The Interviewees

Herve Georgelin | Pelin Böke | Alex Baltazzi | Axel Corlu | Philip Mansel | Antony Wynn | Fortunato Maresia | Vjeran Kursar | Christine Lindner | Frank Castiglione | Clifford Endres | Zeynep Cebeci Suvari | Sadık Uşaklıgil | İlhan Pınar | Ümit Eser | Bugra Poyraz | Oğuz Aydemir

Interview of Pelin Böke, the author of İzmir 1919-1922: Tanıklıklar. (Izmir 1919-1922: Testimonies) 2006

The story of how you became part of this project is told in the preface of your book (Izmir 1919-1923: Testimonies), however, could you please tell for those who have not read the book, about for what purpose you wrote this book and how it got shaped during the process? There is a relatively long period of time between the year 1995, when you initially became part of the project, and 2006, the year in which the book was finally published. Do you think this length of time had an effect on the book in a positive or negative way?

The father of this project is Serhan Ada. It was his idea, in the first place, to turn to the memories of those people who had witnessed the occupation years of Izmir, in addition to the written material of course. Later he built a team including Engin Berber and Esra Danacıoğlu, the latter of whom was the first person he had shared his idea with. The questions they decided foremost to seek the answers for were: “What has the resident population in Izmir going through during the occupation era? What was their diet or how did they make a living, in short, how did they manage during those times?” In 1995, I became part of the project, then some of us left the team, and eventually, Esra Danacıoğlu and I decided to carry on together. So we gave it a start by scanning maps of the places in Izmir where Muslims and non-Muslims used to live together, grateful to the fact that the city of Izmir did not cover a larger area. We finished the scanning around 2000. However, it was a long-lasting and tough job to do the deciphering. In the meantime Esra Danacıoğlu left for Istanbul and hence, it became harder for us to come together and work further on the task. On the other hand, our intensive teaching load at the university added to the fact that we were now living in separate cities. So we came to realise that we were not going to be able to put together a collective work and decided to use our records separately and individually. In fact paradoxically the lingering of the project had a positive effect on my text because only that way could I find the chance to compare my output with the written material on a better scale. Also it was a joy to find the report by Greskovich, the Chief of Smyrna Fire Department compiled at the time of the event, held in The National Library in Ankara. I owe a lot to the person who helped me in finding out that report.

What kind of reactions did you get from the circles at national and international levels and the academia, following the publishing of the book? And, if you were to look back at your book, what would be your critique of it be?

The first positive feedback I have received, actually and quite surprisingly, came from an author in Italy called Claudia Berton. She said that she wanted to put the section about the Fire of Izmir into her book and asked a few questions accordingly. Aside from that, I participated in a few meetings of the Association of Filmmakers in Turkey as a speaker. I also made a presentation about how the Cretan Turks were received in Turkey after the population exchange between Turkey and Greece took place, at a symposium organised by the Museum of Archaeology in Crete. Though the symposium concentrated on the population exchange per se, my presentation aimed to offer a different perspective focusing on the period prior to the population exchange which was also the time span my book had covered. I am sorry to say that I did not receive any feedback from the local academia. However, when I look back to consider my book, I feel glad to have written it.

I would like to focus more on the researching and writing processes of the book. Could you please tell us about your experience of finding those people to interview, deciding on what to ask to them, evaluating those interviews and putting them into writing? Did you encounter any obstacles during these processes or any interesting scenes that you could tell us?

