Caught Between Two Countries. A Day in the Life of Greece’s Turkish Minority
Evan Pheiffer 30 November 2021

The Thracians are the biggest nation in the world, next to the Indians. If they were under one ruler, or united, they would, in my judgment, be invincible and the strongest nation on earth. Since, however, there is no way or means to bring this about, they are weak (Herodotus).


When Galip Galip walks down the street in central Komotini, the provincial capital of Rhodope in northeastern Greece, the shopkeepers all ring their cowbells. “Hadi bakalım!” he says with gusto, a favorite sentence among Turks that translates roughly as “Let’s do this.” It’s a fitting line for a man whose name means ‘Victor Victor’—for his streets are as much Gümülcine, as the city was known for nearly six hundred years, as Komotini, its Greek name since 1913.

Captured by the Hellenic Army in the Second Balkan War, Komotini, along with Xanthi and Alexandropouli, is one of three former Ottoman vilayets, or sub-prefects, that were exempt from the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923. Mostly rural tobacco farmers, the 130,000 Turkish-speaking Muslims of Greek-controlled Thrace were granted the same ‘privilege’ as the Greeks of Istanbul, whose numbers were about twice as big: the right to remain where they had called home for many centuries.

Though it was never going to be easy in the torturous new age of nationalism, the Turkish minority of Greece has held out well in comparison with the Greeks of Istanbul. From a prewar population of 250,000, the latter have dwindled to less than 3,000 today. On the other hand, the Turks of Western Thrace, as they controversially self-identify, have hovered around 100,000 since the League of Nations’ most radical social engineering experiment occurred.

“But even that figure obscures so much,” says Galip. After all, a century of repressive and aggressively assimilationist policies have pushed tens of thousands of Turkish-speaking Greek Muslims, as Athens prefers to call them, to emigrate to Turkey. “When you remember that Turkish women here had between 3-5 children for the past 100 years,” states Galip rather matter-of-factly, “our population should have quadrupled.” Instead, it has slightly declined. He should know. Not only have his sister and childhood friends all made for Turkey; his only children have, too.

A view of Komotini’s “Old Mosque”


I say Thrace, you say Thrajay

How Athens feels about this exodus is unclear. On the one hand, it is adamant that these are not Turks, but Greek Muslims who happen to speak Turkish. It is a curious designation for a state that for decades denied the brightest Turkish-speakers a place in Greek universities. “We had no choice but to go to Istanbul,” says Galip’s wife Ayşe, who after graduating from Istanbul University became Komotini’s first female dentist in the early 1980s. “Today, of course, it’s gotten better; our kids can enroll in the best universities across the country, and opportunities are abundant. But for me and my friends, we had no choice but leave.”

As the world witnessed at both the beginning and end of the dark 20th century, the wounds left by the collapse of Ottoman power have yet to heal in southeastern Europe. Though Athens is better known for its tireless efforts to prevent the former Yugoslav republic from calling itself Macedonia, it is hardly less adamant about what Turkish-speaking Greek citizens call the region they inhabit: it is Thrace, proclaims Athens, not Western Thrace, which locals such as Galip insist upon, the pain of whose phantom limb seems too much for each to bear when regional appellations are at stake.

Though the Greeks of Istanbul suffered a horrific pogrom in 1955 and successive waves of state-sponsored dispossession in 1964 and 1974—each internally justified by the conflict in Cyprus—there was one crucial difference between them and the Turkish-speaking Muslims of Greece, says Galip. Whereas the former were urban and prosperous, the latter were rural and poor. “The Greeks of Istanbul could sell their assets and move to Athens or America,” he says. “What were the Turks of Western Thrace supposed to do? Put their little plot on their back and hitch a ride to Istanbul?”

While this is not entirely accurate—in 1974, for example, thousands of Istanbul’s last remaining Greeks were given orders to leave the country with no more than a suitcase and the equivalent of $22 on their person—he has a point: social class has been central to the plight of Greece’s Turkish-speaking population. In addition to a broader failure to conform to modern Greek identity that is at once religious, cultural, and linguistic, for much of the 20th century the Turks of Western Thrace remained humble rural folk far less equipped to compete in a modern capitalist economy.


