Photograph: Rui Gaudêncio
Most of the nationality applications from Jewish descendants expelled from Portugal in the XV century come from Turkey. Half of Habib’s family, from Istanbul, is already Portuguese. They have all come on a journey to the country where, after all, they departed from. They walked through the streets of Lisbon, sparing no detail: “I wonder if they are like us?”
He does not mean to show off, but Sargon Metin has a particular gift to be able to choose “the right present for the right person.” But having given Ceyda Habib a Barcelos cockerel from Portugal the first time they went out together was a bit too much. Sargon would have never guessed that Ceyda would receive a telephone call from a cousin to reveal that; “after all, they had come from Portugal.” Thus all his family could try to become Portuguese. And come back.
When things got a lot more serious with his then girlfriend, Sargon, who is a businessman, wanted to take Ceyda on a ten-day journey through the country he had brought the porcelain cockerel from, and where he had worked for three years. Ceyda swears that “when I arrived in Lisbon, a tourist city like London and Paris, I felt: that this was my home. Lisbon, I had such a strange feeling about the place.”
One has grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, great-great-great grandparents, but we do not talk about great-great-great-great grandparents. How can we call a relative who lived over 500 years ago?
There is no way to call that relative whose name, as Ceyda found out, was Jacob Ibn Habib, born in 1460 in the Castilian city of Zamora (now in Spain), but who, seeking safety for his family, moved to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, after 1492.
This was the time when the Catholic Kings Isabella I and Ferdinand II, the monarchs of Castile, Leon y Aragon, ordered: “that Jewish people of all ages living in our kingdom leave with their children, relatives of all ages, and that they dare not return to our land. If any Jew is found around these territories, he will be sentenced to death.”
Unlike the more humble ancestors, Jacob was the last prominent Chief Rabbi in Lisbon, thus he left traces of his life, which means that Ceyda and all her family could become Portuguese. “A Chief Rabbi! It would have never crossed my mind, never ever. I thought that my ancestors were traders,” admits Refik Habib, Ceyda’s father, who is a businessman in Istanbul and who had also been to Portugal by chance, for his cousin wedding, Arik, a Turk, who married Rita, a Portuguese. “What’s the likelihood of a Turk falling in love with a Portuguese girl in India and getting married in Mafra [near Lisbon]?” asks Ceyda, adding up the coincidences that, to her, after finding out about Jacob, became meaningful. “Everything is leading us to Portugal.”
“We’re going to become Portuguese,” said Ceyda’s father to the family after finding out about the ancestor who had lived in Lisbon. This is now possible since, in a measure intended as historical reparation, from March 2015 the Portuguese Government grants citizenship to those who can prove that they are descendants of the XV century Sephardic Jews forced to leave the territories now known as Spain and Portugal (Sefarad was the name by which the Iberian Peninsula was known for, hence the term “Sephardic”). It has been possible to be granted citizenship in Spain for several years, but at the end of 2015 a new law was also brought in.
Picturing a refugee camp in Greece
However plausible the chance for Habib’s family of becoming Portuguese had become a sort of legend, recalls Ceyda. After all, there were many Jewish people living in Turkey who had applied for Spanish citizen and had been waiting for seven to eight years.
It was said that the Portuguese law was as tricky as the Spanish one. Refik Habib remembers that rumours spread that the Portuguese authorities demanded videos to prove that Ladino was spoken (the language used by the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal), and even DNA tests. It took two months of family gathering and council in order to agree how they were going to prove their link to that distant relative.
We are all sitting for dinner at Ceyda’s father large flat in a private gated residential complex in Istanbul. At the living room table, surrounded by golden and white décor, I asked whether they could picture what their ancestors’ lives would be like. There isn’t any image of Jacob. Being a Chief Rabbi, did he have a beard? All left was his name and a book he penned, “EinYaakav- Ethical and Inspirational Teachings of the Talmud”, a classic of Jewish religious literature.
The truth is that, from the horror of the persecutions of the Jewish, the Holocaust is a lot more current and emotional that the time of the Inquisition, says Refik, as there are photos and films, but from 500 years ago, there is little left. “It’s a sad story, but it’s ancient.” So one has to picture what it must have been like.
Going back to this part of the Portuguese past, that of the Jewish people who fled from Spain, we have to go by what we know, by what is familiar to us at present, so let us think of a Syrian refugee camp like the ones we see on TV – and it could be one in Greece – and then let’s place it, for instance, in Alto Alentejo (South of Portugal): one of the escape gateways for the Jewish from Spain. It wouldn’t be that different.
