The Club

Club actors

Like Turkish audiences, I’ve been riveted by the recent ten-instalment TV series The Club (Netflix, 2021), directed by Seren Yüce and Zeynep Günay Tan. The drama exposes the multicultural Turkish elephant in the room, probing the boundaries of free speech today (cf. The Armenian genocide).

Netflix offers a choice of seven languages, with subtitles, in any combination you please; I wasn’t too disturbed by the somewhat stilted voices in the dubbed English version, but I envy local viewers their ability to catch the nuance of the conversational switches between Turkish, Ladino, and Greek in the original soundtrack.

Club mother daughter

Revolving around Istanbul’s Jewish community (with Ladino often heard), the plot is framed by the wealth tax of 1942—heavily penalising non-Muslims—and the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955, also ignited by ethnic tensions in Cyprus. In 1955, Matilda, a Jewish ex-convict, finds work in one of Istanbul’s leading nightclubs. As she tries to rebuild her relationship with her daughter Raşel, Matilda struggles to keep her away from Muslim playboy İsmet. With the outrageously camp singing star Selim, she also stands against her boss Orhan and nightclub manager Çelebi.

With such issues unfamiliar to many viewers, the series has been warmly received by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike (reviews e.g. here and here). It’s also a visual period-piece, with charismatic actors—and some great songs carefully chosen to enhance the dramatic moment.

Club Selim

This YouTube playlist includes, in Ladino, the exquisite Yo era ninya (cf. this popular version):

and Adio kerida, sung by Yasmin Levy:

Here Salih Bademci (as the dreamy Selim) performs Masal (Fairy tale), by iconic Turkish singer Sezen Aksu—though the song is later, it’s another astute choice, given her link to progressive causes:

The directors’ pluralistic agenda is further underlined in their recruiting of pianist-composer-arranger Fazil Say; charged with blasphemy in 2012, he went on to compose a series of pieces reflecting on the suppression of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. And the final débacle of The Club is accompanied by alternating Greek and Turkish versions of Zülfü Livaneli‘s 1979–80 song Kardeşin Duymaz, pleading for coexistence:

 * * *

1955 pogrom

Photo: Ara Güler (I think).

In Istanbul today the dwindling Jewish community remains under threat. As this Al Jazeera review observes,

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has occasionally referred to what he calls the “fascist mentality” of the single-party era before 1950 in criticism of the opposition Republican People’s Party, which ruled at the time, and how it treated minorities. “They were ethnically cleansed because they had a different ethnic cultural identity”, Erdogan said in 2009. “The time has arrived for us to question ourselves about why this happened and what we have learned from all of this”.

If that sounds rather enlightened, the review goes on:

But neither Erdogan nor other Turkish leaders have taken any concrete steps to address the Wealth Tax, the 1955 pogrom, or other attacks on minorities. The Democrat Party, which won the first free and fair elections in the country in 1950, campaigned on a pledge to pay reparations for the Wealth Tax, but never kept the promise.

In fiction the sensitive topic has been broached before in works such as Mrs Salkim’s diamonds (1990 novel; 1999 film), but The Club is now giving it a far wider audience. Not only is the unfolding of the drama compelling in itself (with regular Doof Doof moments), but it’s educating viewers within Turkey—and, I hope, further afield.

The Greek–Turkish population expulsions

SmyrnaSource: Robert Gewarth, The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end.

Following the ethnic strife of the late Ottoman period, the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, and the 1915 Armenian genocide came the massive forced population expulsions between Greece and Turkey—among the most disturbing instances of ethnic cleansing in modern history.

Of many studies, I’ve been reading the excellent

  • Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger: how mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey (2006), reviewed e.g. here.

Throughout the book, Clark distinguishes political decisions and the experiences of those who were affected by those decisions, detailing both. He provides a useful roundup of sources.

The population “exchange” across the Aegean was still based on the Ottoman concepts of Christians and Muslims taking precedence over the modern nationalist categories of Greeks and Turks. It

was taken as proof that it was possible, both practically and morally, to undertake large exercises in ethnic engineering, and proclaim them a success. […] The temptation to use such methods is especially strong in certain types of political or geopolitical situation. For example, it can arise where one form of imperial authority (from Soviet communism to British colonial rule) is collapsing or when a new nationalist power wants to consolidate its rule; or when a new strategic order is being created in the aftermath of war.

And quite soon,

whatever they may have felt about being deported to another country, the Christians of Anatolia and the Muslims of Greece were—at least superficially—remoulded as Greeks and Turks respectively.

Despite the Helsinki accords of 1975, urging respect for the human and cultural rights of citizens and for borders, the lasting effects of the Lausanne treaty remain all too clear. Clark often alludes to more recent traumas, such as World War Two and its aftermath, the 1990s’ Balkan wars, and Northern Ireland. As he notes, while “the liberal westerner” recoils from the notion of forced population transfers based on religious faith, “the modern world is far from honest or consistent”.

* * *

Under the authoritarian roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups had been obliged to coexist. When that roof collapsed, new terms of coexistence could not be found, and people had to flee for their lives. Neither side had a monopoly of cruelty.

From 1912, as Greece gained territory in the Balkan wars, Muslims became a significant part of its population. Refugees from the conflict also exacerbated tensions in Anatolia.

It has been estimated that about 20% of the population of Anatolia died violently during the last ten years of the Ottoman empire’s existence: some 2.5 million Muslims, up to 800,000 Armenians, and 300,000 Greeks. To put it another way, a third of the Christian population and one eighth of the Muslim population had been killed, making the Ottoman empire a far more rural, and Islamic place; its population was now at least 90% Muslim, up from 80% before the decade of mutual slaughter began.

In the 1922 population exchange, around 400,000 Muslims and at least 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians were relocated.

For certain parts of Turkey, the departure of the Christians meant the loss of virtually all traders and entrepreneurs, as well as most professional people and skilled craftsmen. In those parts of Anatolia where commercial life was once heavily dominated by Christians, there is still a sense that the local economy has never recovered.

Greece was affected more by an influx than by an exodus. In many of its northern regions, and in certain districts of Athens, the population is still mainly of “Asia Minor” stock.

The trauma is still visible in the landscape:

All over Greece and Turkey, you can see the physical remnants of a world whose component parts seem to have been broken apart, suddenly and with great violence.

In the early 21st century there were still elderly people who recalled a time when those half-ruined buildings still functioned properly. But even then, that history had long fallen silent.

What the Lausanne negotiators wanted

—and this was not an ignoble desire—was an arrangement that would be durable and minimise the risk of further war, either in the immediate future or in a subsequent generation.

The treaty

was supposed to be the cornerstone of a settlement that would leave both sides stable and satisfied. But the separation was more than just an endorsement of something which had happened already; it was a cause of pain as well as a response to pain. […]

Not everything about the vanished world was good, and the circumstances in which it vanished were often so appalling that almost anything which followed came as a relief. […] Moving to a new place is on balance a lesser sorrow than being killed in one’s native country.

In one sense “physical separation seemed, and in some cases actually was, the best guarantee of survival”. Yet

when the Aegean peoples were prised apart, each lost a part of its own identity, and hence lost the ability to understand itself.

* * *

Chapter 1 discusses the fates of Smyrna and Ayvalik. The catastrophe of Smyrna in 1922–23 has been much studied; it makes a stark opening to Robert Gewarth’s book The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end. Following an exodus of Pontian and Ionian Greeks since 1914, from May 1919 a Greek expeditionary force took control of the city, where Muslims, Jews, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox Christians had lived together more or less peacefully for centuries. By now the population of Smyrna was swollen by desperate refugees from further east. But as the Greek force was driven out, over a fortnight in September 1922 around 30,000 Greeks and Armenians were slaughtered. The victors renamed the city Izmir.

Clark devotes most of the chapter to the fate of the port of Ayvalik further north, whose thriving population was almost entirely Greek. They welcomed the arrival of Turkish troops with music and dancing, duped into supposing that the occupation would be benign. But the evacuations and massacres soon began.

The first arrivals to replace the Greek population of Ayvalik were Muslim deportees from the islands of Mytilene (just west) and Crete (further south), where Clark pursues the story. He explores the troubled history of the Christian and Muslim populations of Crete, and the effect of the population exchange. As elsewhere, the Muslim arrivals in Ayvalik and the Christians deported to Crete found it hard to adapt to their new homes.

Chapter 2, “The road to Lausanne”, discusses the deal between Eleftherios Venizelos and Mustafa Kemal, brokered by British foreign secretary Lord Curzon and Fridtjof Nansen of the League of Nations, a combination of necessary evil and political self-interest. The equation was further complicated by anxieties over Bulgaria, where population exchanges had also taken place.

In Chapter 3 Clark explores the fates of the port of Samsun on the Black Sea and the town of Drama northeast of Salonika. Samsun had had a thriving Pontic Greek community, swollen first by Muslim refugees from the Balkan wars and now by desperate Christian refugees from the mountain villages.

Muslims once made up a significant part of the population of Drama, but in the expulsion they were largely replaced by Christians, including refugees from Samsun. Clark learns more about the Pontic background from diligent local historians, one of whom documented the rich Pontic traditions of theatre, folk poetry, and fables preserved in Drama in a kind of time-warp, making

careful studies of the fiddlers, the priests, the amateur midwives, and the pruveyors of folk medicine who peopled his childhood and kept alive the memories of a place about 900 miles to the east.

Chapter 4 returns to the terms of Lausanne, exploring how exceptions were agreed through complex diplomatic negotiations. Greek Thrace remained home to many Muslims. In Constantinople the Orthodox community was exempted from the expulsions, with over 100,000 Greeks still living there in 1923. So despite the squalid camps struggling to receive refugees in transit, at first the city’s own Greek population remained largely intact (only later did their numbers dwindle, with the punitive wealth tax of 1942, major rioting in 1955, and expulsions in 1964; today only around 3,000 Greeks remain in Istanbul). For the Cappadocia region, which had remained largely free of ethnic conflict, it seemed that a deal might be reached to exempt the Orthodox Christians from relocation, but in the end they too were expelled.

