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.

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.

Proud to be a Turk

But what does it mean?

I’m not a big fan of The Economist, so you may be surprised by my endorsing an article from its pages. Well, credit where credit’s due. This piece appeared earlier this month, and I have to tell you, I think the writer got it pretty right:

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And one or two from New Zealand – making 68!

I AM A Turk, honest and hard-working.” So began the oath of allegiance to their country chanted by generations of schoolchildren before the practice was scrapped three years ago. This proud, flag-waving nation takes it as read that Turkishness goes beyond nationality. But what does it mean to be a Turk? Labels of ethnicity, language, religion and social class overlap in complex patterns. As a result, some citizens consider themselves more Turkish than others.

The modern Turkish republic emerged from a crucible of war, as the waning Ottoman empire between 1908 and 1922 fought in succession against Bulgarian nationalists and Italian colonisers in Libya, then against the British Empire, Russia and Arab nationalists during the first world war, and lastly against Greece. Genocide or not, awful things happened to Anatolia’s Armenians in 1915-17. There were many, and now there are few; nearly all of Turkey’s remaining 50,000 ethnic Armenians live in Istanbul. After the Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22 Turkey lost some 1.5 million Greeks too, in a population exchange that brought half a million ethnic Turks “home” from Greece. More ethnically Turkish or Muslim refugees poured into the new nation, fleeing from Russian revolution or from persecution in the Balkans, the Crimea and the Caucasus.

The young republic was mostly Turkish-speaking and overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Assimilation and urbanisation have made it even more so. Yet Turkey retains more of the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman empire than is generally realised. Some 10m-15m of its citizens are Alevis, adherents to a syncretic offshoot of Shia Islam that is unique to Turkey. Other religious minorities include Jaafari Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians and Yazidis. Among the ethnic minorities, apart from Kurds and Armenians, are large numbers of Arabs, Albanians, Azeris, Bosniaks, Circassians, Georgians, Laz and Roma. Turkey is now also home to well over 2m refugees, mostly from Syria but also from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere.

Turkey's diversity

Missed me again – but I’m here too

In their determined push for modernisation, Ataturk’s followers imposed customs and ways of thought that came easily to sophisticates in Istanbul or Izmir but were resented further east. The superior airs of secular, cosmopolitan Kemalists have rankled ever since, particularly with country folk and with immigrants to the big cities. Some speak half-jokingly of a lingering divide between “white” Turks and “black”, marking the gap between those who cherish Ataturk’s legacy and those who resent it as an imposition.

Mr Erdogan has capitalised brilliantly on the deep grudge felt by “black” Turks. His credentials include his origins as the son of rural immigrants to a tough, working-class part of Istanbul, having worked as a pushcart vendor of simit, Turkey’s sesame-sprinkled progenitor of the bagel, and a pithy, populist style of delivery. On Republic Day last year, which handily fell just before November’s election, he made a speech evoking times when some people celebrated the holiday “with frocks, waltzes and champagne” while others gazed at this scene “half-starved, with no shoes and no jackets to wear”. Now, he concluded, Turkey is united. Even after two decades of such rhetoric, it goes down well with many voters.

Not quite united.

Yet a look at Turkey’s political map suggests a less than complete picture of unity. The half of the electorate that votes for Mr Erdogan does include some minority groups, but mostly represents the narrower, ethnically Turkish and Sunni Muslim mainstream. Of the three rival parties that make up the parliamentary opposition, the Nationalist Movement, or MHP, is also “properly” Turkish but represents the extreme right. Its most distinctive trait is reflexive hostility to all non-Turks, especially Kurds.

The largest opposition party, the CHP, sees itself as the direct heir to Ataturk. Pro-Western and centre-left, it embraces secularists of all stripes and has sought to focus on issues rather than identity politics. Yet to the dismay of its own leadership the CHP’s core constituency, as well as most of its MPs, are Alevis.

The third component of the opposition, the People’s Democratic party, or HDP, is outwardly an alliance of small parties and leftist groups that recently joined forces to cross the 10% threshold for entering parliament. But for all its inclusiveness, most of the HDP’s supporters and candidates are Kurds. Yet to many the problem with the HDP lies not with its ethnic profile but with what they see as its too-cosy relationship with the PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla group that has fought a sporadic insurgency against the state since the 1980s and is officially deemed a terrorist organisation.