Susana Bastos Mateus, a historian from the Alberto Benveniste Department of Sephardic Studies at the College of Arts and Letters from the University of Lisbon, comes up with the comparison: there are stories about a giant camp set up at the gates of the Castelo de Vide town to shelter four to five thousand people who had become homeless, and who were waiting there for King Manuel I in order to enter Portugal, where, it was said that Jewish people could live peacefully.
Many ended up staying at the border area: Bragança, Elvas, Idanha-a-Nova. Others continued until the coast. It is not known what route the Habibs took that led them, probably by horse and cart, to Portugal. The fact is that the family settled in Lisbon. We do not know for sure where, but we can try to guess. Jacob and his family probably lived at the Baixa (Downtown), where the Jewish neighbourhood was (an area occupying part of where Augusta Street stands today); and having become Chief Rabbi he probably lived close to the Synagogue (which was somewhere around the area where Madalena Street stands today).
Yet the calm did not last long. “The Jews have tail; Jewish men have periods as women do; Jews kill children; Jewish have a smell that has stayed with them from the death of Christ.” These were the sorts of popular medieval legends at the time, mentions Susana Bastos Mateus, many of which were capitalized on by Nazism. Another legend was that, after baptism, even the Jews’ skin improved due to the purification.
Banned even from the Barge of Hell
In 1496 King Manuel I ordered the expulsion of the Jews, aimed at purifying the country. This was one of the conditions set so that princess Isabella, the daughter of the Catholic kings, married the Portuguese monarch.
But the Portuguese King’s policy is fraught with ambiguity. On the one hand, he orders them to leave; but in practice, he prevents them from doing so. What he actually does is to officially extinguish the existence of Jews, thus artificially creating a wholly “Christian” society.
This course of actions started in 1497, a year after the supposed expulsion began, and it led to forced baptisms. It started with 4 to 14 year-old children. Apart from being baptised, some were taken away by force from their parents and given to Christian families. “Some parents, driven to despair, roamed the streets as if they were insane. Many would rather kill their own children with their own hands, throwing them into wells or rivers, then committing suicide right after,” points out Esther Mucznik, former Chairman of the Jewish Community in Lisbon, in her book “Grácia Nasi – The XVI Century Portuguese Jewish Woman Who Challenged her Own Destiny” (Esfera dos Livros publishers).
After taking away the young, King Manuel I then ordered to take away from their families the children who were up to 25 years old. And it was probably in this group that another of Ceyda’s ancestors, Levi, Jacob’s son, was baptised; plucked out from his family at 17 in 1497. “A Chief Rabbi wasn’t going to be subjected to this,” remarks Sargon at the family dining table, picturing what the religious man must have felt then; escape as a matter of honour. In an American edition of the book “Ein Yaakov” (Rowman & Little¬field publishers), it is just mentioned that Jacob found the way to recover his son and then fled Portugal, but it does not explain how.
Once the Jewish faith was officially wiped out, they also wanted to destroy the physical traces of their presence. The Synagogues were shut down; the one in Lisbon was destroyed; and the Jewish cemetery in Lisbon turned into pasture for animals; the stones were used to build the Todos-¬os-Santos Hospital, as the historian points out.
Despite the fact that after converting many Jews changed their names to Christian names and began attending Mass, it was known that they were converts (ex Jews) who were called “new Christians”. Thus the Portuguese society continued divided, and the “old Christians” looked mistrustfully at the “new Christians.”
This cultural mix of suspicion and intolerance led to the Lisbon massacre on 19 April 1506, thus showing that “the integration had not worked out,” adds Susana Bastos Mateus. “Was there a massacre of Jews in Lisbon?” asks the Habib family at the table. They did not know.
I read to the Habibs parts of the historical accounts of the days when the dead were thrown onto the bonfire where there were still people alive; of pregnant women flung through windows towards spears. And of such cruelty “that led to the execution of children and babies in cribs, grabbing them by their feet, ‘breaking’ them into pieces and smashing them against walls”. On hearing this Ceyda shivers; perhaps because there are three children in the living room and two of them are babies: Kevin, her four-month-old baby, and her nephews, two-and-a-half-months-old Rayn and four-year-old Jamie, who had brought over some toys to the table.
All sources suggest that over a thousand people were killed, wrote Susana Bastos Mateus and Paulo Mendes Pinto in the book, “The Massacre of the Jews” (Alêtheia publishers).
Moris Levi, the Vice President of the Jewish Community in Turkey, isn’t keen on listening to the description of the Portuguese massacre, as there is nothing different about it. “Lisbon, Girona, Venice; as far as I know it was something mathematical. At that time, there was a massacre of Jews every three years”.
