Traveling across Borders of Hate
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
a great teacher and a sign from the heavens to draw humankind towards
divine presence. Unfortunately, nations have turned it into a compendium
of self-serving myths, dividing themselves, and erecting borders of
hate. The passions that erupt in the flames of war arise in the hearts
of men and women. It is here, in the deep recesses of the human breast,
that love and hate wage their battle and manifest themselves on the
stage of history. The fuel that propels them is the perception of
history, often self-serving, subjective and tailored to keep those
many such borders of hate in the modern world: Bosnia-Serbia,
Greece-Turkey, Chechnya-Russia, India-Pakistan, Ethiopia-Eritrea,
Israel-Palestine, Israel-Lebanon. And the list keeps growing by the day.
Often, these borders are trans-national. At other times, they exist
within the same geographical entity.
hatred is now institutionalized with governments feeding their nationals
as well as the visitors to their borders with doses of prejudice about
their perceived enemies. Hatred has now become embedded into tourism.
Travel brochures deliver carefully crafted misinformation. Travel guides
transmit it, sometimes in subtle tones and at other times brazenly.
I had the
occasion to travel across one such border recently, that between the
Greek and the Turkish worlds, where neighbors who live within a stone’s
throw are separated by emotional chasms a thousand miles wide.
visited Turkey many times, enjoyed the hospitality of its beautiful
people, savored its sumptuous foods and have marveled at the
magnificence of its monuments. I have stood in reverence at the tombs of
Mevlana Rumi and Ayub Sultan, Companion of the Prophet. The Bosporus is
where Asia and Europe meet. It is where the axes of three great world
religions, Islam, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity
intersect. If you disregard the hassles at the Istanbul airport, Turkey
is a land one must visit at least once in a lifetime.
Istanbul I have spent days absorbing the Greek architecture of the Aya
Sophia and the engineering marvels of the ancient underground Byzantine
water reservoirs of Istanbul. What you see in Istanbul whets your
appetite for Greece. So, on this visit I traveled to Athens. I was full
of enthusiasm and curiosity. This was the land of Socrates and Plato,
Aristotle and Alexander, Euclid, Herodotus and Demosthenes. The legacy
of its civilization is claimed by the West and imbibed in the East. It
sparked the Renaissance in Europe and was instrumental in the
Mu’tazalite eruption in the Islamic world.
Greeks are also a handsome people, friendly, good natured with a love of
Mediterranean food and wholesome music. But here the analogy with the
Greeks and the Turks hate each other.
stop was at the Acropolis on which stands the Parthenon, a magnificent
structure of engineering perfection. The Acropolis is a rocky hill with
a commanding view of the area surrounding it. From ancient times it has
been a location of a temple dedicated to whichever deity the local
population believed in at the time. For this reason it is also called
the sacred rock of Athens. The imposing Parthenon which dominates the
hill was built by Pericles around 447 BC.
Turks were responsible for much of the destruction at the Acropolis”,
started the tourist guide on the hill. “They built a store house here
for gun powder which was hit by a shell during a siege by Venice in
1687. Many buildings caught fire and were destroyed”. This was a jarring
prelude to a long litany of complaints about the Turks. As I followed
the guide around, he pointed to every stone that was supposedly moved by
the Turks from the temple to build a wall around the Acropolis. The
historical fact is that the Venetians laid siege to Athens (1687 CE),
bombarded the Acropolis, occupied it, and used material from the ancient
structures to build a wall around the hill. When the Turks recaptured
the town (1689) they reinforced the wall. The Greeks themselves tore
down the temples of earlier civilizations to build their structures.
Evidence of this may be found in the extensive underground water Cistern
in Istanbul built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532 CE. .
following day we took a taxi from Athens to Mykenia, a distance of about
sixty miles. The Mykenian civilization (circa 1200 BC) was a forerunner
of the Hellenistic civilization (circa 750 BC to 100 BC). The Mykenians
were master builders, skilled craftsmen in the bronze age, advanced in
the art of administration and used a numerical system based on
alphabets. An understanding of the Mykenians is a must for anyone
studying the classical Greek civilization.
slaves of the Turks for four hundred years”, began the taxi driver’s
version of history. “When they occupied Greece”, he continued, “many
churches were destroyed and our culture was ruined”. The historical fact
is that under the Milli system, the Ottomans gave complete autonomy to
the Greeks (and other Christian Orthodox people in Eastern Europe). The
Greek Churches were protected by Christian waqfs and administered by the
Patriarch of Istanbul. This patronage enabled the Greeks living in the
hills and those in the plains develop a kindred sense of belonging to a
common heritage. Indeed, a sociologist may develop a plausible thesis
that it was the Ottoman patronage under the milli system that ignited
the consciousness of a unitary Greek nation among peoples of Greek
heritage living in isolated islands and different parts of the mainland.