While traditional Ottoman society, with its peculiar, arbitrary mixture of cruelty and fairness, had allowed Christians and Muslims to live together, the modern states which were emerging from the Ottoman world would not.

Trebizond 1

In Chapter 5, “Hidden faiths, hidden ties” (cf. Hidden nation, for the continuing Armenian presence in Turkey) Clark returns to the Black Sea to discuss the fate of Ottoman Trebizond (now Trabzon), which thrived on its silver mines and trade with Tsarist Russia. Again Clark finds a web of relationships between Greeks and Turks.

Involved in this network were bishops, businessmen, politicians, soldiers, and gangsters.

The dichotomy was never clear-cut: for several generations there had been a community of Crypto-Christians, apparently Muslim Turks but secretly Orthodox Greeks. Clark notes subtle but crucial differences between the fortunes of west and east Pontus, the experiences of the latter being marginally less traumatic—partly because of a more conciliatory Orthodox bishop in Trebizond. Yet the Armenians suffered particularly badly there. The Trebizond Greek community was expelled in the winter of early 1923. First they were shipped to the disease-ridden camps of Constantinople; those that survived were deported to their notional homeland in Greece.

Trebizond 2

Chapter 6, “Out of Constantinople” looks at the plight of the new arrivals. Clark gives an example:

A ship arriving at Pyraeus from Samsun […] in January 1923 has carried 2,000 passengers. Of these 1,600 were stricken with typhus, smallpox, or cholera, and two of the three doctors on board were seriously ill.

He cites a report from the island of Macronissi by Esther Lovejoy, director of the American Women’s Hospitals agency:

Refugee conditions indescribable. People, mostly women and children, without a country, rejected of all the world; unable to speak the Greek language; herded and driven like animals from place to place; crowded into damp holes and hovels; shortage of food, fuel, water, bedding, and clothing; cold, hungry, and sick…

Refugees now made up nearly 40% of the population of Athens, and 48% of that of the Aegean islands. All this gravely tested the limits of Greek hospitality. As Henry Morgenthau continued diplomatic negotiations, international aid helped the Greek government manage its influx of refugees.

Turkey handled its own crisis with less external support; the way it handled the transport and reception of Muslims from Greece, theoretically more humane, turned out to be disorderly too. Chapter 7, “Saying farewell to Salonika”, shows the city’s cosmopolitan mix of cultures and religions, with Sephardic Jews comprising its main ethnic group. Salonika had only been in Greek hands since 1912. The persecution of Muslims there was intermittent, but by 1922 ships were carrying refugees in both directions.

Again Clark finds exceptions to the silence of official propaganda surrounding the trauma of disruption. In Chapter 8, “Adapting to Anatolia”, he finds a chronicler of the exchange around Tuzla, southeast of Istanbul, where locals and newcomers adapted with difficulty, and memories stayed suppressed—“tales of dislocation, nostalgia, and in most cases successful integration, albeit at a high personal cost”. Among the arrivals from northern Greece were adherents of the Bektashi order, who followed a mystical form of Islam that was regarded with suspicion by mainstream Muslims.

The status of the relocated population played a significant role in local political manoeuverings, and has continued to do so.

Between 1913 and 1923 the proportion of non-Muslims in Anatolia fell from 20% to 2%. This reflected the death or expulsion of all but a handful of the two main Christian communities, the Greeks and Armenians. The remaining Christians consisted of the 120,000 Greeks who were permitted to stay in Istanbul and about 65,000 Armenians; a total of less than 200,000 compared with about 3 million before the decade of war. The country was also deprived of the great majority of its entrepreneurs, merchants, middlemen, and even skilled labourers.

By 1928, 20% of the Greek population were refugees.

refugees

Chapter 9, “The pursuit of clarity”, outlines events through the years following the expulsions, a story that continues in Chapter 10, “The price of success”. In Greece the bitter conflicts between left and right partially replaced the former antagonism between refugees and locals.

So any overall analysis of the population exchange has to wrestle with a truth which is awkward from a liberal, modern point of view: in its own perverse terms, the population exchange “worked”—in the sense that it ultimately, after many difficulties, contributed to the forging of a more or less homogenous Greek nation-state whose citizens recognised each other’s right to exist. Moreover, the calculation that that informed the Lausanne project on both sides of the Aegean—that a common religion would make possible the creation of a common national consciousness—seems to have been borne out. […] If the two countries are “imagined communities” […], they are powerfully imagined ones.

As ever, Clark goes on to qualify this, adducing the struggle of the Turkish Kurds—also partly a consequence of Lausanne. He notes salient differences between the nationalist projects of Greece and Turkey, and the role of religion. Naturally he queries the notion of “success” based on authoritarian methods, and remains cautious in assessing the prospects for continuing equilibrium, both across the Aegean and around the world.

Today’s challenge is to ensure that these new understandings of identity and belonging do not exact such a high price in blood as the previous ones did.

Here’s a documentary from Al Jazeera:

  * * *

Both the immediate logistics and the consequences of the expulsions caused immense suffering. The relocations posed severe social and economic challenges in both countries. Yet Clark observes the disjunct between simplistic political ideology and a popular yearning to reconnect.

Mingled with the memories of terror and betrayal, feelings and recollections persisted which somehow transcended the Greek–Turkish divide; personal friendships, commercial partnerships, a sense of common participation in a single world, constituted by landscape, language, music, food, and all the trivia of everyday life.

Apart from private, domestic memory,

Because diplomatic and military relations have so often been so strained, it is above all in the world of culture—novels, films, and songs—that the two peoples have felt free to express the depth of their commonality, and to question the official ideology which relegates them to separate, unconnected worlds.

The popular music scene of Istanbul was still ethnically diverse in the 1920s, a variety that continued in the diaspora. More recently, in the light of a certain rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, it has become popular to bridge the shared Ottoman heritage, both among the descendants of the deportees and in projects such as those of Giovanni de Zorzi in Venice or groups at SOAS; see e.g. Eleni Kallimopoulou, Paradosiaká: music, meaning and identity in modern Greece (2009), Chapter 6.

Twice a stranger cuts through simplistic nationalist agendas, constantly highlighting the lives of real people; the story of the expulsions, like that of the Armenian genocide, has difficult lessons for us today.

See also Midnight at the Pera Palace.

Epiphany in Istanbul

In church 1

Sanctification of Water ritual, Agios Giorgios, Kuzguncuk.

To follow Bach’s Epiphany:

Having blithely ignored Christmas in London, I arrived in Istanbul again just in time for Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christmas on 6th January.

The Armenian faithful in Istanbul have somehow managed to maintain their liturgical traditions despite over a century of persecution. We went up the hill in Kuzguncuk to attend a Mass for Christmas Eve in a sparsely-attended minor church.

It’s also Epiphany (Theophania) for the Greek Orthodox Church, observed with the agiasmos Sanctification of Water ritual, when the Bishop throws a wooden cross into the Bosphorus to be retrieved by swimmers—a ritual performed at several sites around Istanbul (for background on the religious life of Istanbul Greeks, see e.g. here). But the core ritual is the lengthy service that precedes it, which we attended at the lovely little Agios Georgios church in Kuzguncuk—next to the synagogue, on the other side of the road down from the main Greek church Agios Panteleimonas.

In Istanbul today Greeks are far fewer than Armenians, but this was an impressive service, with a quartet of liturgists punctuating the recitation of the priests, with jangling thurifer.

Left, the head priest blesses worshippers with light;
right, preparing to sprinkle blessed water on the congregation with a sprig of herbs.

In church 2

On right, dove awaiting release to the heavens (and an ICONIC choice of jacket).

on road

We all followed them across the road through the ferry station to the shore, where two pious swimmers retrieved the wooden cross from the waters; meanwhile a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) had waited patiently during the service before being released to the heavens (cf. Messiaen).

Left, at Fener (source); right, at Kuzguncuk,
with swimmer presenting cross that he has retrieved from the Bosphorus.

Our Greek friends note the symbolism of fish, Ichthys, and Jesus as fisher of people, as well as abundance. China makes the same connection between yu 魚 fish and yu 餘 abundance; and most large-scale rituals (both for temple fairs and funerals) there include segments for Fetching or Inviting Water (qushui, qingshui, and so on; see e.g. our film, from 41.06).

Last year Covid rules prevented the Sanctification of Water being held in Greece, but it was observed by the Greek community in Istanbul.

The topic might lead us to consider ayazma holy springs, healing, and the wider context of Holy Water in Eastern Christianity and other faiths. And spare a thought for the beleaguered Catholic minorities in China, including Gaoluo.

With thanks to Kuzguncuk friends!

New tag: West/Central Asia

In the sidebar I recently added a new tag for West/Central Asia.

Turkey is a growing presence among my posts, so far including

with more to follow…

Elsewhere, I may list

Posts on Uyghur culture (with separate tag) are rounded up here.

The Armenian genocide

awaiting execution

The 1915 Armenian genocide, [1] affirmed by scholars and historians around the world, remains bitterly contested by the government of Turkey, which (like that of China) has long propounded collective amnesia. Clarity on the “Armenian question” is often bedevilled by the technical issue of whether the assaults constituted genocide as defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944.

mapSource: wiki.

Under the roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups were obliged to coexist—as in Anatolia, where Muslims lived alongside Orthodox Greek and Armenian neighbours. But inter-ethnic violence increased through the 19th century; from 1895 Armenians were frequently the targets of atrocities. With the Ottoman roof crumbling, the 1912–13 Balkan Wars reduced its territory and heightened tensions in Anatolia.

After the outbreak of World War One, by 1915 the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople, anxious to forestall rebellion, executed and deported prominent Armenian leaders and disarmed Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army. In eastern Anatolia (then still home to Greek Orthodox Christians, besides Turkish and Kurdish Muslims), as Armenians were deported away from the Russian front, around one million were starved, robbed, raped, and slaughtered on death marches to the desert. Armenian assets were expropriated, and the surviving women and children forcibly Islamified, erasing Armenian names and culture. Further massacres followed in 1916. International exposure and scrutiny were helpless to stem the tide. Later the genocide was much admired by the Nazis.

deport

Deportation.

