Last Friday’s World on 3 with Charlie Gillett was one of the best music shows I’ve listened to in a long while. As his studio guest, Charlie welcomed Yasmin Levy, whose music is a fusion of Flamenco and the Judeo-Spanish Ladino style. As well as performing songs from her forthcoming album, Yasmin also discussed her work and participated in Charlie’s radio ping-pong. Their choice of music, and the discussion – which ranged from Yasmin’s views on what makes for truly expressive singing to the challenges of translating Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (one of the songs on her new album) into Spanish and the revelation of singing the song in the Hebrew style of the synagogue and the cantor – made engrossing listening.

Yasmin Levy
Yasmin Levy

Out of a truly informative and stimulating discussion, there was one theme that particularly resonated for me: in the radio ping-pong session, Charlie had brought in an album by the Turkish accordionist Muammer Ketencoğlu, called Smyrna Recollections. Ketencoğlu is from Izmir, as the city that was once called Smyrna is known today. The track Charlie played, ‘Alma Miya’, was sung in Ladino, the language of the Jews living in Smyrna that was based on Medieval Spanish brought from Iberia, and the language that Yasmin Levy mostly sings in. Songs in the Ladino language were among the most important manifestations of Sephardic culture in Smyrna, a tradition that survived more than five centuries.

Part of the Ottoman Empire from 1425, Smyrna was for centuries a prosperous trading port to rival Constantinople. By the end of the 19th century, Smyrna had grown into one of the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean. It contained large Armenian and Jewish communities, plus at least twice as many Greeks as then lived in Athens. There were 11 Greek newspapers available in the city, as well as seven in Turkish, five in Armenian, four in French and five in Hebrew. Smyrna was also home to a collection of amazingly rich Anglo-Levantine families. The Girauds owned the Oriental Carpet Manufacturing Company, which employed 150,000 people, while the Whittalls controlled an even larger fruit exporting empire. Smyrna was one of the first Christian communities in the world. Smyrna was one of the few places to escape the 1915 Armenian genocide, and the city still retained its ancient cosmopolitan character at the end of World War 1.

Then suddenly, in 1922, Smyrna was snuffed out in a single week of mass-murder, rape, looting, pillage and one of the greatest acts of arson in the 20th century. At the end of it, the New York Times ran the headline: “Smyrna wiped out.” The story is told in a book by Giles Milton called Paradise Lost Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greece occupied Smyrna and the surrounding region in 1919, encouraged by the Allies, and in particular Lloyd-George, to protect western oil interests – and a Greek-Turkish war began. When the Turks entered the city on September 9, few guessed the scale of the horrors that would be meted out on the city. Estimates vary but some suggest that  100,000 people were killed, with many times that number turned into homeless refugees. There was a large ethnic Greek population living in the area occupied and it was these who suffered terribly when the Greek army was routed, defeated by Kemal Ataturk, Turkish nationalist leader and founder of modern Turkey. His troops slaughtered the Greek and Armenian population, and burnt the Greek and Armenian part of the city.

The Great Fire of Smyrna, 1922

The Great Fire of Smyrna destroyed much of the city in September 1922. It occurred four days after the Turkish forces regained control of the city thus effectively ending the Greco-Turkish War. Milton’s book documents convincing proof that it was Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist troops who brought in thousands of barrels from the Petroleum Company of Smyrna and poured them over the streets and houses of all but the Turkish quarter. Moreover, it is clear that it was done with the full approval of Ataturk, who was determined to find a final solution to his ‘minority problem’ to ensure the future stability of his fledgling Turkish republic.

But Smyrna wasn’t unique in having a history of tolerance: one historian has referred to the ‘multiconfessional, extraordinarily polyglot Ottoman’ multiculturalism. This pre-1914 tolerance, and the bloody fragmentation of that multicultural world as the empire collapsed, were part of a wider pattern across Ottoman lands. What is true of Smyrna was equally true of Salonica, Istanbul, Alexandria and Jaffa. For across the Ottoman world, eastern Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side for nearly one and a half millennia. By modern standards, the Christians and Jews were often treated as second-class citizens, but it was a kind of pluralist equilibrium that had no parallel in Europe until the 1950s.

This ‘Paradise Lost’ survived until European ideas of the nation state shattered the mosaic in the early 20th century. Across the Ottoman empire, the century saw the bloody unravelling of that tapestry — most recently in Kosovo and Bosnia, but before that in Cyprus, Palestine, Greece and Anatolia. In each, pluralism was replaced by a savage polarisation as minorities fled or were driven to places where they could be majorities.

A 19th century view of Salonica’s Jewish quarter

I’m reminded of three haunting books that I read a couple of years ago.  The first was Mark Mazower’s Salonica: City of Ghosts, about a city which for five centuries was home to one of the most extraordinarily diverse societies in Europe: a mish-mash of Roman, Byzantine, Jewish, Christian, Islamic; monasteries, synagogues and mosques, languages and faiths. Mazower concludes the book with this passage:

‘…that older city may turn out to serve the living in new ways only now coming into view. Nation-states construct their own image of the past to shore up their ambitions for the future: forgetting the Ottomans was part of Greece’s claim to modernity. But today the old delusions of grandeur are being replaced by a more sober sense of what individual countries can achieve alone. As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, and even the largest learn how much they need their neighbours’ help to tackle the problems that face them all, the stringently patrolled and narrow-minded conception of history which they once nurtured and which gave them a kind of justification starts to look less plausible and less necessary. Other futures may require other pasts.