Read the whole article.

Şeb-i Arus: A Death and a Wedding – Bringing people together

I had to work last Friday afternoon. I wasn’t 100 per cent happy, but I was doing a favour for a young colleague who wanted to swap her afternoon classes for mine in the morning. The reason? She was heading to Konya for the weekend.

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42 – More than just a number

I’ve had occasion to write about Konya before. First and foremost, number plates on the cars of its citizens are prefixed with its administrative number, 42. The mystical significance of that number is strengthened by the city’s history as the home and last resting place of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi philosopher also known as Mevlana or simply Rumi.

Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Khorasan, in present day Afghanistan, but his family moved to Anatolia in 1228 on the invitation of the Seljuk Emperor, Alaeddin Keykübad – the one mentioned in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’. Undoubtedly the Seljuks recorded dates using the Islamic lunar calendar, but it has been determined that Rumi passed away on 17 December 1273. Accordingly, a two-week festival is held every year in Konya to mark the event, known as Şeb-i Arus in Turkey.

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Konya television

The phrase Şeb-i Arus is an interesting mix of Persian and Arabic words meaning ‘Wedding Night’. These two languages bear a similar relationship to modern Turkish as Latin and ancient Greek do to modern English: they were the languages of religion, science, medicine, literature and the arts, and scholarship in general. The founders of the Republic of Turkey, aiming to make a clean break with their Ottoman past, attempted to ‘return’ to a pure Turkish, employing a Latin alphabet. The latter reform was successful (though not everyone was happy) but the former was doomed to failure from the start.

But why ‘Wedding Night’ you may ask. The reason is that, according to the Sufi philosophy, the true life of the spirit begins after the death of the physical body – so that material ‘death’ is in fact a transition to a higher plane of existence whereby the human soul is ‘wedded’ to the ultimate reality.

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Grieve not! The thorn in your foot brings news of the rose you were seeking.

Well, not all of us are able to dismiss so lightly the apparent reality of life on Earth. Veil of illusion it may be, but the world of friends, family, study, work, marriage, children, food and shelter, sickness and health, demands our attention – and we ignore its demands at our peril. So what’s a person to do?

Sufism (Tasavvuf in Turkish) is not a sect of Islam – it has been called the inner, mystical dimension of that religion. Its appeal to non-Muslims is its rejection of the dogma associated with orthodox religions. According to the Mevlana website Rumi’s doctrine ‘advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him all religions were more or less truth.’ . . [Like India’s Mahatma Gandhi, he] looked with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike.

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Sema ceremony

Orthodox Sunni Muslims represent the majority in Turkey, and Sufism is a largely Anatolian phenomenon. Its followers regard it as the purest form of Islam, but most of its sects were outlawed after the foundation of the Republic because they were perceived as politically reactionary. The Mevlevi followers of Rumi, however, were permitted to continue as a kind of living cultural treasure because of their emphasis on the spiritual importance of music, poetry and dance. Interestingly, these are also features of Alevi worship – whose adherents represent a substantial twenty per cent minority in modern Turkey.

Alevism is a heterodox belief system which seems to defy simple definition. Like the Alawites across the border in Syria and elsewhere, they trace their origins back to the disputed question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammed on his death. They differ from the Alawites, however, in that some of their practices and traditions seem to stem from older Turkish folk beliefs. In this they appear to have something in common with Sufism, though there is no officially recognised connection.

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Ney musician in Persian culture

The most obvious identifying feature of Mevlevi worship is Sema – the characteristic ‘whirling’ of devotees accompanied by a chorus of chanting, and the eerie, breathy music of the ney. The dancers wear tall brown felt headgear and white robes that swirl outwards as they spin with one hand turned down to the earth, and the other upwards towards the heavens.

The dance represents a mystical journey of the spirit towards truth and perfection, leaving the ego behind. The dancer returns from this spiritual journey ‘as one who has reached maturity and greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.’ You might think the world could do with more of that!

