The Pomaks in Greek Thrace: a speach in "Mercator"

                                            POMAKS IN GREEK THRACE

The Pomaks are a small ethnical entity (member of which is the person speaking) that lives in the northern – eastern Greece, in the part of Thrace that has remained to my country. The original area where we once lived is the mountain chain of Rhodopi, along the Greek – Bulgarian borders. During the last decades a large part of population – the total of which is estimated around 40.000 people – immigrated either towards the lowlands, mostly in urban areas, or abroad, seeking for employment opportunities and better conditions of living. Nowadays, the Pomak population lies concrete primarily in the mountainous areas of the municipality of Xanthi and in a lesser extent in the mountainous areas of the neighboring municipalities of Rhodopi and Evros. Of course there are numerous Pomak populations both in Bulgaria and in Turkey, as well as immigrants for financial reasons in countries such as Germany or Holland. However we will confine our reference to the Greek territory.

As far as the descent of the Pomak people is concerned there are various theories. I need to point out that no theory can be concerned scientifically solid, since on the one hand all the necessary proof for their sufficient supporting is missing, and on the other hand the current conjectures basically reflect the political interests of their initiators.

The Pomak language is part of a broader group of Slavic languages spoken in the southern Balkan peninsula and a number both of Turkish and Greek words are included in it. Moreover, it is typical that major differences exist among the various local dialects, quite often the dialect spoken is differentiated from the one village to the other. An obvious explanation to the language variety is the morphology of the land that does not enable communication and the traditional type of local societies. The variety has always been a significant hindrance to all attempts of writing down and coding the Pomak language. And at this point, the main reasons that our language has remain unwritten should be mentioned.

We regard that two are the basic reasons for this delay that has caused a considerable cost not only to the Pomak population overall but to our cultural consciousness as well:

The reasons are both social, that suggest the psychology and self-image of the Pomaks and political which can be initially traced outside the Pomak community. I should begin with the first ones, since I consider that they enabled the descent of the second: A Pomak, being a mountaineer and a member of a traditional community, does not keep up with the latest evolution of the broader society and hence had been for many years equivalent to social retardation and financial discomfort. For many years our ethnic name had been used in a mocking way and often in a sense of a swear word for the majority of the Christian community and by the Turkish – speaking Muslim community as well. The people descending the mountains and receiving the rejection have learnt to feel shame for their identity and furthermore for their language. The language itself, totally different from the languages spoken in public or officially verified the fact that they were indeed part of a socially retarded, financially subdue and politically not existing. On one hand the consensus with the Christian community was for a number of reasons impossible. Similar was the case with the Turkish – speaking population, who was the dominant figure in the Muslim community. On the other hand there was a clear resemblance of the Pomak language with the Bulgarian and all other Slavic languages, that had been considered as suspicious for a number of years: Northern Greece had been constantly facing a major problem with the remaining part of the Bulgarian – speaking part of the population (an aftermath of which is the so – called “Macedonian” issue). Right after the Yalta agreement and with the closure of the Greek civil war, anything that had Slavic connotations was a potential threat. This was the case with the Greek – Pomaks as well, since many of them had relatives in the other side of the Greek – Bulgarian borders that were also the borders of two opposing consociations for defense, the N.A.T.O. and the Warsow Pact.

