Greeks and Turks

Traveling from Palestine to Cyprus, two infamously divided/occupied lands, it occurred to me how so many hostile pairs are, to outsiders, so similar. This post is entitled Greeks and Turks, and it is on them that I wish to focus, but first let’s start with some other pairs. Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs: Conservative factions of both groups have relatively severe rules on gender (such as men and women worshipping apart), neither eat pork, both have dietary certification regimes (kosher and halal) and their languages are not horribly far apart. Indeed, Jews and Arabs belong to the same Semitic ethnic group. Is there any doubt that many Jews look like Arabs and many Arabs look like Jews, however offensive it may be to point this out to either such subgroup? Chinese, Koreans and Japanese–however much hostility there may be against the Japanese for 20th century history, let’s face it, no-one can tell east Asians apart 100% of the time. They all use chopsticks to eat rice and salty side dishes, drink tea and have a tendency to fall in line and respect hierarchy. As much as Iranians may hate Israel and Zionists, for whom do they reserve a perhaps deeper well of hate and mistrust? Sunni Saudis. Never mind that many outsiders don’t even know that Persians are not Arabs, or the distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam. And what minority in Iran suffers from the greatest discrimination? Probably the Afghanis, who speak the same language and share much of the same culture as Persians.

But back to Greeks and Turks. Despite all of the conflict between North and South Cyprus, a Greek Cypriot confirmed to us that it is impossible to physically identify a Cypriot as Greek or Turk. He explained that the two communities intermarried for hundreds of years, often dividing up the children of a mixed marriage so that the boys became Christian and the girls Muslim, or vice versa. In fact, prior to the conflicts of the last forty years, it seems that Cypriots didn’t even think of themselves as Greek or Turk, but only as Christian or Muslim–simply a difference of faith rather than ethnic identity. Cypriot cuisine itself is a hybrid of Greek and Turkish food, and does not vary between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities–both eat fish meze and grill halloumi/hellim. During British control, we were told, Greek and Turkish Cypriots attended together English-language schools, only separating for classes in their respective mother tongue.



Setting the Cypriots aside, are Greeks from Greece and Turks from Turkey all that different? Both cultures dine on the small appetizers called meze, drink an anise liqueur called ouzo or raki (not too different from pastis or sambuca, for that matter), drink a thick sludgy coffee called Turkish coffee or Greek coffee (or, it in Cyprus, Cyprus coffee) and snack on a shawarma-like food called döner or gyros. They may be easier to distinguish in appearance than Jews and Arabs or Chinese and Japanese, but there are certainly some physical traits (e.g., hairiness) that they notoriously share in common.

Turkish Coffee

Greek Coffee

No doubt these similarities come from centuries of cohabitation. Ever since the Turks arrived from Central Asia into the eastern Mediterranean, they have been living together with Greeks (and Armenians–see post of 5.17), who had established cities in the region more than a thousand years before. Although the hostility in the early twentieth century (or the late twentieth century, in the case of Cyprus) resulted in Greeks and Turks moving apart into their own sovereign states, essentially to the exclusion of Greek and Turkish minorities within the other state, cultural similarities developed over centuries of living together cannot help but persist.

The same goes for the Jews and the Arabs, and east Asians. I suppose, in the end, that it could be all those years of living together, and all the similarities, that generate the hostility. Cohabitation, especially over hundreds of years, creates the opportunity for regretful incidents, periods of hostility for which grudges are held. Neighbors, with whom there were centuries of trade, cultural exchange and even intermarriage, become mortal enemies. That these opposing cultures are so similar means that, to foster a sense of uniqueness in national identity, there is a constant need to define against, to emphasize differences lest identity become muddled, and so every Chinese child is told that to be proud to be Chinese means in part to hate Japanese, and every Greek child is told that, despite appearances to the contrary, Greek identity is a world apart from, and superior to, Turkish identity. Another example of this is Uzbekistan, which denies the Tajik heritage of some of its citizens and greatest cities, to enforce a stronger sense of Uzbek identity (see post of 7.08). At times we need to forget the past, focus on similarities with our neighbors and not our differences and spend more time thinking about how to work together to promote mutual well-being rather than using scapegoats to promote a shorter-sighted ethnocentric nationalist agenda. The European Union seems to be showing us that this is possible–hopefully the rest of the world can follow its lead.