Ode for a socialist

Galip Galip with his old acquaintance and fellow musician, Mikis Theodorakis, the infamous communist who wrote the score for Zorba the Greek.

The same needn’t be said for their leadership, however. Like his father and grandfather before him, Galip was educated at the finest schools in Turkey before entering parliament as one of Greece’s three Turkish-speaking representatives[1] in 1996. With certain modifications, to be sure. Whereas Galip’s grandfather studied at the renowned Lari Mosque Medrese in Edirne, where the Turkish, Greek, and Bulgarian borders all meet, before joining the Farmer’s Party, Galip studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University, the “MIT of Turkey,” before joining PASOK, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement founded by Andreas Papandreou in 1974.

Friends for decades with the Papandreous, Greece’s leading socialist dynasty, Galip’s family represented the Turkish-speaking minority of Komotini at various stages from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Yet politics and architecture are hardly the only things that the latest Galip scion excels at.

An expert accordion since adolescence, Galip also plays the flute and various other Balkan instruments, routinely touring the region to play ‘Balkanatolian’ music with likeminded Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Gagauz musicians, i.e., Christian Orthodox Turks from present-day Moldova. His promotion of Greco-Turkish friendship through music made him a natural ally and occasional bandmate of the late Mikis Theodorakis, Greece’s famous communist composer, in addition to Zülfü Livaneli, the renowned Turkish musician, poet, novelist, and politician who, like Theodorakis, was imprisoned for his leftist views during the Cold War.


Equality at the taverna

Representing Komotini in Greek Parliament from 1996-2004, Galip was one of three Turkish-speaking representatives in the country’s 300-strong parliament**. The other two were communist and conservative, respectively. “But that didn’t prevent us from heading to the taverna after work each evening!” he chuckles. “People would accuse of putting ethnicity above class,” he recalls. “But that’s bollocks! We had—and still have—enormous challenges to surmount as a community. It’s only natural that we work together.”

This is one of the more interesting idiosyncrasies of Western Thrace’s rural and conservative Muslim population: it consistently votes socialist.

“Let’s face it,” says Galip matter-of-factly. “Leftwing parties have always been more supportive of minorities.” Yet his socialism also springs from more than pragmatism. In his family, he reiterates, they’re tried-and-true believers. “Though we’ve served in parliament for three generations,” he says with noblesse oblige, “neither my grandfather, father, nor myself have ever made a dime. The point was to help our community.”

The catch, of course, is which community. On the one hand, like everyone in Greece, the Turks of Western Thrace now serve in the Greek Army. “In my day,” recalls Galip, “they’d send Muslims and communists to the crappiest parts of the country—usually some dusty little outpost along the Albanian border—just to make us pay. Perhaps it worked,” he says with a wink, “perhaps it didn’t. I’m still a socialist.”

On the other hand, his family did loyally serve both the Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic. During Turkey’s War of Independence against Britain, France, Italy, and Greece, for example, Galip’s grandfather fought bravely for the patria of his youth. “He went to every village and finagled them into giving up their gold. Then he’d melt it down and send it to Atatürk on the front,” Galip recounts with pride. For these efforts, his grandfather was handsomely repaid: a handwritten letter from Atatürk, which survives to this day, and a year of imprisonment in a British barracks outside Istanbul. Most rewards in this life, as the old saying has it, are social.

A century later, the Galips are still getting into hot water over the question of Atatürk. Once, while in parliament, Galip was invited to Ankara. While visiting Anıtkabir, the famous mausoleum dedicated to Mustafa Kemal, he laid a wreath for the dead statesman from just down the road in Salonika, today’s Thessaloniki, along with a short letter. Unsurprisingly, the Greek media had a fit back home. “What can I do?” says Galip with a smile. “The man created a secular republic out of nothing but ashes. I had to leave him something.”

Galip with his wife Ayşe at their home in the hills near the Bulgarian border


Cherries of betrayal

Though Galip dresses impeccably and carries himself as any self-respecting political scion might, he seems true to his word about being indifferent to wealth. In addition to driving a dusty old black E-Class Mercedes that he bought with his first parliamentarian’s salary a quarter century ago, he lives at the edge of a small village 5km north of Komotini in a home that he and his wife built themselves.

