Ethnic Sports and Culture

Dilek and I journeyed across the water to Yenikapı last Friday. I’ve been quite enjoying the reactions of mild shock and confusion when I’ve mentioned this to friends and some of my students.

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1,000 year-old ship found in Yenikapı Metro excavations

Yenikapı means “Newgate” in Turkish – and was in fact a gate in the vast fortified walls that surrounded Constantinople, protecting the city against would-be conquerors for a thousand years. Excavations for the underground Metro station turned up a medieval Byzantine harbour and, according to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, witnessed one of the world’s largest archaeological digs between 2004 and 2013”.

Experiencing a revival of its historical importance, Yenikapı has become an important transport hub in the burgeoning metropolis that is modern Istanbul. The new station is a junction of three Metro lines: one passing under the Bosporus and linking (if you still hold with that ancient line of thought) the continents of Europe and Asia; another connecting to Atatürk International Airport; and the third carrying commuters to and from the financial/commercial centre of Maslak/Ayazağa. Vehicular and passenger ferries come and go, to and from destinations on the Anatolian shore of the city, and further afield across the Sea of Marmara.

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Yenikapı City Park – opened 2012

More recently a major project has reclaimed a large area from the sea, creating a 58-hectare recreational area including carparks, sports facilities, picnic areas and space for large public gatherings. And it is this last feature that provokes the raised eyebrows and looks of consternation when I mention our visit.

Residents in our neck of the Istanbul woods, on the Anatolian side of the city, are mostly proud of the fact that their local councils are aligned with the CHP – the Republican People’s Party that forms the largest opposition grouping in Turkey’s National Assembly. Many of them refuse to set foot in the Marmaray trains that take tens of thousands daily to and from the European side. The very word Yenikapı conjures up in their minds huge gatherings of bearded men and head-scarved women mindlessly adoring the nation’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and hell-bent on returning the country to a mythical alcohol-free stone age of compulsory mosque attendance, and women enslaved by the twin evils of motherhood and home-cooking.

etnospor-2017In fact our trip to Yenikapı had no connection to matters political. I had been seeing posters in Metro carriages advertising an Etnospor Festival, and I wanted to check it out. These days I work weekends and have my days off on Thursday and Friday. The advantage of this is that most people are at work, parks are mostly empty, and getting around the city is easy. The downside, on this occasion was that most of the best activities were scheduled for the weekend.

Nevertheless, we saw some pretty interesting stuff. The focus of the festival was competitions in sports popular among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, many of which have strong followings in Turkey today. Oil wrestling is pretty well-known. Forty large men wearing leather trousers cover themselves all over in olive oil and engage in no-holds-barred (seriously!) hand-to-hand combat until only one is left standing.

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A Seljuk mounted archer executing the “Parthian shot”

Archery is a big one. Two crucial technological developments allowed Turkic nomads to fight their way into Europe, overcoming pretty much everyone who stood in their way: the reflex, or recurved bow, and the stirrup. Whereas in the West, archers on foot used a long bow cut from a single length of wood, their Eastern foes had developed a composite weapon which, despite being much shorter, was also more powerful. That and the stirrups allowed skilled horsemen to adopt a whole new range of tactics that proved highly effective, even up to the early days of firearms.

We had a chat with a couple of craftsmen who were making bows in the traditional way. I was amazed to learn that, in the old days, it could take up to two years to produce one bow! Modern techniques have apparently reduced the time to 18 months – but still! Wow!

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Cirit (djirit) – Javelin-throwing on horseback

What I’d really come to see, however, was cirit (djirit). Some words just don’t translate easily from one language to another. I delight in telling my students that there is one word in modern Turkish that comes from our New Zealand Maori language – Kiwi, of course (but the fruit, not the bird). It’s actually surprising how many words have passed from Turkish into English, and not just yoghurt and shish kebab. But cirit is something else. It was a form of combat where guys on horseback riding at full gallop hurled javelins at each other. These days inanimate targets are generally preferred, but the sight is still impressive.

Apart from the sports, there were various displays of handcrafts. The manufacture and trading of silk was an important business in this part of the world. We were treated to a demonstration of how the incredibly fine filaments of silk from cocoons are twisted to make threads that are then woven into scarves and other items of clothing. A craftsman from the eastern city of Gaziantep sold us a pair of hand-made leather slippers just in time for Mothers’ Day. The leather was soft and supple, hand-stitched, and dyed in a wide range of colours.

