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Book Review: Children of War by Ahmet Yorulmaz, tr. Paula Darwish (Neem Tree Press)

While I am aware of the division between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriots on the island of Cyprus, I had not before come across the period of history concerning the island of Crete. Children of War is by Ahmet Yorulmaz and translated by Paula Darwish from Turkish (Neem Tree Press). It is due for publication in March 2020.

The book opens in Crete where Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims have lived peacefully alongside each other for generations. Weaving a story of fiction in amongst a backdrop of real-life occurrences and drawn from the diary of a refugee family, Yorulmez tells of a population displaced from their homeland and the suffering they experience in the process.

Narrated in the first person, in the first chapter we are introduced to a young Turkish Cretan, Hassan, who gives us a brief run-down of the history of the Turks’ arrival on the island of Crete, tracing their heritage back to 1600. We learn that his family live in a small village called Kamish by the Turks, or Kalami by the Greeks. Despite the mix of Greeks and Turks, the villagers were “respectful and sincere people” and there is an “instinctive collectivism”. But all this begins to change and amidst the turbulent atmosphere, Hassan and his family leave before they are forced to flee.

From their village they travel south-west to Kandanos where the Turks are cornered, blockaded and shelled by the Greeks with nowhere to run. Death and fear surround them and “the hours turned to days, days turned to months”. A really poignant moment comes where Hassan says: “something happened to me, Uncle. I know I’m sad, but I don’t feel much right now”. At this, my thoughts turn to our current political situation and the impact on the children caught up in wars currently raging in our world.

After being under siege for 46 days, the French and Italians come to their aid and the Turks are moved on again. Under a protective escort, they are taken to the city of Kisamos and so begins a period of relative stability for Hassan and his family. During this time, Hassan uses his wits and good nature, darting around the city selling his mother’s homemade snacks. While out and about selling, Hassan comes to know the locals and steadily improves his fortune. But there are still rising tensions between the Greek and the Turks…

One character particularly stood out to me: Kiri Vladimiros. He is the owner of a print house and comes to act as a father figure for Hassan. Throughout Hassan’s time in Kisamos, he remains the voice of reason as he speaks of peace and humanity, making no distinction between “Greekness and Tukishness”.

There is a scene where Hassan takes Vladimiros to a bar with his friends. While there, they bump into an old friend of Hassan’s who has been actively fighting for the Turkish cause against the Greeks. While unsure of how this meeting will unfold, Hassan unites these people around a table and they talk. With his goodness and humanity, Vladimiros wins the respect of those around him, regardless of who they are. Despite having been written over twenty years ago, these are lessons that can be drawn on today. Yes, we may have differences but we are all people.  

It is shortly after Hassan’s departure for Turkey that the book ends. I must admit I was surprised. I was expecting and hoping to hear more about his arrival in Turkey. We are told in the book that his mother tongue is Greek and that he only learns Turkish once he arrives in Varusi, using Greek letters to help his pronunciation. Right at the beginning of the book, it is made clear to us that while the Muslim Cretans identify as Turks, their whole lives have been built in Crete. Archna Sharma, publisher at Neem Tree Press, however, assures me that there is a sequel to this book (in fact, it’s part of a trilogy!) and I am fascinated to learn what happens to Hassan once he arrives in Turkey.

With maps, a historical timeline, footnotes and a translator’s note, I found Children of War to be far more than just a story; it has readdressed my own ignorance about a time and a place of which I had little knowledge.

Many thanks to Neem Tree Press for the advanced review copy.

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