Andrew Finkel (in Turkey: what everyone needs to know, chapter 5) offers a cogent overview of the issues.

On the surface it might seem strange that Turkey would stake so much of its own credibility defending a predecessor empire whose immediate legacy it had itself disowned. Yet it has become part of the catechism of today’s Republic that what happened in 1915 was part of the exigencies of war and not premeditated.

He gamely outlines the Turkish case, that

Turks were themselves the initial victims of ethnic cleansing. […] Cholera and famine (as well as attacks by Kurdish irregulars) also took their toll on the files of refugees. If blame is to be apportioned, the argument runs, it falls on Armenian revolutionaries who disturbed centuries of coexistence between Muslims and Armenians.

With the academic community and world opinion unconvinced that the many wrongs suffered by Turkish Muslims made a right, he explains the niceties of international legal wranglings and the ramifications of genocide resolutions. And he observes changing attitudes within Turkey, with more open discussion, and growing interest in the contributions of Armenians to the Ottoman empire.

Cetin cover

The 2004 publication of Fethiye Çetin’s My grandmother: an Armenian-Turkish memoir (one of the five books on the genocide chosen by Thomas de Waal, author of Great catastrophe) “confronted Turks with the Armenians in their midst, both dead and alive”, raising awareness of forced assimilation.

Çetin’s grandmother (1905–2000) only began revealing her story in 1975. Çetin gave her death announcement to the Istanbul newspaper Agos:

Her name was Heranuş. She was the granddaughter of Herabet Gadaryan, and the only daughter of İsguhı and Hovannes Gadaryan.

She passed a happy childhood in the village of Habab, near Palu, until she reached the fourth grade.

Then, suddenly, she was thrown into the painful times about which she would say, “May those days vanish never to return”.

Heranuş lost her entire family and never saw them again. She was given a new name, to live in a new family.

She forgot her mother tongue and her religion, and though she did not once in her life complain about this, she never ever forgot her name, her village, her mother, her father, her grandfather or her close relations. She lived until the age of 95, always hoping that she might be able to see them and embrace them again one day. Perhaps it was this hope that allowed her to live so long; until her very last days, her mind remained sharp. Last week, we lost Heranuş, our grandmother, and sent her to her eternal resting place. We are hoping that this announcement might reach the relations (our relations) that we were never able to find while she was alive, that they may share our grief, in the hope that “those days may vanish, never to return”.

Cetin family(Clockwise from left to right.)

As the translator Maureen Freely comments In her Introduction, this history has been concealed from four generations of Turkish schoolchildren. The book bears witness, giving voice to those whom history has silenced.

Secret nation

The persistence of Armenians in Anatolia today, “the leftovers of the sword”, is explored in a wonderful book, full of rich ethnographic observation:

  • Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation: the hidden Armenians of Turkey (2018).

For Armenians outside Turkey, the clock had stopped in 1915. Until the mid-2000s, most of the Diaspora did not know that there were Armenians left in the ancient provinces of the Ottoman Empire—the conquered territories of Western Armenia and Cilicia. The terrified Armenians that remained would still be subject to daily humiliations, killings, deportations, and armed attacks by the Turkish army and irregular formations, both Turkish and Kurdish, until at least the late 1980s in some parts of the country’s interior. For these Armenians, genocide by other means continued for another century.

In fiction, an engaging appearance of the elephant in the room is Elif Shafak’s The bastard of Istanbul (2006), using the stories of a characterful Istanbul family of women and their teenage daughter Asya, who bonds with the Armenian-American Armanoush, stepdaughter of the family’s estranged brother, as she comes in search of her heritage. I find the novel highly effective in presenting nuanced views through the voices of a polyphonic cast with their seemingly antagonistic stereotypes.

Shafak cover

In the Turkish Penal Code the crime of “insulting Turkishness” went back to Article 159, introduced in 1926. In 2005, concerned over the new openness of discussion, the state had replaced it with the controversial Article 301, bringing a slew of prosecutions against several journalists and authors. Written in English, The bastard of Istanbul soon became a bestseller in Turkish, and despite—or perhaps because of—its spirit of reconciliation, Shafak’s book was among the targets of Article 301. While the case against her was dropped, like that of Orhan Pamuk, a prosecution against the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was upheld, and he was soon assassinated by a young ultranationalist, giving rise to popular protests.

Indeed, Hrant Dink was the editor of Agos, where Heranuş Gadaryan’s death notice had appeared, and it was Fethiye Çetin who acted as Dink’s lawyer; she has continued to represent his family.

Having created a climate of fear, by 2008 Article 301 was amended to discourage abuse, but since 2017 it has been invoked again for other purposes.

This 2005 documentary on the Armenian genocide is from ARTE:


[1] Sources are voluminous. I haven’t attempted to read perhaps the most exhaustive of many studies, Raymond Kevorkian, The Armenian genocide: a complete history (English translation 2011, from the 2006 French original), running to 1,029 pages. Wiki makes a useful introduction (cf. Racism in Turkey); among websites, see e.g. here and here.

For a thorough recent study, see Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of violence: Ottoman past, Turkish present, and collective violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (2016), with sections on Imperial denial of origins of violence; Young Turk denial of the act of violence; Early Republican denial of actors of violence; and Late Republican denial of responsibility for violence. She explores the wider issue of “Why do states and societies insist of denying the acts of collective violence embedded in their pasts and present?” (e.g. Holocaust denial, Native America, Russia, and China, among many cases).

Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The thirty-year genocide: Turkey’s destruction of its Christian minorities, 1894–1924 (2019) encourages us to see the wider picture, though some of its detail has been challenged.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Turkey: what everyone needs to know

Belatedly keen to explore Turkish culture, I learned a lot from

  • Andrew Finkel, Turkey: what everyone needs to know (2012).

For all its populist Q&A format, it’s full of useful insights, constantly unpacking simplistic preconceptions while presenting a range of viewpoints both within Turkey and abroad, based on the author’s long experience as a journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey AF

The chapters open with Historical background, summarising the legacy of the Ottoman empire—ethnic conflicts in the aftermath of World War One, the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne leading to the foundation of modern Turkey with Atatürk’s Republic. Andy ponders the mixed record of Turkey’s measures to preserve the culture of the past: typically, alongside apparently impressive legislation, archeology clashes with ideology and the pecuniary demands of tourism and development, as the Ottoman heritage is Disneyfied.

The next chapter on Economy describes “a complex economy in its own right, but one well situated to become a conduit of goods and services between Europe and the resource-rich nations of the Middle East and the former Soviet Union”. He notes the profound inequalities between regions, with the eastern provinces accounting for less than 10% of the country’s economy; the flaws of state development projects, notably hydroelectric; the steady decline of agriculture; and the culture of complicity. As often, all this reminds me of China. Andy evokes the contrast between Istanbul and Ankara, with the former’s loss of political power doing nothing to damage its status as Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital.

Turkey in the world observes Turkey’s pivotal strategic position in global politics. Many in the West understand that

the choices facing Turkey are not Manichean, a clash of civilisations between East and West, but rather are based on a nuanced calculation of where the country’s best interests lie.

Andy outlines Turkey’s response to the end of the Cold War, 9/11 followed by the invasions of Iraq, and the Arab Spring; relations with the USA, Israel, and the EU; the war in Syria, human rights, and Cyprus.

Politics… and the military covers democracy, coups, more on human rights, nationalism, religious interests, the uneasy alliance between state and government, nepotism, the slow pace of reform, and (a topic on which he has particular authority) limits on press freedom.

The Introduction has already explained how the very concept of “Turkish” and “Turk” arose from the ashes of the Ottoman empire; and how the racial and linguistic term “Turkic” (Turcoman) is used in English for tribal peoples from Central Asia (some of whom migrated to what is now Turkey!)—a distinction not made in Turkish. Society and religion opens with a discussion of the role of Islam in public life, as the secular state wrestles to reconcile its avowed secular identity with Muslim values. Checks on Turkey becoming a fundamentalist state include a de facto diversity and tolerance among the people—although this is hardly put to the test, since Turkish-born non-Muslims now comprise only 1% of the population.

For all its claims to be a melting pot of civilisations and a mosaic of different cultures, Turkey has been continuously blindsided by the problem of accommodating its own ethnic diversity.

In religion, with non-Muslim minorities having dwindled severely since 1900, the promotion of “faith tourism” is highly selective, with monuments to Anatolia’s multi-confessional past merely vestigial. While the building of mosques proliferates, within Islam there are disparate groups, such as the Alevis, whose practice distances them from the mainstream.

The situation of the Kurds is the subject of a rather extensive discussion.

Ethnic solidarity with fellow Kurds across borders is often overshadowed by the concerns and politics of the countries in which Kurds actually find themselves.

In Turkey they are based in the southeast and east of the country, but Istanbul is “almost certainly the largest Kurdish city in the world”. While discussing the Turkish state’s campaign against the PKK (boosted by wider anti-terrorist sympathies after 9/11), the book observes that

Kurdish nationalism […] does at times appear to be a distorted reflection of the Turkish nationalism it opposes.

Not only is the whole region underdeveloped, but cross-border tensions are heightened by the movements of refugees.

In 1989 Eastern and Central Europe rejected Soviet-style totalitarianism and embraced a democratic ideal. Yet Turkey, which might have been expected to reap a dividend from the end of the Cold War, became more authoritarian. It became embroiled in a costly fight to suppress Kurdish insurrection and has in some measure been corrupted by it.

With the prospect of Greater Kurdistan ever remote, the Kurds’ search for greater political and cultural rights continues.

women skip

Photo: Selahattin Giz.

