The Afro-Turks: Turkey’s Little-known Black Minority Reclaims Its Past

Descendants of African slaves sold to the Ottoman Empire, Afro-Turks seek to revive their ancestors’ traditions – but there are barely any left

An Afro-Turk farmer, Gungor Delibas, whose family is originally from Sudan, with a picture of her and her Turkish husband, in Haskoy, Turkey, October 2017.
Davide Lerner

IZMIR, Turkey – Dotted along Turkey’s Aegean coastline are a smattering of villages that the country’s Afro-Turks call home.

“The first generation suffers, the second generation denies and the third generation questions,” reads the opening line of Mustafa Olpak’s book, the first and the last autobiographical and introspective study of Turkey’s dwindling black minority. Olpak coined the term Afro-Turk and founded the movement to help resurrect their identity,but the history of the estimated 1.3 million people who were forced into slavery and shipped from Africa to the territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire remains little more than a footnote of Turkish history.

While “the library of the Congress of the United States of America has over 600 personal accounts of African-American slaves, none could be found in Ottoman archives,” notes Turkish historian Hakan Erdem in his commentary to Olpak’s book. Before his death last year, Olpak had dreamed of delivering a copy of his book to former U.S. President Barack Obama, and had even traveled to Istanbul’s airport in a hopeless attempt to meet him as he landed for a state visit.

Today the number of Afro-Turks is estimated at only a few tens of thousands. Many still live in the villages of Haskoy, Yenicifler and Yenikoy, near Izmir, while some reside in rural areas around Ayvalik, Antalya and Adana, as well as in Istanbul. Most were first brought to Turkey to work as domestic servants or in the tobacco and cotton fields along the Aegean Sea; they settled near Izmir once they were freed. Although the slave trade was officially made illegal in 1857 following pressure from Britain and other European powers, it took until the beginning of the 20th century to eliminate the practice altogether and to liberate those who were owned by Ottoman families since before the slave trade was outlawed.

In Izmir, the state provided safe houses for former slaves as well as assistance to integrate them into the labor market; whole villages and neighborhoods inhabited by the Afro-Turks were dubbed “Arap” areas – the Turkish word for Arab, which is still used as slang to refer to black people.

Sakir Doguluer, left, leader of the Africans’ Culture and Solidarity Society, with Beyhan Turkkollu, a member of the group, Haskoy, Turkey, October 2017.
Davide Lerner

As we drive into Haskoy, the village where he grew up, Sakir Doguluer states, “We are Turkish, Muslim and proud.”

Sakir is a retired mechanic who took over the leadership of the Africans’ Culture and Solidarity Society after Olpak’s death in 2016. At the entrance we make a brief pit stop to say hello to friend, an Afro-Turk who, like most men from the village on this sleepy Sunday afternoon, is sitting in the tea shop, sipping tea, smoking a cigarette and flicking his worry beads between his fingers. The tea shop whose walls are plastered with posters of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, the modest mosque down the road and the meandering cats make Haskoy every bit the cliché postcard-perfect scene of rural Turkish life.

“I never asked myself why I was black,” says Sakir’s sister-in-law Hadije, who also lives in the village. “We didn’t know or care about why we were.” That was the case until 2006, when Turkish national television made a documentary about the community and Olpak’s new book, “Kenya-Crete-Istanbul: Human Biographies from the Slave Coast.” Until then Olpak’s own daughter Zeynep, today a flight attendant for Turkish Airlines, “had no idea” that her grandparents where slaves.

Zeynep is mixed race, and her ever-so-slightly dark olive skin and long wavy hair do not raise eyebrows in Turkey. “I struggled to read the book and had to read it in sessions, crying after each part,” she says. “My father searched for his identify, but most Afro-Turks were not very happy to find out.” She smokes a cigarette before heading off to work – a flight that will soon take her “back” to Kenya, she chuckles.

“Our grandparents did not want the new generations to know, they kept it a secret,” but “almost 10 years have passed since my father’s book came out, in those 10 years people’s reactions have changed,” Zeynep concludes.

Sakir Doguluer, left, leader of the Africans’ Culture and Solidarity Society, with a member of the Afro-Turk community, Haskoy, Turkey, October 2017.
Davide Lerner

'A second trauma'

While shame and pain played a role in many Afro-Turks’ choice to bury their past, these were not the only factors. Upon arrival, slaves were immediately converted to Islam, their names were changed and they were forced to put all aspects of their free life in Africa behind them. With a version of Islamic law ruling over the Ottoman Empire, treatment of slaves was different from America. Children of slaves were born free citizens, intermarriage was legal and after a period of seven to 10 years, Islamic law encouraged owners to release their slaves.