proceeded on to Nafplion, the first capital of modern Greece. It was
here in 1829 that the Greek rebels, incited and abetted by the British,
declared their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The old city plaza
is still there and the Turkish flavor endures. The jami masjid of
Nafplion is now a museum, a fate better than those of other masjids in
Greece that were converted outright to churches. But the Greeks have
their eyes closed to the excesses that they committed. They have no
recollection of their invasion of Turkey (1921-24) in which they killed,
burned and destroyed much of Western Anatolia. It is an asymmetrical
memory, which stores only what the Turks did to them.
the flight from Athens to Larnaca in Cyprus. This was a week before the
Israeli onslaught on Lebanon flooded Larnaca with thousands of refugees.
We visited the Sultaniye Tekke which dates back to the first Arab
attempt to conquer Cyprus during the reign of Amir Muawiya, circa 670
CE. Larnaca had a sizable Turkish population until 1964. On Christmas
night of that year, the Greeks invaded the Turkish quarters and
slaughtered thousands forcing the Turkish population to flee north to
what is today the Turkish Republic of Cyprus.
to make a telephone call from Larnaca (in Greek Cyprus) to Lefka (in
Turkish Cyprus). I was firmly reminded by the receptionist at the hotel
that there was no such place as Turkish Cyprus, and that it was
“occupied Cyprus”. “You cannot make a call to occupied Cyprus from
here”, she continued, “you must first call Turkey and from there the
call is directed to Lefka”. A sadness consumed my heart as I realized
that a bird could fly across a border in a minute but it would take a
human voice a thousand miles to reach a neighbor. Cyprus is a small
island but it is separated into two parts by borders of hate.
and Turkey are not the only neighbors wherein the borders are sealed
with suspicion, distrust and outright hatred. On a recent trip from
Delhi to Sirhind on the India-Pakistan border, I noticed how complete
was the obliteration of Islamic monuments (except Sufi tombs) in Eastern
Punjab. Prior to partition (1947) East Punjab was more than one-third
Muslim (as opposed to Western Punjab which was more than seventy percent
Muslim). Today it is less than one-twentieth Muslim. One cranes ones
neck in vain to see if there is a minaret here and there. The
destruction was mutual across the border. Partition erected barriers of
hate right across the heart of Punjab.
the barriers of hate exist within a geographical or national boundary.
Several years ago I visited the ruins of Hampi, near Hospet in Bellary
District, Karnataka State, India, the ancient capital of the
Vijayanagar kingdom in the Deccan on the Tungabhadra river. It was here
that the combined armies of the Bahmani sultans defeated the raja of
Vijayanagar in 1565 CE at the battle of Tylekote. It was one of the
decisive battles of history that destroyed a great medieval empire and
replaced it with the (Shia Muslim) Bahmani sultanates. The (Shia)
Safavids of Persia, who were at that time engaged in a fierce struggle
with the Great Mughals for control of Afghanistan, saw a golden
opportunity to circumvent the Mogul empire and made overtures to the
Bahmani sultans for a common stand against the (nominally sunni) Moguls.
It was this Persian interference into the affairs of Hindustan which
provoked the Great Mughals and brought the Mogul armies hurling south
into the Deccan, first under Akbar, and then under Shah Jehan and
Aurangzeb. In any case, Hampi was destroyed in the battle of Tylekote.
Muslims destroyed Hampi”, began the guide, repeating this litany as he
showed me each monument or every piece of sculpture lying on the ground.
What was a power struggle between a raja and his neighbor sultans was
now presented as a war based on religion. When I asked some pointed
questions, the guide realized that I was a Muslim and his tone changed.
I wondered how many thousands of ordinary folks who had no knowledge of
history and whose only interest was to visit the ruins of an ancient
city had received a poisonous dose of anti-Muslim tirades from this and
other guides at the site.
is an interpretation of events. It happens only once but is narrated in
a hundred ways. In modern life, as tourism has increased and people
travel in increasing numbers from one country to another, a subjective
view of history has penetrated the tourist industry. Millions of
tourists each year are bombarded with distorted versions of historical
events and return home with the prejudices which are thrust upon them
during the tours. Men and women of goodwill who strive to build bridges
of understanding across religious and cultural divides would render a
service if they worked together to reform the tourist industry so that
history becomes a mechanism for healing not of hate.