This is followed by a section on gender. On one hand, Atatürk is praised for having emancipated women, and legal reforms have continued, described by one campaigning NGO as succeeding in

safeguarding women’s rights, and bodily and sexual autonomy. […] All legal references to vague patriarchal constructs such as chastity, morality, shame, public customs, or decency have been eliminated and definitions of such crimes against women brought in line with global human rights norms. […] The new code […] brings progressive definitions and higher sentences for sexual crimes, criminalises marital rape; brings measures to prevent sentence reductions granted to perpetrators of honour killings, eliminates previously existing discrimination against non-virgin and unmarried women, criminalises sexual harrassment at the workplace and considers sexual assaults by security forces to be aggravated offences.

Yet, as elsewhere, “feminists are not as grateful to their male liberators as the official history would have them feel”. The shops and restaurants of central Istanbul cannot represent the general picture. Secularists have failed to tackle obstinate patriarchal attitudes. As to the sensitive question of headscarves,

many believe it is a right and obligation for pious women to cover their heads. Others see it as a deliberate affront and a symptom of creeping fundamentalism.

Some issues are explored in Kutluğ Ataman’s Women who wear wigs (2001), “part of a warning about recklessly attributing motives and categories”. This is followed by a section on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and LGBT people in Turkey.

Finally, the vexed arguments surrounding the Armenian genocide are cogently summarised—a topic to which I devote a separate post.

All these questions have ramifications far beyond the borders of Turkey. The Conclusion offers some signs of hope, such as the public demonstrations (below) following the 2007 assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Dink demo

Lastly, Andy provides a succinct list of further reading. Amidst the shifting picture, he’s well aware that constant updates are to be desired; but with its digestible style and thoughtful perspectives, the book makes a valuable overview.

For more on Turkey, see under Köcek in Kuzguncuk!, notably Midnight at the Pera Palace.

Bartók in Anatolia

Bartok nomadBartók outside a nomad tent in south Anatolia, 1936.

In the world of WAM, Béla Bartók’s work collecting folk music is often regarded merely as providing raw material for his compositions. Much as I relish these masterpieces, his archive of recordings, along with his meticulous transcriptions, is so vast that it can hardly be seen as subsidiary (see e.g. Chapter 9 of Michael Church, Musics lost and found).

His seminal early fieldtrips around east Europe were disrupted by World War One, whereafter he became in demand as a composer and performer. But in 1932, after a long break from fieldwork, Bartók attended the Congress of Arab Music at Cairo, recording at Mevlevi and Laythi dhikr ceremonies, and at a Coptic mass.

Meanwhile he had long been drawn to Turkey. As he wrote, “I first searched for Finno-Ugrian-Turkic similarities among peoples by the Volga, and then, starting from there, in the direction of Turkey”. in October 1936 he took the train there to inspect recordings in Istanbul and give lectures in Ankara, before embarking in November with a little team of Turkish scholars on an all-too-brief fieldtrip to south Anatolia (see e.g. Bartók, Essays (1976), pp.137–47, as well as this exhibition site).

Bartok CD cover

Always seeking “ancient” tunes, his main brief was to explore links between Turkish and Hungarian melody. Tracks from his fieldwork feature on the 2-CD set

Here are the 85 short tracks as a playlist:

They made a base at Adana, near the Syrian border, recording Yörük nomads at their winter base—notably in Osmaniye, then a large village. Bartók hardly broached social or political issues in the regions that he visited; like much of Anatolia, Adana was no rural paradise, with a history of ethnic tensions already going back several decades. Since his time, along with all the other trappings of modernity, with the outbreak of the war in Syria it has become a site for refugee camps.

Ali Bekir

The very first recording they made was of their 70-year-old host Ali Bekir oğlu Bekir singing “Kurt Pasha went up to Kozan” with kemençe bowed fiddle (CD 1, #45):

Kurt Pasha 8a

From Bartók’s transcription of “Kurt Pasha went up to Kozan”.

Bartok Kurt Pasha 2

The same song, Essays p.140.

He noted their “shabby, stereotyped” European clothing, by contrast with the peasant costumes he had been used to finding in Transylvania and the Balkans. The performers were all male, and mostly illiterate; after Bartók’s efforts to record women singing came to nothing, he reflected on how future fieldworkers might rectify this and other issues.

In Osmaniye they also recorded dance music for davul-zurna drum-and-shawm (CD2, ##18–19, 22–25 = playlist #63–64, 67–70)—Bartók regretting the lack of higher-quality recording equipment and a sound-film camera (as do we…). Travelling by cart along rutted tracks, they went on to record songs of Tekirli nomads.

While the repertoire that Bartók documented is only a tiny sample of the wealth of Turkish folk music (contrast Paul Bowles in Morocco), he suggests that the connection with Hungarian melody is no mere coincidence:

No such tunes can be found among the Yugoslavs, the Slovaks of the West and North, or the Greeks, and even among the Bulgarians they are only occasional. If we take into account the fact that such tunes can be found only among the Hungarians, among the Transylvanian and Moldavian Rumanians, and the Cheremis and Northern Turkish peoples, then it seems likely that this music is the remains of an antique, thousand-year-old Turkish musical style.

Still stressing the Hungarian angle, here’s a TRT documentary (in Turkish) from 2015—with his visit to Ali Bekir from 10.27:

Bartók’s monograph Turkish folk music from Asia Minor, completed in 1944, was belatedly published in 1976.

Bartok book cover

Bartók was concerned to help Turkish scholars collect their own music more methodically. This memoir by his fellow fieldworker Ahmet Adnan Saygun includes a list of Turkish collections from 1926 to 1971. On the broader topic of doing folklore outside academia from the 1950s to the 1980s is this article, with an introduction on antecedents. And János Sipos, In the wake of Bartók in Anatolia (2000)—again based on the Hungarian connection—describes his own fieldwork from 1988 to 1993 at sites including the Adana region. [1] Yet later research yields further insights. See also Jérôme Cler’s work on the yayla.

* * *

By the time of his 1936 visit to Anatolia, Bartók was already deeply anxious about the rise of Nazism in Europe. He would happily have settled in Turkey, but as international and domestic policies shifted, in October 1940 he left Hungary for the USA—where successive waves of refugees from Europe, and the Levant, had already made a new home.

Bartok-Lord

In New York, alongside his activities as composer and performer, Bartók set to work at Columbia on the massive task of transcribing the precious Milman Parry collection of Yugoslav epics (see again here, under “Bards”). His book with Albert Lord, Serbo-Croatian folk songs, was published in 1951; his overview of the project (in Essays, pp.148–51) is here (for a critique of the “Homeric question” and other caveats, click here).

Since Bartók’s death in 1945, ethnomusicologists have continued to refine methods for musical analysis, but all this takes place within a wider concern to document social change (see e.g. under Society and soundscape). While Bartók’s prescriptive search for disembodied “ancient” melody has fallen from fashion, that doesn’t make his fieldwork and analyses any less admirable. 


[1] A note on my teacher Laurence Picken (who maintained a lively correspondence with musicologists from behind the Iron Curtain, I may add): apart from his groundbreaking work on the music of the Tang court, Laurence also compiled a magnum opus on the folk instruments of Turkey. After his first visit to Istanbul in 1951, exhilarated by the sound of the Black Sea kemençe fiddle, he made regular summer fieldtrips to Turkey until 1966. As Richard Widdess explains (here, pp.238–41):

he travelled, alone and at his own expense, the length and breadth of the country, collecting, photographing and recording instruments in almost every region, and interviewing musicians, instrument makers, school masters, farmers, street vendors, children.

For more on Turkey, see Köçek in Kuzguncuk and links there.

Turkey: musicking of the yayla

Yayla CD 1

Continuing to educate myself belatedly about the rich musical traditions of Turkey (on a bit of a Turkey roll—see e.g. Songs of Asia Minor; The Janissary band; Köçek in Kuzguncuk!): among the various ethnic groups, the musicking of the yayla is documented by Jérôme Cler.

In southern Anatolia, the inhabitants of the “high pastures” (yayla) around the towns of Çameli and Acipayam claim descent from nomadic Turkmen peoples (cf. Bartók’s 1936 visit to the Yörük around Adana).

Yayla map

As Cler explains, the zeybek is a slow solo dance performed by men; the kïvrak oyun havalarï is a faster, more popular dance. Among song genres, the unmeasured gurbet havasï is a type of uzan hava “long melody”. Instruments included plucked lutes (cura, a variant of saz); the reed flute sipsidavul-zurna; and violin, played upright like the kemenche, resting on the thigh (cf. Indian and world fiddles). Aksak additive metres are standard, with various combinations of 2s and 3s, usually in nine beats.

Here’s Cler’s video montage of yayla musicking in society—including a scene on a bus from 19.01; davul-zurna from 21.53; song indoors with fiddle and saz from 26.22, followed by a fine contrast:

Cler released an excellent overview of yayla musicking in his CD Turquie: musiques des yayla (Ocora, 1994). This selection has most tracks:

It’s an enthralling album. In 1998 Cler followed this up with two further CDs,

  • Turquie: le violon des yayla
  • Turquie: le sipsi des yayla.

He has also published a book on the topic:

  • Yayla: musique et musiciens de villages en Turquie meridionale (2011),
    with video illustrations here.

Cler’s website has many more entries on yayla musicking here.

I like his comment—reminding me of arriving in a dingy modern Chinese county-town, and widely applicable around the world:

The traveller in search of music will see nothing; he [sic] needs an introduction.

Musics lost and found

MC cover

  • Michael Church, Musics lost and found: song collectors and the life and death of folk tradition (2021)

makes an engaging diachronic introduction to fieldworkers, and the musics they documented, in societies around the world—a sequel to his 2015 book The other classical musics (favourably reviewed here). Of course, our labels of “classical” and folk” are flawed (see e.g. What is serious music?!): the two volumes overlap.

