A Roman I was born

In Istanbul, the Greeks call themselves Romans. In 2011, they’re engaged in a fight to survive, and it’s the sound of rembetika that is leading the way.

In the dirty, smoky rembetika bars of Istanbul, a movement is forming. It’s an attempt to revive the city’s ailing Greek Orthodox community, with the help of music.

This unofficial movement is being led by Greek political scientist and musician, Haris Rigas. On a steamy summer’s day we meet at a bar in the backstreets of Beyoglu, Istanbul’s teeming social hub.

The city itself is a burgeoning mass of historical and cultural cosmopolitanism, at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, where Greeks have existed for centuries. As a Greek Australian, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of belonging here, an irresistible mystical allure.

“You know, there are two words for Greek: there’s Romios – which comes from Roman, and it’s more of a religious term, it means a Greek orthodox person – and there’s Ellinas, which gained ground after the revolution and it refers back to Ancient Greece, rather than medieval Hellenism,” Haris says. “Now these people living here [in Istanbul], they call themselves Romioi, because at the forefront of their identity is religion, secondarily language and ethnicity. So the Turks call them Rums.” In 2011, the Rums, pronounced Rhoums, constitute a very small minority in Istanbul, and they’re engaged in a fight to survive. The 20th century was a tumultuous one for the Rum community.

The 1922 treaty of Lausanne resulted in millions of ethnic Greek Orthodox from across Turkey being uprooted and deported, though the Istanbul Greeks were allowed to stay due to their substantial historical ties to the city. In 1932, a law was passed excluding Greeks from some 30 professions, restricting their influence on Istanbul society. In 1955, up to 300,000 Turks perpetrated a violent pogrom against the Rums of Istanbul, killing up to 17 people and destroying more than 5000 Greek-owned properties, including more than 4000 homes, 1000 businesses, 70 churches, 2 monasteries, 1 synagogue, and 26 schools. As a result of the pogrom, the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul was reduced from more than 65,000 in 1955 to about 49,000 in 1960.

In 2011, the city’s Greek Orthodox population sits at around 2500, mostly older people. Historically, the Rums are inextricably entrenched in Istanbul. This ethnic group has been here since Byzantine times, yet according to Haris, today – after centuries of political and cultural transformation – the Rums are being denied their basic human rights, living in fear and paranoia.

This is putting them at serious risk of dying out. However, despite the odds being stacked against them, Haris says there is room for the Istanbul Rum community to take some steps towards self-determination. Introversion, he says, is something to be avoided.

“It’s something of a reflex… but I don’t think it works any more. Being introverted and conservative will just lead to the end of this community,” he says. “This community used to be at the forefront of Turkish society – the best doctors, the best architects, the best artists – and now they’re just a relic. I think if they keep being a relic, they will disappear. If they become active and engaged they will prolong their existence here at least some generations.”

Fortunately, political developments in the past decade have created a more amiable environment in which to try to stage such a community comeback. Haris says that a combination of factors, including the Greek Turkish rapprochement and a gradual domestic political shift towards democratisation, has changed the game for the Rums and other minority communities in Turkey.

“You go around here in Beyoglu and they’re playing Kurdish music on the streets. Ten years ago that would have been inconceivable,” Haris says. “Ten years ago the Greeks would… hardly ever speak Greek in public, now they do,” he says. In this environment of social and political reform arises an opportunity for a resurgence. Part of that resurgence lies in the resurrection of rembetika, the urban blues of the Greek and Turkish underclasses, led by Haris’ band Tatavla Keyfi. Formed in 2008, the band was named to include both Greeks and Turks, to reflect the commonality of the music’s origins.

“Tatavla is the name of a very important neighbourhood of Istanbul, today it’s called Kurtulus but until the ’50s it was almost like a Greek ghetto. In the Ottoman period it was an area where if you weren’t Greek Orthodox you couldn’t settle, and it was one of the heartlands of rembetiko,” Haris says. “Keyfi also is a common word. In Greek we say kefi, in Turkish we say keyf, which means something like fun, but of course, it’s one of those untranslatable words in both languages.”

Rembetiko was born at a time of social struggle for both Greeks and Turks in the aftermath of the First World War, with the Treaty of Lausanne population exchange, the birth of the modern Turkish nation and the rule of Metaxas in Greece.

“From a sociological point of view, it’s the exact equivalent of the blues. What the blues were for America is what rembetiko is for Greece, and for a great part of what is today Turkey. So it’s basically music of the underground, it’s urban music… it’s the music of petty bourgeois workers… it’s related to gays, to narcotics, prostitution, all the sorts of activities that were typical of the very lowest strata of an urban setting from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th [century],” Haris says.

“Istanbul, Izmir (Smyrni), Athens and New York are the birthplaces of… different schools of rembetiko. If you look at the major artists, even the ones that became very big in Greece, half of them were born here and had their first performances here,” he says. The commonalities between Greek and Turkish rembetiko are often indistinguishable beyond language, Haris says, which gives the audience a point of reference from which to relate to the band and the music.

“Many classical rembetiko songs have an equivalent in Turkish. We usually sing the song in both Greek and Turkish, the lyrics are often the same. Sometimes they can be different but it doesn’t matter, it’s a way to establish contact with the viewer,” he says.

“They’ve been very receptive, they really like them… so we’ve created a bit of a community of very different people from very varied backgrounds, both ethnically, ideologically, socially that have a common interest about this music, about this city’s past.”

Within this community, a relationship of common recognition has begun to develop, according to Haris, which is helping to bolster the Rum community in Istanbul, and pass on its traditions to the younger generations.

“For us, it’s very touching when local Greeks come, of a certain age, and they remember how it used to be in the old days, and they make requests and dance. This is also important for us, because it’s part of the transmission of know-how, which otherwise would have been lost.

“For example the way that Istanbul Greek Orthodox dance certain dances is completely different to the way they dance them in Greece where they’ve been folklorised to some extent. “It’s a community of knowledge also. So this old guy comes, he dances, he shows us how he dances it, makes corrections, he says ‘this is an Istanbul song but this is not how we sing it, this is how you sing it in Greece’, so it’s very exciting,” Haris says.

Ultimately however, rembetiko in Istanbul is part of the mission to bridge the gap between the remaining Greek Orthodox Rums, and the city that they have inhabited for centuries.

“It unites people but it does it through the unconventional part (of their brain), the things that you normally wouldn’t say. Also, it also brings a lot of ecstasy. The way you dance rembetiko music, it’s an ecstatic dance, it’s not the kind of silly dance in the club with your mates, getting drunk. There’s something ritualistic about the way you dance to this music, so it goes deep, so it’s not just casual fun.

“I don’t know what it is about rembetiko… it’s not that it’s revolutionary music at all, but it looks at the world from a certain tilt… and a certain irony. It’s just the average person on the street saying universal truths, like how unfair the world is, how important money is. These have a class value; whatever society you belong to, they apply somehow.”