The house was in a sprawl of cinder-block shanties on the eastern edge of the town. Two Greek flags hung near the approach. Beyond them lay the Muslim cemetery. The women served coffee, accompanied by the usual jokes about whether to call it Greek or Turkish. The correct term, of course, depended on where you happened to be.
We were in the north-eastern tip of Greece, in the settlement of Alan Koyu in Western Thrace. The only region of Greece that shares a land border with Turkey, Western Thrace is also home to the country’s only officially recognised minority.
The name by which this minority is known varies, like the coffee, according to where one happens to be. In Ankara, it is known as the “Turkish minority” of Greece, emphasising ties of language and ethnicity that date back to the Ottoman era. Athens rejects that term, saying that it implies a Turkish claim to the region. The Greek state refers instead to the “Muslim minority” of Western Thrace, adhering to the language of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that completed the dissolution of the Ottoman empire.
As we waited in Alan Koyu, the talk turned from the pandemic to other ways of dying. The women said they had just lost one of their own, to cancer. He was 35 years old. When his aunt heard the news, her blood pressure shot up. They took her to a local hospital but the staff there ignored them. “And then they say we shout too much,” our host’s mother said.
Situated on the outskirts of Komotini, the regional capital of Western Thrace, Alan Koyu is a Roma settlement. Its 2,000-odd residents live in conditions typical of many Roma settlements all over Greece: in poverty, on the squalid periphery of an urban centre, with limited access to basic services such as healthcare, sanitation and education.
Most of the Roma of Western Thrace are Muslims. Regarded by Athens as part of the region’s Muslim minority, they are in fact in a minority within minorities. Their religious identity sets them apart from other Roma in Greece, most of whom are not Muslim. Meanwhile, their ethnic identity sets them apart from the Muslim minority of Western Thrace, most of whom are not Roma.
While poverty and prejudice have blighted the lives of the Roma across Greece and the wider Balkans, the fortunes of the Muslim Roma of Western Thrace are shaped by an additional factor – the geopolitical contest between Greece and Turkey.
Both sides have courted the Roma in order to advance their own interests – Ankara intermittently, Athens concertedly. Yet these overtures have delivered little in the way of lasting benefits for the Roma, whose material conditions still bear the hallmarks of official neglect. Instead, Greece and Turkey have pursued a narrow objective – of moulding Roma identity into an instrument of state policy.
As a result, experts say, the Muslim Roma of Western Thrace are frequently pressured to identify themselves as “Greek” or “Turkish”, at the expense of other markers of identity. In the words of Sevasti Trubeta, a deputy professor of Diversity Studies at Magdeburg-Stendal University and the author of a book about the Roma of Western Thrace, they have been “backed into a corner”.
“There are many ways in which a person may define themselves,” Trubeta told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. “They may describe themselves as a woman, a child, a mother, a carpenter, a scientist.” For the region’s Roma however, “everything has to turn around identities constructed by national centres. It has to be one or the other: Are you Greek or are you Turkish?”