By George Koumoullis
FORTUNATELY, we in Cyprus were also given the opportunity to enjoy the Foundation of the Hellenic World production of the play ‘Smyrna my love.’ If the aim of the Foundation is to keep alive history and tradition it deserves praise.
The play has come to be identified with actress Mimi Denisi as she is the writer, director and lead actor. As one theatre critic wrote, ‘Smyrna my love’ is for Denisi what ‘Hermes’ was for Praxitelis and ‘War and Peace’ for Leo Tolstoy.
Before going into the substance of the play I feel obliged to mention that it also offered a lesson to teachers of history. Ms Denisi did not rely on just one source to write her play but used material from the archives of the Foundation as well as testimonies from Greeks, Turks, Levantines, books by historians, travellers, writers, journalists and ordinary people of the time. We, in Cyprus, teach history using the only available source, that of school text-books. This is why we should not consider it a strange there is an abundance of people among us who are clueless about history and are the most willing victims and easiest playthings of the demagogues, populists, the crooks and extreme right parties.
The play looks at the history of Smyrna, recounted by a refugee, Filio, who is played by Denisi. As a stage play it was a super-spectacle that maintained an emotional intensity throughout. I was overcome by an unusual grief leaving the theatre. This was not so much over the destruction of Smyrna, about which we have read plenty, but, mainly for the anguish, pain and untold suffering of the Greeks of Ionia, who could not go to Greece because in July 1922 the parliament of Greece unanimously took the decision prohibiting the entry of ‘illegal immigrants’ and refugees into the the country.
It was despicable law which was aimed at preventing the refugees of Asia Minor from going to Greece because they had Ottoman passports. No book could convey the pain and anguish of these people with nowhere to go. In the play though, these emotions could be seen on the faces of Filio and her husband. The feelings of sympathy and compassion came from deep inside you, as if the scene was taking place in 2016 and not 1922. The grief grew at the thought that commissioner in Smyrna, Aristides Stergiades, was telling the politicians in Greece, after the collapse of the front in August 1922, “Better that they (Greeks of Ionia) stay here to be slaughtered by Kemal (Ataturk), because if they go to Athens they will turn everything upside down.”
The play revealed also the appalling behaviour towards all those who managed to flee Smyrna and enter Greece ‘clandestinely’. They were undesirables, dismissed as ‘Turks’ and ‘shits’ by the locals. The pain of the people of Asia Minor of 1922 does not bear thinking about. They lost everything, without being to blame for anything, and they were forced – those that survived – to go to the ‘mother country’ to face the hostility of who? Their Greek ‘brothers’!
Their Greek ‘brothers’ were exclusively to blame for the Asia Minor disaster as they had decided in the 1920 referendum by overwhelming majority to bring back King Constantine I who was pro-German. As a consequence of the people’s vote the allied forces stopped backing Greece and turn to Turkey, with tragic consequences for Hellenism.
Of course the history books that that we read at lyceums had no mention – something that holds to this day – about the horrific way in which Asia Minor refugees were treated. These books took us for a ride, deceived us and misled us. To find out the truth one has to look explore other sources, like for example P. Kalellopoulos’ book ‘The Second Greek Republic 1924-1935’ which said: “A large section of the population did not approach the refugees with sympathy, when the relentless waves of history threw them on the rocks of Greece. There was no sympathy, there was no apathy, there was hostility. I remember it and shudder.”
Like any great work of art, ‘Smyrna my love’ has its weaknesses. I will focus on a serious omission: the massacre of the Muslims of Ionia from 1920 to 1922. About this there is no doubt. Because of limited space I will quote just one source – American Lieutenant General James Harbord who wrote the following to the US Senate about the first months of the occupation, which was how foreigners described Greece’s military expedition in Asia Minor.
“The Greek troops and local Greeks who united with the army embarked on a general massacre of the Muslim population, during which Ottoman officials, soldiers but also peace-loving residents were killed indiscriminately.” Possibly, therefore, everything that preceded the destruction of Smyrna, had roused the murderous instincts of the Turkish army.
The play, inevitably, brings to mind the three great tragedies of Hellenism of the last 100 years all of which were caused by the Greece. In 1920 the Pontians were left to the mercy of God. In 1922 the Greeks of Asia Minor were kicked out of land in which they had been living for 3,000 years, with Greece unable to do anything. In 1974 Greece invaded Cyprus in the crudest way and this was followed by the Turkish invasion which caused 200,000 Greek Cypriot to become refugees.
We must tell the truth however bitter it might be. Greece, as much as we love her, has proved a Medea who kills her children. She was responsible for the deaths of the Pontians, the Greeks of Asia Minor and Greeks of north Cyprus. Nobody could dispute this.
George Koumoullis is an economist and social scientist