Salih Yasun shares the story of how he retraced his family’s pre-Lausanne origins to a Greek-Speaking Muslim Community in Northern Greece.
Salih is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University-Bloomington Department of Political Science.
As the historian Marcus Lee Hansen famously put it, first generation immigrants struggle to adjust, the second generation fights to forget, and the third generation seeks to recall what earlier generations forgot. I grew up in Bursa, a city in northwest Turkey. Due to its fertile soil, booming industry and proximity to the Balkans, Bursa is an immigrant town, with a sizable population of Balkan Muslims who speak a variety of languages. During my primary school years, I would occasionally spend the summers at the beach house of my grandparents. Whenever my grandparents wished to have a private conversation they would switch to a language that I didn’t understand. This did not initially arouse my curiosity, as I was used to living in a polyglot environment with neighbours who spoke Bulgarian or Albanian.
I knew that my grandparents had immigrated to Turkey from the Balkans. Any discussion about our family’s origins was limited, however. My mother and grandmother did not know, and my grandfather did not care to explain. After my grandfather passed away, my interest in our family origins grew. My relatives’ go-to responses, such as “We are from Atatürk’s land [Biz Atatürk’ün memleketindeniz]”, an obvious reference to Selanik, no longer satisfied. Through personal research, I identified our village of origin as Kivotos, in Grevena, Northern Greece. I also learned that prior to the population exchange Kivotos was populated by Vallahades, a small, close-knit Greek-speaking Muslim community. In fact, the three major Greek-speaking Muslim communities in Greece prior to the Lausanne Exchange were the Muslims of Yanya, Crete, and Vallahades. I now realized that growing up my grandparents had been speaking Greek among themselves.
THE WEDDING PHOTO OF MY GRANDMOTHER AND MY LATE GRANDFATHER.
The people of northern Greece, nicknamed Vallahades on account of their frequent use of “vallahi”, converted to Islam sometime during Ottoman rule. Numbering around ten thousand, as a close-knit rural community they tended to intermarry, and some maintained connections to Bektashi lodges. They retained their Greek language as well as local traditions which contained elements of Christianity and local beliefs. Their language, on the verge of extinction, is based on a regional Greek dialect with certain Turkish and Arabic influences. Their lifestyle is well documented in Hasluck’s book Christianity and Islam under the Sultans; Hasluck and her husband visited the region just prior to the Lausanne Exchange. Vallahades were included in that population exchange. After arriving in Turkey via boat, they were scattered across the country. Many lost touch with friends, relatives and neighbours. Most chose to forget their past to adjust to life in their adopted home. Their customs and traditions rapidly died out, and use of their language was increasingly restricted to the household.
In 2021 I decided to make the trip to the land of my grandparents. I first landed in Selanik, then took a bus to Grevena. In the hotel in downtown Grevena, the receptionist told me about an elderly Greek-speaking Turkish man who visited the region years ago. He had taken her grandparents along to show them the village where he grew up. “The Greek speaking Turkish man” seemed to embody the transition from one era to another. The next day, I introduced myself to the locals at the bazaar held in Emilian Square. I did so in English, but soon found myself surrounded by people speaking to me in Turkish. I realized that these were the descendants of refugees from Asia. Their Turkish sounded beautiful. It was archaic, with a large variety of old words and a rural Anatolian accent.
IN THE MARKETPLACE AT GREVENA
From Grevena I made it to Kivotos, about half an hour’s drive away. It was a beautiful village, now inhabited mostly by Anatolian refugees that came through the Lausanne exchange. Between 1922 and 1924 the Muslims of the city opened their houses to Christian refugees. Families lived together despite their differences in religion and language. Kivotos Muslims spoke Greek whereas Christian refugees from Anatolia spoke Turkish. Sadly, most of the village’s Ottoman heritage was lost, due to a combination of earthquakes, fires and German invasion during the World War II.
In Kivotos I met Despina, a second generation Lausanne immigrant from the Black Sea region of Turkey. We embraced, she sang me folk songs in her mother tongue, Turkish. She also told me a story: when she was a child her peers made fun of her because she only spoke Turkish and did not understand Greek. Seeking to console, her father would say “Üzülme kızım, Türkçe hükümet dilidir” (“Do not be sad, my daughter, Turkish is the language of the state.’) Turkish was the official language of the Ottoman Empire.
In Grevena, searching for the roots of my Greek-speaking ancestors, I ended up making friends with Turkish-speaking Greeks. As I was leaving her house, Despina advised me: “Walk in these streets, you will find the smell of your grandparents.” As I walked, I considered what my late grandfather would have thought, had he had the opportunity to come here. Would he feel comfortable speaking in his mother tongue? Would he be a stranger once again in his land of origin: “Twice a Stranger”, as Bruce Clark would call it? These questions will remain unanswered. Like many first- or second-generation immigrants, he passed away without saying much about the traditions and language he inherited. In only a few generations, nationalism and urbanization succeeded in remaking languages, cultures, traditions and even identities that had been gradually moulded over centuries. These powerful forces determined what would be remembered and what would be forgetten.
As the centenary of Lausanne approaches, I realized that the Exchange, for many, is as much about remembering as it is about forgetting the past. I returned to Bursa with some soil from my grandfather’s village, which I left on his grave.
 Bruce Clark. Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey. (London: Granta, 2007), 3.
Aycan Yılmaz, Mübadillerin Kültürel Mirası (Istanbul: Lozan Mübadilleri Vakfı Yayınları 2017).
Aycan Yılmaz, Patriyotların Sözlü Kültürü ve Patriyotça El Sözlüğü (Istanbul: Çatalca Belediyesi, 2022).
MAIN IMAGE: TALKING WITH DESPINA IN HER HOME.