Cultural projects across the Aegean bring Greece, Turkey closer together


Joint programmes boost communal relations and reconciliation among Greek and Turkish communities.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 24/06/14


Paraschos Axiotis (left), honorary president of the Executive Chefs Club of Greece, shakes hands with Seyfi Ali Ersahin, president of Aregala Turkey. [Paraschos Axiotis]

Social and cultural exchanges across the Aegean Sea are bridging the gap between Greece and Turkey.

A recent joint project by two photography groups was the latest in a decades-long series of cultural collaborations that experts say are important for providing political leaders with the impetus to resolve differences.

On May 31st, a photography exhibition of Greeks and Turks with the motto of "Deep Roots, Common Roots" was held in Mytilene, Greece, just off the coast of Ayvalik.


Members of photography groups from Greece and Turkey planted an olive tree as a symbol of peace and friendship at a joint photography exhibit in Mytilene, Greece. [Ismet Arikanturk]

The project is the result of collaboration that began in May 2013 between the Photographic Society of Mytilene (FEM) and the Association of Zeytin Photographic Amateurs (ZEYFOD).

Inspired by the metaphor of the olive tree, the symbol of peace, the photos displayed during the exhibition were mostly focused on the central role accorded to the olive tree, olives and olive oil in the livelihood and daily lives of the two communities across Aegean, with similar methods of collecting and processing it.

At the end of the exhibition, an olive tree was planted by the Greek and Turkish presidents of the two associations with the proclaimed hopes of preserving the friendship and peace between the two communities as strong and deep as the roots of an olive tree.

Ozkan Arikanturk, chairman of ZEYFOD, told SES Türkiye that the greater significance of choosing olives as the focal point of this collaboration derives from the fact that it is one of the most important livelihoods of the two communities and it has a strong influence on their common culture.

"Our next common exhibition will be in November in Ayvalik during the harvest festival of olives, while our two memberships will later visit FEM to organise a common workshop on photography," added Arikanturk, who had a photo included in the exhibition showing Turkish women collecting olives.

Since 2011, Lesvos Island has hosted a Turkish-Greek Trade and Culture Festival in order to gather communities from the both sides on a cultural and economic basis. Dozens of Turkish and Greek companies, along with the commerce and trade chambers and the municipalities, use the opportunity to meet and share views.

From September 26th to 28th, the Turkish-Greek Friendship Gastronomy Festival will be held in the Kos and Kalymnos islands of Greece, highlighting the gourmet cuisine of both countries.

The aim of the festival is to bring together these two similar cultures on a regular basis. A second similar festival will be held in 2015 in the Turkish provinces of Bodrum and Milas, just from Kos Island.

During the festival, the village markets will introduce traditional foods of the two communities, while it is also expected that the project will stimulate tourism across the Aegean.

Paraschos Axiotis, honorary president of Executive Chefs Club of Greece, told SES Türkiye that Greek and Turkish cuisine have much in common and provides a comfortable setting in which to maintain peace and friendship.

"The objective of this festival is on the one hand to develop the local and regional kitchens and on the other hand to contribute to the touristic developments of both sides of the Aegean by bringing positive outcomes to the daily lives of Greek and Turkish people," Axiotis said.

During the three-day festival, people from Kos and Kalymnos will have the opportunity to cook and taste traditional cuisine and visit tourist destinations.

There will be also a competition between the professional cooks from 30 countries, and they will also cook for persons with disabilities from Turkey and Greece.

For the last 12 years, the Defne Turkish-Greek Friendship Festival has been held each September with support from the municipalities on Turkey's Imroz Island and the Greek island of Samotraki.

Each year, the festival selects a common theme -- last year's was "clean sea" -- and is enriched with various dancing and musical activities as well as the "Dinner Table for the Peace" activity where common gastronomic items are displayed.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, chairman of the international relations department at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said civil society initiatives are necessary to nurture the rapprochement process.

"There is already evidence that the mentalities are changing in both countries," Triantaphyllou said. "For Turks, Greece is a country where it is relatively easy to get a visa and where Turks can go to spend their money. For Greeks, Turkey is a destination for possible work opportunities given the prolonged economic crisis in Greece."

Triantaphyllou added that many people will prioritise such financial considerations over the process of mutual understanding.

"The political leaderships of both countries stress more the need to enhance the bilateral trade relationship than the process of reconciliation," he said. "For this reason, any efforts by civil society organisations that propound collaboration, understanding, dialogue and discovery are worth supporting and promoting."

Gulden Ayman, an expert on Turkey-Greece relations from Istanbul's Marmara University, said the presence of civil society voices and interests in peace building is crucial.

"Yet civil society does not have a direct impact in peace building unless the decision makers are derived to find solutions to intractable conflicts," Ayman told SES Türkiye.

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Ayman said that although NGOs cannot dictate their visions of peace to politicians, their contributions matter in the sense of encouraging political leaders to take certain steps toward peace processes, raising consciousness and willingness in their societies to build peaceful relations and more importantly making peace efforts irreversible and sustainable.

Ayman added that NGOs cannot be treated as homogenous groups, and that artistic forms and processes are an important component that has to be evaluated separately.

"Art supports peace building for a variety of reasons," she said. "Art invites reciprocity, creativity and ability to see the world with fresh eyes, facilitates expression, healing and reciprocal understanding that lie at the core of co-existence. Turkish-Greek efforts in this regard are a key to reach people who lost the capacity or willingness to trust and show resistance to understand the other side."

What impact do cultural exchanges have on reconciliation between Greece and Turkey? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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