A Greek-American tells her story of finding love in translation and choosing not to take sides in a Greek-Turkish relationship.
By Vera Karamanlidis
For the past two years of the four I’ve lived abroad, I’ve been dating a Turkish man. We met in England as postgraduates, an in between space that was neither Greece, nor Turkey, nor the United States, just after I had spent some time in Istanbul. To us, the fact that we’re in a relationship with someone of the “other” culture isn’t interesting. What is interesting to us is the fact that the cultures we grew up with are similar. We mock differences.
Sometimes he’ll ask me something like, “Would you like some – what is it, peyniri,” and we’ll both laugh at his mocking of Greek’s simple transformation of Turkish words, usually, but not always by adding an “ι” at the end. Everything from kavun (kavuni, melon) to cacık (tzatziki) to cep (tsepi, pocket) to vapur (vapuri, ferry). Then there are Turkish’s suprising adopted Greek words like barbunya (barbounia, mullet), avli (avli, yard, but in Turkish meaning a formal courtyard), kukla (koukla, doll), and karides (garides, shrimp). Our meals are a mix of everything from Greek and Turkish to British, Italian, Indian, and American. Our conflicts arise from our personalities and wants, just like a mono-cultural couple. We are so normal in that way that we’re boring. The difference is in how we live according to a blended cultural calender. Together, we’ve accepted hard candies from hosts on Kurban Bayram, have cooked leg of lamb and avgolemono soup according to my mother’s recipe for Easter, and this year look forward to attending Divine Liturgy on Christmas Eve in Agia Triada in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. We make our own calendar together.
A year ago I was in Athens for a cousin’s wedding. The cavernous church was brightly lit, the priest grew impatient when my cousin the bride came late, but the throngs of relatives and friends were unmistakable. There, before her parents, her groom’s parents, and religion, she and her now-husband were more than accepted as a single unit, they were blessed. Blessings were wished upon their heads, which were then transferred to my own as I stood at the back of the church in my wedding finest handing out boubounieres as a “single” woman. “To your own,” each person wished me as they left, and I wondered if they would still be bestowing that blessing if they knew that my wedding would likely never be like their own or like my cousin’s. Yet there I was, filling in the image of the smiling, single, Greek-American young woman who most certainly would have a church wedding all her own some day with the big white dress and with her relatives and in-laws gathered harmoniously in the same space.
This would have bothered me years ago. At that moment it merely made me sad, knowing that having a life that is that easy was not what I was choosing with my current relationship. The boubounieres, the large party afterwards with food and music would be there, but I would have to forget the church wedding, the slightly annoyed priest, and a multitude of blessings from everyone related to me by blood.
Being a Greek-American is a curious experience. There is so much which we think is “Greek” which is actually just a constructed identity, or worse, a holdover from the past. We fast for Easter, have only recently accepted women wearing dress pants to church (but God forbid jeans or anything casual), and persist in wearing jewelry decorated by the Greek key design – or worse – intersperse Greek phrases we think are natural into our English. Yet recently in Greece, it has become “very much the fashion” for a couple to wed and for their child to be baptised in the same ceremony. They don’t seem to be bothered wearing whatever they wear everyday to church when they turn up. Furthermore, most have an evil eye charm or prayer bracelet on their wrists while they intersperse English phrases into their Greek to sound “cool”. We’ve held onto older ways while what we believe is the center of our culture has moved on in another direction.
Yet despite all of that, there is limited understanding of what it means to blend cultures. Greek culture, like Turkish culture, imposes itself on romantic partners. Laying claim to whole families, it defines how life is to be lived. However, what I’ve done and what my boyfriend has done since we’ve left our respective countries makes us who we are, not the cultures that lay claim to us. While our relationship is easy for other expats to understand, “Expatria” is not a country, nor somewhere we can settle down. Where then do we plant ourselves if we want to settle down? If we had children, who would they be and where would they fit in? The children of a mixed background like ours have no guarantees of a social group. A child, particularly a Greek-Turkish child, does not have the freedom of choosing to blend religious calendars. Culture is either blended for them or – I say this without knowing of a grown example – one culture is chosen for them, much as most of us are inducted into a religion at an age in which we cannot object.