In his astute Introduction, Michael notes the role of “colonial curiosity, sometimes tinged with guilt”, as well as patriotism and the distortion of local traditions under nationalistic movements and then state socialism (cf. the observations of Milan Kundera and Yang Yinliu). He comments:

Some collecting has been a response to horrifying circumstances. The most heroic collector of Nazi death-camp songs was the Polish singer-songwriter Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who survived three years in Sachsenhausen and devoted the rest of his life to performing the songs he had memorised from Jewish fellow-prisoners. There was a clandestine Jewish choir in Sachsenhausen whose members told him that, if he survived, he should preserve their memory by singing their songs to the rest of the world. That became his mission; his 3,000-page typescript of death-camp songs—many collected from survivors of other camps whom he sought out after the war—is now lodged in the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Even in less extreme conditions, under authoritarian regimes such as the USSR the work of collecting was dangerous. Now I think too of Rahilä Dawut, distinguished anthropologist doing fine work on Uyghur culture until she was “disappeared” in 2017.

While Michael recognises that his selection is to some extent arbitrary, beyond the Usual Suspects (Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, the Lomaxes), the chapters tell fascinating stories, digesting a vast amount of material—focusing on pioneering fieldworkers before the 1970s but also showing the ongoing work of more recent scholars.

As to the thorny issues of “loss”,

Most of the work songs which Alan Lomax collected in Spain and Italy in the 1950s are sung no more. The same applies to the work songs which Komitas found in rural Armenia, and which Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger collected in England a century ago. These songs are gone, because the reasons for their existence—the trades they accompanied—are gone. And after the death of the village comes the death of the songs marking its calendrical and life-cycle events; there comes, in short, the death of local music. This rule holds for all villages, everywhere.

And

Worn-out and irrelevant forms may not be replaced by new ones, because the conditions required for that process—community and kinship networks and the aforesaid shared religion or ideology—no longer obtain, and may never obtain again.

But Michael does well to observe that

The old idea of an immutable musical corpus is giving way to the idea of an endlessly mutable art; the primacy of collecting is being replaced among scholars by the primacy of interpretation.

And indeed he concedes that the prospect is not one of unrelieved gloom. “Migrants carry their music in their baggage”, and

New work inspires new songs: baggage-handlers for Amazon in Genoa, whose forefathers sang as they humped fish, have devised new songs to speed their parcels.

Michael contrasts fusions that are the spontaneous result of social shifts with those that are arbitrarily willed by producers. He ends his Introduction with thoughtful reflections on the role on Covid.

* * *

The chapters are loosely grouped in four sections. “Why it all began” begins with a prelude on the various motives for collecting song in 18th century Europe—political, colonial, and economic—introducing Johann Gottfried Herder and the concept of Volkslied. Chapters follow on the 17th-century broadside ballads and Francis James Child; Orientalists from France (Jesuit priests in Beijing and Salvador-Daniel in Algiers); and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), documenting Ottoman music in Constantinople after being taken hostage. Here’s a sample of Jordi Savall’s project on Cantemir with Hesperion XXI:

“The birth of ethnomusicology” opens with chapters on collecting among Native American peoples—from Alice Fletcher’s work on the Omaha to Franz Boas.

Michael moves on to the work of Komitas (1869–1935) studying Armenian song on the eve of the 1915 genocide; and the British folk-song revival with the “contentious” Cecil Sharp, followed by Percy Grainger.

Bartok 1907

In “Carrying the torch: collectors in Northern and Eastern Europe” (a misleading rubric, since the chapters range far more widely), after an Introduction (featuring collectors such as Pyotr Kireyevsky (1808–56) in Russia, Karel Erben (1811–70) and Leos Janáček for Bohemia and Moravia, Vasil Stoin (1880–1938) for Bulgaria, Bjarni Thorsteinsson (1861–1938) for Iceland), Michael offers a fine chapter on Béla Bartók, with his extraordinary fieldtrips before World War One collecting songs in Transylvania, Slovakia, Romania, Ruthenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Algeria—and much later, Egypt (1932) and Turkey (1936). Michael ponders Bartók’s prescriptive agenda, seeking the “purity” of “ancient” songs, disdaining “Gypsy” and “sacred” melodies. But he was always in search of connections:

In 1912, I discovered among the Maramures Romanians a certain kind of highly ornamented, Orientally-coloured and improvisation-like melody. In 1913, in a village of Central Algeria bordering the Sahara desert, I heard a similar melodic style. […] Who would have thought that the distance between the two phenomena—more than 2,000 kilometres—could be bridged by a causal relationship?

Lomax

This leads to a chapter on John Lomax and his son Alan, subsuming not only their work among (mainly African-) American folk-singers (cf. Bruce Jackson) but Alan’s work in the Bahamas, Haiti, Britain, Spain, and notably Italy, working with Diego Carpitella. Note the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube.

Among the pioneers of Australian Aboriginal music cultures, Michael highlights the work of Theodor Strehlow with the Aranda. The old theme recurs:

I am recording the sunset of an age that will never return—every act that I see is being performed for the last time, and the men who are with me have no successors. When they die, they will take all their knowledge to the grave with them—except that part which I have recorded. Hence I am writing down everything in full detail, so as to give the clearest picture of an age and of a culture that no one else but I have been privileged to witness.

In Chapter 12 Michael introduces the Western fascination with gamelan, from the 1889 Exposition Universelle to Jaap Kunst and Colin McPhee. The site Bali1928.net has a wealth of (silent, alas) film clips.

The work of Paul Bowles in Morocco makes another vivid topic. Turning to Greece, Michael introduces the mission of Domna Samiou to document folk traditions there. John Blacking’s work on the Venda is a classic inspiration for ethnomusicologists. He goes on to explore the importance of record companies, introducing Moses Asch, Folkways, Nonesuch, Ocora, PAN, and Topic Records—before the label “world music” became a bland catch-all.

The final section, “Musical snapshots: the importance of sound archives” is introduced with notes on the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, East European archives, the British Library Sound Archive and the Golha Project on Persian music.

Chapter 17 explores the traditions of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Xinjiang—and further afield, Tuva. Despite the spectre of Soviet prescriptive innovations, collectors did some fine work, such as Viktor Uspensky and Viktor Belyayev, followed by foreign researchers like Jean During and Theodore Levin, and the Aga Khan Music Initiative. This leads to Afghanistan, introducing local musician-collectors, and the work of John Baily and Veronica Doubleday.

Chapters follow on Russia and Georgia—as a change from the polished stage presentation of many groups, here’s a Georgian group singing informally:

Musics lost and found continues with Pygmy polyphony in central Africa, with Colin Turnbull, Simha Arom, Suzanne Fürniss; and the radif of Persian art music.

Yang Yinliu 1950

Yang Yinliu, 1950.

Chapter 23 discusses China: the great Yang Yinliu, and my own humble fieldwork with the Gaoluo ritual association, the Li family Daoists, and shawm bands—all themes amply covered on this blog. Korean traditions (see my posts on Dang and Bowed zithers, 1) are introduced through the art of p’ansori; and Japan through taiko drumming—having left the more venerable traditions of gagaku, Noh, and kabuki to The other classical musics.

In the two final chapters Michael discusses the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage programme and its pitfalls, ending with a thoughtful overview of the book’s knotty issues. Besides the bibliography, each chapter ends with a basic reading list.

More digestible than the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, sections in the two New Grove Ethnomusicology volumes, or even The Rough Guide to world music, this book leads audiences to a wealth of traditions. While scholars were poring over musty tomes in libraries, and composers busy composing, these intrepid collectors were busy in the field, seeking to make sense of the cultural life of grassroots communities.

While Musics lost and found covers an impressive amount of ground, there’s scope for a further volume. The story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord recording the “Homeric” epics of bards in 1930s’ Yugoslavia (archive here) would be grist to Michael’s mill. Bruno Nettl is one of the crucial figures in ethnomusicology, not only for his studies of Native American cultures but for his work in Iran. Also valuable are Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s explorations of the Mediterranean. The chapter on the Lomaxes hints at the vibrant field of Italy, but one might also adduce the work of Roberto Leydi, Tullia Magrini, and so on. Though the work of Richard Widdess in Nepal gets a mention in the Introduction, south Asia deserves a lengthier treatment, to include the likes of Arnold Bake and Nicolas Magriel. And so on…

* * *

Tom Service introduced the book with Michael on BBC Radio 3 Music Matters (here, from 17.01). The programme introduces English folk-song; migration and “climate change in music”; singing in Albania and Genoa; and (from 28.42) Veronica Doubleday discusses her outstanding work in 1970s’ Afghanistan and the current crisis—a clear instance of a culture that is very much under threat, of course.

It’s true that village communities have changed decisively. But we need a new model for the ecosphere of folk tradition. Such genres are not timeless; even Bach’s cantatas soon fell from favour, and whether or not they find new audiences is not something that I worry about, although recordings and documentation are clearly valuable.

In China I often feel as if I’m responsible for the dwindling of the folk traditions that I document; or to put it another way, the very forces that bring us to these sites are those which lead to change. The role of the fieldworker has come under increasing scrutiny, as in such works as Shadows in the field (see e.g. William Noll on blind minstrels of Ukraine). Further to Nigel Barley’s portrayal of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot”, I sometimes feel like a harmful idiot.

Tom Service opens with a soundbite much favoured by pundits: “folk music cultures are in danger of extinction all over the world”.  I’m none too enamoured with the concept of “endangered traditions”: since the beginnings of anthropology, fieldworkers have always supposed they were witnessing the last vestiges of a tradition. It tends to suggest a nostalgia for the halcyon days of child chimney-sweeps (cf. Edible, intangible, dodgy). Cultural loss is a thorny issue. As Michael indeed suggests, the book’s leitmotif—the fear that the music of collectors’ chosen field might evaporate before they managed to fully document it—may not be so well-founded. It’s always too late, and never.

