February 5, 2012

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The Forgotten Hellenes of the Middle East

By Iason Athanasiadis

When I moved to Iran, hearing there were Greeks in the Islamic Republic of Iran was bizarre enough. Finding out that it boasted a splendid Greek Orthodox church, just metres away from the infamous US embassy that dominated the international media throughout the 444 days of the American diplomats' hostage crisis in 1979-80 was even stranger.

But Iran's Greek community has been in irreversible decline since the early 1980s when many fled a socially restrictive Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Today, two monuments in Tehran stand testament to the crumbling Greek community: a church and a cemetery.

As they escaped a new communist government in Moscow in the late 1910s that had branded them undesirable capitalists, many Pontic Greeks, such as my grandfather, sought to return to Greece via the southern route, across Iran, and avoid a hostile Turkey whose army was then struggling against invading Greek troops. Upon arriving in Iran, many of these Greeks decided that in many ways it was a better and richer country than Greece - then a barren, mountainous and economically limited country they had never even visited and could hardly call a homeland. They busied themselves with woodcutting, silk and rice-farming. Others used their expertise in the tobacco industry to develop a 'cigarette route' from 1935 onwards, hoping that it would rival the old Silk Route. As news of the business opportunities to be had in Iran spread, more Greeks arrived in order to build railways and harvest the tobacco crops. The Caspian shoreline cities of Rasht and Bandar Pahlavi became centres of the booming tobacco trade and the Greek community thrived, peaking at between 3,000 and 4,000 people."Most stayed here, brought their wives over or married a Fatima or Leila and settled down," one old-timer told me.

In the 1930's, Iran's moderniszng king, Reza Shah - impressed by Kemal Ataturk's forced secularisation policy in Turkey - was pushing through a number of measures aimed at quashing the Eastern element in his country. He forced mullahs to shave off their beards, discard their traditional turban and wear a billed cap in order that their foreheads not brush the floor when praying.Reza Shah also banned the veil for women, provided public education, built Iran's first modern university, opened the schools to women and brought them into the workforce. He initiated Iran's first industrialisation programme and dramatically improved Iran's infrastructure by building numerous roads, bridges, state-owned factories and even Iran's first Transnational railway.

One Greek old-timer, Giotis Symeonidis, remembers visiting Athens in the mid-1960s and what his reaction was upon being told that television was about to be introduced. "My father told me joyfully that Greece was getting black-and-white TV soon," he recalls. "I told him that, in Persia, not only do we have television, but it's also color television!"
The majority of Greeks were having a ball in Swinging Sixties and Seventies Tehran. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution put an end to all that. Ayatollah Khomeini famously pronounced that "there is no fun in Islam". The good days were over.

In 2004, Olga Xanthopoulou welcomed me into her home in Tehran's gritty, polluted downtown and opened up a treasure trove of memories. A veteran member of the community, Olga was born - and insists she will die - in Iran. But such is her sense of isolation that she claimed not to have spoken Greek in three years before my visit, and often halted her reminiscing to apologise for her grammatical mistakes.

On the walls, brass-framed, black-and-white portraits of herself and her loved ones hark back to carefree, pre-revolutionary days. "When there was a theatre evening at the club, there was hardly space to move in," she exclaimed. "What wonderful theatres we had, what sparkling dances! But (the Greeks) have all left and it's now totally empty". In the fleshpots of Lalehzar, Tehran's red-light district, that respectable Shiite families steered clear of, gamblers brushed up against prostitutes and the girls of Westernised families experienced their first breath of European-style sophistication in the bustling French-style bistros. After the revolution, the notorious area was completely boarded up and reinvented as a centre for electrical goods.

"The cabarets of Lalehzar were bawdy, authentic, alive!" sighed Xanthopoulou. "They had Persian music, dancing and no naked women. But they would wear short skirts and when they twirled, everyone would see their thighs. Ah, what we had and what we lost!" All this came to an end when millions of people took to the streets in 1978, culminating in the seething masses that greeted the Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran and his proclamation of an Islamic republic. The glory days ended and an exodus began as "anyone who had a Greek passport used it to get out of the country", Xanthopoulou says. By the time Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in late 1981, the number of Greeks living in Iran had gone down to 2,500, according to the Greek embassy. The rest left during the war years as Iraqi warplanes strafed the capital.

Grammatikopoulos, the community president says, "Today maybe 20-30 people still speak Greek and have Greek passports. The few people we now have, we try to keep them here. We hold charity bazaars, we keep our national holidays, we mark Christmas and Easter, and the Patriarchate sends out a priest". But the links are slipping. Christmas 2004 marked the first time that there was no service in the refurbished neoclassical church. At about the same time, Iran Air discontinued the last direct Athens-Tehran flight. Now passengers transit through Dubai, Bahrain or Istanbul, adding another remove to making the trip.

Throughout the revolutionary period, the Greeks had a vantage view from their clubhouse, just across the street from the US embassy. The small number of Greeks (just 120 families at the time) meant that they felt no need to jump on the Khomeini's bandwagon. Their survival was better served by remaining unknown. Twenty-five years later, I stood in Tehran's now-defunct Orthodox graveyard and surveyed the rows of weather-beaten crosses gaping at the visitor. Young men and women in old-fashioned suits looked at the visitor from faded photographs mounted on graves. The only sound, aside from the relentless Tehran traffic, was the dripping of water, the soft descent of rain on rotting earth. Iran's few remaining Greeks - the non-assimilated Greek-speakers, those who still hold Greek passports - are now vastly outnumbered by their dead.


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