Birds Without Wings

Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows.

In 1923, after routing Greek forces from Turkey, the newly formed Turkish government under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk agreed to meet for peace talks, designed to settle long running border disputes between Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Ismet Inonu was delegated to speak for Turkey and after much negotiation, the issue was settled. Part of the Treaty of Lausanne was a promise of independance for the Republic of Turkey, but the treaty also included provisions which were designed to protect the ethnic Greek minority in Turkey and the religious Muslim minority in Greece.

It was decided that these populations should be uprooted and transplanted–the “Greeks” back to Greece, and the Muslims back to Turkey. In the chaos of uprooted populations and genocides which occurred during the 20th century, most people don’t remember, or even know about, the mass shuffling of indigenous populations between Greece and Turkey–but it was a tragedy, and one still fresh in the region, especially with later claims that neither side kept to the terms of the treaty.

Compelling literature has been written about this diaspora, but most of it is in Greek and Turkish.

Imagine that you have lived somewhere for generations. You may not be, ethnically, the same as the other people who live there, but you have absorbed their traditions and spoken language. You eat like them. You have absorbed their religious practices, their written language, their way of life. To put this in more concrete terms, imagine that you are a fifth generation Mexican immigrant, who doesn’t speak Spanish anymore, although you are still Catholic. But you have lived in America for your entire life–so have your parents, their parents before them, and so on. You identify first and foremost as “American.”

Now imagine that a war for territory is fought with Mexico, a war in which both sides commit terrible atrocities. Part of the terms of the peace treaty brokered between the two nations is that you are to be deported back to Mexico–just as Seventh Day Adventists in Mexico are to be deported back to the United States. You and all the other “Mexicans” are herded together, and it is promised that you will be reimbursed for your lost belongings when you arrive in Mexico.

You are Mexican now, even though you have never been to Mexico, and you don’t speak Spanish, and you have forged bonds and ties with the people in your community in America. But you are to be “repatriated” and you spend the rest of your life living with a sense of misery and puzzlement, knowing that the town you left behind has since been abandoned, to rot. Mexico itself is about to be plunged into a bitter civil war, from which it will not recover for over thirty years.

This, in rough terms, is the story of the forcible relocation of “Greeks” to Greece and Greek Muslims to Turkey. It’s a great sorrow, and you can still visit the remains of villages where Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together–villages later abandoned, as their economies collapsed under the new Turkish Republic and relocated Muslims feared to live in them. The bitter feelings between both nations were only intensified by this foolish plan.

I just finished reading a recent book by Louis De Bernieres, one of my favourite authors, about the First World War in Turkey and the subsequent relocations. Birds Without Wings is a really excellent book, as all De Bernieres’ books are. He writes poetically, well, and movingly about matters of historical interest to me. Clearly he has a deep passion and love for Greece, as I do, but no illusions about the realities either. While the book demonstrates considerable scholarship, it’s more about the lives of the people than it is about the history. It’s about the profound effect that war and dislocation have on people–and unlike other books by De Bernieres, there aren’t very many light-hearted moments in Birds Without Wings. It’s a tragic book about exile and frustrated love. It’s also, to my knowledge, one of the few books in English available about this historical event.

This book reminds me a great deal of some of the works by Kazantzakis, like The Fratricides, but De Bernieres’ compelling writing about war also reminds me of another compelling post-war book from Greece, Life in the Tomb, by Stratis Myrivilis. De Bernieres captures a lot of things brilliantly in the book–I would highly recommend that you all read it, even if you don’t have a particular interest in the history he’s writing about. You will by the time you’re done reading, I assure you.

De Bernieres is British, and was born in 1954–his other popular book, Corelli’s Mandolin was set in Greece during the Second World War. You can actually follow the roots of some of the characters in Corelli’s Mandolin in Birds Without Wings. He writes so passionately that it’s difficult to believe he’s not intimately associated with the history, that he wasn’t there in the trenches at Gallipoli and marching alongside the Armenians when they were exiled from Turkey in the early part of the First World War.

I more or less read it at one sitting, because I felt driven by the characters and the plot, longing to know how it resolved–readers will be disappointed in this sense because in many ways it’s a book without resolutions, and those that are made turn out to be bitter. It left me with a pensive feeling, as books of this sort often do. Why do we do these things to each other? What compels us to perform small and random acts of bravery in the midst of horrors? Why are huge historical events like this almost unheard of? Why do we never learn anything?

[Birds Without Wings]