories that contrasted with the official propaganda about ‘one Turkish nation’: “I think it’s a pity that the idea of one nation means that elements of some cultures must be thrown away. The Turkish government has always been very sensitive about the unofficial part of our history, meaning anything about ethnic minorities. Regarding the Pontus Greek issue, it has long been taboo.” Thankfully (for the integrity of the film) Ustaoğlu, through Ayshe/Eleni, is deftly able to argue that the objective properties of the community are less important than the imagined ones. Ayshe/Eleni does not ’embrace Hellenism’ or ‘return to the fold’. While deep in her subconscious she imagines herself belonging to another nation and linguistic community, when she ventures outside her small village, she perceives that her imagined ‘true’ community is foreign to her. She returns to her home, changed, but unburdened.
In this artful way, Ustaoğlu shows just how complex the construction of an identity can be. She also cleverly positions the debate where it must lie: within Turkey. For all her past, Ayshe/Eleni is still Turkish and it is incumbent upon Turkish society to understand and accommodate her ethnic identity and her unique experience of history within its national narrative.
Films such as these, made by Turkish directors, suggest that Turkish society itself, rather than the state, is moving of its own accord towards a position where the need to address suppressed taboo issues of the past hundred years is becoming acute, as is the need for openness and pluralism within that society.
As Ustaoğlu herself states: “I felt this was a part of Turkish history which had remained in the dark for too long. I hope this will have meaning not only for Turkish viewers, but citizens of any multicultural country where issues of identity are often problematic.”
It is incumbent upon us to facilitate and nurture such praiseworthy developments, through a corresponding introspection of our own.
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.