Wrestling with the dervish
Published: Monday 24 January 2011 Updated: Monday 24 January 2011
As Greece reels from a failed engagement with the West, a new book explores fading Eastern identities and traces the miscommunications that arise between deracinated peoples and those confident in their identity
Literature thrives on crisis so it is little surprise that Greek letters are living heady days. As the streets of Athens resonate with the boots of the marching unemployed, Molotov cocktails sail through the blue attic sky and anarchically-inclined bombs disturb the Arcadian calm, an exciting fresh crop of novels documents Greece emerging from two decades of EU-funded oblivion and regressing to a more traditional volatile past.
Dimitris Nollas wrote Anyone’s Time, about the lives, times and ideological quarrels of a far-leftist urban guerrilla cell in Athens. Petros Markaris unleashed the first instalment of his aptly named Trilogy of Crisis, about a lawless Athens where assassins’ bullets pick off bankers. And Theodoros Grigoriadis takes readers on a tour of the Greek psyche in The Wrestler and the Dervish (Pataki, 2010).
The background of Grigoriadis’ book is formed by once-turbulent areas now re-entering the arc of crisis. The Thracian Plain is a multiethnic territory split equally between northern Greece and western Turkey that was ravaged by population exchanges and a century of state-dispensed nationalist education. Grigoriadis, himself the grandson of a refugee from Asia Minor who, besides Greek, insisted on speaking Turkish until the day he died, writes in the shadow of this history, and it bubbles over in the village lanes, the hammams of Edirne and the peasant festivals in the villages of the Pomak minorities.
Travel photographer Mirella has shrugged off Greek society’s expectations for a life divorced from commitment and dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. Christos is a gay professor of Ottoman history and Turkish-Greek interpreter at village festivals. And the similarly homosexual Dionysis—an author seeking hidden Sufi orders in the Balkans to alleviate his own self-imposed retreat—has fled his village background for a life of anonymity in gritty inner city Athens.
All these characters and a host more pursue torrid sexual relationships with Jemal, a mountain of Anatolian manhood, combining professional wrestling prowess with nightclub bouncering and general opportunism. Each of the Greeks thinks they are bending the simple-hearted Turk to their own pleasure but the novel ends ambiguously, leaving the reader to wonder who laughed last and longest. The Greeks come across as superficial, loud and self-referential; the Turks are painted as methodical and lacking in flamboyance.
More than that, The Wrestler and the Dervish is a penetrating social X-ray of the Greeks as a deracinated people well into the dusk of their economic and moral decline. Both the wrestler and the dervish represent familiar yet unattainable ideals from a westernizing Greece’s recent past: The fighter fulfils physical cravings; the mystic soulful ones.
“Why should the Turks want this washed-out rug [Greece] when they have their hand-woven carpets?” Grigoriadis wrote in a recent piece titled “Turkey Within Us.” “[They have] a booming economy, political self-reliance, a dynamic labor force and an ideology accompanied by visions of a new Ottoman empire. With all this and a bit of chutzpah they manage to be respected, commanding and totally non-negotiable.”
The book ends with an assassination and a piercing profile of a resurgent Greek right-wing that has been gaining supporters both in the polls and on streets patrolled by gangs of “patriots,” dispensing summary justice to legal and illegal immigrants alike.
Perhaps Grigoriadis’ most telling comment is on how contemporary Greeks blunted their sleepwalking towards bankruptcy with the razzmatazz of a glitzy lifestyle and seductive Turkish soap operas.
“Our country has surrendered to an unthinking literary Easternism… Deep within us, believing that we’re nostalgic for all that we had lost, we surrendered to them [the Turks]. But what we resurrected was a passion for a new submission, a capitulation towards the other, the master, the conqueror. Servility became a hidden fetish which we fantasized about in melodramatic retellings.”