‘Native tourists’: Belonging and alienation in the Greek return to Imbros.

‘Native tourists’: Belonging and alienation in the Greek return to Imbros.

It’s August 2013, and I’m out walking with Kostas in the village Agrídia on the island Imbros/Gökçeada in Turkey. Kostas was born here in the 1960s, but, like most of the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians of Imbros, left the island after 1964 to resettle in Greece. Now he returns seasonally to the island of his birth.

Kostas beckons me to follow him along a short-cut. Together we struggle to navigate a narrow, ascending gap between two ruined houses littered with roof tiles and fallen masonry. As we emerge at the other end, my companion turns to me to apologise. ‘Sorry I brought you this way,’ he says, ‘I always remember it from when I was a child, as a path lined with people drinking coffees’.

The Greeks of Imbros overwhelmingly left Turkey in the decade or so after 1964 as a result of a series of discriminatory measures taken by the then Turkish state [PDF, see pages 29-36]. Most settled in Greece, and for decades they were largely unable to visit Imbros, mostly due to military restrictions imposed on the island by Turkey and difficulties relating to citizenship. But after 1988, circumstances unexpectedly changed. Turkey lifted the military restrictions, and the island’s expatriated Greeks began to acquire Greek citizenship, making travel to Turkey easier. The Greeks began to return to Imbros, and by 2015 there were 2000 to 3000 annual summer visitors as well as over 100 semi-permanent returnees (staying for six months each year) and some 300 permanent returnees.

The growing return movement launched a communal effort to tackle the various practical difficulties of seasonal and permanent return. But equally significantly, it triggered a struggle to confront a multitude of daily challenges to the returnees’ sense of belonging on an island greatly transformed during their period of exile. Operating in the 2010s on memories from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Greek returnees to Imbros like Kostas experience an uncanny encounter with place in which feelings of familiarity collide awkwardly with a sense of loss and alienation. The ruins left by those who never returned both literally and figuratively disrupt the flow of everyday life in the Greek villages, conjuring up unbidden memories of the past and those who peopled it, and threatening to derail the returnees’ renewed sense of belonging on the island.

On that same August day in 2013, I’m walking through the village Άgios Theódoros with another seasonal returnee, Pavlos. Surveying the juxtaposition between the lively streets bustling with tourists and the ruined houses, Pavlos remarks to me that ‘sometimes you have the unpleasant feeling of being a tourist’. A few days later, at her home in the island’s capital Panagía, six-month resident Panagiota similarly tells me of her dismay when she happened upon one of her father’s old fields – expropriated by the state years previously – and was unable to pick fruit from the pear tree that her father had planted there. Panagiota coins the term ‘native tourists’ to convey to me the competing sentiments of belonging and alienation that such daily encounters provoke in the returnees. This, in fact, is precisely how some of those Greeks who never left the island saw the returnees when the seasonal visits began; ‘the tourists have come’, they would say.

The returnees’ daily interactions with the island’s Muslim population (Turks and Kurds) further complicate their sense of belonging. The returning Greeks provide a significant seasonal injection into the local economy. This leads some of the returnees to feel that the island’s Muslim population also sees them as visiting tourists rather than returning natives. Yet at the same time, the returnees have to confront the possibility that they themselves have become objects of touristic curiosity. Thousands of Turkish tourists visit Imbros every summer, making daily visits to the Greek villages to attend traditional ceremonies, soak up the atmosphere, and take photographs of the Greek houses.

The island’s Turkish authorities have formally welcomed the return of the Greeks, inviting them to take part in the growing tourism industry as entrepreneurs, and portraying their presence as a demonstration of Gökçeada’s multiculturalism. This stance has greatly facilitated the return movement, but is also a source of some anxiety for the Greeks, not least because accepting this invitation also means tacitly acknowledging that it is the Turkish authorities who have the right to welcome the returning Greeks rather than vice versa, an implicit challenge to the returnees’ sense of belonging on the island.

So the Greek returnees to Imbros experience an island transformed not only by the decay of its Greek villages, but also by its touristic awakening. The growing tourism industry simultaneously undermines and strengthens their sense of belonging on Imbros: treated as tourists when arriving on the island or shopping in the capital, they are themselves visited as natives in their villages.

The narratives of those who have participated in the Greek return to Imbros demonstrate that return does not simply put an end to displacement or unmake diaspora. Rather, return is revealed to be an ongoing and everyday process of negotiation, triggering great joy and gratification but also anxieties and tensions not altogether dissimilar to those experienced during the original displacement from Imbros. Return, from this point of view, might be best seen as part of the pathology of displacement rather than its antithesis or its panacea.

On a balcony in Agrídia, I’m with Themis discussing his first return to Imbros in 1996 after a 20 year absence. He tells me of the difficulty he had retracing the once-familiar path to his family’s old land: ‘I used to be able to walk the path at night without lights. But now I go there in the day and I cannot walk it, because everything has fallen into ruin’. Since 1988, the expatriated Greeks of Imbros have walked once again on the island of their birth. Yet, for now at least, they must do so along paths littered with ruins, both literal and psychological.

This text is adapted from my book Greeks without Greece, out now in hardback and e-book versions with Routledge. All given names used in this blog are pseudonyms.

Image: The village Schoinoúdi in August 2013. Refurbished and whitewashed houses can be seen alongside houses lying in ruin left by those who never returned. Photograph by the author. All rights reserved.

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