The story of a community
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|The author of the book ‘I met a Turk’ whose synopsis is available on the net, and formed the basis for this testimony, with details added through correspondence.|
It was early autumn of 1961 and very warm, when Tantou, my mother’s sister, and I reached Smyrna, having sailed from Venice on a Turkish ship. The town still looked as I remembered it with its lovely residences faced with marble, on the waterfront overlooking the beautiful bay of Smyrna surrounded with blue mountains rich in manganese.
The quaint horsedriven trams, with the ears of the horses sticking out of straw hats against the fierce sun, had been replaced by trolley buses from Germany. The Germans had been quick to snatch the Turkish market so inexplicably relinquished by the British soon after the war.
There was, as before, a row of Carrozzas by the boat-stage, and the same smell of horse dung and old leather. The water-bus painted white called here on its way to Karshiyaka, on the other side of the bay, which had been known as Cordeleo up to 1922, in memory of Richard Coeur-de-Lion who had camped there with his Crusaders on his way to the Holy Land.
Tantou had converted the residence of her father -my French grandfather- into four spacious flats on as many floors; the very first venture of this kind in the town. It had a sober looking frontage with elegant wrought iron balconies, very French in style, and she had moved to share a house with her sisters-in-law in a side street facing the boat-stage. The house was on the left of the long narrow Bornova sokak (street) while the right side was taken up by a row of houses with loggia-like balconies, the same all over Smyrna, that I had inherited from my mother. Both our fortunes were tied up in property in Smyrna, but lately we had been unable to export our income as all foreign assets had been frozen owing to the rapid deterioration of the Turkish economy, lacking in foreign exchange, the country having remained closed to the outside world since the advent of Ataturk in the 1920s.
Tantou had been marooned in Smyrna during the war years, which found me preparing to sit an examination at London University, After which I enrolled in the Free French Forces in London.
In 1945, when on leave from the Army, I had managed, in a round about way, to reach Smyrna and visit Tantou, who had recently been widowed. During that stay I had sold one of my houses and arranged for the money to be sent to England, but when I suggested selling another house, Tantou was horrified, and warned that I was beginning to squander my grandfather’s estate and so I abandoned the idea.
On my return to England I bought three derelict cottages one hundred and fifty years old, on three floors, painted white with a slate and tile mansard roof, at the top of the Chilterns; the cottage was surrounded by rolling hills, fields and woods, with a double row of fourteen gigantic aspens starting at the big gate and an orchard at the bottom of what became lawns, ending with a coppice. Pheasants pecked their way freely on the lawns and squirrels furrowed holes to bury their nuts. The other three houses on this hilltop were quite a way off and screened from view by leafy trees.
I converted these three cottages into one for the purpose of receiving Belgian girls to stay and teach them English phonetics, (for which I held a diploma from Birkbeck College.) However, on her second visit to England after the war, Tantou had not been able to bring any money out of Turkey, for by then the ban for exporting currency had tightened. She was very anxious, knowing that I had no savings to speak of and the future looked bleak. It soon became clear to her that I did not appear to grasp the seriousness of the situation and she gave me a stern dressing down, the first ever, which shook me.
“You cannot continue to live away from the source of your income, and be forever short of money”, she told me. And as for the hope I had entertained that she might come and stay for long periods, she nipped it in the bud with, “I don’t know how you can bear to live from hand to mouth, not knowing when and if the next sum of money might reach you”. While I remained silent and stunned, she declared, “it would kill me”. She then went on to tell me trenchantly, “you must come and look after your property, the rents end the taxes; what will you do after I am dead? I cannot do more, I am too old and too tired”.
I was startled and distressed. Tantou, too old! Tantou who had brought me up and was always a tower of strength and ready to deal with any situation! What finally brought the hopeless state of affairs home to me was the realisations that here I was away from it all, leaving her over there alone to fight it out. Time had galloped past me somehow, and I was no longer the child sheltering under her wing.
We let the house furnished for an indefinite period and drove to Venice; to board a Turkish ship bound for Smyrna.
