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04.11.2008

Sad story of black citizens in Turkey

The sad story of Turkey’s black community is written by a second generation descendant from a family brought to the Ottoman Empire from Kenya as slaves

VERCİHAN ZİFLİOĞLU


Mustafa Olpak, founder of the Africans' Culture and Solidarity Community, has published a book about the sad tale of blacks in Turkey based on stories he has heard firsthand.

Olpak said his grandparents carried the "x" mark of slavery on the back of their shoulders until the day they died. In 1895 most of his tribe were kidnapped from the so-called "slave shores" of Zanzibar, today's Tanzania, and enslaved by the Ottomans, according to Olpak, who made interesting statements relying on documents he holds. The tribe he belongs to is part of the "Kukuris," still present on the slave shores, said Olpak, whose research has followed the trails of his lost tribe to the United States and Brazil.

Olpak, who told his family's tale to the Hürriyet Daily News, said his grandparents lived into their hundreds. He said they were so ashamed of the marks on their backs that they bathed by themselves well into old age, even though they needed help. "That was a sorrow we all felt to our bones," said Olpak. "Black people's exploitation lies at the foundations of rich countries that prate about democracy. As long as the world keeps turning, the spirits of our ancestors shall never leave the white people free."

Olpak collected his story in his book "Kölekıyısı – Kenya'dan İstanbul'a" (Slave Shores – From Kenya to Istanbul). The book, featuring photographs and documents, has been released by Punto publications and profits will contribute to the search of black Turkish residents' lost family members. In conjunction with the book's release, a photography exhibition called "Türkiye'nin Siyahları" (The Blacks of Turkey) is open to visitors at Tütün Deposu at Tophane in Istanbul through until Nov. 9.

US connection

Olpak has an interesting claim about U. S. presidential candidate Barack Obama: he says they are distant relatives. Centuries ago, Obama's family was also kidnapped and brought to the United States, according to Olpak.

"Obama sent me his books with love and greetings through his consultants," said Olpak, adding that last year he was visited by 12 professors from Kentucky University, two of them being close consultants to Obama.

Community works for missing people

Olpak presented information, based on data from UNESCO, showing that in the last century more than 50 million black people were enslaved. "It is possible today to buy a child for $10 in the hinterlands of India and Sudan," said Olpak, adding that there is still a rush of applications to the Africans' Culture and Solidarity Community for help in finding missing family members.

Olpak founded the community in 2006 in Alanya, in Turkey's Aegean region, because the Crete Island nearby was the center of the Ottoman slave trade and some of his family members were sold there after being kidnapped. In 1923, his family snuck onto ships coming from Turkey and escaped from Crete to Ayvalık during the population exchange, executed according to the Treaty of Lausanne.

Last year, the community's building was lost in a tragic fire. Olpak said he carried whatever documents concerning the missing people he could save from the fire with him.

"Until I am able to buy a new building, I will carry these documents with me, as apart of myself," he said.

Olpak is carrying out research for families of missing people but is unable to go back further than two generations.

"I checked the Ayvalık Birth Registration Office for information on my family register but there's nothing beyond my grandfather," said Olpak, explaining that slaves were not considered human during the Ottoman era, so no records were kept on them.

‘Modern world cannot erase the marks on my soul'

Olpak told how he had hard times during school because of his skin color. His friends would yell "Arab" as he passed by and sing demeaning nursery rhymes about him. Olpak said he believed slavery would be over by the end of the fourth generation and he witnessed the first generation's suffering firsthand because he grew up with them.