With 80 households altogether, 79 of which are Muslim and one Greek Orthodox (“a wonderful old woman that everyone loves!”), the villagers grow tobacco, olives, and some of the best cherries in the Balkans. He and Ayşe, for their part, have walnuts, grapes, and pomegranates in their cornucopic front yard. From their balcony each morning, which faces the beautiful rolling hills of the Bulgarian border, they eat fresh eggs brought over by the neighbor.

But it isn’t all daisies and dandelions in rural Rhodope, as the Greeks call the region.

In 1978, for example, the municipality expropriated the rich, fertile fields where Ayşe’s family had grown cherries for several hundred years. “They claimed it was for the extension of the university,” she says, “but then never built a thing.” Her family was compensated the equivalent of a single harvest—a “deal” that occurred while Galip’s father was serving in parliament, no less. Sadly, cherries weren’t the only thing arresting the development of modern Greece. Four years later, in 1982, the army expropriated the bulk of the villagers’ best olive groves to erect another outpost.

Indeed, though the junta years (1967-1974) were the worst time to be a political, ethnic, or religious minority in Greece, for many Muslims of Komotini, Xanthi, and Alexandropouli, the return to democracy wasn’t all that dandy either. Or historically unique. For example, at the entrance to the barren army outpost where the villagers’ olives once grew, stands a brand-new blue-and-white Greek Orthodox chapel. A reminder, if any were needed, that Turkey is hardly the only country with an original take on secularism in the region.


Whose Greece and whose Turkey

Given the above, it is hardly surprising that Ankara takes a strong interest in the fate of western Thrace. Not only does the Turkish quarter of Komotini have a large, fortified Turkish Consulate; both as mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998) and leader of Turkey (2002-present), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself has visited many times. “I’ve met him on five separate occasions,” says Galip with a tone bordering on blasé.

Therein lies the other difficulty of Western Thracians: their painful limbo between Ankara and Athens, and the undulating influence that each try to exercise. Although Galip has fought both local and national authorities for years to open a Gümülcine Turkish Youth Club in the center of Komotini’s Turkish-speaking quarter—a place whose name alon

e boils the public authorities’ blood—he and many others are wary of the religious and conservative impulses that lie behind Ankara’s recent outreach.

Portraits of both Atatürk and Venizelos don the walls of Komotini’s Turkish Youth Club.

“Whatever our cultural and linguistic heritage,” says Ayşe that evening over mezze and tsipouro, Greece’s national spirit, “we are first and foremost secular social democrats. While we appreciate Turkey’s efforts, the last thing we need are more Imam Hatips,” the religious high schools designed to train village imams that have sprouted like mushrooms in Turkey since the 1980 coup, and even more so since President Erdoğan, himself a graduate, took office in 2002.

But Imam Hatips are precisely what places like Komotini are getting; one now sits across from Galip’s Youth Club. With or without irony, locals call it the ‘medrese,’ an interesting choice of word since it was not only Atatürk who abolished medreses, i.e., mosque schools, in 1924, but replaced them with Imam Hatips, i.e., religious educational institutes that would remain under the thumb of the new secular authorities.

That is part of what makes Galip’s various civil society groups so refreshing. The moment you enter the Gümülcine Turkish Youth Club, not to mention the Western Thrace Minorities University Graduate Association, another institution Galip founded to help Turkish-speaking Muslims socialize and manage their communal affairs, you are confronted with one of the most interesting juxtapositions in the Balkans: side-by-side portraits of Atatürk and Venizelos, the respective national heroes of Turkey and Greece, looking down at you.[2]


Kids these days

Though it may have taken his wife’s cherry orchards, the Democritus University of Thrace does attract a lot of Greek Orthodox kids to do their university studies in Komotini. “Initially,” grins Galip, “the Greek youth are reluctant to move here. They think it’s a boring Muslim backwater! But the vast majority wind up marrying and settling down here,” he chuckles. “Komotini has that appeal; it’s peaceful and coexistent. Everyone comes to love it here.”

“That’s what you have to understand,” he stresses. “What we’re fighting for has nothing to do with religion. It’s about preserving our language and Turkish culture. Do you know how many Gagauz friends I have?” he asks in reference to the Turkic people living in southern Moldova who converted to Christianity centuries ago. “Our predicament here has nothing to do with religion.”

