“What are you looking for, young woman?” the village shepherd asks. He’s got African looks but speaks in the local accent, a combination that would surprise anyone who accidentally wandered into Avato, a village 26 km south of Xanthi, a city in northeastern Greece.
“We were born here, grew up here. We’re Greeks, my girl.”
There, away from the eyes of the world, live the black Greeks of Thrace, whose ancestors came to the country during Ottoman rule as slaves of local beys (governors).
Now Greek citizens, they are confused about their origins. Some believe that their ancestors came to the country as British mercenaries during the First World War.
One unique characteristic that sheds light on the mystery of their presence is the colour of their skin. “As black as the scarf you’re wearing. That’s what we were once like. Today, there are only a few of us left,” is how one person from the low-lying village put it to me.
It’s early afternoon and I’m at the home of Hakic Mehmetoglu. Standing in the yard, he turns the mirror to catch a few rays of the sun and corrects the shape of his thin grey moustache.
Five or six wild geese are guarding his property, attacking like dogs any stranger – like the writer – who dares to enter the property uninvited. And my presence audibly infuriates the other animals in the courtyard.
“What do you want, young woman?” says the owner in a deep voice.
“We were born here, grew up here. We’re Greeks, my girl. This is our homeland. Many times, we’re asked where we are from. Our grandparents were brought here as slaves by the Ottoman beys – and here we’ve remained. Our origins are in Arabia,” he says proudly.
But the prevailing theory on the villagers’ origin, however, is that they come from Africa, possibly from Sudan.
“Wherever else you go, you won’t find black people. Nowhere else in Thrace will you find us; only in Avato. In the past, there were some in the surrounding villages. Now there are four families left. The village was the seat of the bey, so that’s why the blacks are here. I heard from the old people, from my late father, that our village was once a swamp. So that’s why it’s called Avato [meaning ‘inviolate’ or ‘untrodden’]. My dad was black. Very black!” says the owner of the cafe, Rasim Raim, whose countenance and blue eyes suggest he’s of a mixed background.
“My mother was from the Caucasus, my grandfather from Sudan. That’s all I know,” he says. “I asked my father – he said that during the First World War, they brought in mercenaries to fight. And some stayed. I should have recorded it on tape, so I’d have the story. Because all that will be forgotten soon.”
The village mosque – which has no minaret due to the crisis – indicates the religious identity of the village, where many of the locals speak a mix of Greek and Turkish.
“We’re Greek Muslims of African origin,” Raim says. “We’ve never agreed on our origins. You can hear lots of versions,” he says. “My grandmother was from Sudan. She spoke Arabic. I remember her sitting by the fireplace and looking for a lighter. And she said to me, ‘Give me nar’. She asked me for a light, in Arabic.”
Up to the 1990s, “no one had married a Greek woman. In the old days, the bey married us off among ourselves. Who do foreigners marry in another country? A foreigner. This all changed gradually,” says Raim.
The first mixed marriages happened in 1945, with women from Kardzhali, a town located 130km away in southern Bulgaria. And the result?
“My parents were black, my grandparents even blacker, my own kids somewhat black and my grandchildren mixed!” says the village shepherd Bahri Memetoglu.
“There’s not a shepherd as black as me in Greece,” he says. His wife, Aime Memet, approaches. If you didn’t hear them speaking Greek, you’d wonder what a plump African woman was doing on a Greek farm.
“Things are difficult here. My son is unemployed. And these 60 animals, damn them, 30 of them are lambs. They have to eat first and then we make money on them. We sell the milk and the lambs. We’re getting older but we still work from dawn to dusk,” the old shepherd says.
“Is there anyone else as dark-skinned in the village?” I ask him.
“You’re looking for black people? Why didn’t you say? Nobody knows about this. There used to be many blacks here. Our children have changed; they’re mixed. My son married a white woman. We’re slowly losing our blackness.”
The only historical detail he’ll impart to his grandchildren is that “they brought us from Africa, as servants for the beys. We don’t know anything else.”
“When you’re asked where you’re from, what’s your answer?” I ask Ogun Sabri.
“Greece, of course. Don’t insult me now!” he says, clearly unhappy at the question. “Sorry, but I’m a bit funny when it comes to that. I’ve a problem. These are old wounds … I’m Greek. I was born here, I did my military service here.”
“When I’m in a strange city, Africans come up to me in the street and say ‘Hey man, what’s up?’. I just look at them. There I am, dressed like a Greek, with my normal jeans and small shoes, and they’re wearing baggy pants and funny hats. Even when I was young, I used to look at them and think ‘What are they wearing? What’s going on here?’ Now I know, they took to the road while we stayed in Avato,” says Sabri.
Since finishing primary school at the age of 12, he’s worked with aluminium doors and windows in the village. “The economic situation meant I couldn’t continue my education, so I started making doors and windows. I’ve been doing the same job for years, so I know it well by now,” he says.
Thirty years ago, when he was still in primary school, half of the pupils were black. “Today, there is only one or two who are black, really black,” he says.
“I married a white woman, from Moldova. My parents weren’t too keen but I loved her to bits,” says Sabri, who adds that there “is no racism here in the village. And in the town of Xanthi, they know us when they see us.”
Then he describes his experiences from travelling in Europe. “When I say that I’m Greek, people are amazed. Go and learn the history of your country, they tell me. Go to where you’re from.”
Has he ever been stopped by the Greek police? He laughs. “What should I tell you? … I think you can guess. They stop me and start asking ‘What are you doing here?’ and things like that. In Komotini, a nearby city, I’ve been stopped twice. Once, indeed, I was taken in to the police station because they thought I was an immigrant. They brought me to the police chief, I showed him my identity card and he stared at them before turning to me. ‘What’s he doing here?’ he said. And I said: ‘What have I been telling you all this time? Why did you bring me in for nothing? Leave me in peace!'”
The community has received little attention from academics. The first researcher to write about the blacks of Thrace was Prince Peter (1908-1980), the anthropologist grandson of King George I of Greece who studied the villages of northern Greece and was impressed by this particular community.
Young children play in the streets of Avato. “There are about 50 children in the village. The school is in Erasmio, about 40 minutes away on foot. We get there by car,” says Merve Sabri.
Aged 14, she speaks English, Turkish, Greek and some German, listens to Greek and Turkish music, regrets that “so many children don’t go on to study after high school”, dreams of becoming a hairdresser and complains that there’s no cinema nearby.
“We pass the time on Facebook,” she says.
When it comes to genealogy, she doesn’t know much. What she does know, like most of the kids around, is that “my grandmother was black”.
*This is an edited version of an article first published in the Greek daily Eleftherotypia.