Over the past month, Turkey and Greece came closer to war than they have in decades. The conflict reached its climax when the Turkish vessel Oruç Reis began researching hydrocarbon reserves in the disputed waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. Disagreement over territorial boundaries in the Aegean and Mediterranean led both countries to bring out their navy flotillas. The Turkish side used increasingly threatening language while the EU began discussing sanctions against Turkey. At moments, military escalation seemed not only possible but inevitable.
Thankfully, the diplomatic efforts of international allies led to a temporary standstill. Now that Turkey has brought the Oruç Reis to harbor in Antalya, it seems like sanctions are off the table. Greece and Turkey are setting the groundwork for talks. As Sezin Özey put it in a recent column, the “hot summer” between Greece and Turkey has simmered down to a “cold peace.”
Whenever tensions rise between Turkey and Greece, artists are often the first to raise their voices for peace. Last week, 350 women from the two countries signed a petition calling for peace. Musician Iris Mavraki, actress Müjde Ar, poet Krystalli Glyniadaki, and novelist Latife Tekin were among those who declared that “the rhetoric of conflict and potential conflicts threaten not only the security of the citizens of both countries but also the entire region. As women, we are saying ‘stop’ to this dangerous acceleration.”
Mikis Theodorakis has also raised his voice for peace. In a statement, the 95-year-old composer wrote: “Erdoğan is in power today. Certainly, Turkey has changed. What will not change unto the ages is that Turkey is our neighbor and always will be. Our peoples have nothing to divide them as long as the leaders behave responsibly and realistically.”
For those who have been following relations between Greece and Turkey over the long term, the recent debacle in the Mediterranean and the subsequent calls for peace provides a heavy taste of déjà vu.
The two countries constantly swing between love and hate. An example is the war that nearly broke out in 1996 over a group of uninhabited islets in the Aegean. This was followed by an explosion of efforts to promote “Greek-Turkish friendship” in civil society. Going back further, the bloody Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 was followed by Greek leader Eleftherios Venizelos’ nomination of Mustafa Kemal for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the 1950s, Greece and Turkey became cozy NATO allies united against the “Soviet threat” until the Cyprus conflict again drove a wedge between them.
This love-hate relationship is reflected through art and culture. Whenever relations between Turkey and Greece sour, what we get is a narrative of 500 years of conquering and oppression. Whenever relations are good, people on both sides emphasize shared history and cultural similarities.
Often, the very same figures draw on both narratives depending on which way the political wind is blowing. Former PM Bülent Ecevit both ordered the invasion of Cyprus and wrote one of the most famous poems of Greek-Turkish friendship, which asked: “What if in our veins / It were the same blood that flows? / From the same air in our hearts / A crazy wind blows.”
Similarly, in the 1980s, Mikis Theodorakis helped spearhead a rapprochement between Turkey and Greece. He collaborated with musicians Zülfü Livaneli and Maria Farantouri, becoming the face of Turkish-Greek friendship and even meeting with Turgut Özal. Yet this former communist, who lived underground during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, has also been close with the right-wing New Democracy Party. In the 2000s, Theodorakis began taking a hardline nationalist position and denouncing “traitors.” Now he’s back on the peace train.
The most consistent proponents of peace are those who have been more committed to solidarity than friendship, internationalism than nationalism. For instance, in Greece, the figure that is the most often mobilized for these alternative politics remains Nâzım Hikmet. From his solidarity with victims of political repression in Greece, his close personal friendship with fellow poet Yannis Ritsos, to his positive depictions of Greek and Rum characters in his poetry, Nâzım is a useful symbol of peace.
Nâzım’s poem “Karanfilli Adam” (The Man with the Carnation) is not so well known in Turkey though remains famous in Greece. It is dedicated to the anti-fascist resistance leader Nikos Beloyannis (1915–52) who fought against the Nazi occupiers of Greece but was later sentenced to death. Despite thousands of telegrams to the Greek government from people like Charlie Chaplin and Jean-Paul Sartre, he was denied clemency. While on trial, a photograph of Beloyannis holding a red carnation, and a sketch of it by Pablo Picasso, transformed Beloyannis into a cause célèbre. Nâzım wrote:
His right hand
holds the carnation
like a fragment of light from the Greek sea.
The man with the carnation
looks out from under his heavy black eyebrows
he looks out like an innocent child,
It is now a cliché to say that the politicians in Greece and Turkey are the problem while the people, if left alone, would get along fine. However, already in the 1950s Nâzım was putting forward a vision of solidarity based in shared history of political repression and suffering. In a message to the Greek people given over Bucharest Radio in 1952, Nâzım declared:
“There are two Turkeys and two Greeces. The real one and the fake one. The independent one and the enslaved one. One is the Greece of Beloyannis and the thousands of Greek patriots who languish in prisons. This is the genuine Greece. One is Turkey with the thousands of Turkish patriots who are rotting in dungeons. This is the genuine Turkey.”
When you look at the history of Greece and Turkey in the 20th century, what you find is this shared history of war, dictatorship, and repression. While politicians and civil society leaders focus on friendship or diplomacy, it is the artists who have most successfully given us a vision of what something more like solidarity would look like. As Turkey and Greece have pulled back again from the brink of war, it is worth returning to this vision.