“Murdering Jews was normal during the XIV and the XV century,” wrote both historians in the same work, explaining that the Moors were then “the external enemy”, whilst “in the cities, between the walls, there was another internal enemy: the Jews.” “That which was different and had to be banished.” And a sign of the times was the fact that even the Portuguese writer Gil Vicente’s devil even banned “the Jew” from entering his Barge of Hell”, as he was “an evil person.”
Returning to our kingdoms freely
After the Lisbon massacre many Jews left Portugal, and on the following year a decree was passed by King Manuel I allowing them to leave the country after all. He then writes what could be read as a premonition: “And those who leave can return to our kingdom freely when they want, when it is suitable for them, or when they wish to do so; and in their comings and goings they will not be oppressed nor constrained.” Furthermore, “those who return afterwards” will be “helped and well treated.”
There were steady movements of people leaving Portugal during those years, but they surged with the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1536.
At Largo de São Domingos Street in Lisbon there is, since 2008, a monument lest we not forget the 1506 massacre. By its side there are today two Guineans selling peanuts and okra, a man begging for alms supporting himself with crutches, and a couple sipping the ginginha that is sold there. In her book, “Identity and Memory in the Israeli Community in Lisbon” (2014), the author, Xénia Venusta de Carvalho, wrote that one of the Portuguese Jews interviewed said he was never able to see a play at the Teatro Nacional (The National Theatre) “due to the Inquisition,” because it was right “there where they were burned.”
There isn’t any physical trace left in the city of the Inquisition. Here, where Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II is staging “The Last Days of Humanity”, the Inquisition’s headquarters once were. And it was from here that, surrounded by a crowd of people, the processions of the punished set out, dressed in white with their own faces painted among the flames in anticipation of what was to come. “Yes, it was that dramatic,” remarks historian Susana Bastos Mateus. Painters were hired to replicate the burning faces of those sentenced in pieces of fabric that were hung like canvas in the central nave of the São Domingos church, which still preserves its name. Many of those pieces were restored so that they lasted longer.
Somewhere around here, by the Tejo river, along Chafariz D’el Rei, where today two tourists holding hands with rucksacks on their backs stroll by, and a traffic sign shows that stopping or parking isn’t allowed, the bonfires were lit. Even the ashes from the heretics’ bodies weren’t removed, as they were deemed “impure” and thus one couldn’t even touch them, recalls Susana Bastos Mateus; they were left until the wind and the tide carried them onto the river.
OUnderground escape routes
After the massacre, only the persecuted Jews who headed for Christian kingdoms were allowed by King Manuel I to leave Portugal, lest they became Jewish again in the land of the Moors. Underground escape routes were created, and often small fishing boats carried Jewish to ships along the coast. The Jewish that were already settled then called other Jews, as it usually happens during migrations.
There were some who set out by ship through North Africa or through the North of Europe, via Antwerp, England, and then on to Flanders, Amsterdam, then afterwards on to Italy, states Susana Bastos Mateus.
Many left, but many stayed. Evidence of this? A study published in 2008 in “The American Journal of Human Genetics” showed that, on average, 35% of men in the South of Portugal and 25% in the North carry the genes of Sephardic Jews, which means that many mixed, thus surviving religious intolerance.
For many of those who wanted and managed to flee, the Ottoman Empire became one of the main destinations; news came from there that it was an oasis, a safe haven. There, unlike in Europe, they let them be Jewish freely, as long as they paid their taxes.
This fact accounts for Turkey being the country from where most of the Portuguese citizenship applications come, about 40% out of the total (2103 out of the total 5566 applications submitted from March 2016 to December last year). Then follows Israel and Brazil.
We do not know for certain the date when the Habib family fled Portugal, but the final destination would be Salonika, which it is now part of Greece, but back then it was part of the vast Ottoman Empire. Jacob, the ancestor, would die there at the age of 56, around 1516, before finishing the book that would immortalize him; this task was completed by his son Levi who also became a Rabbi and reached 65 years of age. The work made it possible for the family to be traced in time by its Turkish descendants many centuries later; and since then it has been published over a hundred times. These Habibs did no longer return to their home, either to Spain or Portugal.
A key passed down from generation to generation
It has been said that some of the Sephardic Jews families kept the key to the original homes they were forced to abandon in Portugal, hoping they could return to their land one day. These would be heavy keys that were handed down from generation to generation throughout five centuries.
The Portuguese-Brazilian writer Tatiana Salem Levy, whose family was from Castelo de Vide (South of Portugal) and during the XV fled to Smyrna, in today’s Turkey, always heard her family talk about the key to their Portuguese home. They always said that it had gone missing during a fire, but that it did exist.
