Topic: Bananas, Sand and Fire by Irene Tudor

Topic type:

A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

ANZAC Day, rising in the dark, wearing his medals.  Off to march to the Cenotaph.  Never put off by a wet Wellington morning.  All we knew about his war was that he hated the sight of bananas. 

“That’s the only thing we ate for three months when we were in the desert.  Bananas.  And sand.” 

He often visited my friend’s father, who’d fought in Crete with the Kiwis during World War Two.  They spent hours together, drinking Greek coffee.  Afterwards he was quiet.  They both were.  A Greek born in Istanbul, Turkey and a Kiwi born in Wanganui. 

“I never want to see you kids with a toy gun.  Not even a water pistol.” 

We made our own out of small pieces of wood and nails at his workshop bench when he wasn’t looking.  What did he expect?  How else could we play Cowboys and Indians with the kids next door? 

He’d stare out the window. 

“People give wars a name, talk about them starting, ending.  World War One.  World War Two.  Between them, blank pages.  Just like that, do wars start and end?”

“Since my parents married, there were wars all around them.  Some Balkan countries, including Greece, went to war against Turkey.  Remember the Ottoman Empire?  People trying to become free from their rule.  That was hardly settled then another war - World War One.  Turkey was on Germany’s side, with Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria.  Greece declared war on them.  Imagine: our patrida, the land of our people, at war with the land of our birth; my mother and father struggling to survive in Poli (Constantinople – now Istanbul) with small children. 

“I was born in the middle of this war.  My Uncle Euripides, Dad’s brother, was conscripted by the Turks.  He died at Gallipoli the year before I was born.  Gallipoli.  They were from there, he and Dad.” 

After school, in the afternoon bubble before our mothers called us in for dinner we’d run up through the scrub with the neighbours’ kids to the water tower at the top of the hill, brandishing wooden swords, dropping low into an old trench that someone said had been dug during the war.  In case the Japs came.  I remember looking down at the white semicircle of surf edging Lyall Bay, the dull flatness of Wellington Airport.  War?  Japs? 

“We’d lived as Greeks for hundreds of years under the sultans.  At that time we were over a million in Turkey.  Greeks first settled there in Homer’s time, before the Turks.  We’d been in that land for over two thousand years.  Yes, there’d been problems.  But now we were officially enemies. 

“As well, the Turks had begun to fight among themselves; the sultan and his supporters, the army, factions wanting a nationalist state.  A young army officer called Kemal was stirring things up.  Poli was at that time the capital.  Arrests, revolts; it was all around us. 

“Stories came through.  Greeks from the coast deported to the middle of Turkey, where it’s barren, desert.  Other Christians too.  Death marches, we called them.  People thrown down wells, locked in churches and burnt, whole villages burnt alive.  That year of Gallipoli was the worst, though it carried on even after the war.  Hundreds of thousands, more, killed. 

“It burns in me though I was hardly born… through Mama maybe… her skin, her tears.

“Kemal ended up frontline commander in Gallipoli.  He was gaining support.  The Sultan made him an outlaw.  I don’t know what was better, the time during the war or after the armistice - Turkey’s punishment.  Secret agreements, who would get what.  The Allies took control of Poli.  The British, Italians, began to occupy parts of Turkey.  Greece made a formal claim for Smyrni (Izmir).  Most of its population was Greek.

“Somehow our life continued.  We had our own schools, churches and tavernas.  Our school belonged to the church of Saint Constantine.  Our teachers were Greek.  Each day, two hours of Greek and one hour of French.  The rest was in Turkish.  Writing using the old Turkish alphabet.

“Conferences.  The Treaty of Sevres said Greece would administer Smyrni for five years.  The Sultan’s Poli government signed.  The Greeks landed with the support of the Allies.  Our land ours again!  The nationalists objected.  Who had the authority?  I remember Mama got news from the yoghurt vendor.  She ran downstairs whenever he passed by, two big cans hanging off a pole across his shoulders.  Yoghurt was cheap but often Mama didn’t have enough money to buy any. 

