Istanbul’s Rums experience a change of heart toward their Turkish rulers

Istanbul’s Rums experience a change of heart toward their Turkish rulers

These days, the happier Greeks live outside Greece, and a minute portion of those live in Istanbul. I am referring to the Greek-Orthodox Turkish citizens, the Rums, who have been part of this country’s history for centuries.

In 2003 I produced a short audio documentary titled “The Last Istanbul Rums.” I interviewed several members of the Rum community: from a 96-year-old master builder, whose name is inscribed on many mansions on Prinkipo Island, to a young female student at the “Megali Scholi” (Fener Rum Erkek Lisesi) on the Golden Horn, which has been in operation since 1454, who recited Nazım Hikmet’s poetry at the school’s graduation ceremony.

I spoke to the few Rum restaurant owners that remain; a poor remnant of their ancestors’ domination in that the sector. And I spoke to school teachers who warned of their students’ confusion over their religious and national identity. There was a veil of nostalgia and painful memories for the older interviewees, and a close attachment to family and to the community for the young, with the dividing lines between that community and the Turkish environment deep and visible. “Of course not,” replied the eighteen-year-old girl to my question, “Would you ever marry a Turk?,” yet she also said she would not like to leave this country and live in Greece. 

They all agreed or implied that their life in Turkey was not easy. The unfairness of the Turkish government towards them was always present and the future of their community was in doubt due to the constant decrease in their number. Their only hope was Turkey’s perspective on the EU. For them the commitments that Turkey would have to make in order to be accepted in the EU community would unavoidably include fairer treatment for the country’s minorities.

For them the return of their property, confiscated by the Turkish state, the recognition of the legal status and ecumenicality of their Patriarchate, the reopening of the Chalki Seminary, and the relaxation of rules regarding Greek education would be proofs of a real change in the level of freedom and democracy in Turkey, they told me. Remember, this was one year before Turkey was officially declared a candidate for full EU membership.

Last Saturday I was among the crowd at the first large-scale concert of rebetiko music given by a group of Turkish and Greek musicians, led by a Rum singer and his Turkish singer wife. The show was held in one of the newest large concert halls of Istanbul, was sponsored by major Turkish companies, and enjoyed unprecedented publicity in the Turkish media. “This is a big day for the Rums,” one young Rum remarked, also noting that “Turkey is changing.”

Is it? Perhaps for the Rums. Nine years later Turkey is still knocking on the door of an EU that is engulfed in its own serious internal problems of survival and destination. Turkey, too, is dealing with its own internal problems of democracy and justice. But I cannot find today the depressed and scared Rums of 2003. Although their Patriarchate is still not officially recognized by the Turkish state, although the Chalki Seminary has not been reopened, although Greek education is still only allowed for the Greek-Orthodox Turks and not for all the Greeks living in Turkey, the Rums are full of hope for the future in this country.

The new legislation approved recently by the current Turkish government, which allows the properties of minority foundations to be returned to them and used to their benefit, has turned their attitudes to those of optimistic citizens, but also citizens who would rather avoid being critical of the present rulers. Their reasoning -- not always strong – is based on saving their community and securing their presence as equal members in society.

They are determined to fight on, to save as much as possible of their once vast estate, their churches, their schools, and their culture. And it is the familiarity of that common culture of the various nations that have lived in this land that obviously magnetized the Turkish audience last Saturday at the Cafe Aman group’s concert.