Fascinating journey into the Balkan labyrinth

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abul Fadl

Rabi' al-Thani 12, 1418 1997-08-16

Book Review

by Abul Fadl (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 12, Rabi' al-Thani, 1418)

SALONICA TERMINUS: TRAVELS INTO THE BALKAN NIGHTMARE, by Fred A. Reed. Talonbooks, Burnaby, BC, Canada. 1996. pp. xvi, 270. Pbk: (Canada)$18.95.

The recent ethnic wars and crises that have ravaged the Balkans over the last few years are a reminder of the complexity of a region where past enmities and unsettled grievances, as well as thwarted national aspirations and traumas, retain their powerful presence, often hidden behind the artificial carapace and boundaries of the modern nation-State. A polyglot of clashing identities, a cauldron of conflicting nationalist aspirations, a patchwork of religious creeds, the Balkans has long been a fertile ground for ethnic rancour, strife and passions - those virulent offsprings of the nationalist fervour unleashed by the Enlightenment.

Salonica Terminus is not only a vivid contemporary travelogue but also a fascinating anatomy of the dark and depressing Balkan landscape. It provides a cleverly constructed portrait of the intertwined crises that ensnare the region, a convoluted narrative of the convoluted Balkan labyrinth. ‘Salonica Terminus is itself a Balkan story, bypassing analysis for the random, chaotic fascination of events. It forsakes straight-line travel for the baroque pleasures of looping back, of retracing steps; eschews the linear view of history for a relativist perspective dictated not by the fickle fashion of a postmodernism... but by the very nature of its subject(s)’ (p. xiii).

Fred Reed’s narrative journey starts in Salonica. This northeastern Greek city was the birthplace of the Young Turk revolution, which sought to arrest the slide of a semi-moribund Ottoman Empire into oblivion. The author traces the genesis of the 1908 Young Turk revolution back to the Tanzimat movement - a plethora of reformist measures launched in 1839 by Sultan Abdulmejid as a cure for the body politic of the ‘Sickman of Europe.’ Ironically, the Tanzimat accelerated the decline it was meant to halt. ‘By introducing a foreign form of government, under foreign pressure, the Tanzimat threw the country wide open to foreign influence and interference... To domestic tyranny the men of the Tanzimat had added foreign exploitation’ (p. 10).

The Young Turk revolt was led by putschist Ottoman army officers working with a host of clandestine groups ranging from the Free Masons to ethno-religious organizations. Naturally, such an explosive mixture carried within itself sharply contradictory objectives. The myriad of competing dreams of national utopias that fueled the revolution grew increasingly irreconcilable as the military leaders of the Young Turks ‘slid more deeply into the conceptual swamps of Pan-Turkism.’ The Young Turks sought to expedite the political and social westernization of the Ottoman state by ‘apply[ing] the . . . Jacobin nation-state model... but on a much broader scale, and with all the force and coercive power it could muster’ (p. 15). Such contradictions gave rise to a string of upheavals that touched off assiduous expansionist policies on the part of the Ottomans’ neighbours who pressed their claims to parts of the Empire’s territory.

Reed, moreover, explores the ethno-religious mosaic that made up Ottoman Salonica where numerous ethnic groups lived in relative harmony - a harmony that was dealt a fatal blow when the city was conquered by the Greek army in 1912. The Ottoman legacy of multiculturalism in Salonica fell prey to the Greeks’ vehement drive to fabricate a national consciousness steeped in ethno-purism. ‘The occupiers took rapid action to change the face of Old Salonica... The city was quickly stripped of its former identity. Virtually all of Salonica’s 60 minarets were destroyed during the first five years of the Greek occupation... The Greek military waged its own kulturkampf... Mosques were transformed into churches, as shown in post-cards of the day, guarded by armed Greek soldiers to discourage the Muslim faithful from attending to their religious duties’ (p. 26.).

That the obliteration of the Ottoman heritage of Salonica would be a primary goal of the modern Greek State is hardly surprising given the violence that attended the birth of modern Greece in the 1821 uprising against the Ottomans and the peculiar form of hubris that lies at the heart of Greek nationalism. The Greek attempt to fashion a national identity sought to fuse and collapse together seemingly incompatible elements of Hellenism and Orthodox Christianity. This syncretic, hybrid ideological edifice finds its expression in the salience of the Hellenic pantheon of rationalist philosophers (foremost among them Aristotle) and Orthodox Christian saints (such as the warrior Saint Demetrius) in modern Greek folk culture and popular lore.

The author provides a fast-paced, but thorough and insightful, historical examination of the religious component of the Greek nationalist fetishes emphasizing the theological as well as socio-political dimensions of both the Iconoclast movement of the late eighth and early ninth centuries and the Zealot movement of the fourteenth century. The violence and civil strife engendered by the rise of these movements in conjunction with various other regional developments sapped the vitality of the Byzantine Empire. ‘Peace and order had to be re-established, strong government rebuilt. The Ottoman Turks - an invincible military machine with a revolutionary religious ideology in quest of a State - would see to that... Turkish armies under Sultan Murad II conquered Salonica in 1430, less than a century after the crushing of the Zealots... Constantinople fell 23 years later, as the last of the Paleologue dynasty died, sword in hand, on the battlements’ (p. 62).

