Ioannis Kondylakis: How the village turned Christian

By: | Post date: March 26, 2010 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Greece

I’ve had an odd week, and as revenge against the elements, I’ve done a slightly odd thing.

It’s Greek National Day, and Greek bloggers turn their thoughts to debates on nationalism. The Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ Blog was no exception, and during the discussion that developed, I made a glancing mention of the Cretan Muslims, a topic I’ve already brought up on this blog. My reference was to the apparent conversion of some Cretan Muslims to Christianity in the 19th century; Nikos responded by pointing to a short story by Ioannis Kondylakis on his site, “How the village turned Christian” (although it does not refer to conversion, but to Muslims abandoning villages for the cities).

The story is cute in a way; it’s not quite the multi-culti, Why Can’t We All Get Along story that our century would look on with favour, but given the sentiments of its time and place, it does a nice little subversion of the old narratives. (And the figure of the wine-drinking bon vivant Muslim is familiar enough from Kazantzakis’ Freedom and Death.) It turns out the village the story is set in, Modi, is the village Kondylakis was a schoolteacher in, at the end of the Ottoman Empire; but I wouldn’t assume this is exactly newspaper reporting. Still, if you read it attentively, you can see the harassment payback being described.

I decided to translate it, and I decided to be slightly odd about it. The story is of its time and place, and I’m of mine, and I decided not to translate τούρκος and ρωμιός as “Turk” and “Greek”. That’s the dichotomy we know now, but the dichotomy in the Ottoman Empire was credal, and not ethnic as we now understand it: the Cretan Muslims spoke Greek, and translating τούρκος as “Turk” leads to the absurdity of “Turkish–Albanian” instead of “Muslim Albanian”. (The insistence on calling Muslim Albanians Muslim had a simple reason: there were Christian Albanians too, and the common creed they shared with Greeks was more important than the common ethnicity they shared with the Muslims.) Kondylakis has his characters speak of “Romioi”, but the narrator knows what they meant by that, and calls them “Christians”. I’ve gone the next step, and called the Tourkoi “Muslims”. (If that makes the story sound like it’s set in Bosnia and not Crete, well, there’s a reason for that.)

That’s not the odd thing I’ve done. Maybe ideological, but not odd. The odd thing is, I wanted to render the occasional code switches into Turkish of the Muslims with some English equivalent: a language familiar to English-speakers, but clearly foreign.

So my Muslim Cretans lapse into French.

You don’t approve, well, tant pis.


He had often heard from his father the story of why he had to sell up in Modi and move to the mountain village of Akaranou. The reason was “a Muslim—begging your pardon—and a pig—by your leave”; that’s how he would speak to express his hatred of that Muslim in particular, and of Muslims in general. Modi back then was still a Muslim village. There were a few Christians, but they were humble lowlanders, “thirders”—that is to say, they cultivated Muslim farms against a percentage of the income. Serfs, almost. The only one who had some measure of human dignity and pride, because he had enough property not to have to work for the aghas, was his father Mikhalis Alefouzos. But precisely because he had an independent spirit, and his spine did not bend readily, he drew the dislike of Kerim Agha, the richest and most powerful Muslim in Modi, a fanatical and tyrannical man, who wanted Christians to feel that they lived only through the sufferance of the Muslims. For that reason, whenever Alefouzos passed him by and greeted him with a simple “Good evening, Kerim Agha”, he’d shake his head and stare at him with a threatening glance, as he went on his way. One day, he said to another Muslim present:

“That man there, par Dieu, Alefouzos: he’s a revolté; he dares look us in the eye, he’s no soumis.”

When the period of Egyptian rule brought some relief to the standing of Cretan Christians, Alefouzos was encouraged enough to commit an act of great daring. He bought a pig and fed him for the Christmas feast. A pig, in Modi! A pig in Kerim Agha’s village, and right next to his villa! A pox on it! Qu’on foute sa mère, the infidèle!