Karen Sarhon, the coordinator of the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Culture Research Centre in Istanbul, deals with this subject with sarcasm. “They came with that question from Spain: ‘Have you got the key to the house?’ The key to the house?!. It is merely a romantic myth, I am a realist. Can anyone really think that someone who is being persecuted and unable to carry anything but a small suitcase will carry a big rusty key? It’s nonsense, and even more so the idea of a family having kept the key for over 520 years. I’m not a fool.”
At Castelo de Vide Synagogue’s museum, Esther Mucznik, the former Chairman of the Jewish Community in Lisbon was asked to talk about the keys. “Things that are real or mythical feed the imagination, turning the past into a paradise,” she tells us.
“The key is symbolic. It could be a key, a quilt, even if it does not exist physically any longer,” says Susana Bastos Mateus. One of the “forms of evidence” stipulated in the Portuguese law regarding granting citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews is precisely “the oral tradition of the family.”
A language that epitomises home
More relevant than the keys is the story of the key and other stories, which indeed were handed down from generation to generation in Ladino. The greatest proof of belonging to this minority isn’t physical but intangible: it is called “Ladino.”
It is amazing that it has survived, says the researcher Karen Sarhon, who is in charge of one of the few newspapers in Ladino in the world, Dawn, a monthly supplement sold together with the weekly Jewish newspaper Shalom. “They predicted the disappearance of Ladino, and it’s been already 40 years. It hasn’t happened yet,” she smiles. Because Ladino [learning] was interrupted in Turkey; it is a language that wasn’t taught at school, which was confined to the home, mainly to women. As learning Turkish was compulsory to the Jewish, in the first half of the XX century Ladino began to fade away.
“Ladino is still the mother tongue of Turkish Jewish over 70 to 80 years old; the generation who is about 60 years old still masters it; the generation in their 40s still understands it and can say a few things; but the younger generation doesn’t speak anything,” she points out. Yet it is still something that binds us together. “It embodies this cultural community.” It isn’t 58 year-old Karen Sarhon’s mother tongue but that of her grandfather, so she feels it is her duty to foster and safeguard this language without a country.
Ladino is a language that carries with it the map of the places through which these Jews passed during their endless exiles. “It mixes Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Turkish. It is a very humanistic language,” says Moris Levi, the Vice President of the Jewish Community in Turkey. “So to us, this language embodies psychologically the idea of a home.”
Most words come from Castilian Spanish (that is why it is also called Judeo-Spanish), but others are closer to the medieval language than the modern-day one. Moris Levi recalls that, visiting Spain a few years ago, on a business trip, he used the word “aldiké¬ra”, and was surprised that no one recognised it. To him it meant “pocket”. Then he discovered that the word that was still used in Ladino had disappeared in Spanish, which now used the word bolsillo. This was a word that, when the Jewish left what today is Spain, would be used to refer to a bag out of which seeds are taken, explains Levi. It was a word that came directly from Spain, from the Middle Ages, and which no one recognised in XXI century Spain.
In the Ladino-Turkish dictionary, edited by Karen Sarhon, words have, whenever possible, their origin explained. Ladino has Portuguese, but less than Turkish, where they have lived for five centuries, but it does have some Portuguese. Sephardic Jews in Turkey keep on using the Portuguese word “ainda” (yet, still) instead of the Spanish term “aún” (yet, still), and “agora” (now) instead of “ahora”. There are Portuguese words which survived in present-day Ladino, albeit with the spelling altered, such as “izolado”(isolated), “risko” (risk), “enkorajar” (encourage). Being able to speak in Ladino is one of the “forms of proof” required by the Portuguese law.
Journey through Portuguese lands
Since September last year Ceyda Habib, her father and her brother-in-law, are officially Portuguese. There are two members of the Habib family waiting to be granted citizenship, her mother and her sister Deniz. The process involved, the legal basis, is the same: it’s Jacob; it’s the Ladino language.
Whilst waiting so that the whole family becomes Portuguese, they planned a trip last year, a journey to the country where; after all, they came from. Even their female dog Mia, and Ceyda makes sure that she too appears in the picture.
Ceyda recalls how, during those Portuguese days, the whole family walked through the streets of Lisbon and Oporto staring at the faces of the Portuguese. “I wonder if we are similar to them? I wonder if they are like us?”
She says that she realised that they did, that they came from there. “There is a way to talk and to behave, even a way to walk, to live, which is different to that of other European countries,” such as England and France, for instance.