The ney is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It is a kind of flute with a recorded history of nearly 5,000 years. It is identified symbolically with the life force, the spirit breathed into earthly creatures by their source and creator (click to hear the sound).

For two weeks every year, a festival is held in Konya,  location of a striking green-tiled tomb housing Mevlana Rumi’s mortal remains. Thousands of visitors, from all over Turkey and further afield, congregate for festivities culminating in the ‘Wedding Night’ on 17 December. This coming Thursday will mark the 742nd anniversary of his death – and Rumi’s words still serve as inspiration for people of all faiths.

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If every door opened immediately, hope, patience and desire would have no meaning

∞ “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

∞ “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”

∞ “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”

∞ “You were born with potential.

You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness.

You were born with wings.

You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.

You have wings.

Learn to use them and fly.” 

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Istanbul concert, December 2015

∞ “I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.

I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.

I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.

With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.

Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.

Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.

I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.

Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.”

“Turkey is like a dream”

This article appeared in our local newspaper ‘Hürriyet’ this morning. I couldn’t find anything in English, so I’m translating it for you. You can read the whole article here (but you can’t rely on Google translation).

Syrian restaurantA Little Damascus in the Heart of Istanbul

A mere 250,000 of the 2.2 million refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria have found a place in camps. About 330,000 are living in Istanbul. It’s unclear when the war in Syria will end, so they are settling in as though they will never return. There are schools, radio stations, arts and cultural groups. Just like London’s China Town, Syrians have established their own settlement in the district of Fatih. Desserts from Aleppo, döner from Damascus, coffee from Lattakia . . . bookshops and cafés, poetry readings and music are adding a new dimension to the city’s culture.

In this district there are places where the only language you will hear is Arabic. Especially after 4 pm, the streets come to life. Syrian students, girls and boys, families, men and women, flock into the streets. In one small area there are eighteen restaurants. We dropped into one called ‘Tarbush’. It was so crowded we couldn’t find a seat. While we were there, people were constantly coming and going. There were families, businessmen and students – but all were Syrian. Even the street-vendor outside was Syrian.

Syrian restaurantThe proprietor, Muhammed Nizar Bitar, came to Turkey when the war broke out in 2011 and started a small operation making hummus. He explains how similar  Syrian and Turkish cultures are:

“When we first opened, 90 per cent of our customers were Syrian and 10 per cent Arab. As time went by, Turks began to come, and now they make up 35 per cent of our clientele. The main topic of conversation among Syrian families is their new life. Old-timers say to new-comers, ‘Turks go to bed early, so don’t use the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner at night.’

“Turkish restaurateurs come and ask for recipes. Some of them are looking for Syrian chefs. We have no trouble finding ingredients. We can easily find the vegetables and spices we need. For example, we were looking for ‘mulubiye’, which you call ‘nane’ (mint). What we call ‘keshke’ is known as ‘tarhana’ here. Turkey is like a dream for us.”

A Black Woman in Istanbul

I came across this in my wanderings on the internet recently – thought you might be interested to see it . . .

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BEING A BLACK WOMAN IN ISTANBUL

MadameNoire has teamed up with Black Girl Fly to bring you profiles of Black girls taking travel to new heights. Each week we’ll profile a new lady, giving you the details on her latest adventure and everything you should know about being a fly Black girl abroad. 

Black Girl Fly: Tammy Freeman

Home city: I’m originally from Queens, NY but I currently reside in Northern Virginia.

Why Turkey? I stopped in Turkey on my way to Italy. Going and coming from Italy I elected for an overnight layover in Istanbul, and I’m so glad I did.

Travel companion? Solo traveler

Length of Stay: 2 days (1 day en route to Italy, 1 day en route from Italy to DC)

How much was your flight? Around $800, but I was flying to Naples, Italy. Flights to Turkey as a final destination are a bit less.

What should you know about being a Black girl in Turkey?

Being in Istanbul, I’m sure the locals have seen people from nearly every nationality. Even when I was out among the locals, no one seems shocked by me being there. It’s very much like NY, people seemed unbothered by my presence for the most part. Compared with a place, like Asia, where black skin is treated as an anomaly and most act like they’ve never seen a black person before! Turkey was amazing. Great people, a plethora of things to see and do.