More powerful reasons were added to the reasons mentioned above, the political ones. Two countries actually initiated them, Greece and Turkey,  that is on the one side there was the dominant power and on the other side the self – appointed patron of the Muslims in the Greek area of Thrace. The Greek policy had primarily the considerations mentioned right above: They had the fear of the development of friendly attitudes and positions towards Bulgaria in the very core of the Pomak society. This fear was anticipated, not only concerning the state’s own integrity but also because of the importance that it might have in relation to the balance, in a broader sense, and partnerships in the area. This can be easily understood since even the most ignorant as far as geo-politics is concerned, can be persuaded that the Bulgarian designs (covetousness) towards an area which provides access to the Aegean sea wouldn’t be casual (the above assumption was proven right in 1941, when the Bulgarian military forces as well as immigrants occupied Greece together with the Nazi troops). So it made perfect sense to attempt to eliminate the idiom of the mountaineers that resembled the language spoken by the “enemy”. However it was not only the fear of the Bulgarian penetration. The Turkish pressure towards the same direction was evident. Turkey, aiming to the homogeneity of the Muslim minority in Thrace, and its transformation from a religious to an ethnic, Turkish minority, achieved enlistment through bilateral agreements and educational protocols (in 1951 and 1968) to provide the minority overall with education only in the Turkish language, that is, apart from the Greek official language. As a result, a number of Turkish teachers were summoned in order to teach to all Muslims born in the inland Turkish and only, taking into account the principle of equalization that was valid for the Greek minority in Constantinople. The lingual emasculation of our society was due to the absence of a recorded and coded form of the Pomak language. What was there left to be taught; Moreover, the language of the Muslim Gypsies, the Romani language hasn’t been taken into account, consequently it ended up the same way: lay forgotten, until recently. All Muslims in the area were forced to adopt the Turkish language, no matter what we wanted, who we were and what the language spoken by our ancestors was.

Since 1974, and even more since 1981, the liberalization of the political scene in Greece as well as the breaking in the Greek – Turkish relations enabled a gradual change towards that direction. Speaking of which, when in 1990, with the fall of the soviet block and the uprising of ethnic eagerness, such procedures accelerated and the absolute egalitarianism was established in the Greek Thrace (canceling all previous administrative deteriorations that had existed for years as retaliation for similar measures that were valid for the Greeks of Constantinople, Imvros and Tenedos) there were quite a lot of people who started searching for their cultural or national identity. We were some of those people, a group of young Pomaks, who were not aware of what had happened on their account over the previous years and yet they claimed their integrity and particularity and wouldn’t accept its loss as an accomplished fact, for any reason. We were unable to comprehend a series of simple attitudes that the elderly had compromised with. Why we were to speak a different language at home and be taught other languages in school; And considering that the Greek language was necessary or obligatory as the official language of the state and the Arabic language was required for the reading of the Koran, then why was the Turkish language necessary as well; Why wasn’t a Pomak word, a Pomak song, any kind of reference to our culture whatsoever in the media; Why was it the case that in the State Broadcasting Corporation there were broadcasts in the Turkish language, however not in the Pomak language;  Why were there in the Greek courtrooms translators of the Turkish language for the Turkish – speaking people who did not know Greek, whereas there was no translator for the Pomak language; Why were there numerous editions in all languages, yet our language remain unwritten;

The internal procedures brought amazing results. The first step was taken in 1997, when the Centre for Pomak Research was established in Komotini, thus bringing the issue to its political basis: we were determined to claim our identity in all levels, starting from our language. We have made quite important achievements and I believe that we led the way so that other groups, not related to us, can achieve a lot more: We have published the first Pomak newspaper, “Zagalisa” (meaning “love”), recording our language using the Greek alphabet, so that it would be read by the Pomaks in Greece. We have received tremendous reactions, as certain people closely related to Turkey feared that the “unified minority”, which they had been building for years, would collapse. Regarding the Greek side, there have been people at government positions who regarded our initiative as a risk of causing tension and firing uncontrolled situations. We started broadcasting on the radio in private radio stations playing Pomak songs, songs that we ourselves have written down first, then recorded them in cassettes and later on they were recorded on cds with the help of friends. It was a unique moment for us, as the songs of our grandparents, their kavali and their flute, were being listened in public! (At this point it should be pointed out that even though we approached the national broadcast twice and volunteered to play Pomak songs  we didn’t even receive an answer). We also dared a move of great importance, as the first dictionaries of the Pomak language had been already been published since two years in Xanthi. We published in Komotini the first reading book in the Pomak language, a reading book for the children in the first grade of primary school. This was given as an answer to the excuses of the Greek State claiming that “no educational material exists” so that our language may be taught in schools, as a result our language cannot be taught. With that move of ours we proved that it is merely a matter of political will, since our language remains alive, our tradition is rich, and if the official state is willing to create appropriate educational material., the example of the private initiative should be followed. Nowadays, there are many editions in the Pomak language. Moreover, many songs have been recorded, many tales, proverbs as well as other forms of expression of our traditional culture have been published. And they can all be exploited through a system of public education, as long as they are taken into consideration. As a last sample of the professional work being done through the private initiative in the field of the Pomak language are the books – and the digital cd – containing lessons for Greek speaking adults. It is a very recent attempt of the Cultural Development Center of Thrace, which is a non – governmental association located in Xanthi and focusing on culture in general. There are booklets, which were created out of the need for the Greek teachers, working in the Pomak villages and expressing interest in getting to know the language of the local population. However, for the very population there has been no state – consideration.   