If only everyone saw it that way. After all, it was only six years ago—at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis—that a bomb went off around the corner from a sidewalk taverna where Galip and his wife were dining one evening. “Thye targeted that mosque,” he says, pointing to one of Komotini’s 20 existent Muslim houses of worship. “But luckily, it was a sturdy old Ottoman thing,” he adds with a touch of pride. “The buildings around it saw far more damage.”

At other times, in this city of 50,000, the fight over legacies is less violent, but no less physical. Case in point is the ‘controversy’ over the Evrenos Imaret, a handsome 14th century Ottoman soup kitchen built by the legendary Ottoman commander Evrenos Gazi.

Himself a renegade Byzantine Christian who converted to Islam, Evrenos Gazi, i.e., Evrenos the Holy Warrior, is feted by local Turkish-speakers as having founded Komotini in the 1360s. This, they imply, seals the deal: the city is Turkish. Never mind that their ‘Turk’ was born a Greek-speaking Byzantine in Bursa, a conservative city in the present-day Turkish Republic; the existence of well-preserved Roman ruins a few blocks doesn’t move them, either.

To compound the confusion, Greek authorities now claim that the soup kitchen was Byzantine, thank you very much, not Ottoman. “And to prove it,” says Galip pointing to the 14th century building whose back entrance can be spotted through a bar full of beer-sipping youths, “they’ve planted fake ancient Greek ‘artefacts’ all throughout the imaret.” Sure enough, there above the back entrance to this Ottoman architectural marvel, sits a small, hastily placed plaster-of-Paris bust that was clearly inserted when no one was looking. It looks like the handiwork of a mischievous middle schooler.


All are willkommen

After a stroll around town in which Galip shows me several landmarks commissioned by his grandfather—a handsome bridge here and a French-designed police station there—we make for the taverna to have one last tsipouro over mezze. Two friends of theirs, both of whom were born in Komotini but have lived in Istanbul for decades, join us.

The woman moved to Istanbul after college and has stayed there ever since; her husband went to Istanbul as a one-year-old, for which he was later stripped of his Greek citizenship, as Turkish-speakers who leave here routinely are. “Whenever I want to visit my in-laws,” he says with a devious smile, “I have to apply for an EU visa.”

Galip graciously walks me back to my hotel. “Guten abend!” says Georgios, the 40-something clerk at the desk. “Willkommen! Woher kommst du mein Freund? “

“Allo,” I impishly reply. “Aber nein Deutsches sprachen.”

“No German?!” the Greek flairs up with feigned indignation. “And no Greek, either?” a challenge that he presents that in the flawless English of a Soho half-price ticket salesman. “Don’t you people speak anything apart from your maternal tongue?”

“Biraz Türkçe biliyorum,” I say with caution. “A little Turkish.”

“Turkish?” he scoffs. “Get out of here!” before handing me the heavy metal room key.



Like Komotini itself, the view from the third-floor hotel room is a perplexing one for people who have spent extended amounts of time in Greece or Turkey; this city possesses something that even the heart of European Istanbul can no longer lay claim to. Across the street sits a handsome old mosque whose faint and final call to prayer forms part of the natural order, like a soothingly posh weather reporter. Down below, in the courtyard behind the hotel, is a tastefully lit taverna perched under a large plane tree. Though it’s late on a Wednesday in September, the clinking of little round glasses, and lighthearted voices, fill the air.

Failing to pry my window open, I go downstairs for a cigarette. The clerk Georgios has just gotten off his shift. “I’m out of here,” he says warmly, as if we’d known each other for ages. “You have a good one.” Then, hardly five paces later, he turns around with a grin. “Iyi geceler!” bidding me good night in Turkish.



[1] Not that three separate seats are set aside for Greece’s Turkish-speaking minority, only that their demographic weight, when organized, has traditionally wielded them three representatives

[2] It’s worth remembering that Venizelos himself visited Ankara in 1930 with great fanfare to sign a treaty of Turkish-Greek friendship.


Cover Photo: A Turkish-speaking merchant of Komotini, whose antique shop is across the street from the Church of Saint Paraskevi.

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