Pontos Kültürü or Pontos Culture is a 1996 book by Turkish author Ömer Asan about the Greek Muslims of Trabzon Province.


‘I began the search for my identity because the language my ancestors spoke was not Turkish’

«One of the most important books published in Greece last year was Omer Asan’s «The Civilization of the Pontos» (Kyriakidis Publishers, Thessaloniki). Now Greeks have the opportunity to read this book, first published as «Pontos Kulturu,» in 1996 in Istanbul, by Belge. A second edition is in press. Omer Asan, an economist, comes from Of, in Trebizond, northeastern Turkey, an area with a strong Islamic tradition and a substantial Greek-speaking population. In addition to the Of version of the Pontian dialect, Asan speaks Modern Greek fluently. The writer was involved in the Left and was prosecuted for it during the 1980s. His father, a member of the Turkish Communist Party, was imprisoned after the military coups of 1971 and 1981. Omer Asan belongs to the post-dictatorship generation. He came to Greece last year for the launching of the Greek edition of his book, and this interview was conducted during his visit.»
Vlassis Agtzidis

Are there Greek speakers in Turkey today who speak the Pontian dialect?

There are still people in Turkey today who speak and understand Pontian, which is the oldest surviving Greek dialect. The members of this community come from Trebizond and are scattered throughout Turkey, or have emigrated to other countries. Pontian is spoken in 60 villages in the Trebizond region, most of them in the Of area. At a conservative estimate, I would say this dialect is spoken by around 300,000 people.

You refer constantly to the «identity problem.» Why is this so important to you?

Nowadays the identity problem comes up more often, and this is because traditional explanations, like official identity cards, don’t give adequate answers. Some say the search for identity is a fashion that comes and goes. In their view, everyone is an individual, a human being and nothing else. Regardless of what anyone thinks, I consider the important thing is to protect our language, which we inherited from our forebears, and which is disappearing because we don’t care about its disappearance, and also to protect our culture and the identity it created for us. Throughout the history of mankind, many ethnic groups living in the same geographical area have been absorbed by the dominant culture. Personally I am against others today sharing the fate of ethnic cultural groups which, during the course of history, were sometimes incorporated into the dominant culture and sometimes assimilated by force.

You often refer to the question, «Who am I?» to define the motives for specific research. Did your personal search play a decisive part?

I began to search for my identity because of the fact that the language my ancestors spoke was not Turkish. Because in the village, in town, at school, they taught us that we were Turks. In the neighborhood, at school, at work, we spoke Turkish. But at home, in the village, my grandfather, my grandmother, everyone in the family spoke to each other in the language we called «Romaiika.» So what were we, «Romioi» or Turks? Now we speak Turkish. In my village the old people speak Romaiika, but they are the last to use the language. The coming generations will not be able to hear it and learn it. Let’s say that we have agreed, as far as the present is concerned: We speak Turkish, therefore we are Turkish. But who were we until now, what happened to make us become Turks? By asking «Who am I?» I plunged into the unknown. I had to find the answer to this question at any cost. And that is how this adventure began.

When did this adventure begin, and what was your research based on?

At the end of the 1980s I began researching our identity and culture. But in Turkey I didn’t manage to find written sources, or anything related to the language we spoke. I began, in amateur fashion, to collect Pontian words. I asked all the old people I met about our identity and language. I spoke to Turkish experts and researchers and discovered to my surprise that no work had been done in this field. At that time, aiming to find out at least a little information, I wrote letters and sent them to addresses in Greece that I had learned of purely by chance. In 1993, just when I was about to give up hope, I was invited to a Pontian festival in Kallithea, Attica. What I saw and the sounds I heard there literally changed my life. I was astonished that hundreds of kilometers from the land where I was born, I heard songs in the language of my ancestors, accompanied by the lyra; that I danced with unknown people in another country, and that I could talk and make myself understood in Pontian, which I thought was a language that was no use at all.

So I decided to focus my research on Erenkioi, my village in Of, and to study its living culture as an extant trace of Pontian culture. The result was this book that was published first in Turkey and then in Greece. It is in six parts, including the theoretical context, historical and ethnographic details, popular literature, folklore, nomenclature, a glossary and bibliography.

How was your book received in Turkey? Were there any problems with publication?

The book had an extremely good reception in academic circles, since it filled a gap in modern Turkish learning. The second edition is already in press. But it did give rise to misunderstandings, both in Turkey and in Greece. Both sides interpreted the book differently. I didn’t come to Greece for three years, because of political incidents between the two countries. I hope that the improvement in the climate will facilitate scientific research into taboo subjects. And also that some groups in Greece that speak in the name of the Greek-speakers of Turkey will start to show more respect for that population.

What are the greatest problems arising from the investigation of questions of identity and national culture?

In today’s world, problems centered on identity are not easily resolved. Indeed, when the question of ethnic identity arises, the alarm it causes can lead to conflict. The most recent example is the tragedy that occurred in Kosovo. Besides, we observe clashes – close by, in the heart of Europe – that stem from the aspirations of groups who share a common identity to create nations.

However, we must realize that at the end of this century, when cultural nationalism is being fomented and has become fashionable, national states which engage in a war of interests can easily exploit national and cultural identities that are in competition with each other. Although ethnic groups can express themselves freely, in the easiest and most peaceful manner, very many of them readily enter into disputes and are incited to conflict. Personally, I am of the opinion that we must discuss the subject of our cultural identity in a flexible manner which does not give rise to clashes, be aware of the sensitivity of the topic, and not ignore reality.

What is your opinion about Turkey’s European outlook, as it emerges after the Helsinki summit?

The founders of the Republic of Turkey wanted to forge closer ties with Europe. Since then, unfortunately, the meaning of democracy in Turkey has not developed in parallel with Europe. We know the cause of this to be history and other political issues. Nevertheless, I interpret Europe’s acceptance of Turkey in historical and sociological terms. That is to say, that Turkey is too important for Europe to be discarded. The decision that was taken bears out what I say. Moreover, we shall see that the idea of being European will help society rethink its ideology and its exclusive dependence on the state. We can see that the state and its mechanisms are already coming into question. This was a dream of ours that was a long time coming.

If the European Union had not accepted Turkey, what would have happened?

We don’t even want to think about that, because Turkey has a lot of problems. One outcome of these problems is that they suffocate us. Who would that benefit – Europe, Greece, the Caucasus, the Middle East? Nobody, I think. In order to solve all these problems we need a broad horizon. This is what our links with the European Union have given us, to a certain extent. But it may not be enough. The Turkish people have a difficult life, with economic and social problems. For this reason, the time has come for Turkey to make some extremely important decisions and to embark on reforms in all sectors. Everyone accepts it, but it will not come about so easily. I think that the Turkish people are being tested by history. I believe that a successful outcome of this test will benefit everyone.

Newspaper : «International Herald Tribune», 25 April 2000