Ceyda’s husband, Sargon Metin, has family in Strasbourg; and when they go to visit them in the French city, Ceyda says that she feels that “it is a different world. It is so quiet that we can even hear our footsteps; people talk so quietly.” It isn’t like in Portugal, “where you can hear people talking. Turkish people talk in a loud way too. I want to feel the energy.” This is because, as a matter of fact, they feel more Turkish than Jewish, explains Ceyda, so they feel more at home in Portugal than being with Jewish people in France, “who are different to us.” “The Portuguese are similar to the Turkish, we’re both Mediterranean people.” Portugal has more to do with them than even Israel, where she says she felt a lot more like a foreigner as she does not speak Hebrew. “When you speak in Ladino to a Spaniard, they say that it isn’t Spanish; when you speak in Ladino to a Portuguese, they say that it isn’t Portuguese.”
Not being one thing or the other, led them to feel more at home in Portugal.
And Ceyda, who doesn’t speak Ladino that well, remembers what happened to her mother in Lisbon. The whole family was at the Colombo shopping centre, in Lisbon, at the restaurant area, and each family member wanted to satisfy their appetite. As Sargon had learned Portuguese, he had to accompany each diner to the restaurant of his choice, translate what he wanted to order and then wait until it was prepared. Ceyda and him opted for a pasta dish, her father chose meat at a rodízio restaurant, and her sister ordered chicken.
”My mother-in-law was the last one; she was hungry and angry, tired of waiting for her guide,” recalls Sargon. She doesn’t speak English but French, and not many people could understand what she was saying, so she decided to go by herself and order in Ladino. It would have been a piece of a piece of quiche, he cannot remember right. What he does remember though is that they understood her, and how important this was.
“She came back very happy with her tray”, remembers her daughter. She had managed to make herself understood in Ladino. “It was a good thing that happened to me, having been understood,” says her mother Sevim. It was a sign that something, despite so many centuries, brought them closer together.
After that day Sevim Habib began talking to people in the street. “In Portugal, my mother was happy.” She then started saying to the family: “I can go by myself,” recalls the couple, Ceyda and Sargon.
After Sargon began frequenting the house and listening to their grandmother talk to the children, he rightly told them: “but you’re speaking in Portuguese,” and they replied: “No, we are speaking in Ladino.”
“Fitting in won’t be that hard,” concluded Ceyda. The fact is they have already made up their minds, so after the family visit, Sargon and her started looking for a house in Portugal. The rest of the family is doing the same; her parents, Ceyda’s sister and her brother-in-law. During dinner many of the questions asked are about house prices, and they also sought advice about the best areas to live in Lisbon.
To be called “Miguel”
Turkey has undergone many changes since their first Valentine’s Day dinner when Sargon gave Ceyda the Barcelos cockerel. They got married; and four months ago they had a baby, a baby born in a day of change in Turkey.
The days when your children are born are always special days, and they stay with you as events that are repeated time and time again in the family. Yet the day Kevin came into the world wasn’t just unique because he was born then.
Ceyda and Sargon describe that incident in an anecdotal tone of voice, now that it is all over. Then Ceyda’s mother lay by the bedside of her daughter in labour, trying to calm her down in an odd way, they say. “Calm down, it is not an earthquake.” The hospital was shaking.
“It wasn’t an earthquake but fighter jets and bombs flying over the hospital and making its windows shake,” recalls Sargon. It was the 15 June 2016, the day of the coup d’état.
They were unsure about what was happening; they just rushed to hospital. At the time when the planned trouble-free Caesarean section was supposed to take place at Acibadem hospital, the operating theatre was filled with the injured from the coup. Kevin was born on 16 June at 16:45 hours.
The atmosphere is different since then, not just because they say so, the press covers it day by day. These are recent headlines: “Turkey has ordered the arrest of 100 soldiers due to their link with the coup plotters”; “170 newspapers, magazines and TV stations are shut down”, “125 journalists imprisoned”; “Turkey shuts down NGO and asks for life imprisonment for writers”; “Turkey is investigating ten thousand people for terrorist activities”; “after the failed coup, the Government has already suspended, dismissed and arrested 35 thousand people from the army, the police and the justice system”.
Ceyda and Sargon decided to name their son Kevin, but also Michael. The second name was added thinking about Portugal, so that one day he could be called “Miguel”.
“I want Kevin to grow up in the two worlds, that is my wish. We’re going to leave everything as it is in Turkey, but we want to have a house in Portugal. The idea is to spend half the time in Portugal, and the other half in Turkey. We go there, then we come back.”
Sargon and Ceyda are pioneers in this outbound journey that is also a return journey. “I am like a bridge for them,” says Ceyda, who meanwhile has become the representative of the Oporto Jewish Community in Turkey, one of the bodies in Portugal that approves the applicants to proceed with the process that leads to being granted citizenship.
