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After Generations of Assimilation in Turkey, Afro-Turks are Fighting to Reclaim Their Heritage and Identity

Mustafa Olpak, Afro-Turk author and activist. Piotr Zalewski for The National
Mustafa Olpak, Afro-Turk author and activist. Piotr Zalewski for The National

Although this is unknown to many, there are up to 100,000 people of African descent in the nation of Turkey. A legacy of the Ottoman Empire and of the African slave trade, Afro-Turks, as they are called, have lost their language and have a renewed interest in discovering who they are and from whence they came.

As The Global Dispatches reported in 2010, while slavery existed in the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century until the 19th century, enslaved people came from the Balkans and the Caucasus until the late 1800s, with the abolition of “white” slavery in these regions after pressure from the European nations.

Before that time, the trading in Black people had been limited, but then, the trading of enslaved Africans to the Ottoman Empire grew, particularly from Kenya and Sudan. Between 1860 and 1890, around 10,000 enslaved Africans were sent into the Ottoman Empire each year, a total of about 250,000 people, with many freed at some point. Many enslaved people were sent to the cotton fields near Smyrna (now known as Izmir) on the coast of the Aegean Sea.

But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the end of slavery came, as enslaved people were replaced by paid servants. And in 1924, the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established laws of equal citizenship in the country’s new constitution. Further, as the BBC reported, Afro-Turks are called “Arab,” a term denoting someone who is dark enough to be Arab or African — in a country where Blackness is often negatively associated with inferiority. These days, in light of the refugee crisis, their identity has come to light in large cities, where Afro-Turks are often mistaken for Somali or Eritrean refugees, although these Black people have lived in Turkey for generations.

“It’s a shame we have lost our African language, the language our great-grandparents spoke. Every minority in Turkey has its language – the Kurds, the Zaza, even the Laz. But we have only Turkish, and we don’t know anything about our ancestors” an Afro-Turk man named Orhan told the BBC. “After years of suffering, you hide what makes you different,” he said. “That is why our parents and parents’ parents did not teach us their language. They did not want to make us different, they wanted us to only be Turkish.”

In 2010 Dutch-Turkish Photographer Ahmet Polat published a photo book called AFRO TURKS, part of a project documenting Turks of African descent.
In 2010, Dutch-Turkish photographer Ahmet Polat published a photo book called AFRO TURKS, part of a project documenting Turks of African descent.

Meanwhile, due to years of intermarriage, there are likely many Turkish people who are descended from Black people and do not realize it, as The National reported. The national push for assimilation and a homogeneous society since the founding of the republic and the end of the Ottoman Empire has meant that Black identity was discouraged. However, Black people in Turkey are beginning to reclaim their heritage and their African past. For example, Mustafa Olpak, a grandson of enslaved Kenyans, published Slave Coast, a 2005 memoir chronicling his family’s saga from the Horn of Africa to Crete to Turkey.

“The first generation experiences, the second denies and the third researches,“ Olpak’s book begins. “We have been living in this region for at least 150 years and we don’t have any other homeland,” says Olpak, who also founded the Afro-Turk Association as a means to preserve their heritage and increase awareness of their condition. And Turkish authorities had banned the Feast of the Calf — known as Dana Bayrami in Turkish — a holiday that enslaved Black people celebrated in the Ottoman era, and which Afro-Turks resurrected only in 2007.

Like elsewhere, Black people in Turkey face discrimination. For example, African soccer players have faced racist chants from fans, including some who were called monkey and one who had a banana pointed in his face. In addition, Turkey has not been welcoming to African migrants. According to the International Business Times, there are at least 50,000 African migrants in Turkey, one-third from sub-Saharan Africa and who tend to be Christian, and the remaining from North Africa who tend to be Arab. Black Africans face racism, social exclusion and police violence.

President Obama’s 2009 visit to Turkey and subsequent meetings with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan have provided an opportunity for the Afro-Turk community to reclaim their narrative and bring their issues to the table. In a country that is once again beginning to acknowledge its diversity and the contributions of so-called minority communities such as the Afro-Turks, Black people in Turkey are experiencing a cultural reawakening.

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