* * *

The book was sonorously launched with an event at the Wigmore Hall, making a fitting tribute to live musicking after a long silence, as well as a reminder of the rich traditions maintained among UK diasporas. In an exquisite programme, it was wonderful to hear Veronica Doubleday again, followed by a cappella songs from the Georgian Maspindzeli choir, Persian classical music performed by Mehdi Namdar (ney) and Fariborz Kiani (goblet drum), and the Anatolian folk songs of Çiğdem Aslan accompanied by Erdal Yapici on baglama.

* * *

See also e.g. my voluminous fieldwork and world music categories in the sidebar; note Society and soundscape.

Köçek in Kuzguncuk!

A fanfare in advance of the anniversary of Atatürk’s death on 10th November

Kocek 6

Just back home after an ecstatic week in Istanbul—first time I’ve needed my passport since visiting Li Manshan in 2018!

The neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus is a delightful community from which I can hardly drag myself away. Amidst constant inspiration, I’ve met more people there in the last week than in the previous five years… Having made a few brief trips to Istanbul Back in the Day to perform with London early music groups, I feel the European side of the city can wait—rather as I take eccentric pride in never having visited the Great Wall on all my stays in Beijing.

As elsewhere in Istanbul, vestiges of Armenian, Greek, and Jewish cultures are still evident in the architecture of Kuzguncuk.

Armenian church next to a mosque.

Synagogues.

synagogue 2

Inside the main synagogue.

 

The two Greek churches.

* * *

Kastamonu deli

Among Kuzguncuk dwellers are migrants from Kastamonu, due east of Istanbul in the region south of the Black Sea. Kastamonu is a leading centre of festive köçek dancing, and for the celebrations following Republic Day on 29th October a group came to perform along the lovely tree-lined main street of Kuzguncuk that leads up from the Bosphorus. The dancers’ main instrumental support is provided by davulzurna drum-and-shawm, ubiquitous accompaniment to festivities over a wide area. 

AM filmingIn the afternoon, first they performed at the entrance to the shops lining the street. As locals and visitors threw lira notes at the twirling feet of the two dancers, they gyrated gracefully down to pluck them up in their mouths. The group then made a base at the entrance of a side-street, performing a lengthier sequence beneath a large banner depicting Atatürk; the musicians, now seated, were supplemented by a kemençe bowed lute (cf. Indian and world fiddles, Musics of Crete), with gutsy, exuberant singing. Here are some clips from Augusta’s fine filming:

The band bursts into song as the dancers kneel to assemble the notes around the skirt:

They get back on their feet for the climax:

That evening they went on to perform for a lively street party up the hill.

* * *

Köçek troupes, 1720 (wiki):
left, musicians and dancers entertain the crowds;
right, at a fair for Sultan Ahmed’s celebration of his son’s circumcision.

 Köçek dancing (cf. this introduction) thrived from the 17th century, along with çengi. Notably since the late Ottoman era, courtly genres dispersed among the folk from the courts (a transmission trope also commonly attributed to late imperial China—see “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“; cf. The Janissary band). The androgynous young male dancers, * then recruited from non-Muslim subject peoples of the empire, began training early (for the Ottoman background, note the useful article by Şehvar Beşiroğlu, “Music, identity, gender: çengis, köçeks, çöçeks”), as well as his “The musical role of Turkish women in perspectives from the Mediterranean music scene“. Having long been part of meyhane tavern culture, groups have continued to perform for folk festivities such as weddings and circumcisions.

In folk traditions today, there may be a solo dancer, or a pair. Of course costumes (and concepts of gender) have changed over time, throughout the whole Levant. We saw two young adult dancers, both clean-shaven, their costumes and props each playing on male-female roles. One wore a long flaring skirt decorated with coins, jewels, and gold, as well as a kind of sporran at the waist, but a (“male”?) waistcoat; he/she sounded the zil finger-cymbals, as played by the female çengi dancers. Meanwhile the “male” dancer wore the skirt of the çengi, and necklaces, clacking the kaşık spoons (cf. çarpare castanets). 

I’ve adapted these leads from §4b here:

Specially-composed musical forms for çengi and köçek dances include tavşanca, çiftetelli, and ağırlama. A collection of songs in the same modal form with lively instrumental ritornellos is called takım. These include songs by named or anonymous composers and performers. Hammamizade Ismail Dede (himself a fine composer of köçekçe) called such forms musikinin orospuluğu (“musical whoring”). Köçekce are composed in popular modal systems like karcığar, gerdaniye, hicaz, hüzzam, gülizar, bayati araban, and saba. Those köçekçe in aksak limping metres are beautiful in both their musical style and poetic lyrics.

The köçek tradition of Kastamonu is renowned. Among many videos online, this general introduction includes a wedding party from 7.14:

Here’s a succinct personal account of change in the livelihood over the last two decades (with a rather confused appeal to “the government” that reminds me of China):

I can hardly begin to encapsulate the myriad delights of Kuzguncuk…

See also Greek Christmas in Kuzguncuk, and for more on modern Turkey, this roundup.

 

With boundless thanks to Kadir Filiz, Caroline Finkel, Augusta,
and Millie!


* Elsewhere too, cross-gender dancing is rather common, such as in Egypt and Afghanistan (see the distressing 2010 documentary The dancing boys of Afghanistan), not to mention Europe and east Asia.

The Janissary band, and Turquerie

Mehterhane 1917

Reception of the commander-in-chief of the Bulgarian army in Tsarigrad (Istanbul), 1917.
Source.

The Janissary band is known in the West largely through the vogue it enjoyed in the classical era of WAM (“Typical!”). But I was curious to learn a little about its changing fortunes under Ottoman rule.

Within the military, the Janissaries were the standing army of the Sultan. [1] In the mid-17th century the explorer Evliya Çelebi, whose parents were attached to the Ottoman court, gave a good description of the mehter musicians at the time:

There are 300 artists in mehterhane-i Hümayun (the mehterhane of the palace) in Istanbul. These are quite precious and well-paid people. There is additionally a mehter takımı of 40 people in Yedikule since there is a citadel. They are on duty three times a day, in other words they give three concerts, so that the public listens to Turkish military music. This is a law of Fatih. Moreover, there are 1,000 mehter artists in addition to them in Istanbul. Their bands are in Eyüp S, Kasımpaşa (kapdan-ı Deryalık, the centre of the Turkish Naval Forces), Galata, Tophane, Rumelihisarı, Beykoz, Anadoluhisarı, Üsküdar and Kız Kulesi. These mehter bands are on duty (i.e. give concerts) twice a day, at daybreak and the sunset hour.

Mehterhane 1720

Mehterhâne, miniature from 1720.

In successive revolts through the 18th and early 19th centuries the Janissaries struggled to maintain their privilege and power. In Osman’s dream, definitive tome on Ottoman history, Caroline Finkel documents their changing fortunes: the end of their domination after the 1651 revolt; resistance to modernisation in the 18th century; the 1807 rebellion against Selim III, until growing ill-discipline led to their elimination in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826. [2]

The instrumentation of the mehter military band included kös and davul large drums, zurna shawms, naffir or boru natural trumpets, çevgan bells, zil cymbals, and (borrowed from Europe) triangle. In the classic format, davul, zurna, and trumpets were each played by nine musicians.

After the “Auspicious Incident”, in 1828 it was replaced by a European-style military band, among whose directors was Giuseppe Donizetti (1788–1856), older brother of the composer. I wonder what happened to all those zurna players—this is just the kind of dispersal from court to folk that Chinese scholars observe for the late imperial period (I can’t quite deduce from the sources I’ve seen, but I surmise that such bands performed not just in Istanbul but for regional Janissary divisions).

As the Ottoman empire crumbled, from 1911 the earlier tradition was revived, but with its function more symbolic than practical, the band was again abolished in 1935. Whereas the new recording industry was just beginning to pay attention to the popular songs of the demi-monde, the mehter style was never going to be a commercial proposition. Still, one might suppose keen ethnographers would have documented it, as they were already doing elsewhere; I’ve been hoping to find some recordings from this period, but so far my enquiries have been in vain.

In 1952, leading up to the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Constaninople, the mehter band was resuscitated under the auspices of the Istanbul Military Museum, and in 1953 a unit was created within the Turkish Armed Forces.

Call Me Old-Fashioned (the traditional style was abolished in 1826!), but I still hanker after the “original” sound—here are a couple of recent recreations:

and

Of course, the zurna-davul combo, in smaller scale, has never disappeared from either urban or rural Turkey—as in China, where shawm-and-percussion bands also served the imperial courts and armies,

When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside.

Cf. Frozen brass, and for links to posts on shawms around the world (China, Tibet, south Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Europe), click here.

* * *

Returning to the classical era of WAM: you’d hardly know it, but that’s the kind of style, part of a wider fashion for Turquerie, that filtered down to Mozart and Beethoven before 1826, just as the Janissaries were in severe decline (see Eve R. Meyer, “Turquerie and eighteenth-century music”, Eighteenth-century studies 7.4, 1974). Vienna was a major forum for the East-West encounter.

One intriguing experiment was the Janissary pedal on the piano (listen here). [3] And even if it’s not quite “authentic”, I like this:

Though the Janissary pedal was sadly short-lived, the fashion for the sounds of the Mystic East continued. The prepared piano would have to wait for John Cage… 

With thanks to Caroline Finkel.


[1] Several articles on wiki:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissary
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissary#Janissary_music
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_military_band

as well as
https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/mehter
https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/muzika-yi-humayun

[2] See also e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janissary#Revolts_and_disbandment
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auspicious_Incident

[3] See e.g.
https://elifnurk.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/janissary-pedals/
https://luisdias.wordpress.com/2019/06/09/janissary-music/

Songs of Asia Minor: early recordings

Greek Oriental CD

Roza Eskenazi with Demitris Semsis (violin) and Agapios Tomboulis (cümbüs),
Athens 1932.

Through the first half of the 20th century, the popular songs loosely grouped together as rebetika, performed by Greek, Turkish and other ethnic groups (Armenian, Jewish, Roma), thrived in the night-clubs and music halls of port cities like Istanbul, Smyrna/Izmir, and Athens, as well as in the diaspora, notably the USA (cf. Accordion crimes).

