Book Review: Thrice a Stranger: Penelope’s Eastern Mediterranean Odyssey

“We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies” – Shirley Abbott

If the passing of time makes the Eastern Mediterranean more of a seething cauldron, one would do well to look at the decline of its cosmopolitan culture over the last century. And while cultural analysis is evidently insufficient to explain the totality of the political process, it is at the very least a good reflection of its moral and aesthetic deterioration. Birthplace and home to a multitude of religions, civilizations and races, the Eastern Mediterranean is today arguably the most volatile region in the world. Amidst a process of recoil and introversion, its once cosmopolitan cities, ports and junctions seem to have become mere shadows of their former selves. And while great power, perfidy and machinations have had no small share, intellectual and moral integrity require that one judges his family first.

9781443885188William Mallinson’s diminutive yet powerful book is a personalized narration of a century of turmoil seen through the story of an extended family. A work of non-fiction, it is in equal parts a journey through memory and an immersion in Eastern Mediterranean politics, at a time of cosmogonic changes. While the author’s name might predispose one to think he is simply a curious, knowledgeable outsider, the opposite is true: Mallinson speaks as a well-versed insider, whose grandfather Stratos Tugsioglu, a native of Antalya, was forced to leave the moribund Ottoman Empire in 1921 for Rhodes with his children. One of them, Penelope, is forced to migrate twice more, always due to the particular brand of unnecessarily petty politics so often plaguing the Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, as the author states, the book is a “view of how ambitious ideas, policies and politics can clash with and affect the lives of decent people”.

The family’s saga is masterfully and lyrically interwoven with contemporary politics. Strato has no choice but to leave Antalya when he is suspected by the Ottomans of working with the Italians. The author illustrates that his departure is virtually, his only option. He makes his way to Rhodes, where the local Mufti becomes one of his best friends. This inevitably causes some consternation among nationalist locals. Yet Strato has no time for the latter: his Greece is the “worldly and vibrant Eastern Roman one” that had “remained reasonably intact in Asia Minor”. The well-versed reader can’t help but think of Ilias Venezis, that most oriental yet profoundly cosmopolitan writer of Greece’s “Generation of the 1930s”.

Halfway through the book, Mallinson devotes two trenchant chapters to Greece and Turkey, without allowing his Hellenophilia to get in the way of reasonable analysis. The chapters represent a total break with the preceding narration, although this comes as a pleasant interlude after a hotpot of names, events and their memories. Greeks are presented for what they are: an ancient, hospitable, proud people. At the same time, the confusion of identity, corruption and lack of transparency that permeate many facets of Greek life are not glossed over; without explicitly stating so, the author doesn’t concede Greece a (Western) European identity. Instead, he presents Greeks as a “mongrel race” whose daily life is characterized mainly by confusion and fluidity. In this respect, he brings to mind the famed Greek author Takis Theodoropoulos, for whom Greece is the land of approximation: approximately Mediterranean, approximately Oriental, approximately Balkan, approximately European.

Punches directed towards Turkey are not pulled either. State formation and identity based on minimum tolerance towards minorities, an artificial connection to Europe via the preservation of Ataturkism’s main tenets, and a country that is “naturally Ottoman Eastern, but strives to be West European” (as he deems Greece, albeit to a smaller degree) all inform the country’s portrait.

The reader might wonder about the purpose served by the inclusion of such descriptions. The author gives no apparent reason and the chapters are more of a rough sketch. But the innuendo is clear: both countries like to explain a lot in terms of their recent history. But both would do well to look at their corruption and clientelism, which are major sources of social instability. One could also be tempted to see it as a riposte to the often hollow arguments of nationalists on both sides.

The conclusion of the book proves that equidistance shouldn’t amount to equation. While both countries are plagued by many ills, their geopolitical footprints are not on a par, and with good reason; Mallinson quotes an FCO paper of 1975, where Turkey is presented as “more important to Western strategic interests than Greece” and for this reason “if risks must be run, they should be risks of further straining Greek rather than Turkish relations with the West”. The repercussions of this unequilibrated mindframe, immutable as per the author, have been manifested more than once even to the less keen of observers.

The core story is greatly compelling. The topic of Greek-Turkish relations has been abundantly explored. Yet, seen through the eyes of a cosmopolitan family, one can sense the gradual rack and ruin of worlds past, while being reminded –via references to very real people- that there was nothing teleological about it. At the same time, the book does not read like an obituary; the author has not time for lamentations. On the contrary, the more explicitly sociopolitical chapters assert the obvious: in both countries a project of political restart is in order if better days are to come.

Overall, the book gives the impression that its size is inversely proportional to its remit: in less than 100 small pages, the British author traverses through half a century of political turmoil, analyzes the idiosyncrasies of two petulant neighbors, denounces his home country’s “supercillious” post-WII foreign policies and shares his own thoughts on the future of the region. But given that the book doesn’t aim to be (or to challenge) a scientific argument, the reader will find great pleasure. It is not very often that the rational mind of the Englishman is successfully conjoined to the flexible worldview of the Mediterranean to produce a kaleidoscope of impressions, emotions, disappointments and hope.

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos is a freelance journalist and university researcher based in Athens, Greece. He holds an MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh, UK. He can be reached atc.tsitsopoulos@gmail.com.


To find out more and to buy a copy of Thrice a Stranger, click here.


Review originally published on the Bosphorus Review of Books (July 2017).

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