Beyond this, a large number of Afro-Turks were among the half-a-million Muslims from Greece who were forcibly exchanged for a million Christians from Turkey in the population swap that came after the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. For the Afro-Turks, the transfer represents “a second trauma” and a “second displacement,” explains Lulufer Korukmez, a Turkish academic who studied the group, at Ege University in Izmir. Ironically, one of the main promoters of the plan was League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Fridtjof Nansen, who believed that creating more ethnically homogeneous states would diminish forced displacement and war in the long run.

Afro-Turks also went through “a powerful Turkification” with the founding of the Turkish Republic, which set in motion a process of “nation-building that subsumed and suppressed other consciousnesses,” explains Ehud Toledano, an expert on slavery in the Ottoman Empire at Tel Aviv University. “At the end of it all, of their old identity very little is left,” he remarks,

“I am proud of my African origins,” explains Messuré, Sakir’s sister, but “I only know the village where I grew up.” Messuré can neither read nor write. “I didn’t have the chance to learn to read, but if I had, I would have no doubt done better than you all,” she says.

Beyhan Turkkollu, left, and Sakir Doguluer flanking two members of the Afro-Turk community, Hatice Gunel and Ahmet Dogu, in Izmir, Turkey, October 2017.
Davide Lerner

Deniz, a mechanical engineer who commutes to Izmir from Haskoy every day, retorts that while he can read, he doesn’t “have time to sit around researching my family.” The Afro-Turkish community is largely working-class and these rural villages feel like they have fallen through the cracks of Turkey’s rapid modernization and industrialization over the last two decades.

Beyond the hardships of working-class life in rural Turkey, the Afro-Turks have to deal with the second hurdle of racism, according to Korukmez. “Being equal is not enough,” she says, “just because there is no structural racism does not mean that there isn’t in reality.” Back in the village, when Cihan, Deniz’s 11-year-old daughter, tells us she wants to be a doctor, there is a chorus of “inshallah” from her illiterate female cousins.

A few family members recognize that their life has not been easy. In villages, some Turks put their hands over their children’s eyes when Afro-Turks walk by, believing that they are bad luck. Others, however, consider their black countrymen talismans for good luck. “In cities, we often struggle to find jobs for no apparent reason,” they admit, even though they normally prefer to downplay problems of discrimination.

It was racism and discrimination that led the workers' rights activist and self-taught writer Mustafa Olpak to investigate his family history. The result was a work similar to Alex Haley’s 1976 novel “Roots,” which tells the story of an African sold into slavery in the United States and the lives of his descendents. Indeed, the impact on the lives of Afro-Turks was huge, but few are able to take up the challenge of perpetuating the newly discovered identity.

Afro-Turk farmer Gungor Delibas in Haskoy, Turkey, October 2017. Her family is originally from Sudan.
Davide Lerner

Impact on real life

“It is rare for historians to witness the impact that their work can have on the lives of real people,” writes Toledano in a draft of the introduction to the English edition of Olpak’s book, due to be published by Stanford University Press next year. But in the end, he concedes: “Sometimes as historians we create artificial identities.”

“The annual Calf Festival [known in Turkish as Dana Bayram] is the only tradition that they managed to resurrect, the rest having been long forgotten,” says Korukmez. The traditional dishes, languages and customs have long since been condemned to history with the passing of generations. “All that is left is the color of our skin,” admits Sakir himself. “I say to my grandchildren: Look at the color of my skin, because soon you won’t see it around here anymore. We risk losing the last visible proof that we are descendants of slaves of the Ottoman Empire.”

At the peak of the slave trade to the Ottoman Empire, as many as 15,000 to 18,000 Africans were brought over every year. A large number came from West Africa, passing through Agadez in Niger; those from Eastern Africa made the perilous journey across the Sahara before being shipped to the Ottoman Empire. For centuries Agadez has been the departure point for those making the difficult and dangerous passage across the Sahara. According to the International Organization for Migration, approximately 120,000 to 150,000 individuals departed from Agadez en route to Europe in 2016. Many never make it across the Sahara, falling off the back of trucks or dying of starvation or dehydration after their convoys get lost traveling on the unpaved routes in the desert.

Patrick Kingsley’s book, “The New Odyssey,” which discusses the current migration crisis, describes the desert crossing as a journey more dangerous than the trip across the Mediterranean. In 1849 the Ottoman statesman Mustafa Resid Pasha deemed the trade route across the Sahara to be too dangerous and penned a note to the governor of Tripoli asking him to make it more “humane.” Pasha requested that the governor “punish the traders who did not respect this.”

A desert crossing that ends “often with the same result” is how Ottoman expert Toledano describes the form of “modern slavery” endured by the masses of refugees and migrants making their way northward from Africa today.