What the law requires
“What’s Portugal like? What’s life like there? What’s their economy like? Insurance? Schools?” are some of the questions the couple are asked by those waiting to become Portuguese. In the list of Turkish Jewish families waiting to become Portuguese there are the Faro, the Franco, the Karmona, the Moreno, the Casado, the Pinhas, the Ventura, the Sarda, Gomel (from Gomes?), the Ferara (from Ferreira?). The Sephardic Jewish community in Turkey is made up of about 16.5000, and 2103, about 13%, had submitted applications to try to become Portuguese (data provided by the Portuguese Ministry of Justice).
When someone in Turkey has different surnames that do not sound like Turkish, and he is asked where he came from, the swift reply is always: “My ancestors came from Spain.” If many Sephardic Jews did not know the difference between Spain and Portugal, the two new laws will help them find out.
Up until December last year, Portugal has granted Portuguese citizenship to 431 Sephardic Jews, and about 63% are Turkish; Spain has only granted it to three people, sums up Yoram Zara, a Turkish origin lawyer living in Israel who deals with Turkish nationals’ applications.
Five hundred years later, the Portuguese law will enable Sephardic Jews in Turkey to discover that Portugal is a generous country when it comes to admitting its historic error, remarks lawyer Yoram Zara. “The Portuguese law is more reasonable.”
Spain had opened the legal door to granting citizenship some years ago, by Royal Decree, but it only granted in 2015, at one go, citizenship to 4522 people. But the new Spanish law requires doing a knowledge test on language and culture, which means that the applicant has to appear before a notary in Spain. Therefore, the main applicants come from countries like Argentina and Venezuela, but not from Turkey.
The Spanish law has been met with criticism. Some Turkish Jews, who prefer not to be identified, say that it is unfair that a country that expelled them 500 years ago is now demanding knowledge of a culture they do not know about, and should not be expected to know about. The multiple-choice test has questions such as: Who is the current King of Spain? What is Penélope Cruz profession? Which is Spain’s main export? Being able to speak Portuguese isn’t a requirement of the Portuguese law, nor is it having knowledge about the culture here; what is required is evidence of past ancestry.
Thus they became keen on Portugal. “There will be hundreds of Turkish Jews buying houses and properties in Portugal, and thinking about setting up their companies here,” noted Yoram Zara.
Under this new law Yoram Zara became a Portuguese citizen in December last year. He agrees with a recent article in the Turkish press that shows that Istanbul is similar to Lisbon: “Both sit on hills, both have rivers, both have a bridge linking the two river banks, there are roasted chestnuts for sale in the street during the cold weather, the pavement is made up of small stones.” “Lisbon is a bit like the East,” he observes.
Yet whether you want to become Portuguese or not depends on your age and your needs. There are different reasons between the elders and the youth. Some do not need it any longer, and some may still need it.
Photograph: Rui Gaudêncio
The roots of the Albukrek
Viktor always knew that his Albukrek came from some Albuquerques who had come from Portugal. Through centuries its spelling changed, thus the “que” became a “k”, as the Turkish language lacks this syllable. He always heard about his pretty similar and pretty famous namesake, Afonso de Albuquerque, a former Viceroy of India. The family used to joke, father to son, “our ‘ancestor’ had so much land, yet he left us none.”
When his son, an environmental engineer living in Canada, visited Portugal four years ago, every time he came across a sign with the family surname written on it in the old-fashioned way, he would send photographs. He joked about the sign: “Another one of our roads.”
The family’s Portuguese origin was like a folk tale, and it had no impact on their lives; even when, recently, his friends started asking Viktor Albukrek: “Why don’t you try ringing the Portuguese bell? Take advantage of this opportunity.” “What opportunity?”, he replies.
Viktor Albukrek, 85-years-old, points at the wall by an old rose-coloured sofa decorated with a white lace napperon displayed over it – it is painted grey and it is fading. He thought it might be a good idea to give it a new coat of paint, but his wife Rahel insisted it would be better leaving it as it is. It is ‘too late’ for renovations. “We haven’t got any strength left to paint the walls or move home; I am not thinking about moving from this country,” says Viktor. In the unlikely event of coming back to Portugal one day, he will do what he has always done: “Apply for a visa.”
The time for long journeys has ended for us, says Viktor, who keeps in an ashtray in the living room boxes of matches from all over the world, from the Crown Princess in Kuala Lumpur, Le Meridien in Melbourne, the International Hotel in Nairobi, or Palacio de Madrid.
