This past week, I had the great joy of welcoming (and partly chaperoning) two Greek-Americans in Izmir. However, they were not just any Americans, but two women whose lineages stem from the neighborhood I live in; Buca.
Pronounced “Boo-ja”, it was a lovely residential area of Smyrna predominately developed and populated by the flourishing Greek and Levantine communities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since it was not in the vicinity of downtown Smyrna that was destroyed by the catastrophic fire of 1922, the houses remain firmly intact. Following the end of the war, the population exchange of 1923 brought many Muslim (aka Turks) from Thessaloniki, Drama, and Crete to take the empty homes of the former inhabitants.
Over the years, many houses were restored and taken care of, even being taken back by a few former owners, while others were left to fall apart and be demolished.
When I moved to Buca in 2009, I had no idea about the history of this particular area. Since then, it’s been a passion to discover as much about it as I can. A good chunk of that passion is found in the documentary my partner Paras Chaudhari and I produced, Hello Anatolia. Following the success of Hello Anatolia, I had in me a dream that one day I would be able to bring people who had similar roots to Anatolia and help them on their personal family journeys. With my new friends Nicole and Poppy, that dream came true.
We went on a mini-tour of my neighborhood, to where I was able to guide them along the streets of their family members, who only a few generations ago, used to walk. As we searched around, we snapped pictures and spoke with locals about the neighborhood’s history. To say the least, everyone was very delighted to have such visitors, offering coffee and seats to share stories on. We found that most of the locals we spoke with were themselves hailing from different parts of Greece, and recalled stories of other Greeks who visited their homes just like we were doing at that moment.
What I found so heartwarming is the people’s willingness to speak and share stories. My two friends, who have no knowledge of Turkish, were able to communicate such passionate feelings and understanding through physical speech and a bit of Google Translate. When they were telling people they were Greeks, people immediately hugged them. It was as if they were all once a family from long ago.
The day hit a poignant emotional turn when we were able to locate the train station that their grandfather had passed away at due to a heart attack. As I looked at Nicole, she held her face towards the sky and smiled, while Poppy became a fountain of storytelling, explaining the importance of the site.
Unbeknownst to Nicole and Poppy, I was holding back tears half the time because I knew the feelings they must have had as they laid their eyes on the sights of their ancestors, touched the walls of their homes, and breathed the air of their grandparents. It’s a feeling unlike anything I can really explain, only to which I try expressing through film and writing.
Nicole and Poppy’s visit was interestingly timed however; the first week of September. In 1922, this week would have been marred with unspeakable violence and fear that would destroy the fabric of Smyrna’s cosmopolitan identity, and end the existence of a fully vibrant Greek community intertwined with Turkish, Armenian, Jewish, and Levantine neighbors.
With the commemoration of the Catastrophe of Smyrna in the coming days, I become aware of why I live here and why I am further developing the Hello Anatolia project. It is not to focus on how my ancestors died, but to celebrate and honor how they lived, and to share the heritage of this great city with the world through film, music, and literature.
I’m looking forward to more friends to visit soon…