Monday, December 07, 2009

Another Burning City

I have just finished reading a book that shook me to the core like no other book I have ever read in my life. Never before have I flinched and cried out while reading something in a book or felt like I had to stop because I couldn't read on.

Yet, here I was in the comfort of my own home living in times of peace, reading words printed on a page that can't even begin to come close to the horror of the real events it documents. That perhaps was most upsetting of all - knowing that what I was reading actually happened.

I'm talking about a book about the destruction of Smyrna called Paradise Lost by Giles Milton.

Like many people in Greece, Mr Zeus's maternal side traces itself back to Minor Asia, specifically the city of Smyrna (Σμύρνη) today known as Izmir. I remember Mr Zeus telling me the stories passed down to his grandfather from his parents - of the city burning, of the Allied ships docked in the harbour cutting the fingers of desperate refugees trying to swim onboard their ships to escape certain death, rape, murder, torture, a city gone mad.

In this city where overnight Greeks and Turks were pitted against each other, it was the Turkish neighbours of Mr Zeus's great grandparents that helped get them to the harbour and then the safety of Mytilini. The two families never met again and Mr Zeus's grandfather was born two days later, a stranger in a foreign land, unwanted by both Greece and Turkey and within spitting distance of their once cherished homeland. He went on to marry my beloved Greek granny, a midwife in her youth trained by a doctor who fled Smyrna with only the clothes on his back and a thermometer in his pocket.

One day I pulled out a recipe book and started cooking Tas Kebab, a typical dish from Minor Asia. I threw the spices together in the pestle and mortar, and when I stopped to take a sniff, for the first time in my life I smelt something like nostalgia. It smelt so good, but the unusual combination of cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, chilli and cinnamon made me feel strange; it stirred something in my heart. The food itself moved you, it had a story to tell, and so I decided that it was high time I educated myself about the history of my Greek family.

I can't even begin to say more about the massacres of Smyrna, except for how horrific it was. One source quoted in the book, says that if you were to take what happened in those awful days of September 1922, added your own personal horrors and exaggerated as much as you like, you would still not come close to the reality of how terrible it was.

What struck me most of all is that I knew nothing about Smyrna before I met Mr Zeus. The West never mentions it. Who can say why? Out of guilt that they sat on their ships watching people get slaughtered and ordered their dinner bands to play louder when the screams began to disturb their dinner? Because they are heartless? I don't know.

However I will say if you are a foreigner living in Greece and planning a future here, treat is as your duty to learn more about the history of this place. There are things, thoughts and attitudes that you will never understand unless you do. This one book has helped me understand so much about modern Greece in a way that hours of talk and debate never did. Most importantly, it is written by a neutral source, neither Greek not Turkish, and so I place my trust in its accuracy.

Paradise Lost can be found for sale on, with delivery to Greece if brought through Amazon rather than a vendor. Once you read it, once you read how peaceful, prosperous and beautiful Smyrna was, you really understand how apt the title is; it was Paradise that turned into hell. And I can't tell you how my hair stood on end, how sick to the stomach I felt reading scenes of desperate refugees huddles on the seafront, filthy, starving, sick and with absolutely nowhere to go, praying for a ship, any ship, to come and help, and knowing that somewhere among those souls were the great grandparents of my husband.



Sesi said...

Yeah I got stories of my own of the sorts to pass on to the next generation coming from 3 grandparents (the fourth one was born and raised in Greece). After about 80 years of trying to rebuild a life, the first generation to manage to have a decent life was my own. Im the first grandchild out of approximately 40 cousins that went to University, for one.
Also, add to the tornment of the Catastrophy (as it is called in Greece) that these same people had to go through racism in Greece, then a World War, a Civil War and a Junta.
My two grandfathers lives were storybooks, and ugly ones too. Their entire lives were a struggle, yet they went through it and always tried to do their best with what they had.
That's the legacy I inherited from them. No matter what life has in store for you, just make the best of it the best you can.

toomanytribbles said...

i went to smyrni/izmir in august. i don't know what i was expecting but it wasn't what i saw. i think the most striking thing is how familiar it all felt.

this is a tiny selection of some of the images i captured:

i haven't read the book. i guess i could but i don't think i can handle it at the moment.

bollybutton said...

Mr Zeus took his grandfather back many decades later. By then he was already losing his mind and following traditionally dressed old ladies in the streets, thinking they were his mother. When I asked him what it was like to go to Smyrni, he said "Difficult".

Halfway through the book, I was thinking how beautiful the buildings described must be, so old elegant, and how it would be nice to see them. Then I got to the part about the fire... next to nothing of old Smyrni still stands

toomanytribbles said...

i was disappointed by the lack of color of the place -- but people have to live and work there ... it's not a playground for sentimentalists.

bollybutton said...

jinjir minjir said (and I accidentally delted): Indeed, I think you can't escape human tragedy any which way you choose to tell/look at this particular story. For an image of what the "other" side went through (as well as Greeks in other Minor Asian regions), Bruce Clark's "Twice a Stranger" might be of interest to you.

One step ahead! I ordered the two books together and just started reading Twice a Stranger