For “the birth of modern Istanbul”, I’ve already praised Charles King’s Midnight at the Pera Palace, which puts the popular music scene of the day in context. Despite its syncretic style, rebetika found itself on the faultlines of a period of convulsive change, with savage ethnic conflicts leading to the population exchanges of 1923. The rebetika ethos is commonly linked with other popular demi-monde styles like flamenco, fado, tango, blues, and so on. [1]

This was also a booming period for the commercial recording industry, and we have a wealth of reissues on CD (often with fine liner notes and translations), such as

  • Greek-Oriental rebetica: songs and dances in the Asia Minor style—the golden years, 1911–1937 (Arhoolie Folklyric, 1991)
  • Armenians, Jews, Turks and Gypsies: oldest known recordings (Collection Greek Archives, 1995)
  • Great voices of Constantinople 1927–1933 (Rounder, 1997)
  • To what strange place: the music of the Ottoman-American diaspora, 1916-1929 (Canary, 2001)
  • Women Of Rembetika 1908-1947 (JSP, 2012).
    .

Women CD

Left to right: Safiye Ayla, Necmiye Ararat Hanim, and Suzan Yakar Rutkay.

Prompted by the CD Women of Istanbul (Traditional Crossroads, 1998), I’ll feature YouTube playlists for some of the female singers who feature on such discs, as they achieved popularity from the 1920s alongside male performers. Their biographies only hint at the changing times. As Harold G. Hagopian observes in the liner notes, the gramophone

could effectively divide the public from the private, the voice from the body, screening women at least for a time from the very modern world they helped foster.

Left, Zehra Bilir; right, Roza Eskanazi.

Zehra Bilir (1913–2007), of Armenian descent (see e.g. here) (17 songs here, some duplicated):

I love her plaintive free-tempo songs, like this one punctuated by fiddle—reminiscent of a Uyghur muqaddime (and, more distantly, Irish sean-nós!):

Here she sings in an Armenian dialect quite remote from “standard” Turkish, with stock phrases borrowed from Anatolian folk türkü, rich in allusions. As my Istanbul friends tell me, the folk lyrics seem to have inspired a poem by Ali Kızıltuğ, in which a man professes his undying love.

This style is featured on the CD Amanedhes and taxims 1929–1937 (playlist):

Safiye Ayla (1907–98) (8 songs here):

The Jewish-Greek singer Roza Eskenazi (mid-1890s–1980), based in Athens—a playlist with 276 gorgeous tracks:

The list opens with Why I smoke cocaine—the Greek lyrics translated by Hagopian:

Where’s all my prettiness, where are those great looks of mine?
In all of Athens, no girl had my class.
I was really a doll, with money and all—
I’m not putting you on, I made the world go wild.
Then this tough guy, yeah, a number one Mr Cool,
Got me involved with him;
He took all I had and left me flat—
He took my heart, my. youth, and my money too,
And from the pain, I smoke cocaine.
(Oh damn you cocaine, you’ve wiped me out!)
Bigshots loved me, old guys, young guys, boys,
And all the fine dudes on the scene.
What great times I had, with wine and song;
Every day I partied it up and led the good life.
And now, poor me, I wander around and waste away,
‘Cause my hang-up for that tough guy won’t let me be.
That cokehead came and wrecked my brain,
So I myself now smoke cocaine.

Müzeyyen Senar (1918–2015) (25 songs):

Hamiyet Yüceses (1914–96) (99 songs):

Marika Papagika (1890–1943), Greek singer based in the USA (12 songs):

Other Greek singers include Rita Abadzi (c1914–69) (295 songs!):

and Marika Kanaropúlu (1914–90), who moved from Turkey to the USA via Greece—18 songs here:

Again, she was a fine exponent of soulful solo amanedhes:

And here she exemplifies the migrant experience with Neva hedzaz (“Like a dry and drifting leaf”):

* * *

All these singers were backed by a host of fine (male) instrumentalists. The CD Istanbul 1925 (Traditional Crossroads, 1994) also has many wonderful instrumental tracks, like this:

For a couple more examples of the free-tempo taxim preludial style which opened that song, here’s the blind Armenian oud-player Udi Hrant (1901–78):

as well as the wind-player Şükrü Tunar (1907–62):

And here’s a wonderful recent taxim on zurna:

For a change of tone, to follow this recording of Misirlou from 1927 New York, sung by Tetos Dimitriades,

Quentin Tarantino included a version on the brilliant soundtrack of Pulp fiction (cf. Dusty):

Rebetika makes another good illustration of Bruno Nettl’s parameters for musical change and adaptation—in scales, vocal style, heterophonic and harmonic accompaniment, instrumentation, context, and so on. For related themes, see e.g. Köçek in Kuzguncuk!; Musics of Crete; Italian folk musicking, Accordion crimes, and Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80

With many thanks to Hülya and Augusta!


 [1] The wider context is described in chapters 5 and 6 of Peter Manuel, Popular musics of the non-Western world (1988), and by Paul Vernon; see also The Rough Guide to world music (under both Greece and Turkey), and Songlines. Amidst a vast bibliography, note Alex Papadopoulos and Asli Duru (eds.), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017); see also e.g. two articles from greeksongstories.wordpress.com (here and here), with more under the rebetika tag there; and this article by Rod Conway-Morris. From the Greek perspective, Gail Holst, Road to rembetika (1975) remains a classic.

Midnight at the Pera Palace

PP cover

  • Charles King, Midnight at the Pera Palace: the birth of modern Istanbul (2014)

is just as compelling as his book on the Boas circle of anthropologists.

For reviews, see e.g. here; and Pheroze Unwalla makes pertinent comments, opening with reflections on “popular history” and its deservedly growing popularity.

The Pera Palace hotel was established in 1892 to service clients arriving on the Orient Express in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, in what was then Istanbul’s most fashionable neighbourhood. King evokes

the Muslim foundation that first owned it, the Armenians who marked it out for development, the Belgian multinational firm that made it famous, the Greek businessman who bought and lost it, and the Arab-born Turkish Muslim who guided it, somewhat the worse for wear, through the Second World War.

But while the hotel is a recurring theme, he doesn’t belabour it as metaphor.

Istanbul was settling into a self-absorbed sense of hüzün, the hollowed-out melancholy that Turkish intellectuals said infused the crumbling walls, tumbledown mansions, and rotting seaside villas.

Among King’s inspirations was the photography of Selahattin Giz (1914–94) (some instances shown below); often he views the city through the prism of Western visitors.

Europeans who came to Istanbul understood the dark side of their own civilisation precisely because many of them were its victims. After the First World War, in the parallel universe created by the collapse of empires across Europe and the Near East, Westerners were sometimes the needy immigrants and Easterners their reluctant hosts. Wave after wave of Europeans landed in Istanbul in ways they could never have imagined—not as conquerors or bearers of enlightenment but as the displaced, impoverished, and desperate.

The city had long suffered regular earthquakes and fires; firemen commonly exacerbated the damage. Amidst a changing physical landscape, Istanbul constantly reinvented itself—as cities do. 

Ethnic cleansing is a major theme. As the Ottoman empire crumbled, forced and “voluntary” migrations took place, with Muslim migrants seeking refuge from the warfare of southeast Europe. On the eve of World War One, the city was estimated to have around 977,000 dwellers, of whom 560,000 were Muslim, 206,000 Greek Orthodox, and 84,000 Armenian Christian; nearly 130,000 were foreign subjects, mostly non-Muslim.

Greeks, Armenians, and Jews had long been an intrinsic part of the city’s fabric. Istanbul had been something of a haven for the latter groups:

In this complicated world, an Armenian family might be Catholic, Protestant, or Apostolic Christian. They might profess deep loyalty to the sultan or work secretly on behalf of a national liberation movement, which in turn might lean in either the liberal direction or the socialist one. They might be subjects of the sultan or enjoy citizenship of another country, even if they had lived in the city for generations. Jews were likewise divided among the Sephardim, descendants of immigrants from Spain, and the Ashkenazim of eastern Europe, who moved into the city in increasing numbers in the 19th century. Each might in turn identify as Zionists, socialists, or liberals, and as either Ottoman subjects or foreigners.

After Greek troops occupied the coastal city of Smyrna/Izmir in 1919 Turkish forces brutally retook it in the “Catastrophe” of 1922. Meanwhile Mustafa Kemal was consolidating Turkish nationalist power before proclaiming the Republic in 1923.

In the Allied occupation following World War One and the Armenian genocide, British, French, and Italian troops oversaw zones of control. The commentator Ziya Bey evoked the post-war Pera Palace, under its Greek proprietor Bodosakis:

Foreign officers and business men are feted by unscrupulous Levantine adventurers and drink and dance with fallen Russian princesses or with Armenian girls whose morals are, to say the least, as light as their flimsy gowns.

Istanbul’s non-Muslim minorities fell from an estimated 56% in 1900 to 35% by the late 1920s. During the war the general population of the city shrunk, with many seeking refuge elsewhere. Still, it was now home to substantial populations of displaced Muslims, as well as Armenians who had fled the warfare in Anatolia.

And King goes on to describe the presence of “desperate and resourceful” Russian refugees fleeing the revolution there—again representing a variety of political persuasions and economic circumstances. Until they began moving on in the 1920s, to some observers Istanbul even seemed like a Russian city. The American Thomas Whittemore led relief work on behalf of these new refugees.

The new bureaucratic labels of “Greek” and “Turkish” were clumsy.

A Greek Orthodox family might speak Turkish and have roots in the same Anatolian village extending back many generations. A Greek- or Slavic-speaking Muslim in Greece might similarly have had little in common with the culture of the Turkish Republic. But in the exchange, the former was declared a Greek and the latter a Turk, with both shipped off to a foreign but allegedly co-ethnic home.

Even the city’s Armenian community could still survive, “especially if one avoided politics, spoke only Turkish in public, and embraced silence as a way of dealing with the past”.