So we’re glad we went to Yenikapı. It’s a 15-minute ride on the Marmaray Metro from Kadıköy on the Anatolian side, versus a nightmare of snarled traffic on one of the Bosporus bridges. The engineers who built the tunnel claim it’ll withstand a Force 9 earthquake. I hope I never have to put that claim to the test – but that’s not going to stop me using it.

“The Limits of Westernization” – A book review

We fortunate denizens of the First World may not think about it too much – but there is a dominant culture on Planet Earth. It’s not all about the English language – but that’s a big part of it. It’s not all about the United States of America – but that’s a big part of it too. Clearly science and technology play a major role, as do economics (Wall Street and the Yankee dollar), oil and coffee beans.

The good people at Columbia University, NY, are to be congratulated for publishing a series of books, “Studies in International and Global History” examining “the transnational and global processes that have shaped the contemporary world.” Their aim, they say, is to “transcend the usual area boundaries and address questions of how history can help us understand contemporary problems, including poverty, inequality, power, political violence and accountability beyond the nation state.”

9780231182027It’s a worthy aim – and if Perin Gürel’s book “The Limits of Westernization – A Cultural History of America in Turkey” is representative of the series, in my opinion, Columbia Press is on to a good thing. Gürel is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, an American citizen of Turkish parentage. She is balancing the demands of family and motherhood with a promising academic career, and dedicates this, her first book, to her daughter, Marjane Honey: “May you always keep your love of learning and sense of humor entangled.” Amen! Marjane’s mother seems to be managing, so there is hope for the little one.

In her acknowledgements, Gürel pays generous tribute to a host of academics, friends and family members who she modestly accepts as co-authors of her book, and pre-empts possible criticism by admitting that this work “impetuously pushes the limits of inter/multidisciplinarity”. For me, that is undoubtedly its main strength.

Counting its introduction and postscript, the book’s 200 pages contain six chapters. The essence of Gürel’s thesis relates to the dilemma faced by countries that do not, by birthright, belong to the First World. As the Chinese, Native Americans and the Maori of New Zealand learned, isolating yourself from the dominant culture is not an option. They won’t let you. If you are lucky and sufficiently determined, you may try to find a balance between embracing “modernity”, and preserving the integrity of your native culture. “The Limits of Westernization” discusses aspects of this dilemma using the modern Republic of Turkey as a case study.

Gürel is an academic, writing primarily for her academic peers. Nevertheless, she has managed, at the same time, to produce a work that is meaningful and accessible to the non-specialist lay reader – a commendable achievement!

In her introduction, Gürel outlines the key problem facing Turkey and other developing countries: the siren attraction of modernity, epitomised in the contemporary world by the United States of America, and the fear that the overpowering dominance of that attraction will subvert and destroy the indigenous culture. The leaders/governments of those developing countries attempt to control and direct the process of modernisation/Westernization – while simultaneously, a wild Westernization beyond their control is inevitably taking place.

Chapter One looks at the historical narrative, examining the declining years of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern Republic of Turkey. Gürel discusses the way “history” has been manipulated, in Turkey and the United States, to assist the creation of a national identity. In particular, she focuses on a woman, Halide Edip Adıvar, who seems to exemplify the ambivalence implicit in the emergence of the new Republic.

Chapter Two comes at the issue from a literary angle, and deals with the evolution of the novel in Turkish as writers tried to make sense of the rapidly changing social milieu. The key theme is that allegory was an important aspect of earlier Ottoman literature which exponents of the new genre continued to employ in their attempts to shed light on the seismic changes taking place around them.

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Temel and Fadime feature in many Turkish jokes

In the third chapter, Gürel leaps into the culturally ambiguous realm of humour. In what is perhaps the most perceptive and, for a Western reader, the most entertaining and eye-opening chapter, she gives an overview of the way humour has played a part in reflecting and moulding Turkish attitudes to foreigners over the centuries.

The final chapter deals with issues of sexual identity, in particular contrasting the modern imported concepts of gay-ness/queer-ness, with more traditional attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles. I have to confess, the generation gap kicked in here. I know this is a crucial issue for Millennials. If I were writing the book I might have wound up with a chapter on economics – but there you are.

