“From Piraeus to Portland”: Scenes, sounds and stories from a lost cosmopolis

Event commemorates the destruction of Smyrna, and celebrates the birth of the Greek Blues

By MARIA CHOBAN

America: The land many of us, our parents, grandparents, ancestors fled to or sought out, to start a new life. At my family’s restaurant, Greeks worked side-by-side with Japanese, Turks, Norwegians, Romanians, all of us striving for the American dream of owning a house, a car and shopping at Costco.

November 8, 2016: fear replaced hope for Mexicans, Syrians and others seeking a better life or fleeing death in their own fractured countries.

Smyrna: The cosmopolitan Turkish coastal city where a quarter million Turks, Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Brits and others lived, worked and played side-by-side.

Smyrna's busy wharf during its multicultural heyday.

Smyrna’s busy wharf during its multicultural heyday.

September 9, 1922: The Nationalist Turkish army enters Smyrna, beginning an ethnic purge of half its population — the Christian half. Arson fires set on September 13 level the city and suburbs killing from 10,000 to 100,000 people. This in addition to thousands of Christians and other non-Muslims tortured, raped and killed by Turkish soldiers.

It took only two weeks to accomplish two things: 1. Eradicate the fairy tale cosmopolitan city that was Smyrna. 2. Eradicate “infidel Izmir” (how the Muslim Turks referred to Smyrna).

As part of a two-day event featuring music, film, and food from Asia Minor, this Friday, November 18 at Portland’s’ Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum (HACCM) will show the movie Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City, which chronicles the years 1900 through the fire and evacuation in 1922. Released in 2012, the film tells the story of a 20th century horror that few Oregonians or Americans have even heard of, a story that has special timeliness at a moment when incoming American political leadership and some of its more rabid supporters advocate the kind of anti immigrant ethnic monoculture that helped lead to the flames of Smyrna a century ago. With refugees’ lives being sacrificed to geopolitics again, many in the same region, the tragedy of Smyrna offers both context and warning to us today.

The next day, November 19, the event showcases a happier cultural consequence of this catastrophe: a performance of a powerful music that emerged in its wake.


My grandmother’s black eyes don’t dance. She’s not smiling. My farsighted father shot this video in 1980. He is goading her to tell her story — growing up in and around Smyrna, Turkey and then fleeing in 1922. My grandmother, Marika, a feisty ball of sexy Mediterranean energy can’t even look at the camera.

“We were marched to Aidan where my brother, Aleko, was singled out of line to be killed. But a commander in the Turkish army intervened. He said that Aleko was his friend, so he wasn’t killed.”

Just like that. No emotion, no eye contact, no hate, no tears.

This was not the only time my father’s mother, Marika, had to leave town with her family. Greeks became exiles whenever the Ottoman Turks felt Greek presence in certain Turkish towns was a threat. But because the Turks didn’t dare touch the thriving economic engine that fueled Ottoman Anatolia, the cosmopolitan Smyrna, the infidel city of Christians, enjoyed a comfortable cafe society lifestyle until September 1922.

Why did it end, and end so violently?

The Greek Myth

Greeks have mythologized both Smyrna and their importance in Smyrna. It’s a variation of the Balkan problem. For 3000 years, Greeks — a conglomeration of many tribes sharing the same language — DID live in what is today Anatolian (Western) Turkey. The ancient city of Troy is situated in SW Turkey and is called Hisarlik today. Constantinople (Istanbul) lies about 450 miles north, and Smyrna (Izmir) forms the third point of the triangle almost exactly halfway between the two, due west, on the west coast of Turkey.

When I was growing up, surrounded by my big fat Greek family I’d hear wistful sighs, mostly from my great uncle Fotis, when mentioning Poli (The City — Constantinople) and mom and grandma would sing with me the children’s song “Pah-meh stin Poli” (Let’s go to The City). I thought they were all referring to Portland because we lived so far out in the sticks.

I grew up in a hugbox of Greeks who still bemoan the loss of Asia Minor. Greeks owned Smyrna, or so I thought. In fact, the European Levantines owned Smyrna. This group of around ten families with their enormous wealth, expanded with favors they curried with the Ottoman governors, insured that the cosmopolitan city rolled merrily along even as the underdog Turkish Nationalists marched in to finally reclaim “infidel Izmir.”