Smyrna had been famed throughout antiquity; Strabo had claimed that it was named after an Amazon, as was Ephesus. The twin-peaked Nemeses Mountains rose to the left of the bay. No sooner had American GIs from NATO set eyes on them that they named them Marilyn Monroe. The Nemeses goddesses, (as distinct from the singular Nemsis), patrons of Smyrna in antiquity, had appeared in a dream to Alexander the Great, urging him to rebuild the town which had lain ruined for three hundred years, and that dream had been recounted down the centuries. He found these ruins low lying and vulnerable. They can still be seen at what is now called Bayrakli, on the right of the bay, and he rebuilt the city in an impregnable situation, at the top of Mount Pagus. Some of the walls of rough-hewn stone blocks are still standing today. It held against invasion for over a thousand years and was finally destroyed by Timur-I-Lenk [Tamerlane] who slaughtered its population.
More recently Smyrna was known throughout the West for its exports of dried figs, sultanas and pistachios, that fill the shops at Christmas time. Among other products were essence of roses, and vallonia of which the renowned English fast dyes were made. These goods were brought to the port of Smyrna by camel caravans from deepest Anatolia.
Later, the trade of Turkish: carpets took off promoted by Queen Victoria who had seen, by chance when she stopped at a country inn, a red and blue carpet from Outchak [Uşak], and expressed the wish to have some sent to her. From that moment Turkish carpets became all the rage, and George Baker, who had first imported them made his fortune. He had been the gardener of the British Ambassador in Constantinople on loan to the Sultan who had admired the Embassy’s green lawns, as thick and soft as a Turkish carpet, he had remarked.
The Sultans, as far back as the conquest in I453, had been keen to encourage Western trading posts; they had continued the concessions held by the Venetians and Genoese under the Byzantines and granted them privileges such as maintaining their own churches and laws. At the same time, they availed themselves of European know-how, and the ports of Constantinople and Smyrna teamed with shipping. In those days, apart from the Sultan’s families and those close to them, the Turk was mainly a peasant who tilled the soil. There were no indigenous doctors or engineers until after the last war in the 1940s.
Towards the 1860s the Sultan commissioned an engineer from France to reclaim marshy land from the sea extending quite a way inland, and build the waterfront in Smyrna. He also employed French architects to plan and build the new town upon the reclaimed land.
Note: Old maps show the area around Punta particularly was under water, thus the European quarter was built on mostly recently reclaimed land.The construction for the quay began in 1867 and was completed by 1874.
Europeans began to flock to Smyrna from surrounding Greek islands, as did my French grandfather, Tantou’s and my mother’s father, Antoine de Remond de Modene, whose name the Greeks of Naxos had turned to Dermond as they cannot pronounce the French de. He had moved to Symrna at the height of its prosperity in the 1880s bringing with him his fortune from the sale of his demesnes in Naxos, where he owned one third of the island. His direct forebear, an admiral of the fleet of Louis XV, had retired with his wife and son to Naxos the capital of the Cyclades, which were a Venetian Dukedom since 1204, whose prestige continued even after the occupation by the Ottomans in l566. Eventually his son François married the Duke’s daughter Antonietta Sommarripa, since when the eldest son of the family is named Antoine in memory of her.
Notes: 1- Mrs Kreon in correspondence informed me that François de Rémond went to settle in Naxos around the 1600s. As Le Comte de Rémond he was the French Ambassador in St. Petersburg. The last descendant died recently in the very same castello [Venetian castle] in Naxos, with mote and all. She was Domna Somarip (de Somerive), whose brother became a priest. However she was not a bit interested in her ancestry. The De Rémond were clearly influential in their original hometown of Grenoble in the south of France, as the librarians there referred to them as ‘une de nos familles’.
2- There are hints of the Dermond name (if this is indeed the same family) in reference to the publisher of some of the old postcards of Smyrna, one example of which is shown here:
Smyrna was rapidly becoming, an enchanting little town and a cultural centre amidst the wilderness of nineteen century Anatolia, with its Theatre Français, to which theatrical companies came from France to perform; while at other times balls were held there where young ladies came out.
The waterfront was simply named Les Quais. The street immediately behind it was La Rue Paralelle while at the other end of the town the main shopping street became La Rue Franque. The names of streets were indicated in French on blue enamel plates at street corners just as they were in France.
The luxury shops in La Rue Franque could vie with any in Paris. Most of them were owned by Greeks; the best department store was Xenopoulo and it had the clientele of ‘the girls’ (Tantou and my mother) who had accounts opened for them there. All goods were labelled in French and priced in piasters (silver coins) while La livre was of gold. The best family photographer was Rubelin (French); followed later by Zegrapho, (Greek).