In which country would such a blended child be accepted? Let’s create a prototype with a few variations. We’ll call her Eleni Yaşar. Eleni, variation one, lives in Turkey. She only sees her mother’s family once a year during a Turkish religious or national holiday or during summer. Her father’s family and relatives lives close to her home, so that she sees them often. Her Turkish and English are fluent, but her Greek is halting. She does not know her Greek relatives because they cut relations with her mother when they found out she was involved with a Turk. Her parents must strike a choice between raising her as a Muslim or an Orthodox Christian, though the pressure to raise her Muslim is understandably strong.
A variation of Eleni is Kyriaki, who lives in the United States. She only sees her father’s family and relatives once a year during an American holiday or during summer. Her mother’s family lives relatively nearby, so she sees them often. Her English is strongest of all her languages, though Turkish comes in a close second since she only hears Greek in limited amounts. Some members of the Greek-American community are willing to accept her and her parents, but others are not as civil. She does not know her Greek relatives. Her parents must strike a choice of raising her Muslim or Orthodox Christian, though the pressure to raise her Orthodox Christian is understandably strong. Eleni, variation three to infinitum, lives neither in Turkey nor Greece nor the United States. Her time is limited with both sides of her family, her English and Turkish are strongest of all her languages, and unless she is surrounded by a Greek or Turkish diaspora, her identifying factors of culture exist only within her parents. Her Greek relatives do not accept her parents.
I saw an exhibit a few weeks ago at SALT Beyoğlu, an art space on Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul, which reminded me of my questions. In the installation, “Genealogy,” by Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa, hair ribbons individually sheathed in an acetate enclosure, were pinned to the wall in two rows. The ribbons in the top row were garishly colored, flamboyant in shape to the point that there was no algorithm which could use to predict how the tuft of tulle in one hot pink creation, accented with wisps of silver, might relate to one with a demure wishbone-shaped slip of creamy orange wrapped around shimmery grosgrain in black and silver backed by foamy green chiffon. These ribbons were labelled on the plastic sleeves in white with names like Holifira, Mara, Nergiseve, Asporça, and Teodora, each of which symbolized a concubine of a sultan. Directly below them, uniform lilac velvet ribbons were offset by a shimmery, royal gold. The acetate sleeves had names imprinted on them in the same gold as the accents, names like Fatma (nine times), Ayşe (six times), Hatice (six times), and Zeynep (thrice). The upper row, the mothers of princesses, and the lower row, their daughters, were so different so as to be a different species from their names to their symbolic, conformist ribbons. In Karamustafa’s accompanying text on the installation, she writes, “During the Ottoman dynasty, concubines were removed from their culture, …while their daughters (the offspring of concubines and Ottoman sultans) were bequested a religious and noble constitution, forever eradicating their mixed heritage.” The reason for this was not only in the belief that legitimacy came from men, but also that a woman married to the Sultan was not allowed to bear children. As a noblewoman, she would influence the entire empire. Concubines, without influence from the outside world were thus only allowed to bear children, who in turn belonged only to the royal house. Like an Ottoman concubine, a contemporary woman is as easily swallowed into her husband’s family through a change in her last name.
What then of a mixed child like our hypothetical Eleni? If her father is Turkish and her mother’s in-laws favor treating her mother forever as the bride, who is never fully one of the family, her maternal side will have to fight to be embraced. Eleni can never be fully like either of her parents. She either becomes someone else, or mirrors one of her parents entirely because one side prevails over the other. To live like a polychromatic ribbon, embracing both sides of one culture while resisting the pull to embrace just one is to stand out, requiring courage and an acceptance that not everyone will understand. As much as Greek and Turkish culture has evolved, hybrid Greek-Turkish couples and their children still have an uncertain place in the world. I don’t know if we ever will have a place where we’ll be accepted, or if my own hypothetical children will have to choose to which ribbon they want to be tied.