“Our roots are here,” says Viktor. His wife, Rahel Albukrek, was ill. She used to be, like him, a tour guide, but due to the stroke she had lost her ability to speak French, Spanish, English and Ladino. Only Turkish stayed.”
Yet like most people, Viktor Albukrek is curious about something he slightly mistrusts, as someone who has got used to thinking that there must be some explanation behind such generosity. “Why did Portugal pass this law?” “Was there pressure from Israel?” I answered that there was a petition and then the parties in Parliament unanimously approved it.
Regardless of the reasons, Viktor says that “hearing they’re opening the doors for Jews to go back, to return, fills one with joy.” To the oldest, its significance is merely symbolic,” he adds. It is like putting an end to an era.
The amazing relic
That elderly lady had no intention whatsoever of becoming Portuguese. She was ill with cancer, eighty-two years old; and she arrived together with her husband David and a nurse to the Castelo de Vide village in Alentejo (South of Portugal). The former president of the Town Council, Carolino Tapadejo, himself of Jewish descent from Jews expelled from Toledo, realised that this would be the last journey she would ever undertake. He saw her arrive on 31 May in 2015.
“She wanted to say good-bye to her “homeland”, a “homeland where she had never been.” She carried with her an object she wanted “to give back”, recalls the former mayor. It was a black rusty key that would open the door to the family’s Portuguese house.
Esther Cohen, the lady whose family had fled Portugal during the XV century to what it is now Turkey, said that it had been handed down from generation to generation, by women. In addition to the key, she brought along the names of neighbours from 500 years ago. The lady knew that on Rua da Fonte, whose name she still knew, her long gone family used to live together with “a Ana, a Benta, a Arrenega, a Tristão and a Penhasco”, recalls Carolino Tapadejo, who had thoughtfully written down all those names.
The former mayor had always heard about the story of the key, yet he never thought that it existed. “Try picturing what that thrilling moment was like, upon seeing this lady crying; she was crying and so was I, her husband and the nurse, placing in my hands this amazing relic, together with a smaller key, no doubt that of a wardrobe.” She had no children to leave it with, so she was giving it back to this Alentejo village.
Carolino Tapadejo took hold of her and led her to the road that has kept its name for over 500 years, the one that leads from the synagogue (now a museum) to Fonte da Vila (the village fountain). The road is located on the North side of the village, where the Jewish Quarter used to be, as this was the gloomier, wetter and steeper side. He tried the key in, door after door. “What are you doing here?” asked the locals who knew him well, as his parents-in-law live in that road. “I’m trying to find out whether the key slots in.” They did not mind he had tried it in fourteen locks. None opened. The houses are in the same place; the wooden doors will have decayed with time. “I would have liked so much that a door had opened.”
Every time Carolino Tapadejo leads guided tours to this gloomier side of Castelo de Vide, Esther Cohen’s story is the latest highlight. The key is just waiting for a display cabinet, just for itself, at the synagogue museum.
Opportunities for children
Although to the old the law is merely symbolic, to the young a Portuguese passport can still change lives.
We are in the middle of the interview with Karen Sarhon, at the Shalom newspaper’s premises, when Gila Barokaa Erbes, the library employee approaches us: “Where are you from? From Portugal? Are you Portuguese from Portugal?”. I said we were. And she jokes: “it’s as if it were the coming of the Messiah.” She said she needed a lot of help from us. She does not have the funds to pay for a lawyer and a translator, so she is trying to do all the application process by herself. She is doing it with the help of Google Translator, although she is well aware it has flaws, but that is what she’s got. “Will they understand this?”, she shows me a document written in Portuguese which, at the very least, one can say that it has errors.
In the lady’s brown handbag, which she carries everywhere she goes, there are four letters from the Institute of Registry and Notary Services, in Lisbon. Her husband’s family are the descendants of a Barrocas family that time changed into Barokaa.
Gila is 56-years old and has two children; one is autistic. It is more for her healthy child that she is doing everything to become Portuguese. Holding a European passport is like an open door. It’s Schengen. But it seems like a never-ending process. I want this to end.”
“Many Turkish Jews have their children studying abroad, in the United States, in Israel, but they end up having to go back since the Turkish passport does not help that much when it comes to moving around freely,” points out Karen Sarhon.
Being Spanish or Portuguese means being able to move around freely, being able to stay without having to account for it, without having to apply for a visa. It means being able to do your masters in Spain, as Karen Sarhon’s daughter has been thinking since her mum became Spanish. “The law is important especially for our children,” stresses the researcher. And that is all they say. Despite the questions, these are like talks that have to be interrupted.