The main church in La Rue Franque was Sainte Marie where priests were Dominicans. My grandfather had ordered from France a statue of Our Lady to place above the altar. In the course of an earthquake in the 1930s, when this statue was broken Tantou’s Genoese husband replaced it with one from Italy. This church stands to this day, now taken over by NATO Catholics who flock there to Mass in their Sunday best.
Europeans vied with one another for a prized plot to build a residence sur les Quais; although to accommodate them all the plots had to be restricted and planned as ‘terrace houses’ with only a small garden usually at the back. They had individual pavements of pretty coloured tiles according to the taste of the householder, as can still be seen today in Lisbon. There, ladies sat and chatted in the evenings greeted by passers by, reminiscent of the Greek volta, the avenue du Bois in Paris or Hyde Park in London.
All Consulates General had pride of place on the waterfront and displayed their national colours from tall flagstaffs on their roofs and also from their loggia-like balconies of carved wood painted white. My grandfather’s balcony was the prettiest of them all - convex at its base with white doves poised on the outer bulge. The house was made of large rectangular blocks of pink granite, with half a dozen white marble steps leading up to the formidable front door of cast iron. Although by then life had become much safer than it had been one hundred years earlier when the eighteenth century English merchants, who had been granted concessions by the Sultan, were perpetually harassed and in fear of their lives. The Anatolian Turk in those days was a peasant who tilled his own plot of land and resented the intrusion of any Infidel in his secluded life. The Sultan, however, had in mind the expansion of the country whose extensive mineral and agricultural potential lay dormant for lack of skills to exploit it.
At the turn of the century the water companies, gas, trams, drainage and anything that had to function efficiently was a European concern, remaining so well into the 1940s.
All domestic servants were Greek from the islands, who came over to make their fortune. So were the vendors of vegetables, and the old hag who, in the early mornings, a sack of freshly picked mountain dandelions on her back, cried radhikia from door to door. All the household necessities were brought to the house. In the morning my grandmother presided in the outer hall, seated on a rattan easy chair waiting for the local merchants to call, assisted by two maids who weighed the produce on scales which stood on the black-and-white square marble slabs of the floor. Often too, men wearing the baggy trousers of Turkish / Greek peasants, their heads loosely wrapped in a yellow or red striped cloth, came from grandfather’s farms bringing fruit and vegetables in deep hampers held aloft on one shoulder. Wine was made at home, when a caravan of camels carrying grapes from the family vineyards, knelt on the pavement, outside to discharge their loads.
This way of life came to an abrupt end in September 1922, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s soldiers stormed Smyrna and massacred the Greeks, Armenians and others. Following which Ataturk retired to his stronghold in Ankara 850 metres up a rocky plateau in ancient Galatia and pronounced himself President of a Turkish Republic. “Turkey to the Turks, out with the foreigner”, he said and eventually out with the Sultan too. Even so, he modelled his new Turkey on the West and did away with Islam, the veil and the fez; he replaced the Arabic script with the Western alphabet, proclaimed the emancipation of women and closed the country to outside interference. This complicated contradictory method of establishing what was, in effect, a new country, was an amazing achievement for one man. In the course of only a few years he made Turkey self-sufficient, In his drive towards self-sufficiency, even tea and rice were grown locally. Schools began to make their appearance in the smallest localities; and eventually there were universities and even conservatories of music.
After the death of Ataturk in 1938, Turkey managed to remain neutral during World War Two and finally in 1947, Smyrna, now named Izmir, was made the headquarters of NATO in the Eastern Mediterranean. Then began in Smyrna / Izmir a short period of superficial affluence with the arrival of NATO personnel, over four thousand strong, followed by a slump owing to the lack of foreign currency as Turkey, under Ataturk, had been so long completely isolated from the outside world. Foreign bank accounts were frozen, including those of large concerns which had invested in Turkey. In the 1960s, political instability added to the difficulties. There were water shortages as well as frequent cuts in electric power. Turks seemed to bear this sort of disorder with fortitude. After all, until recently they had fetched water from a well, the only lighting they knew was that of oil lamps, and there was little or no sanitation. Manufactured foodstuffs were unknown so not missed.
Then suddenly, towards the 1970s the population seemed to wake up to the possibility of making money at all costs, but as they were not commercially minded they pulled down their old houses and built blocks of flats on the site. In the 1980s goods from the West appeared in the shops and cheaper than in England. Smyrna / Izmir is today, unrecognisable to me who had known it in the early 1960s. Gone are the marble-fronted residences on the waterfront, which since the 1970s are dwarfed by concrete blocks of flats that have made many people very rich.