“Kemal set up a parliament in Ankara.  The Greeks were advancing inland, town after town.  Lloyd George encouraged us, hoping the Turks would accept peace.  Then Kemal made deals with Italy, France.  They withdrew. 

“Under Kemal the Turks began to counter-attack.  Disaster.  We retreated to Smyrni.  They set the city on fire, thousands of Greeks died.  In Poli, even we children knew about it; the women discussed it over coffee, the men talked in the kafenia and the streets.  They said the Allied ships left us to drown, burning in the water.  What would happen to us?  It was the week I turned six.  Famine.  Hunger.  The Sultan fled Poli on a British ship.

“Mama and Dad had a terrible decision to make.  Greece and Turkey signed an agreement for the compulsory exchange of populations.  In Poli we had a choice - stay and become Turkish citizens, or leave everything, go to Greece.  Go where?  No sleep.  We lived in one room, sharing a kitchen with other families.  My parents discussed and argued all night.  Should they uproot themselves with three small children?  Was it safe here? 

“My aunt and uncle, so many of our friends, all left.  Turkey became a republic, Kemal was President.  We stayed.  It was 1923.  Mama had to take whatever work she could get, so we could eat.   Cooking, washing.  Sometimes she cooked at the German Embassy. 

“Kemal changed everything.  He banned the fez.  There was a big parade one day, the army, thousands of people, music, cheering.  People were throwing their fezzes up in the air and putting on hats with a brim. We called them Republicas.  The ground was red with fezzes.  We picked up a few and Mama made us slippers from the felt.  Kemal brought in the Latin alphabet too and all Turks had to learn it. 

“When I was about twelve or thirteen I remember a big fire.  It was winter, night, and there was snow.  We were asleep.   My father’s sister lived in a Greek neighbourhood called Tatavla, all narrow wooden houses.  People said the Turks set them alight.  My father went up to his sister's, but there was nothing they could do.  The sky was orange.  We watched as the whole neighbourhood burnt down.  The houses had snow on top of them but they were wooden, the timber was old....

“After the creation of the Republic there were always Greek songs playing in the neighbourhoods, there were beer gardens and coffee bars.  Kemal wanted to punish those responsible for the genocides and persecutions.  He was good to us.

“Eventually I was conscripted into the Turkish army.  Three times.  Labour battalions.  Beatings, malaria, digging trenches in the snow in Anatolia. 

“World War Two.  Enough.  Through the Greek Underground I escaped on a train, threw away my Turkish passport and joined the Allied forces in the Middle East.  The Greek Air Force:  the desert, Italy, Greece. 

“The war ended.  But Greece was in civil war.  Now we were fighting the Communists. 

“Finally peace.  But I had no country, no passport.  We heard New Zealand had an office in Athens, taking refugees.”

Straight to the Pahiatua camp, learning to be Kiwis.  Afterwards, out to an oddly quiet world where they were sometimes smiled on, sometimes spat at.  Bloody foreigners. 

In Wellington, overlooking Cook Strait, a memorial to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was unveiled on Anzac Day 1990 by the Turkish Minister of Agriculture.  Every ANZAC Day, a wreath is laid there.  It’s apparently like the landscape of the Gallipoli peninsular.  Dad, never one for political action, joined other Greek people in a protest march. 

As kids, we wanted him to teach us Turkish, but he told us he only knew some swear words.  To shut us up?  Decades later my parents visited Greece and Turkey.  In Istanbul Dad wandered through his old neighbourhood, bought a hookah pipe.  At his funeral we discovered that for years he’d been sneaking off to a Turkish restaurant to play backgammon and drink Turkish coffee with the owner (at home, we had to call it Greek coffee).  The man was at his funeral.  His friend, he told us, spoke fluent Turkish. 

Traitor, some Greek people would say.  But he was swept back and forth by tides over which he had no control.  He protected us with the comfort of bananas and sand.  Apart from these, and the fires, he hid his story from us until near death in his eighth decade.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/5E7Y-8V3V

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