The first squealing of the pig spread horror in the Muslim village, and the hair of many a Muslim stood on end. There was a council of the aghas at Kerim Agha’s, and they decided the rebel Alefouzos should be expelled from the village or murdered. But before everything else, the pig had to be killed. This was intolerable. The past day, while Kerim Agha was smoking on his pipe in his courtyard, he saw its filthy snout poke through his half-closed courtyard door. A pox on it! Nique ton grand-père!

“One day, par Dieu, it’ll come up to the mosque and bid us good day!” another agha said. “It pokes its way wherever it finds an opening, oink oink!”

“I must I kill, My Aghas, the cochon“, said the Muslim-Albanian bulbashi, a kind of police sergeant, who represented all authority in the village. And he fully approved of the decisions taken in the meeting.

The following day, as he passed in front of Alefouzos’ house, he drew his gun and killed the pig.

“Why you no tie up, Lady, the bête inside, pox on it, que Dieu le damne, but you let it poke among our feet?” he said to Alefouzos’ wife, who had heard the gunshot and appeared worrying at the gate.

Alefouzos was stubborn, and in a week’s time he brought another, bigger pig, from Platania.

“For God’s sake, are you looking to get killed, Mikhalis?” one of the fellow Christians in the village asked him. “Don’t get up their noses, they’ll murder you!”

“They’re not killing me”, Alefouzos replied calmly. “The Janissaries’ time is past.”

But the time of the Janissaries was not as past as he supposed. The bulbashi killed the other pig too, now with the excuse that it up-ended his hookah pipe. And Alefouzos concluded that, if he kept insisting on buying pigs, he would be helping the Muslim Albanian at target practice.

But Karim Agha, who was livid, finally got his release one day, when he met Alefouzos in the street:

“What is this effronterie you’re doing! Pigs, you infidèle, is that what you’re bringing to the village!”

“It’s no effronterie, Kerim Agha”, Alefouzos said with a respectful but steady tone. “Our faith tells us to eat pork, begging your pardon…”

“Your faith! F… your faith!”

And at the same time he lifted up his pipe and struck it down at Alefouzos. But he avoided the strike and held the agha’s hand.

“You raise your hand at me, dog-worshipper!” Kerim Agha cried and started hitting him rabidly. Other Muslims ran to him, and Alefouzos was soon led to his house, unconscious and blood-drenched. After a month, as he went out one night to feed his oxen, he was shot by parties unknown and wounded in the shoulder; he came close to dying, and was bed-ridden for a long time. Certain that the Muslims had decided to do him in, he was forced to sell up and seek refuge in the mountain village of Akaranou.

His son Stamatis had often heard this story from his father, and from childhood he built up in his soul hatred of Muslims, and of the Modians in particular, and he dreamed of vengeance. Kerim had died, old man Alefouzos had died too; let both of them fare well in the Netherworld, where they assuredly took their hatred with them. But just as Alefouzos had left a son behind, so had Kerim left behind a son, Arif Agha. The two of them would settle their families’ accounts. But Arif was completely different to his father. A kindhearted man, who loved wine and entertainment, he was on good terms with Christians and Muslims, and split his time between Modi, where he had a wife and children, and Chania, where he had lovers and drinking buddies. His only care was to have fun and to borrow or sell, when his income was insufficient for his needs.

Stamatis had inherited his father’s industriousness and his particular vindictiveness against the Muslims of Modi. He was of around the same age as Arif, a young man of thirty-five, of Herculean build, with a rough blond beard, and eyes full of spark and cunning.

One day the Modians suddenly discovered that Stamatis Alefouzos had bought back his father’s property, and in a few days he settled in his father’s house next to Arif’s villa. One of the first things he did was to bring from Akaranou a sow with six or seven piglets, so noisy and incessantly moving, that you’d think the whole village was full of pigs. And indeed it was, for whichever Christian Modians didn’t already have pigs bought some, and whoever had pigs tied up let them free to wander in the village and the surrounding farms, to visit the Muslim café, to enter Muslim courtyards to the houseladies’ great distress and horror, and to destroy the aghas’ vegetable gardens.