Greeks certainly ensured that Smyrna/Izmir retained a playful, sunny atmosphere. Greeks were the middle-men, the distributors, administrators, managers, in the Levantine tobacco, flour and date industries flourishing in Smyrna. What the Greeks had was numbers and a huge upper-middle class with discretionary income to burn. The city boasted a two mile quay/boardwalk for strolling and loading and unloading ships. On its southern end resided a small population of relatively poorer Turks, next to whom resided the not much wealthier Jews. Next to the Jewish quarter lived the middle class Armenians and next to them the Greeks. Behind was the American neighborhood called Paradise. Five miles away, in a Dunthorpe-like suburb, gleamed the mansions and estates of the Levantines.

Smyrna on Fire, September 13-14, 1922.

Smyrna on fire, September 13-14, 1922.

Beneath Smyrna’s superficial sunniness seethed the antipathy of the city’s Turks, mirrored by the greater Turkish population, toward the Greeks whom they found insufferably arrogant. Halide Edib, Western educated propagandist (her own word) for the nascent Turkish Nationalist movement encapsulated the two national personalities, describing the Greeks as high strung and joyous while the Turks were patient toilers. The Greeks, with their emphasis on a western liberal education, tended to demean the mostly un-western, un-educated Turkish population. It wasn’t simply the Infidel-ity of Smyrna that irked the Turks; it was also the frivolity of the grasshopper Greeks coupled with their haughty attitude toward them. The illusion of Smyrna is reminiscent of America’s post-civil rights-era dream that black and white people would live in total peace and harmony in a supposed post-racial society signaled by the election of a black president, or Europe’s idea that World War II and the European Union had put to rest the centuries-old national and ethnic rivalries, until Bosnia and Brexit.

The Big Ideas

In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, the charismatic Eleftherios Venizelos, prime minister of Greece eight different times, advocated for a Greater Greece. Beyond reclaiming the island of Crete, where he was born and where he fought the occupying Turks to help win Crete back from the Ottomans, he wanted more. More than even just the return of Northern Greece, he wanted Anatolia, the cradle of Greek civilization.

Venizelos’s Big Idea, as it was called, clashed with the region’s other Big Idea at the time: nascent Turkish Nationalists who thought the Ottomans had sold out to the Europeans. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Nationalists wanted a Turkey for Muslim Turks only. Greek-Jewish-Armenian-Christian multicultural Smyrna stood in their way, just as it blocked Venizelos’s vision of Greater Greece that would include Anatolia. The two visions were on a collision course, and the point of impact was Smyrna.

Venizelos’s rhetoric rankled many, including Winston Churchill, but the Greek army, invited by sympathetic English prime minister David Lloyd George, finally sailed into Smyrna’s harbor in May 1919. Why the English (and Americans and others) were involved is part of a much bigger geopolitical struggle — also with echoes in today’s conflicts — that neither the film nor this Reader’s Digest version has room to explore.

For over two years, Greeks pushed east, mostly winning battles against the Turkish Nationalists. In August 1921 the Greek army’s luck ran out in the vast interior of Turkey at Sakarya and the Turkish Nationalists, their capital in Ankara, finally started winning – pushing the Greeks back towards the west coast. Smyrna had a full year to digest this and save itself. But on the evening of September 8, 1922 when the advance guard of the Turkish Nationalist cavalry marched onto the famous two-mile long quay, Smyrniots sashayed along to dinner, to stroll the beautiful quay, on the way to the opera house to watch Aida.

When the Turkish army marched into this delicately balanced city of diversity on Friday evening, September 8, 1922, the mutual antipathy between the Muslim Turks and the Christian Armenians and Greeks was held in fragile check. By the next day, Saturday, September 9, fear and anger escalated to incendiary incidents and the exhausted occupying army’s fragile discipline disintegrated to thuggish, murderous brutality.

On Wednesday, September 13, fires were set in the Armenian neighborhood. They blew away from the neighboring Jewish and Turkish ghettos, traveling instead north toward the Greek neighborhood and city center. By Sunday, September 17, the New York Times front page headline read “Only Ruins Left in Smyrna: Fire has Swept the City Proper and is Raging in Suburbs.” By Friday, September 22, the city and suburbs were mostly leveled as the fire was finally quelled. Two hundred thousand non-Muslim refugees crowded the quay, trapped between the fire, the ocean and the Turkish army.

