Subject: A glimpse at the grecophone muslims of Turkey's Pontos

From: gd8f@watt.seas.Virginia.EDU (Gregory Dandulakis)

Date: 1996/10/10

Message-ID: Dz2JpA.6Ct@murdoch.acc.Virginia.EDU

Newsgroups: soc.culture.greek

From the influential Athenian weekly "To Vima", September 29, 1996, pp. 15-17.

Balothies (celebrative gunshots) and kemedjes (pontic lyra) in Pontos.

The photographer Kostas Sakellariou is preparing his book about the secrets of the grecophone villages in Pontos. The camera records actions and persons full of stories.

by Lena Papadimitriou

"In the Pontic Alps when they say village they mean half a mountain. You walk and you see one house for each kilometer". Leica, his camera, "walked" with him to the "parcharia" (that is "plateau" in pontic greek), "looked" through the fog which accompanies the people there both summer and winter and the moist which makes the clothes to stick on the body like second nature, as much impenetrable as the small mountainous communities, "travelled" in the valley of Othis, 60 miles east of Trapezounda, "spoke", "registered", "uncovered". Just yesterday they returned from their twelfth visit to the grecophone villages of Pontos. But for Kostas Sakellariou this is not just one more ethnological expedition. The plateau phenomenon, "which in turkish sounds even sweeter: _yaila_", is this which attracted his interest most. His studies in arabic and persian philology (at Boston University) but also his linguistic passion (along with english and french he speaks turkish, persian and urdu) and his photoreportage work with the magasines "Time", "Newsweek", and "Der Spiegel", gave him all the support he needed for his lonely walks to "patika" (the unpassable "paths") of the Pontic Alps.

"To go up in the villages, most of them at 2,000 meters high, it was by itself an adventure", he says; and the pile of black-and-white photos in front of him are perhaps the only concrete proof of his trip to the Pontian villages. The mini-bus went up to a point, after that you had to walk. The faces, both primitive and sweet together, which were waiting for him to the end of patika, were the compensation for his effort. "They get crazy" when they hear about Greece. The "Ah, you are a Greek! We had in our village in the past many of them", and the "I had an aunt Romia" make you feel an unexpected closeness for a place whose cold breaks your bones. The names of the 38 villages in the valley of Othis - Fotino, Alithinos, Giga, Zisino, Mavranton, Ipsil, Stavri, Ai-Vasil, etc - simply verify this. "Villages inside the forest, vegetation that you have never seen in all of your life, waters every where, a whole primitive world is waiting for you up there". The people "come out" only after May. In the winter they are closed inside, doing whole night "paragath": "All come around the fire and tell stories about the plateaus, the "magic female spirits" and the "magic snail spirits"".

Camera does not look too indiscreet to the villagers. After all, for them the "seriat" (that is, the laws which describe the private and public life of the devout muslim) is enough with the prayers only. Even when the women with the bright eyes (many times navy-blue in color) and the long white scarves tell you with charm "Ah, this is gunah (sin)", he takes pictures of them saying "how can it be gunah such beauty?" and the "click" at once brings up from them their tired smiles. The men, being tired and broken from the life in the parchari too, most elders with rough hands and big moustaches. "The youngsters often go down to the cities, in Trapezounda, Kerasounda, Tripoli, or they emmigrate to Germany. It is not going to be too long before the foreign money "floods" the coastline".

In the summer months the fairs - most of them with christian roots, but many also of pure prechristian pagan flavor - give color to life and the huts. Raki (alcohol) flows freely, despite Allah's word to the opposite, the dancers cover circles on the hills, the songs talk about the plateau, the peasant, the love. And when the dawn comes, someone might hug you warmly and tell you, while exhausted from the drinking and the night's games, "I am Romios too", even though he wears a ring with the three moons of the "Grey Wolves" (that is, a revolutionary organization of the extreme right active during the '70s). The dance pontian, the fun the same too. This is the case even deeper in the hinterland, where "Islam" is even stronger. The women cover their faces but they leave their bodies to swing freely accompanying the sweet-sadness sound of "kemedje" (the pontic lyra).

The greek photographer is invited to the tables to have fun with the locals. They offer him mouchlama and chadits, "they fry flour and but ter - their own butter - and they spread it on the bread". Balothies (celebrative gunshots) are everywhere, exactly like in the Cretan villages. At the forefront is the moustached mayor with the black suit. "For a week now I can't hear from one ear!" he says while laughing with the "invader". At the village's photoshop an aspiring James Bond poses proudly with a "mouzer" (gun) and with a look which makes the "enemies" to shiver. "All without exception carry with them guns", Mr. Sakellariou explains. "They feel that they liberate them. One day I met the director of the local busline - from a grecophone village and a friend of mine for years. His coat was a bit lifted and I see the gun inside his pants. I tell him: You are ready for the fair too?". After all it is not accidental that vendetta is the trade mark of the region. "Another friend - because you get many in the Pontos's villa ges - had lost all of his clan, more than 40 people. The police of course does not get involved".

On some tables there are cans of beer "Tuborg" too - trophies for those who keep dealings with the outer world. And it is characteristic that in other places in Turkey rarely you see public intoxication (in the City they drink and play cards only at "kirathane"). From the trees' branches are hanging meats "they cut the ribs and cook them at the spot". All "open and hospitable - the East has not lost the respect for the traveller". But a phototravel can not avoid its difficult moments either. But there is nothing which the excellent know ledge of turkish and the greek drive cannot handle. "One day I was coming down from a yaila and a truck with three faces stopped. They took me with them, we started talking and quickly I realized that they were islamists fundamentalists of the Refah party (Welfare party). They started the usual: "Ah, Salonic is ours and we will get it back again", "You want always wars", "Why aren't you a muslim?". I answered back to them with humor and diplomatic tact. By the end of the ride they had become mellow and revealed their true self: "Does some one need a visa to come to work in Greece?".

Kostas Sakellariou will return back several times on the Pontos's plateaus. In many villages he is well known by now, they welcome him, make a bed for him and they enjoy watching the tricks of the camera. "Frequently they do not permit you to leave", he says about his hosts. "Once they had stolen the passport of a grecopontian grandpa, so that they forced him to stay one more week". He now knows some of them by their christian "paronyms" (greek for "nicknames"): Todor, Kotsi, Panar (from "Panayotis"). He laughs with their gossips and their swearwords (a villager has won the very discreet title of "Klaneas" (greek for "The Farter")). Leica will continue to travel and in some two more years the photographer hopes to have ready the album about the pontian "parchari" and its stories.


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