Now there was no more bulbashi, and the time of the Janissaries was so distant it was almost forgotten. Modi was turning from a Muslim into a Christian village, because during the latest rebellion many Muslims were killed or stayed back in Chania. The Muslims were succeeded by Christians from the mountain villages, following Stamatis’ example and buying the farms the Muslims were selling. As he saw the Christian population of the village growing and the Muslim population falling, Stamatis exulted. And one day he said to Arif, with a mocking smile:

“Hey, Arif Agha, if only your père décédé was alive to see what has happened to the village!”

Arif frowned.

“And what has happened to the village?”, he said in a choked voice.

“Why, it’s turned Christian, I tell you! Look, look!”

And with a triumphant gesture he pointed to a herd of piglets going past, following their slow-moving mother. But Arif observed the piglets without spitting or swearing, as his father would have.

“If your père was alive,” Stamatis added, “he’d be fit to burst.”

But as he saw that Arif was not getting angry, but instead was saddened by his mockery, Stamatis’ stubbornness abated. And he abandoned the act of vengeance he had planned long ago—to send Kerim Agha’s son his best piglet as a present for Eid ul-Fitr.

But Stamatis’ soul must never have rejoiced so much as on Christmas Eve, when Modi echoed with the sound of pigs being slaughtered. To bolster his rejoicing, he kept repeating, grinning from ear to ear as the saying goes:

“For the first time today I can see that Modi has turned Christian!”

And he always had the notion that, despite the apathy Arif displayed, he must have been devastated within. It was no small thing, to kill two pigs right in front of their door! But after a few days Arif, returning from Chania, stopped on horseback before Stamatis’ door.

“Good evening, neighbour,” he said to Stamatis as he appeared. “Bring me wine to drink as your guest. I’m in a good mood tonight.”

Stamatis went to bring wine, but Arif stopped him.

“And something good to nibble on.”

Then he learned down from the horse, and said quietly:

“A nice piece of… pork sausage.”


  • minus273 says:

    Very cool indeed! I'm going to try to render your lovely translation into Chinese, This time trying to use Japanese to imitate your French. The language of an "occupier" for your average Chinese, and intelligible enough with a liberal sprinkling of Chinese loanwords. I mused briefly on the possibility of other languages, like English – the most familiar foreign tongue for a Chinese, or Muslim Chinese – which is culturally great but unintelligible for everyone save the Muslimophiles like me.

  • Pierre A says:

    Should it be boluk başı, ﺑﻟﻮﻚ ﺑﺎﺷﻲ

    rather than bulbashi? Or is there a a special local version of the rank.
    Boluk başı works particularly well, because it means head of a janissary detachment in older usage and police officer in more recent usage.equadd

  • Geoff says:

    Guten Tag Herr Nick

    Wir kommen aus Deutschland und sagen Hallo!

    Sie sollten hier kommen someziet und getrunke some club-mate mit wodka mit uns.

  • John Cowan says:

    Quelle blague! By which I do not mean "What a joke."

    Having read WP's article on the millet system, I note two things about it: one, that it has an unbroken history from Sassanid Persia to the present; two, that membership in a millet, like membership in an ethnicity (and very unlike membership in a creedal community in the post-Reformation West) is inherited and involuntary. In Israel, for example, anyone whose maternal ancestors are Jewish is a Jew, period, no matter what he claims to believe in, or not believe in: Jewish atheists would have to be married by Orthodox rebbes, which means in practice that they cannot be married in Israel at all. (The Supreme Court of Israel made an exception for a Jew who had become a Catholic priest, denying him the right of instant Israeli citizenship that other Jews have.)

    Indeed, every post-Ottoman country except those which came under Communist rule retains some of the millet system in its legal code. In Greece, for another example, there is an officially recognized Muslim minority with special rights, and never mind whether its members are ethnic Turks, Bulgarians, Greeks, or Roma.

    Finally millet in modern Turkish can apparently be applied to any group of people whatsoever: the same article gives the example of dolmuşçu milleti 'those who belong to the commercial minivan taxi drivers group', which is perhaps ironically intended, but perhaps not.

  • Well done and in fact the French trick rather works nicely!

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