It was after I had heard the amazing story of the beautiful Smyrna that had been, from about 1860 to 1922, that I began to understand and also to feel for the remaining old Smyrniotes who still lamented its passing, and who seemed to cling desperately to a lost dream. Did Tantou harbour regrets and hopes? She must have done, for instead of sending to me in England, when she could have done, the rents from the houses I had inherited from my mother, she invested them in more buildings so that I might have plenty of revenues added to the fortune she was leaving me.
Tantou, Elisabeth known as Lisette Dermond, and her eldest brother Alfred, had been the brightest of my grandmother’s (Marguerite) children; she had four boys and two girls, one of whom Mary, my mother, married Theodore Creon, the Belgian Consul General in Smyrna and followed him to his next posting in Europe. They returned to Smyrna briefly, after two years, in order to be near her mother when I was born, and then went away again, leaving me in the care of Tantou and my grandmother who brought me up with the valued help of a Greek Nanny, for five years. These were the happiest years of my entire life.
Later, when my parents separated, I was parked in various boarding schools in the wake of my mother who always lived in hotels, and received her rents regularly from her French estate manager in Smyrna. In those days tenants were either Levantines (local Europeans), or people from the West with contracts to local firms. She died in her early fifties, of heart failure in Switzerland, just before the last war, while I was at art school in Paris, sponsored by Tantou who painted in oils.
Tantou, the youngest of them all, was well read in most subjects and took a keen interest in my education, although mostly from afar, for she was either in Smyrna with my widowed grandmother or travelling with her. She had married late in life a descendant of Genoese settlers and was widowed in the early 1940s. Her husband’s sisters, Tantou’s sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Charlotte Corsi, kept house for her, but she had brought her Maltese cook along when moving to share the house with them. Although they were of Genoese descent and had an English grandfather, they spoke mainly French and Greek, and some Italian but no Turkish. Few Levantine women did, for they had no dealings with Turkish people. Throughout the centuries there had always been dragomans, interpreters from the Turkish usually to French or Italian, Armenians specialised in this pursuit, but Jewish people, who spoke many languages fluently, adopted the profession.
In the 1960s, when I arrived in Smyrna, most shop-keepers were Levantines settled in the country for centuries, or Turks recently come from Greek islands, Chios, Crete or Rhodes, who had appeared suddenly with the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. All these people lived happily side by side regardless of nationality or religion.
When her income from property in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) stopped reaching London, the author went to Turkey to investigate and fell in the clutches of a small Mafia who promptly relieved her of the lot - houses, land and money in the bank. They took advantage of her ignorance of the language and the mentality of the people. Although they threatened her and eliminated some of those who tried to help her, she remained and fought to defeat them. This is her story.
The author took to writing late in life. She had been mainly interested in art so far, and dress designing, which she did in Paris years ago. Then in the war she joined the Free French Forces of General de Gaulles in London, was sent to North Africa in a convoy and returned to London to land in Normandy in August 1944. After being demobbed she briefly worked in French films in London, doing sub-titles and organising film Premières. It was in the course of having to write synopsis for those films that she thought of taking to writing her multiple adventures through life. She somehow has a way of attracting events one way or another.
When she arrived in Smyrna in the 1960s, the attitude to foreigners was still favourable but it soon changed when young Turks returned from Europe. They decided they could do better (so they thought). The antagonism to Europeans became untenable to make them leave. Thus a Turk was introduced to her to deal with collecting rents and such. He promptly realised that as she could not read Turkish and only spoke the language to get about, he could easily swindle her, which he proceeded to do. After which he thought it might make things easier for him still if she were to disappear from his scene, and also those of her tenants that were Europeans and tried to help her. He never imagined she would stay and fight back, which she did against odds.
Although she managed to get him to Court it soon became clear that her lawyer was bribed, and also the judge. She moved to Istanbul and took the best lawyers there but they soon found travelling to and fro too difficult and engaged a local lawyer who was promptly bribed.
And so in the end she had to give up and leave. The Crook meanwhile died a short time after, perhaps under too much stress, for his younger son, the apple of his eye, who was brought up to share in his father’s shady deals, developed a liking for them and turned terrorist. When he was caught the picture in the papers was of a young desperado and quite unrecognisable. He is languishing in a Turkish gaol.
Note: To view photos of the house in which Mrs Creon lived, click here:
interview date 2003