That’s the story director Maria Iliou tells in Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City. The film includes interviews with Giles Milton, author of Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922 and other notables, Turkish and Greek. But the star of this movie is close to ninety minutes of black and white original film footage of the city back in the day. Though it doesn’t give enough background to understand why this catastrophe happened, it is a fairy-tale and a reminder that we don’t have to be one color, one religion, one political ideology to get along. Seeing Smyrniots in native costumes (including European top hats and canes) mirroring the different religions, strolling up and down that crowded quay with its diverse shops and people, feels a bit surreal coming from our fractured polarized world of reds vs. blues or Jews vs. Arabs or Greeks vs. Turks.

The movie touches on the heroic maneuvers of a hunchbacked wallflower Methodist minister from America, Asa Jennings. While 17 ships from America, England, France, Italy docked at the harbor safely watching Smyrna burn, Christian refugees continued to pour out of Turkey’s interior and spill onto Smyrna’s quay, desperate to be saved. Robbed, raped and butchered by the now totally lawless Turkish army, 200,000 plus refugees crowded on the quay trapped by the fire behind them and the ocean in front. The recalcitrant Western powers of America, England, Italy and France refused to help them, afraid to piss off the Turkish Nationalists and jeopardize economic ties. Strategic geography figured prominently: money and politics and oil over people. And yet, one nobody, Jennings, a lowly American citizen with no title stood up to money, geopolitics and Mustafa Kemal in his attempt to save the Godforsaken. I won’t spoil it. Go see the movie.

Making Music from Upheaval

The film doesn’t deal with what happened after the Smyrna conflagration, but it too is relevant to today’s world. An international conference brokered a deal between Greece and Turkey in which half a million Muslim ethnic Turks were expelled from Greece in exchange for three times that many ethnic Greek Christians leaving Anatolia, foreshadowing a similar calamitous exchange in India and Pakistan a generation later, and the so-called ethnic “cleansing” of Yugoslavia two generations after that. A similar process is happening now in Iraq and Syria, in which long-multicultural societies are violently transformed into monocultures.

What followed again sounds familiar. Tent cities sprang up. Relief organizations helped feed the refugees. Assimilation was impeded by a devastated national economy and a resentful mainland population. Out of this came a new music — the Rebetiko. Spawned mainly in the refugee slums around the port of Piraeus, this gritty urban blues borrows from among others, the Anatolian Aman (Mercy!) tradition of songs extolling pain, (“Aman Doktor“), the Zeybek dance rhythms (3 slow beats + 3 twice as fast), the Smyrneika (Greek cabaret style from Smyrna with Turkish, Armenian, Jewish influence). They are exotically modal like the Rebetiko anthem “Stou Thoma” (“At Thomas’s”), a Lydian and Mixolydian fusion with a bunch of augmented seconds thrown in for good measure. Unabashedly underground, “Stou Thoma” promises we’ll all get so high we won’t even be able to talk!


Stou Thoma sung by Stavros Xarhakos.

On Saturday, November 19, HACCM brings the Greek/Balkan band Dromeno from Seattle to play Rebetiko and other music from the region.

The terrifying experience of these refugees in their final days in Turkey, followed by being marginalized by their own Greek population in their new homeland, fueled this narcotic hybrid of music comparable to American Blues. Ironically, a violent political exchange intended to promote ethnic and religious purity wound up creating a cross cultural hybrid that has enriched world music.

We will never know the terror experienced by the murdered and immolated tens, possibly hundreds of thousands in Smyrna, nor that of the survivors like my grandmother. But in the film’s images of a lost multicultural paradise, and in the echoes of the music of its exiled survivors, we may feel some of the pain of their loss. We might even learn lessons about the value of cultural diversity, and the danger of failing to understand the different perspectives of the people with whom we share a city, or a country, or a world.

Further Reading

This film and this preview tell only a small part of a much bigger story. If you want to learn more check out the books below:

“From Piraeus to Portland” takes place at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church: 3131 NE Glisan Avenue, Portland. 

Friday, November 18: 7 pm screening of the movie Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City, followed by a discussion with the viewers. Tickets $10. 

Saturday, November 19: 6 pm lecture on the music and history of Asia Minor (modern-day west coast Turkey). 7 pm hearty hors d’oeuvres. 8 pm concert by Dromeno. NO DANCING — EXCEPT ON THE TABLES! Just kidding. As Dromeno says “Come get your dance on!” Tickets for this fundraiser for HACCM are $25-$50. Tickets available here. 503-858-8567.

Portland pianist Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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