The Turkish minorities in Greece are coexisting well with the majority community, but they continue to be on the margins of the country's political landscape.
KOMOTINI, Greece –“Call me Ferruh, Barber Ferruh. That’s how everyone knows me.”
Barber Ferruh laughs as he trims the beard of the one of his customers in his tiny barbershop in the town of Komotini in Greece. “If you write my last name, no one will recognize me.”
Mr. Ferruh—who prefers to be called by his first name only—has been working in this barbershop since 1952, when he was 10 years old. He started out in this profession helping his father after coming home from school.
“It’s been a barbershop as long as I can remember. It was a barbershop before my father took over, and then some. Who knows? Maybe it’s been a barbershop for longer than that,” he muses.
Speaking in the West Thracian dialect of Turkish, Barber Ferruh explains that it is the Turkish community of Komotini, and not individuals, who own his shop and the three other shops next to his.
“These shops belong to the community, they are under the waqf, endowments,” he explains. “So it’s been a barbershop for a long time, but after me, who knows what will become of it?”
Barber Ferruh is one of the about 130,000 Turks in northeastern Greece, a region known as Western Thrace. Located between the historic cities of Thessaloniki in Greece and Istanbul in Turkey, the region became populated with people from Anatolia when it was captured by the Ottoman State in the 14th century.
Today, Western Thrace is home to a unique heritage in Greece, visible in everything from the religious makeup of the population—an area of local Muslims in a primarily Greek Orthodox country—to the architecture and the local dialects. To this day, it is the only region in Greece with mosques, and the call to prayer can be heard five times a day from the dozens of minarets spread out across the towns and adjacent villages.
The streets of Komotini are lined with dozens of cafes, bars and shops catering to the large student population, but Mr. Ferruh’s barbershop is located in the historical old town of Komotini in a street lined with small shops, owned by Turks and Greeks alike, selling sweets, clothes, coffee and gyro wraps.
It’s a quieter part of the city, where several of the older shops—including Ferruh’s barbershop—don’t even have names.
“It doesn’t need one,” one of his customers says helpfully. “Just ask for the barber under the clock tower and everyone will know who you’re talking about."
The shop is frequented by the elderly of the city, both Greek and Turkish, many of whom have known each other for several decades. When the shop is open, about half a dozen men sit around, both inside and outside the shop, waiting their turn for a shave or quick trim, chatting in Greek, with bits of Turkish peppering their sentences.
Although the history told about Greece and Turkey is often one of bitter conflict, this barbershop tells another story. Political tensions have flared time and time again, but the local communities continue their friendly banter and neighbourly relations.
“My customers are Greek and Turkish. Maybe not half-and-half, but it's mixed. They are satisfied with my work, and I am satisfied with them,” Ferruh says.
“Look, he is my brother,” says an elderly Greek man in Greek, pointing towards a Turkish man. The customers in the shop all laugh, translating the conversations for one another.
Some of the Turks are fully bilingual, who can speak both Turkish and Greek, and some of them are not. Most of the conversations in the shop are about everyday matters—football, neighbours, weddings and funerals. A framed picture of one of Ferruh’s closest friends, a Greek named Fred, is on display in his shop.
Still, almost everyone is hesitant to talk about past tensions, or even current issues plaguing the minority communities.
“Everything is great now,” Ferruh says. “I don’t talk about the past issues."
It is quite rare, if not impossible to find Turks in other areas of Greece. Most of the Turkish population of Greece, and the Greek Orthodox population of Anatolia were “exchanged” in 1923 as part of an additional agreement signed at the time of the Treaty of Lausanne.
During a period when ideas of nationalism were newly developing, Christians of Greek origin (or “Rum” in Turkish) were sent “back” to Greece, while Muslims of Greece were sent “back” to Turkey. The only populations that were exempt from this process were the Rum community in Istanbul and the Turkish community in Western Thrace.
Turkey is the guarantor country for the Turks of Thrace, while Greece is the guarantor of the Greek Orthodox of Istanbul, as laid out by the Treaty, and the countries are responsible for helping the minorities in their to lands maintain their ethno-religious identities.
The rights and protections of the Turkish population in Western Thrace has long been a thorny issue in Greek–Turkish relations. The Turkish community there, as described by one author, has been ignored at best, and subject to assimilationist policies or policies to force the population out at worst.
One of Ferruh’s customers and old friends compares being a minority in Greece to being a stepchild.
“You know the stepmother may care for you, but she doesn’t love you as one of her own. If she has two kids, she does not treat you like her own child.”
However, he also acknowledges that conditions have improved. Several other Turks from the region point to the positive impact of Greece's accession to the EU as a reason for the improvement of their rights as minorities.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also visiting Greece in what is the first such visit by a head of state in 65 years. During his trip, he will meet with the Turkish minority in Western Thrace with the aim of alleviating some of their political grievances.
And the community insists that the problems are just that—on a political scale.
“You see,” the customers of the barbershop said over and over again, “Those are the political stuff. Our problems are on the political level. But with our neighbours—look we have no issues at all.”