New graphic novel has much to teach Turkey and Greece

Greece said this week that it planned to start sending 200 rejected asylum seekers back to Turkey each week. Asylum seekers, it should be pointed out, who not so long ago desperately crossed those same Aegean waters from Turkey to Greece seeking refuge and a new life. 

This echoes what took place nearly a century ago. In January 1923, Greece and Turkey signed a deal in Lausanne, Switzerland, to send 1.2 million Greek Orthodox from Turkey to Greece and some 400,000 Muslims from Greece to Turkey. Following the genocide of Christian minorities, particularly Armenians and Greeks, during World War One and its aftermath, they uprooted themselves in the hope of finding friendlier soil. 

“This area all the time has the same stories,” said Antonis Nikolopoulos, or Soloup, author of the graphic novel Aivali: A Story of Greeks and Turks in 1922, published in English in November. 

Nikolopoulos dedicated the book in part to his grandparents, who are all from Izmir province. Two of them witnessed the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922 before coming over in the population exchange and settling in Crete, from where many Cretan Turks had just departed. 

“From Asia to the Greek islands, we have refugees the same way my ancestors came to Greece,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “Now, after 100 years, you can find people swimming and trying to cross the border to a better life.”

Aivali opens with Antonis, a character very much like the author, arriving in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, which is just 10-km across the Aegean from Turkey and the coastal town of Ayvalık (known as “Aivali” to its Greek former residents). He thinks back to his youth, growing up in Crete and listening to his grandmother’s stories of life in Asia Minor, or Anatolia, where Greeks are known as Rum, or Romios – descendants of the Eastern Roman Empire.

“I am Greek, I have this culture,” Nikolopoulos said. “At the same time ... we are Rum, Romios, and we are feeling that Anatolia, Asia Minor is another place for our souls, for our origins.”

While talking to locals in Ayvalık, Nikolopoulos admits that he even wondered to himself whether he was a Turk. He views the Turkish quarter of Mytilene as his part of town, yet sometimes when he looks across the sea at the Turkish hills, he sees them as imposing and dangerous. A country can be both homeland and foe. 

“It’s very interesting, that feeling,” he said. “Many like me have the same feelings, because Greece for Turkey is an enemy, like Turkey for a Greek.”

This is truer today than it has been in the recent past. Since Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, Greece and Turkey have fought four wars. Bilateral relations were calm from 1999 until last year, when Turkey began sending drillships into waters off Cyprus and signed a maritime borders deal with the U.N.-recognised government in Tripoli that ignored the territorial waters of Crete, Rhodes and other Greek islands.  

Now there is talk of war in the eastern Mediterranean. With tensions as high as they have been in decades, Turkey bought its third drillship this month, and has increased naval spending under a policy called Blue Homeland. Greece is spending billions of dollars to upgrade its fighter jet fleet, including buying two dozen F-35 stealth fighters from the United States, in the hopes of eroding Turkey’s military superiority. 

Cyprus is also getting in on the action, announcing this week that it will buy $262-million worth of missiles from France, which also sent a warship to the eastern Mediterranean in support of Greece and Cyprus. 

“They talk about profit from the oil and gas they would find, but they bought such expensive weapons for that,” said Nikolopoulos, who is also a political cartoonist. “This sounds a little Utopian, but could you imagine how much profit people would have if the money for guns went to improve citizens’ lives?”

The national narratives of Turkey and Greece have long been based on a simple division that blames the other for just about any adversity or misfortune. With his book, which at one point suggests the next war between the two might be over energy resources, Nikolopoulos hoped to move past that narrative by showing both sides. 

The book recounts the stories of two writers - Ahmet Yorulmaz and Elias Venezis - whose families experienced the population exchange from opposing perspectives. It also includes two stories from the 1920s in which a person saves a supposed foe at great personal risk. 

In the first, a Turkish soldier in Ayvalık who has vowed to kill all Greeks comes upon a Greek woman, Venezis’ sister, crying in the street in desperation. Moved, he takes her in and ends up saving the lives of her and her father. In another, a Greek woman helps a Cretan Turk escape to Turkey before he can be found and killed by Greek authorities. 

“We ordinary people from two sides, the Greeks and the Turks, we have the same stories,” said Nikolopoulos. “In a word, we are the victims. We have the same stories and the same feelings about the war and the trauma.”

The book ends in present-day Ayvalık, with a Cretan Turk, whose family left Greece for Turkey, bumping into Antonis, whose family moved in the other direction, while sightseeing with his family. They call themselves the grandchildren of Lausanne and acknowledge that their love of homeland is complicated. The two have their disagreements, but are able to bond in a short period of time. 

“You can find fanatics and nationalists on both sides, but I think Turks and Greeks want to live in peace,” said Nikolopoulos, thinking again of the current tensions between Greece and Turkey. “The solution to all of these problems is not violence. We have common points in culture, we have common experiences in wars, we have many things to add to our lives, not separate.”