On the contrary, every little step towards that direction ends up in failure. Allow me to present you with such an example that will clear out the actual situation that we experience regarding the above. During a union project which is financially supported partly by the European Union and is called “Education of the Muslim youngsters” responsible of which is professor Fragoudaki, some new educational material was created especially for the children of the Muslim minority in Thrace. Those new books, and at this point I am referring in particular to the books teaching the Greek language, have already been introduced to the educational procedure of the minority and are actually been taught. Among the numerous scientists who participated in the formation of the final product, there were some who showed special sensitivity towards the issues of the minority and decided to include in the teaching material two words in the Pomak language used as names, the words “mayka” (that means “mother”) and “lesitsa” (which means “fox”). Certainly the educational aim of the designers of the booklet is quite obvious, since it would have been the first time that one out of three Muslim children would actually recognize something coming from his mother tongue, the language spoken in their village. However, it was quite unfortunate that even this slight attempt proved to be very risky in reference to the situation in the area. Even though those books had been approved by the Greek Ministry of Education, they had been printed and were about to be distributed to the pupils, the intervention of the guardians of the “unified, Turkish identity” canceled them. The scientist who was responsible for the project was forced to withdraw the books and re-printed them, but this time avoiding those solemn two words (Lesitsa was replaced with the similar sounding Greek name Lenitsa)! So it is obvious that we are still far from the day that we will be able to hear our language in our schools or at least spoken fearlessly in public.

It should be added that the practice of withdrawing printed material because of a mere reference to the Pomaks is not unfamiliar. In the autumn of 1998 the head of the prefecture of Rhodopi decided to withdraw a brand new tourist guide entitled “Rhodopi, the Land of the Legends” and re-printed it excluding only the reference to the Pomak villages of the area. The same deed was repeated last January, concerning once more the tourist guide entitled “Rhodopi prefecture” published by the Prefecture of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace. Even our very name is substance to exclusion from all official documents. So how can we possibly hope for a salvation of our language in such a political environment; And how are we to feel when we see everything that belongs to our cultural inheritance (traditional costumes, popular art objects, festivals…) either to be enlisted to the Turkish tradition or being so-called cultural inheritance of the “mountainous Rhodopi”;

Concluding, I will make a general estimation to the current situation of the Pomak language. It is a positive fact that all the steps mentioned have been made before the total extinction of a living-language. However the limits of the private initiative do not go any further. No individual can do much more than what has been done until now. It is the Greek state that has to take over. It has to legalise the use of the Pomak language in the media or other areas that the Turkish language is dominant. Unless a Pomak feels proud of his mother tongue that has been for so many years neglected and looked upon he is deprived of a basic right he has and will constantly feel as the poor relative of either the Greeks or the Turks. In the frame of the European Union, where language variety is both aimed at and practiced, I strongly believe – and certainly hope – that we will go further. So that one day we may witness the language of our ancestors being taught in our schools, to our children, when the fox will be called “lesitsa” and the mother “mayka”.


Hamdi Omer,

Komotini, Greece.


Mercator (25 – 27.11.2004)