First of all, I must state that at the time when we started the project, the process of “oral history” was only recently recognised (in Turkey) as a viable tool in historical research. There was no other source book in Turkish at that time except Paul Thompson’s “Oral History” which was published by the History Foundation of Turkey. Considering the facts that the sources on the internet were also limited and that there were very few source books available in foreign languages like the one written by the Asia Minor Research Centre in Athens and a few other studies made in the USA, we were kind of left to our own devices of trial and error. To give an example, we had employed in the first place, a “bookish” method to research those who were born in the villages circa 1890-1900. We had sent letters to the headmen of those villages that explained our intentions along with a stamp in each envelope so that they could have easily sent the letters of reply back to us. If I am not wrong, only a couple of letters in response to a more than one hundred letters were returned, and they happened to be with a negative answer. Thereon we decided to take up a different method in order not to lose more time and set off straight on the road. Prior to that, we had determined which areas of Izmir to visit after we looked up the population statistics of the time. We had many cups of tea and put on loads of cologne in several coffeehouses in the countryside, and looked for people with such requirements in person. Often we left with full stomachs but with no information collected. The hardest part was to find the living people who had lived in the centre of Izmir. We managed to find them through acquaintances, as Izmir is a big city.

There are no interviews conducted with Greeks, Armenians or Jews in the book, who were also part of the population in Izmir back in the early 1920s. Since there are interviews conducted with Levantines in it, we comprehend that is not a “Turkish-Muslim” oriented book. Was it a circumstantial matter that the book ended up this way or have you considered mentioning any testimonies by Greek immigrants or others who used to live in the city from different books?

Like I stated earlier, it was very difficult to reach the Muslims, let alone the non-Muslims, who were living during our study period and who had lived in central Izmir back in those days. At the time that we started this project, most of the Greeks and Armenians had already gone from Izmir and we had heard that very few of them were still living in the city, though incognito. Again, although we had tried hard to contact Jewish community, we did not succeed. I got in touch with and interviewed the Levantines with the help of my personal contacts. Luckily the Minor Asia Research Centre in Greece offered us their archives; yet, this time language was an obstacle. So, we finally decided to settle with what we already had. My dream is to join together the records done here and abroad within an international project one day.

The book is an oral history study. What do you think about the oral history studies conducted in Turkey and in the world so far, generally and in the context of historiography?

To start with, “oral history” is a method, therefore, it does not mean that it ignores the written documents completely, nor can be an alternative to them. Though, it suggests that those who were excluded from the mainstream historiography can rightly be part of the history, and in that sense, it would be an incomplete effort to read the past by means of only political history, in other words, by treaties, strategies and the diplomacy. In short, it suggests a “human” oriented historiography. That way it would be more likely to bring out more solid and down-to-earth historical texts is its claim.

I feel that for the past few years oral history has started to be taken quite seriously in Turkey. An indicator of this change could be the fact that some universities now give lectures on this topic, such as the lecturers Esra Danacıoğlu at Yıldız Teknik University and Arzu Öztürkmen of Boğaziçi University. In addition not only do the Association of Documentary Film Makers use this methodology in some of their work but through their workshops promote this method of investigation. As an example I can give the documentary “Benim Giritli Limon Ağacim” [My Cretan Lemon Tree] directed by Tahsin İşbilen, a film I was also involved in as a historical consultant. Without a doubt one of the most important persons using this method is Leyla Neyzi, and in her book “Istanbul’u Hatirlamak ve Unutmak: Birey, Bellek, Aidiyet” [To remember and forget Istanbul: The individual, memory and the sense of belonging] she was one of the first people to use this methodology. More recently I would include in this category a book by Şükrü Aslan “Herkesin Bildigi Sır: Dersim” [The Secret Everybody Knows: Dersim].

In line with the previous question, could we talk a little about your understanding of history? Do you see any difference in value, for instance, between researching in the field and researching “at the desk”? Bearing in mind that any given historical study requires an appropriate method of its own, are there any specific criteria that you deem essential for any kind of study in the field of history?

If what you mean by researching “at the desk” is not sitting merely at the desk, but investigating in the archives and the libraries’ catalogues, then I must say that it is also quite a painful task. Most particularly, if you are not living in a city like Istanbul or Ankara, where there is an abundant of institutional archives, your job gets tougher and tougher. And it costs a serious deal of effort, money and time. To put it short, being a historian is hard work no matter whether you stay in the field, or “at the desk”.

