Five miles from the promised land, there’s everything a migrant might need: rental car agencies that provide their own drivers; a cheap place to spend the night biding time; pay-as-you-go cellphones; and a chicken doner in perpetual motion. Edirne isn’t big, and most tourist guides highlight a gorgeous mosque and the locals’ penchant for fried liver. But those guides ignore Edirne’s greatest advantage for innumerable visitors: It’s five miles to Greece, the European Union, and potential refugee status. Edirne is the last stop before Europe.
The United Nations estimates that more than 6 million Syrians are displaced—nearly a third of the population. An incredible 2 million of these individuals are in Turkey, and an untold number of them are trying to make their way to Europe, where, to hear them say it, the streets are paved in gold. The streets are just asphalt in this northwest corner of Turkey, but all roads to Europe go through Edirne. From a historian’s perspective, they always have.
“Edirne is like a gun,” the writer Ismail Keskin says, describing the city of 150,000 people. “It gets loaded with refugees, and then shoots them everywhere.”
Refugees from Syria aren’t considered part of Turkishness
Keskin is a historian and a novelist, and he tries to explain how Syrian refugees fit into the region’s migration history. He’s a good person to do so, since he just published a novel about a Syrian family’s flight through Edirne, called The Exile of the Cactus Flower. Balding, with a grad student’s beard, Keskin talks over a frappe. It’s an affectation he picked up in Greece, where he was studying the 1923 population exchange that uprooted as many as 500,000 Greek Muslims from their homeland and brought them to Turkey, where few spoke the language or knew the customs.
Unlike those who came a century ago, “refugees from Syria aren’t considered as being part of Turkishness,” Keskin says. “They have never been considered as the ones who have a right to claim their part.” In the early 1900s, nearly a million Muslims fled the new Balkan nation-states for Turkey. Known as muhacir in Turkish, thousands died of starvation, and at the hands of lynch mobs and bandits on their way to Edirne and all points south. But they were fortunate, in a way, since they were fleeing to a Turkey still defining what “Turkishness” meant. The Turkish language hadn’t been standardized yet; decades of war had the grotesque effect of giving these Balkan migrants job opportunities; a revolutionary education system would forge their children into Turks.
A late 19th-century mansion for sale in Edirne. Photo: Asher Kohn
Coinciding with this Balkan exodus was the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Though it’s remembered heroically in Syrian history, the architects of the Turkish state saw it as betrayal. It should be old history by now, but as Keskin puts it, Turkish textbooks portray the Arabs “as a dirty, ignorant, uncivilized, non-trustable back-stabber nation.” Edirne’s people, the vast majority of whom trace their roots to these Balkan refugees, see themselves as “Sons of the Conquerors,” as a popular nationalist saying goes. The Syrians are seen as the sons of the perfidious.
This may be why Syrians are less visible in Edirne than they are in far larger Istanbul. According to Keskin, the 2 million Syrians in Istanbul, in refugee camps, and in southern Turkey are largely here to stay. In Edirne, they’re only there to leave.
The cluster of pensions, phone shops, and car agencies sits on Edirne’s far western edge, on the way out of town. There are underclothes, boxers, and socks hanging out of many pension windows, which gives the area a peculiar look of having a transient camp occupy permanent space. The Syrians are mostly 20 to 30 years old and spend their time either in PlayStation cafés or dealing cards. Every so often a car comes up and a few men grab their duffel bags and hop in.