In our third guest post, journalist Chris Liakos looks at the North-Western Greek region of Thrace – home of the underreported Pomak community. Lost in translation and neglected by government policy, the Pomaks struggle to find their place in Greek society.
Flash forward to today’s Thrace, around 30,000 to 39,000 Pomaks still live in Thrace. Of the Muslim minority in the area, a significant number is part of the Pomak community. But it is also a hardly known minority in Greece that lives under the radar of media and politics.
The Pomaks are in limbo when identifying themselves: are they Turkish or Slavic? Up until today, theorists argue over their origins. Some say they are descendants of native Christians of the Rhodope mountains on the border of Bulgaria and Greece who were unwillingly islamised. Others – especially supporters of Pomaks’ Turkish origin – say Pomaks were Muslims coming from Asia.
“The Pomak community groups share various cultural characteristics that allow different states to haggle over their origins,” says journalist Aris Alexandris who writes for the Athens based weekly newspaper and website, LIFO.
Bulgaria evokes a common language, Turkey a common religion and Greece a shared history. Thousands of Pomaks live in all of these three countries.
For Greece, it is estimated that about 30,000 to 39,000 Pomaks live in Thrace. Most of them live in the Pomak villages – officially called ‘mountainous areas’.
“It seems as if everyone has found its place in this multicultural environment,” says Aris Alexandris, and added: “Or maybe it is the politicians who try to maintain a convenient stability.”
Search for a lost identity
Since 1995, some Pomaks in Greece have made efforts of promoting their own cultural heritage making themselves known to the public and become a part of Greek reality. The Greek Union of Pomaks, the Cultural Union of Pomaks in Xanthi in Thrace or the Zagalisa newspaper were some significant attempts of this identity struggle trying to promote the Pomak identity and a connection with the rest of Greece.
“The cultural conflict was ruthless,” said the presenter of the daily Pomak News on the local Channel 6, Sempaedin Karaxotza. “Pomak names of those involved in these attempts were even distributed by opposite media among other Muslim minorities so they would dislike us and think of us as traitors. I think that says it all.”
“They try endlessly to propagate that Christian Orthodox equals Greek and Muslims equals Turks. I have been criticised for saying I am a Greek Pomak,” says Karaxotza.
The surge of Pomak identity in the nineties came after years of neglect by the Greek government. One of the most pressing issues was education. “The negligence of the Greek governments towards Pomak education has been outrageous,” says Aris Alexandris of LIFO. “They never focused on a proper Greek education for them.”
In 1968, the Educational Protocol introduced schools following the Turkish educational model with teachers coming from Turkey to educate the young Pomaks. A common belief emerged that every Muslim in Thrace spoke Turkish. “Pomak children are taught in Greek, Arabic, and Turkish, but end up speaking none of them very well. Their actual language, Pomak, is ignored in educational policies,” says Karaxotza, the Pomak presenter.
The Pomak community has campaigned against these injustices. “Crime: that is how I would describe the approach of education of Pomaks,” says Karaxotza. “We have asked for Greek language minority schools in the Pomak villages but apparently it costs too much.”
Hidden from the eye
In recent elections, people from Thrace’s Muslim minority were elected as members of the parliament. But outside Thrace, would people consider voting for them? Everyday reality shows that the rest of Greeks aren’t even aware of the term Pomak. There is not a single reference of the term in hardly any Greek school handbook.
Journalist Aris Alexandris says: “Many Greeks only care about what is going on around them, they won’t give a damn about a small part of North-western Greece.”
And when it comes to media coverage, the minority hardly ever makes the news. Sempaedin Karaxotza sighs: “It is sad,” he says. “It is because of the negligence by politicians and the lack of media coverage. It is like they try to hide us.”
Nonetheless, says Alexandris: “Mainstream media sometimes report light and catchy stories. They don’t focus on the actual point as local media sometimes do.” So, it is up to the Pomaks themselves to make people aware of their language and cultural inheritance.
Pomaks are part of the Muslim minority in Thrace, in North-western Greece, together with Roma and Turkish minorities. The Pomaks reside mainly in small villages in the Rhodope mountains in Thrace. Their dialects are usually classified as dialects of Bulgarian.
Chris Liakos is a Greek journalist who visited North Thrace. He lives in London. Drop a comment below to get in touch!