The Greek/Turkish village of Eskibahce, western Anatolia, southeast of Telmessos (present day Fethiye) is the setting for the book Birds Without Wings during the turbulent years of the Ottoman State’s Great War 1911 – 1923 and the emergence of the secular Turkish State under Ghazi Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Pasha.
The Ottoman Empire was attacked by its neighbours in a concerted grab for territory in 1912 with a flood of Muslim refugees absorbed by the Ottomans. War was a feature of life during these times with repeated expulsions of Old Greeks, Armenians and finally ethnic Greeks from western Anatolia who spoke only Turkish and who lived in complete harmony with the native Turks.
Karavatuk (Blackbird), a Muslim Turk and Mehmetcik (Robin) a Greek Christian grew up the best of friends. They played with whistles in the hills which perfectly mimicked the birds after which they were named. War took Karavatuk to the Gelibolu (Gallipoli) campaign and the awful conditions of war. Mehmetcik, a Christian, was forced to work in a labour battalion because Christians could not fight in a Jihad or Holy War. Mehmetcik deserted and became Red Wolf, a Robin’s colours, a bandit.
Karavatuk wrote his experiences down, he learned the skills of writing from Mehmetcik. Muslims only learned the Suras of the Koran in school, no mathematics or writing. Karavatuk was an accomplished sniper in Gallipoli accounting for 150 Franks (Christians), he describes the predictable attacks of the British Franks who were slaughtered in large numbers.
The main characters in the book are allowed to ascribe their own personal accounts. Mustafa Kemal’s determined efforts to modernise and secularise Turkey provide an essential backdrop to the turmoil in ordinary people’s lives. Philothei and Ibrahim from very different traditions play out their own tragedy when the outside world intrudes.
Religion, nationalism, forced marches and massacres destroy the peaceful fabric of life.
Karavatuk writes the history of Eskibahce as the outside world intrudes. This is an epic in sensual detail, an enchanting read.