“We don’t know whether you can help us become Portuguese or not…” (Gila Barokaa Erbes); “You never know what tomorrow may bring…” (Refik Habib) “You never know what the future holds.” (Ceyda Habib Metin).
These are clichés that could be uttered by any person in any country, at a café or on the bus, yet when spoken by Jewish people living today in Turkey they acquire a new dimension. These are phrases left unfinished. These are talks filled with missing words they themselves cannot fill out.
We were in Istanbul during the week when the ruling party, The Justice and Development Party (AKP), submitted a bill aimed at suspending the convictions against those charged with indecent assault to minors as long as the offender married the victim. It ended up being withdrawn.
On the Cosmopolitan Istiklal Avenue, there is a discreet stand where signatures are collected against this bill, and when I approach it and ask what this is about, I am looked at with apprehension. “It’s against the children’s law,” goes the laconic reply.
During talks to Sephardic Jews, they all shun questions about the political situation in Turkey; and the name of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is never uttered; it is even avoided.
“There is a sense of concern,” says lawyer Yoram Zara, who can talk freely because he lives in Israel. “Turkey is steadily becoming less of a democracy, increasingly less secular. Jewish people are naturally for secularism, for freedom of expression, thus they do not identify with the Islamic ruling party.”
What we are witnessing is the “islamisation of society” Some feel that the sound from the Mosque’s loudspeakers, where calls are made for the five prayers of the day, is now higher. “They also feel that, after the terrorist attacks, Turkey is a lot more unstable,” adds Zara. Every reason to be ready.
Neve Salom is the largest synagogue in Istanbul, yet there is no sign pointing to where it is. The same goes for the Shalom newspaper at number 12 Istanbul where even in the hall of the building you cannot find any sign showing we are in the right place. Both places are tucked away. This is a community that is intentionally discreet. “My father always says, you’re Jewish, be careful, don’t talk loud, be discreet,” says Gila.
The synagogue and the newspaper are also two protected spaces. There is a security man at the Neve Salom’s door; then you go through a metal detector until a black armoured door, thick as a large wall, opens; and the passport is kept at the entrance. At the Shalom building the doorkeeper is the one who confirms that we are in the right place before opening our bags and checking them through with a metal detector, telling us we should go up to the third floor where the staircase is blocked by a grey fence. You then ring another bell and someone opens the door. And only inside there, on the wall, and with each and every letter, the Jewish newspaper logo is written.
Experience has shown them that it is far safer being Jewish behind doors. It isn’t just conspiracy theories. In 1986, 22 people praying at Neve Salom were killed by bombs allegedly by Hamas; in 2003, two trucks bomb targeted roads where the Neve Salom and the Bet Israel synagogues are located, 23 people died and about 600 hundred were injured, attacks supposedly carried out by Al-Qaeda.
One thing is the political situation, and another the social climate. And there isn’t any better way to measure the levels of intolerance, of Anti-Semitism, says Gabay, than travelling by taxi and listening to the drivers, and of course, social media. And there, indeed, he notices a rise of conspiracy theories involving Israel and the Jewish people in general, a minority used to being the scapegoat. As a columnist, he has already advocated for the criminalisation of Anti-Semitic hate speeches, with the right to impose fines, and an education system that does not portray the Jewish as “others.” After all, we’ve been living here since the Inquisition. I love Istanbul, my roots are here.”
There are some neighbourhoods in Istanbul where he first tries to find out whether it is safe for him to say his name is Mois, a name that comes from Moses – “I’ve got a very Jewish name, I’ve to be careful,” so in those places where he doesn’t feel at ease, Mois is Musa.
Esther Mucznik believes there is “a fear that became almost visceral, instinctual. Jews always fear that, anywhere in the world, they may have to leave.” Thinking about this possibility became something “atavistic.”
“Every Jew has within himself this sort of distress, of being expelled; I don’t know whether the word is ‘fear’ or ‘ghost’. They were expelled many times, and from many places,” says the writer Tatiana Salem Levy. Since their expulsion from Egypt. The Inquisition. The Holocaust. It defines the identity of a people. Being Jewish also means thinking about being expelled.”
Being Jewish is also living in disquiet, like an existential fear, says Karen Sarhon. “We’re the wandering people, never accepted, never with a home. It’s part of our heritage: we’re those who can be sent away at any moment.”
That’s why having a Portuguese passport is, to many of them, a sort of insurance, a plan B. “You never know,” says Michael Rothwell, chairman of the Jewish Community in Porto, “if the country they were expelled from in the XV century can be the same that saves them in the XXI century.” To Gila Erbes Barokaa, “the Portuguese law can be the key.”
(Translated by order of the European Press Prize)