Gürel’s postscript picks up the “Clash of Civilisations” idea popularised by Samuel Huntington. That writer referred to Turkey as a “torn country” – a disparaging term suggesting that Turkey was “fickle” and unable to decide if it wanted to be East or West. Gürel makes the point that “Turkey was never formally colonised”, and consequently had more room to manoeuvre in the process of modernisation. Nevertheless, she notes that, as the “War on Terror” has moved to the forefront of Western politics, Turkey has suffered from a wilful ignorance – a growing belief in Western countries that Turkey cannot be understood, therefore it is useless to try. “That way,” as Shakespeare’s Lear observed, “madness lies.” Full marks to Perin Gürel for showing us another road.

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The Limits of Westernization – A Cultural History of America in Turkey

Perin E Gürel

Columbia University Press (May 30, 2017)

279 pages

Bob Dylan : The Nobel Prize, One Too Many Mornings, The Albert Hall & Me!

Nothing much to do with Turkey – but internationally relevant! Thanks Thom!

The Immortal Jukebox

In honour of Bob Dylan being selected as the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature I am Reblogging one of the very first Immortal Jukebox posts which combines a tribute to Bob with a review of his 2013 Albert Hall concert in London.

Some may argue that as a songwriter/performer Bob does not qualify for the Literature Award.

Frankly, I regard such views as unforgivably petty and deeply wrong headed.

I can think of no figure in post World War 2 global culture more worthy of a Nobel Prize!

To add to the review below which had no soundtrack here’s my all time favourite Bob Dylan song in a bravura performance from the 1966 tour soon to be immortalised in a 36 CD set!

No one in the field of popular music has ever written as well as Bob Dylan and no one has performed and sung with such inimitable power.

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Common rhythms and songs unite Greeks and Turks

n_101555_1I’m passing on this article that appeared in my local English language paper today:

Though often at odds in the past, Greece and Turkey share a bond revealed not only in food or language but also in music celebrated on both sides of the Aegean Sea.

Turks and Greeks have preserved many similarities when it comes to music, from style to instruments and lyrics.

Cooperation between Turkish and Greek singers has been a stalwart and singers and musicians from both countries are known on both sides of the Aegean Sea.

Ömer Faruk Tekbilek, a Turkish multi-instrumentalist and composer who has worked with Greek musicians in the past, performed in Athens in June while a concert on the island of Lesbos showcased dervishes of the Mevlevi Order of Konya.        

Asia Minor and Istanbul music – the kind played by motley bands  featuring violins, lyres, and other stringed instruments such as baglamas, outis, saz, santouris, bouzoukis and clarinets – are especially prevalent in both countries. 

“The songs found in both musical traditions mainly come from the region of Marmara and they are popular folk songs with lyrics in both languages, some of which were recorded in Greece from the late 1920s until the Second World War,” according to Nikos Andrikos, from the musicology department of Ionian University and research associate at the Technological Educational Institute of Traditional Music in Arta.

Read the whole article.

Postscript on the Yeldeğirmeni Synagogue

Thanks to Marjorie Searl for a translation of the Hebrew inscription on the Hemdat Israel Synagogue.

“Thanks to crowdsourcing and my friend Miriam… The top two lines are quotes from the Hebrew Bible:

DSCF0078 (1)The top line is Isaiah 56:7 “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  Second line is Psalm 118:19 “Open for me the gates of righteousness. I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” (Translations courtesy of Bible Hub).

The third line says “This building was finished at the end of the month of rachamim” (which could refer to the month of Elul).

The month of Elul in the Hebrew calendar comes right before the Jewish High Holidays; therefore there is much preparation for the repentance involved with those observances. The Hebrew word “rachamim,” the last word in the third line reading from right to left, means mercy…the month of Elul is often referred to as the month of rachamim, or mercy, as the prayers and observances relate to the asking for God’s mercy as we repent and ask forgiveness.

So, it suggests that the synagogue was completed just before the Jewish New Year and High Holidays, which makes sense, as it would be very important to have the first observance in the new synagogue at the time of these important celebrations. It must have been an incredibly festive way to begin the New Year of 1898. Elul is in August/September, depending on the variations of the lunar calendar. Rosh Hashanah  (it means “the head of the year) opens the Jewish New Year and High Holiday observance typically in September; so no doubt the building was done by early September 1898.

So, there you have it! Thank goodness for friends and Facebook! This was fun.”

Given the current state of relations in the Middle East, it’s a little sad to see how closely related the Hebrew and Arabic languages are. I noted in the previous post that the Hebrew letters for ‘Hemdat’ are believed to have been a subtle way of paying thanks to the Ottoman Sultan Abdül Hamid II. The Arabic word for ‘mercy’, ‘rahim’, is also used in Turkish, and the month of September is ‘Eylül’.