The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendezvous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. It is an odd and implausible version of the past, especially for a city like Salonica…In this city, the dominant group for centuries was a people who clung to the medieval language of the country from which they had been expelled, yet who felt in Salonica, as Rabbi Moses Aroquis put it in 1509, that ‘to them alone the land was given, and they are its glory and its splendour and its magnificence’ As it happened, God had already given it to the Ottoman sultans so that, in the words of the fifteenth-century chronicler Asikpashazadé, ‘the metropolis of unbelief should become a metropolis of Islam Before that he had given it to Christians, and in 1912, the city’s Greeks once again gave thanks to God for the triumph of their army. They all claimed the city for themselves in God’s name. Yet is it not said: where God is, there is everything?’

Jaffa, 19th century print
Jaffa: a 19th century print

The second book was City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa by Adam LeBor in which the lives of six families from Jaffa illuminate the narrative of Palestine and Israel in the 20th century.  The port of Jaffa had been for centuries one of those Mediterranean cities where Muslims, Christians and Jews had co-existed – like Salonica and Smyrna – under Ottoman control. LeBor’s narrative follows the intersecting lives of several families: Jews arriving in Jaffa as refugees from persecution in Europe, and Arabs fleeing from Jaffa as refugees when the Israelis conquered the city in 1948. He tells how, throughout the 19th century, until the 1921 Arab riots in Jaffa, the Jewish Chelouche family – who arrived in Palestine in 1838 from Algeria and opened a money-changing shop – could sit, as Jews and Arabs did in every port around the southern and eastern Mediterranean, with the Arab Hammami family, who owned a shop in the clothing and textile market. They would drink coffee, smoke, talk, and invite each other to weddings as neighbours and fellow-businessmen. Despite the deterioration of relationships as more and more Jews arrived in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, Jaffa maintained its position as one of the Middle East’s truly cosmopolitan cities. But the forces of nationalism – Israeli and Palestinian – were to destroy it.

At the beginning of the book, LeBor quotes the Arab writer Najib Azouri in 1905:

Two important phenomena, of the same nature but opposed, are emerging at the moment in Asiatic Turkey. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent efforts of the Jews to reconstitute on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel.  These movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins.

A Jewish family in Smyrna, 19th century postcard

Finally, I was reminded of Louis de Bernieres’ splendid novel, Birds Without Wings, which draws us back to Smyrna and its hinterland. De Bernieres sets his story in Eskibahce, a small hillside town along the Anatolian coast from Smyrna, during the period from about 1881 to 1922,  the last years of the Ottoman Empire. The town is home to Muslim Ottomans who learn the Koran without understanding Arabic, Greek Christians who have lived in Turkey for so many generations they no longer speak Greek, as well as foreigners such as Armenians and Circassians. The Ottomans pray in their mosques but see no harm in asking their Christian neighbours to petition the Virgin Mary for them when extra help is needed. The Christians, in turn, recite prayers while prostrating in the Muslim fashion. A Greek teacher writes letters – in Turkish, but written in Greek script. The Greeks and Turks have lived together for so long and intermarriages have happened in so many generations that many are related in some way, and get along well as neighbours or even lifelong friends.

‘Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows’ says Iskander the Potter. ‘For birds with wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders, and their quarrels are very small. But we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us. Because we have no wings we are pushed into struggles and abominations that we did not seek, and then, after all that, the years go by, the mountains are leveled, the valleys rise, the rivers are blocked by sand and the cliffs fall into the sea’.

‘History’, remarks the book’s narrator, ‘is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas…It is one of the greatest curses of religion that is takes only the very slightest twist of a knife tip in the cloth of a shirt to turn neighbours who have loved each another into bitter enemies’.

Yasmin Levy

Returning to Yasmin Levy…I have a wonderful memory of seeing her perform in Llangollen two or three years ago. She was born in Jerusalem and is the daughter of Isaac Levy, who was a renowned composer and cantor, and pioneer researcher into the rich history of the Ladino music and culture of Spanish Jewry and its diaspora. She has developed a distinctive new interpretation of the medieval Ladino Judeo-Spanish song by incorporating elements of Andalusian flamenco and Turkish music, utilising instruments like the darbuka, oud, violin, cello, and piano. For me, her best album is her second, La Judería (‘The Jewish Quarter’).

Yasmin has said:

I am proud to combine the two cultures of Ladino and flamenco, while mixing in Middle Eastern influences. I am embarking on a 500 years old musical journey, taking Ladino to Andalusia and mixing it with flamenco, the style that still bears the musical memories of the old Moorish and Jewish-Spanish world with the sound of the Arab world. In a way it is a ‘musical reconciliation’ of history.

Yasmin Levy: Mano Suave (Dutch TV)

Yasmin Levy: Irme Kero (Dutch TV)

Smyrna postcard: Greetings from the East
Smyrna postcard: Greetings from the East

2 thoughts on “Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

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