In Memoriam - Mustafa Olpak (1953-2016)
Mustafa Olpak, author of a family history of the experience of African slaves in the Ottoman Empire and their descendants in the Turkish Republic, as well as founder and head of the Africans Culture and Solidarity Association, died of heart failure related to ongoing prostate cancer treatment on 3 October 2016. He was 63 years old.
In 2005, Mustafa (or Başkan as he was lovingly referred to by members of the Afro-Turk community) published Kenya-Girit-İstanbul: köle kıyısından insan biyografileri (Kenya-Crete-Istanbul: Human Biographies from the Slave Coast). In it, he provides a personal story of the relatively little understood history of African Slavery in the Ottoman Empire. While academic works in recent decades have established that approximately 1.3 million Africans were brought to the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth-century, largely for domestic work, little was known of the lives of their descendants.
Mustafa single-handedly raised the profile of people of African descent in Turkey, adding his voice to the growing number of people challenging long-established narratives on the monolithic nature of race and identity in Turkey. In doing so, he caught the attention of government officials, academics, and journalists wishing to understand the legacies of African slavery in Turkey, and brought together a community of people of African descent whose social bonds, history, and culture had been severely eroded during the twentieth century.
Mustafa was born the fifth child of Kemale and Mehmet, who arrived in the small Aegean town of Ayvalık from the Cretan town of Rethymno as a result of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange of 1923. He spent his youth between Ayvalık and Izmir as his parents moved back and forth for work. His first job following primary school was in a lathe workshop. Not long after, Mustafa also became involved in the labor movement.
1978 was a turning point in Mustafa’s life. It was when he married his first wife Sevgi and eventually had two children, Özgür and Zeynep (he and Sevgi later divorced). That same year, Mustafa was attacked by a group of ultra-nationalists following a leftist gathering in Izmir. He was shot in the leg and arm. He was later arrested for his political activities and imprisoned for a brief period around the time of the coup d’etat of 1980. Following his release, Mustafa found stable employment as a marble worker.
What differentiates Mustafa from so many others that have a similar life trajectory is that, beginning in the early 1990s, he put pen to paper in an attempt to better understand and perhaps explain his experiences. Mustafa began to follow the trail of family histories back through the stories his grandparents had told him as a child. As he explored his family’s history he discovered its connection to slavery.
The results of his findings were first published in 2002 in a short volume entitled Kemale, which recounted his mother’s life story. Following subsequent research and writing, it evolved into his masterpiece, Kenya-Crete-Istanbul.
The success of this book provided the opportunity for Mustafa to gather resources to begin organizing the Afro-Turk community. On 18 November 2006, the Afro-Turk Association held its inaugural meeting in Ayvalık. In his opening remarks, Mustafa, stressed to the Afro-Turk community in attendance the importance of honoring their enslaved ancestors by educating themselves and others in Turkey and around the world about their unique heritage. The event was attended by the head of the UNESCO Slave Route Project as well as prominent academics and journalists.
The centerpiece of the organization’s activities is an annual festival known as the Calf Festival, loosely modeled on a festival of the same name that enslaved and emancipated African communities celebrated all over the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth-century. Olpak’s new Calf Festival became an annual gathering point for people of African descent in Turkey and their allies, and as a way to celebrate their distinct history and identity.
In 2007, Turkish state television produced a documentary based on his book entitled Arap Kızı Camdan Bakıyor (translated in English as Baa Baa Black Girl), featuring interviews with Olpak himself, along with preeminent historians of slavery in the Ottoman Empire, Y. Hakan Erdem and Ehud R. Toledano. The same year, following an ultra-nationalist arson attack on the building in Ayvalık that housed his office, Mustafa relocated its operations to Izmir.
On learning of Mustafa’s passing, Toledano offered these words:
“It is on very rare occasions that historians get to have a real impact in the life of actual historical actors. The creative and inquisitive personality of Mustafa Olpak enabled Professor Hakan Erdem and myself, through our books on the enslavement of Africans in the Ottoman Empire, to touch his life and motivate him to explore his family roots. He thus became aware of the enslaved past of Afro-Turks, which then led to a lifetime of activism in support of his marginalized community, organizing, raising consciousness, and forging their group identity.”
In 2008, Mustafa worked with the Turkish Historical Foundation to undertake an exhaustive oral history project to record the personal stories of Afro-Turks across the Aegean region. In that same year, Mustafa met Güler who later become his second wife. Güler was not only a partner to Mustafa but a supportive voice, an ally, and equally active in the supporting the marginalized and oppressed. They often marched shoulder to shoulder at Afro-Turk events.
2016 marked the 10th anniversary of Calf Festival. Held in June, it was a large three-day event which included a solidarity march, academic panel, and picnic in the nearby village of Torbalı. It was in many ways a celebration of Mustafa himself who, despite ailing from cancer, had tirelessly devoted his life to guiding this movement for over 10 years. The event received support from the municipality of Konak (Izmir). The mayor herself gave a speech supporting the Afro-Turk organization.
Reflecting on Mustafa’s life, Sema Pekdaş, Mayor of Konak (Izmir) offered these words:
“…I know that those who follow will continue to build connections on the road that Mustafa opened. I know that the Association over which he presided will continue the struggle with the same beliefs moving forward. As Konak Municipality, we too will continue to celebrate the Calf Festival with great excitement and joy with our fellow citizens. With this occasion, we remember dear Mustafa Olpak once again with mercy and gratitude. I offer my condolences to his friends and family in mourning.”
Throughout his life Mustafa fought many battles. In his early life, he fought for his rights as a worker. Later, he dedicated himself to the cause of uniting the Afro-Turk community. His boundless energy and commitment was inspirational to everyone around him. This attitude and perseverance continued on in his struggle against cancer. As Mustafa once wrote: “The first generation experiences…The second generation denies… The third generation researches.” His efforts to bring the Afro-Turk community together and research the history of his ancestors will continue on in the next generations.
- Michael FERGUSON and Aysegul KAYAGIL
Department of History
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
Department of Sociology
The New School for Social Research