The narrative then proceeds to offer an account of the history of the Jewish community of Salonica. The second world war plight of ‘the Jews of Salonica [when] - all 48,000 of them - were transported to the forced-labor camps and crematoria of the Third Reich in sealed freight cars’ (p. 63) constitutes the starting point of this account. In this context, the author exposes the complicity of elements within the Greek government of the dictator Metaxas and the local Jewish religious establishment with the Nazis.

The account then shifts into a brief exposition of the historical evolution of the city’s Jewish community from ancient times down to the Ottoman conquest. The Ottoman policy of religious tolerance eventually ‘recreated a vibrant, rich and socially diverse Jewish community from the ruins of Spanish Jewry, a community that was rapidly to rebuild Smyrna, Istanbul and most of all, Salonica, into major centers of trade and culture, as well as strongholds of Jewish erudition and mysticism’ (p. 70). Reed describes in fascinating detail the role played by Jewish messianic and mystical sects in the development of Salonica’s Jewish community. Here he pays particular attention to the kabbalist and Sabbatian movements as well as the latter’s sequel in the syncretic Donme movement to which a number of the leading figures in ‘the Young Turk government, aggressive Westernizers all,’ belonged (p. 79).

On the heels of this, the author takes his readers on a journey into the historical, socio-political, ethnic, religious and geographic horizons of the modern Albanian spectacle. Through his reporter’s eye for detail, Reed’s Albanian excursus provides the reader with an indispensable background to the understanding of the recent descent of the country into its current state of lawlessness and anarchy. Into an existing incendiary cocktail of socio-economic frustrations, historical grievances and age-old cleavages was added the mafia-like practices of president Sali Berisha and the cabal of corrupt and greedy cronies with which he surrounds himself.

Berisha, an autarch clothing himself in democratic garb and whose ascent up the throny ladder of power was assisted by various forms of support from the west, unleashed on the country the terror of ruthless criminal organizations. One such organization, ‘patriotically called the ôEagles,ö operating under the ruling Democratic Party, controls the contraband trade in fuel oil to Montenegro, and thence to Serbian Bosnia’ (p. 114).

Partially concealed during the communist era, ethno-religious antagonisms - those ubiquitous features of the Balkans - are also returning with vengeance in Kosova. In 1990, this province, where an estimated two million ethnic Albanians make about 90 percent of the population, voted to secede from Serbia. Reed constructs a historical picture of the modern history of Kosova. He traces the creation of the province to the Great Power scramble to divide the Balkans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. ‘In May, 1913, the London Conference, attempting to reconcile Austrian and Italian demands for a greater ethnic Albania with Serbian military occupation of what it insisted were its historical lands, drew a border-line which would forever exclude Kosova from the new national entity [of Albania]’ (p. 157).

During the Titoist period, an initially promised plebiscite on the future of Kosova was indefinitely postponed and the province was granted autonomy within the Yugoslav Republic of Serbia. However, in 1989, Kosova’s autonomy was taken away as its status was downgraded to that of a Serbian province. Reed relates an impeccably heart-rending tale of life in Kosova under Serbian rule following the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991. The plight of the Kosovars is compounded by their abandonment by a western-dominated international community. ‘In fact, Kosova may well be seen in Paris and London as Muslim Bosnia surely is: an unwanted excrescence, a trouble maker, an undesirable long-alienated relative, an embarrassment, and intruder, an Other’ (p. 155).

Finally, Reed aptly navigates the shoals of contemporary developments in Macedonia. He provides a richly detailed overview of the multilayered dimensions of the Macedonian Question. This overview takes the reader along on a journey not only into the birth of Macedonia out of the ashes of the former Yugoslavia but also into the rich history and the forces of fission within the ethnically-diverse demographic makeup of the infant country.

In an attempt to fathom the conundrum of ‘Who are the Macedonians?’ Reed explores the highly contested contours of the Macedonian national identity. The portrait that emerges from a welter of claims and counter-claims, embodied in numerous interviews with individuals representing the various points of views, is one of sheer ethnic ambiguity. The increasingly vitriolic debate centers on whether a distinct Macedonian national identity exists. Demands by Greece that Macedonia not be given international recognition until it renounces the use of the name ‘Macedonia,’ upon which the Greeks claim an exclusive monopoly, is emblematic of the potentially explosive implications of this debate.

Throughout the book, Reed conveys to his readers a wealth of information drawn from works done by other researchers and from interviews with a host of political, religious and community leaders as well as ordinary people. By using extensive quotations from these interviews, he allows the competing views and claims to speak for themselves. Blessed with an eye for the arresting detail and a gift for fine, lapidary prose, Reed succeeds in producing a cleverly, tightly constructed story of the separate but intertwined crises that plague the Balkans.

The only serious problem that one could point to lies in the author’s shaky assertion that Christianity ‘had sprung from a bitter and violent schism in Judaism’ (p. 67) - indeed, a surprisingly flimsy assertion from someone of exceptional erudition like Fred Reed.

In all, Salonica Terminus is breathtakingly discursive and wanders freely over time and space. Notwithstanding this, the author’s fine reportorial and story-telling skills allow him to integrate the present and the past, as well as personal travel experiences, into a compelling, integral narrative. By highlighting the ominous signs of ethnic strife that grip the Balkans, it leaves the reader with a melancholy and sobering sense of foreboding.

Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1997

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