As for your second question, I think it is a must for any historian to be in close contact with other disciplines be it “multi-”, “inter-” or “trans-” something. However, this contact should not leave the historian estranged to the fact that he or she is a historian and should stay within the framework of historiography. Another risk is to drift into anachronism. In the end, every historian grows up in his or her environment and cannot be indifferent to the cultural climatic conditions present there. Stressing and going beyond such limitations requires a little bit of personal effort, for sure. Besides, how is it possible be completely impartial? If I may, I would like to summarise my take on this topic by a quotation from Goethe: “I can promise to be candid, though I may not be impartial.” After all, the thing we call “conscience” matters, and I prefer seeing history as a means of understanding the past, rather than misusing it as a judgemental tool.

Could you tell us about your former studies, other than “Izmir 1919-1922: Testimonies”, and your future projects?

So far, I have been busy with conducting social history investigations. Frankly, I am interested in whatever “human” is in there, from education to sport. I will turn to this topic later. Very recently I developed an interest in challenging the historical clichés. To put it more specific, I was wondering sometime ago to what extent the typical statements in the history of Turkey like “The English occupied Istanbul on 16 March 1920 and closed down the parliament” or “Abdul Hamid II closed down the parliament and put the Constitution on the shelf” were true, so I put Doğan Publishing’s proposal to good use and wrote Son Osmanlı Meclisi’nin Son Günleri (The Last Days of The Last Ottoman Parliament). When I think of how many clichés there are around, it looks like as if I am going to be working more in the vein of this type of studies. Also, I am planning to continue my studies around the theme of modernism and its reflections in Turkey. One other thing that I have wanted to do for so long but could not find the time is to learn Greek. I believe it is going to open new horizons for me.

Anything you want to add?

I can clearly see that you did justice to the book in your review. I would like to thank you for that. Please let me say one last thing about why I found it necessary to put the Grescovich Report at the end of the book. As I declared it in the book, that report has not been published in any other book before in its original, whole form. It was either partly censored or mistranslated in the previous cases that it was quoted. That is one reason why I put it in the book. On the other hand, the fact that there was already a section about the Fire in the book had enabled me to do so, and besides, I liked the idea that the reader would see how the incident was told through the eyes of an “official” authority. That was all I intended.

Interview conducted by Görkem Daşkan, December 2010, Izmir.
Ms Pelin Böke is currently a reader professor in the department of Ataturk principles and (republican) revolutionary history, in Ege University in Izmir. To contact: pelinbke[at]yahoo.com

Books:

Son Osmanlı Meclisi’nin Son Günleri. (The Last Days of the Last Ottoman Parliament), 2008, Istanbul: Doğan Publishing House.

Articles:

Böke, Pelin, “Bir Okulun Izinde: Karşıyaka Notre Dame de Sion Mektebi” [On the trace of a school: The College of Karşıyaka Notre Dame de Sion], İzmir Kent Kültürü Dergisi, 20-27, Sayı: 3, İzmir Büyükşehir Belediyesi Kültür Yayını, Mart 2001.

Böke, Pelin, “İzmirliler Yarışıyor” [Izmir Races], Toplumsal Tarih, 58-63, Sayı:144, Tarih Vakfı, Aralık 2005.

Böke, Pelin, “Sokaklardan Evlere İzmir’de Paskalya Karnavalları” [Easter carnivals of old Izmir, from streets to homes], İzmir’de Zaman Sempozyumu 2009. (being prepared for publication)

Böke, Pelin, “İğne Deliğinden Süzülmüş Bir Zenaatkar: Piyer Usta” [Master Pierre: the talent arising from the eye of the needle], Izmirli Olmak Sempozyumu Bildirileri, 2010 - view.

Böke Pelin, “İzmir Karantina Teşkilatının Kuruluşu ve Faaliyetleri, 1840-1900” [The establishment and activities of the Izmir Karantina Organisation] Dokuz Eylül Üniversitesi, Çağdaş Türkiye Tarihi Araştirmaları Dergisi (being prepared for publication).