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The Conspiracy Within

May 11, 2016

Photograph of PhD candidate Murat Altun

Photograph of PhD candidate Murat Altun
Photo: Matthew Weber, CLAgency

PhD candidate Murat Altun first headed to northeastern Turkey to study the region’s cultural memory, examine its history of violence, and to see how both of these ideas may contribute to its contemporary ideology. “I was interested in the region because even Wikipedia says this area is known for being extremely nationalist. There are cases of violence and vandalism on Christian historical sites.”

When Altun arrived in northeastern Turkey, he began discovering how suspicious the community was of Christians. For example, citizens became suspicious of a shopping mall tower which had a horizontal balcony, resembling a cross. Turks felt the purpose of the tower was to remind them of the region’s Christian past and began a public campaign to remove the balcony. “They have a tendency to see signs of Christianity everywhere,” Altun says. “They believe that those are signs that the Greeks are trying to reclaim their land.”

Despite the conspiracy theories circulating, Altun was surprised to discover one village celebrating a Greek-like festival on January 13. The festival celebrated the New Year with costumed and masked skits, which is  “extremely unusual for Turkey.” Villagers would dress up in rags or whatever they could find for costumes and have a quick theatrical play. The story of their performance was an expulsion of an evil monster that is believed to roam the land during the time period between January 1 and January 13. The monster is believed to be a hybrid between a man and an animal. Later, Altun learned that the celebration was based on a commonly known folk celebration of the new year that usually occurs in eastern Europe—including Greece.

Altun had one question after discovering the festival: how can people celebrate, arguably, a Greek celebration, also think that the Greeks conspire against them?

In 1923 there was a population exchange between Turkey and Greece as a result of a post-World War I peace treaty. Both sides agreed to swap populations because they wanted to have “homogenous” nations. This sameness included only religion. So, Greek Orthodox Christians who had been living in Turkey were sent to Greece, and Muslims were sent to Turkey. Altun’s field site had been a part of the population exchange. Before 1923, the village was 95% Greek Orthodox, and there were only seven or eight Muslim Turkish families. After the exchange, peasants flooded the village and occupied the houses abandoned by Greek Christians.

As Altun spoke with the families who live there today, he uncovered family histories which revealed some connections to the Greeks. Nearly every single family he spoke with had some ties to Greece, like having a Greek-speaking grandma or uncle. “The suspicion about Christianity, the Greek conspiracy theories—I think they are related to suspicion about their own selves. They cannot be sure if they 100 percent ethnic Turks and Muslims,” Altun explains.

Altun believes that this murky family history creates an interesting tension for his informants, so they try to overcome it by celebrating this Greek-like winter festival. By holding onto this ritual, putting on masks and costumes, and stepping away from their everyday selves, Altun says they can “address that split between themselves: being Greek and Turkish and being Christian and Muslim.”