Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Curious story of Afro-Turks - the Black Citizens of Turkey

 Authored by Lachin Hatemi M.D.
Published by

In 2010, Dutch-Turkish Photographer Ahmet Polat published the photo book AfroTurks, which documented the pictures of Turks of African descent living in the region of Izmir- Turkey’s third largest city. Ahmet had been working on this project since 2006. The pictures from his collection open the doors to the inner worlds of black minority in Turkey.

Who are Afro-Turks? Where did they come from and where they are heading?

Afro-Turks - Turkish Citizens of African descent – have gained recognition from the Turkish government over the last few years. They are the descendants of the black citizens of the Ottoman Empire. Afro Turks have Turkish names; over time they adopted Turkish traditions and now practice Islam as their religion.
Based on recent estimates, there are roughly 20,000-25,000 Afro-Turks inside Turkey, but nobody keeps tract of their actual number. Despite their small numbers, they contributed significantly to the Turkish culture and arts. Famous Turkish singers Esmeray and Melis Sokmen are both descendants of Afro-Turks.

However, with the passing of the older generation, they are starting to lose few connections they have to their past. Only a few of the elderly members of the community remember their past and there are few written records of their traditions. The new oral history projects are trying to revitalize their almost forgotten traditions.

The history of Afro-Turks is murky and convoluted.  Most of them were the descendants of the African slaves during the Ottoman Empire period. Their roots in slavery are not too distant, considering that slave trade only ended in the beginning of 20th century in Turkey. After a decree issued in 1857 by Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid I, the slave trade was abolished, but he did not ban slavery altogether. 

The Ottoman Empire did not completely leave the freed slaves to face their destiny alone. Ottoman bureaucracy had a grand plan for them. Dusty Ottoman archives declare that the empire provided more than 1500 Afro-Turk families each with a house, furniture, two oxen, and some money. Property ownership was seen by the government as the key to making Afro-Turks feel welcome in the Turkish lands. The government wanted to anchor them to the land they toiled on for so long. Reparations was a way for the Ottoman Sultan to ask for forgiveness for the pain suffered by Afro-Turks’ ancestors.

Initially, homogenous “African” villages were established on land given by the government. Some chose to stay in the villages and kept their heritage - some moved to larger cities and slowly entered mixed marriages and assimilated into the general population.

Afro-Turks originated from many different countries, including Niger, Egypt, Kenya and Sudan. Interestingly, the Embassy of Sudan even sent a representative to their biggest and most important annual celebration - the Calf Festival. In the Ottoman Empire, most of them lived in Western Anatolia, in Ayvalik in the Northern Aegean region, in Izmir or in a village near popular tourist destination called Bodrum in western Turkey.

Afro-Turks are now much more organized today than they were in previous decades. The African Solidarity and Cooperation Association (ASCA) was founded to preserve the community’s traditions and history. ASCA leadership is also very creative with the way it utilizes press coverage to their benefit. When President Obama visited Turkey in 2009, ASCA asked for an official meeting with Obama. While they did not succeed to meet Obama, they brought enough attention to their cause.

Turkish state-run television channel (TRT) recently produced a documentary about them. The Turkish Ministry of Culture supported an oral history project, “Voices of a Speechless Past,” with participation from the European Union.

Unfortunately, Afro-Turks are not entirely happy with their current condition. They want a better future for themselves and want to preserve their identity. They demand better access to higher education and more employment opportunities. Given their relatively small numbers, I do not see a reason why Turkish government cannot provide them more opportunities given their fast growing economy.

When you visit Turkey on vacation and see a Turkish Speaking “African,” do not assume he or she is a tourist or a refugee. Remember the Afro-Turks…

 Lachin Hatemi is a physician living in Buffalo, New York. His interests include human rights, racial equality and interfaith dialogue. You can reach Lachin at 

No comments:

Post a Comment