And Istanbul’s nightlife continued to thrive. King describes the jazz age and the film industry. I think of Shanghai, subject of much research (such as Andrew Jones, Yellow music) and nostalgia.

Thomas

Frederick Bruce Thomas. Source.

Whereas the traditional meyhane taverns had offered food and alcohol, the new clubs added modern entertainment. The “sultan of jazz” was Frederick Bruce Thomas, whose club Maxim enjoyed a brief heyday. Russian dancers trained a generation of Istanbullus; the Charleston was (ineffectually) banned, “not because it offended Muslim sensibilities, but because record numbers of people were being admitted to the hospital for sprains and bruises”.

The “black eunuchs” of the former imperial harem sought to alleviate their reduced circumstances by forming a mutual-assistance society and putting to use their antiquated, refined etiquette.

eunuchs

“Black eunuchs” at a meeting, late 1920s/1930s.

Passing swiftly over King’s rash claim that “there is no well-developed field of study called sonic history” (“I’m like, hello?”), we read of the changing soundscape of Istanbul, including motorcars, organ-grinders, and sirens. King notes karagöz shadow puppets, precursors of the movies. Foreign films were eventually supplemented by a Turkish industry; as elsewhere, film could serve as a vehicle for state propaganda.

As the recording industry took off, the phonograph was ever more common among middle-class families.

In the past, the fame of professional musicians had been limited by geography. Musicians might be highly regarded in a particular neighbourhood or sought out for a wedding or another celebration across town, but national or international acclaim was hard to imagine. Now an audience could love someone they had never met and cry at a song they had never heard performed live. […]

It was now possible to remember, even pine for, a specific and imagined world at the exact moment when it seemed to be slipping away into the irretrievable past. There was little specifically Ottoman about these memories, at least not in the sense of thinking wistfully about sultans, harems, and the recumbent life of pashas and beys…

If jazz, and clubs like Maxim, catered for the more well-to-do, the pulse of the demi-monde was a more gritty popular music (to which I devote a separate post). “Rebetika” songs expressed both nostalgia and pain; narcotics were both a stimulant and a theme. Ethnic minorities and women were prominent on this scene. King provides vignettes on Roza Eskenazi, Hrant Kerkulian, and Seyyan—respectively Jewish, Armenian, and Muslim; “had it not been for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, their lives might have been mapped out mainly within the confines of those religiously defined communities”. Such performers now achieved stardom through the new recording industry, bolstered by migration.

Roza Eskanazi’s family had moved from Istanbul to Salonica, and by the early 1920s she moved on to Athens, becoming an early star of rebetika. The blind oud-player Hrant Kerkulian, known as Udi Hrant, remained based in Istanbul. Seyyan Hanim was one among a new group of Muslim women (also including Safiye Ayla) who dared take to the stage, becoming famed for her renditions of tango.

King ends the chapter by introducing the two enterprising migrant families. The Zildjians, from an Armenian background, had long supplied cymbals to Ottoman military bands. Having fled the violence for the USA around 1915, they were back in Istanbul by the 1920s, still making cymbals—now largely for the export market, since the Ottoman bands were in decline. But they returned to the States, setting up a prosperous business in Massachusetts for the thriving jazz scene. And the Ertegün brothers, sons of a Turkish diplomat based in Washington DC, went on to launch Atlantic Records in 1947.

Meanwhile in Istanbul, the writer Fikret Adil linked the decline of the jazz scene to government restrictions on the sex trade in 1930.

By 1934 Mustafa Kemal was Atatürk, father of the nation, with its capital of Ankara. While he kept a tight rein on dissent, armed uprisings were common in east Anatolia. In a secular republic, religion was controlled, including Sufi groups like the Alevi brotherhoods. The ezan call to prayer was amplified from 1923. “Turkishness” was effectively propounded. While the Republic stressed modernity and progress, 97% of the country’s land area was in poor, sparsely-populated Anatolia. “The Turkish mind may have shifted west, but the Turkish state had shifted east”. The 1927 national census for greater Istanbul listed around 448,000 Muslims, 99,000 Orthodox Christians (mainly Greeks), 53,000 Armenians, and 47,000 Jews, making it the only place in the entire republic with a sizable minority presence.

women skip

An important chapter follows on the lives of women. “For Muslim women, the creation of the secular state was often said to have ushered in liberation from the double yoke of tradition and religion”. Legal rights were instituted in property inheritance, divorce, franchise, and the abolition of polygamy.

Women were by and large written into the new republic’s history but written out of it as individuals. When they did appear, it was usually as cardboard heroines, women who sacrificed themselves for the nationalist cause or took up patriotic professions in service to the republic. […]
Like much of Kemalism, however, the world did not change suddenly with the proclamation of the republic, nor did the gains achieved by women erase old social habits. […]
Turkish politicians sometimes claimed that women themselves were the main obstacles to female progress. Burdened by their own narrow horizons, they were simply failing to take up the new opportunities afforded them by changes in the civil code.

Halide

Portrait of Halide Edip by Alphonse Mucha, 1928. Source.

A prominent early Turkish feminist was Halide Edip (1884–1964). Working as an essayist from 1908, she went on to side with the nationalist agenda of Kemalism, but later took issue with its broken promises and increasing authoritarianism. In 1926 she went into self-imposed exile, only returning after Kemal’s death in 1938.

Another thorn in the side of the new regime was the author Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63), whose socialist leanings inclined him towards the Bolsheviks.

Bolshevik Russia and Turkey did have certain things in common. Both stressed the role of the state as the engine of social and economic transformation. Both countries had forsaken the multiparty parliaments that the Romanovs and Ottomans, for all their faults, had managed to create in their final years. They eventually took for granted the view that statism—the government’s careful managing of the economy and society—worked best when societal transformation was handled by a single political party, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and the Republican People’s Party in Turkey. […]
Turkey, however, was a country without a proletariat. Because of the loss of so many urban centres, from Salonica to Damascus, the new republic was even more rural than the Ottoman Empire. In Russia—itself overwhelmingly rural—Lenin and Trotsky had already shown that workers were not essential components of a workers’ revolution. All that was required was a small group of conspirators who could form a party, seize the state, defeat the backers of the old regime in a civil war, and then set about building, through industrialisation and radical land reform, the very proletariat that they claimed as the base of their support.

But the two revolutionary regimes were in conflict. Nâzım Hikmet’s flirtations with Moscow led to extended periods in prison, from where he continued writing. Returning to Moscow after his release, “his literary voice became that of the wizened ex-prisoners, not the firebrand poet of earlier years”.

“Perhaps the most reluctant visitor ever to arrive in Istanbul” was Leon Trotsky. Reaching the city in 1929 with his wife Natalya after a 3,000 mile train journey from Kazakhstan to Odessa, he was to be under close surveillance. Their home on the island of Büyükada always felt insecure, with a real threat of assassination. The radical American poet Max Eastman acted as Trotsky’s literary agent, finding him to be preoccupied with mundane financial concerns.

During Eastman’s visit, Trotsky spent most of their time together trying to convince Eastman to collaborate on a stage play about the American Civil War. Trotksy believed it would be a hit on Broadway, a work that would combine Eastman’s knowledge of American history with his own expertise on troop movements and tactics. Eastman considered the idea ridiculous.

Trotsky’s repeated applications for foreign visas were constantly rejected until he managed to gain asylum in south France in 1933, ending up in Mexico. Throughout the whole period Istanbul was a hotbed of espionage. Among the cadre of Soviet agents was Leonid Eitongon, who had served in Harbin in northeast China, then a kind of East Asian version of Istanbul (see under Robert van Gulik). In 1940 Eitongon pursued Trotsky to Mexico, grooming Ramón Caridad to murder him.

In 1929, just as Trotsky was arriving in Istanbul, Yunus Nadi, a former colleague of Halide Edip who became a leading publicist for the new regime, announced the nation’s first ever beauty contest, to “demonstrate the elevated qualities of the new republican woman to a global audience” (Discuss…). But three years of contests failed to produce an international winner—the 1930 Miss Europe title went to the entrant from Greece, a blow to Turkish national prestige.

Keriman

Keriman Halis. Source.

With conservatives suspicious of loose morals, in 1932 Yunus Nadi sought out Keriman Halis, whose virtuous pedigree was beyond reproach. In a triumph for Turkish national prestige, she promptly won the Miss Universe contest, splendidly known as the International Pageant of Pulchritude (cf. the Judgment of Paris, under Pomodoro!). Her fame eclipsing that of Halide Edip, she became a symbol of Kemalist virtue, insisting that the contest had been an exhibition of female emancipation and Turkish modernity.

The rivalry with Greece introduces a chapter on the contested site of Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya. As a Christian cathedral it was a magnificent symbol of Byzantine Constantinople from the 6th century. Long before its conversion to a mosque upon the Muslim conquest of 1453, the 8th-century Iconoclast movement had defaced human images in such churches. When the Swiss Fossati brothers were invited to refurbish the site in the 1840s they briefly uncovered rich early layers.

We now meet the philanthropist Thomas Whittemore again; in his role as founder of the Byzantine Institute in the 1930s, he raised funds for a major new restoration project that entailed making the building into a museum, gaining official permission largely through Turkey’s new rapprochement with Greece. As the archaeological team uncovered old mosaics, the site was revealed as “colour-filled, majestic, and a hybrid of East and West in exactly the way that Mustafa Kemal’s republic was imagining itself”. While conservatives railed against reviving the mosque’s infidel past, others felt that “the artistic glories of the city were being freed from their religious veils and revealed to their secular custodians”. The restoration attracted great international publicity.

For centuries the most important building in the city had been a place of Islamic worship, accessible to the faithful but generally hidden from non-Muslims. Now it was open to everyone.

The long-running dispute, and the building’s use as a political pawn, continues today. Among a wealth of discussion, see e.g. this 2013 article by Robert G. Ousterhout. The re-conversion to a mosque in 2020 has been widely deplored, e.g. by the Italian Association of Byzantine Studies, and Ipek Kocaömer Yosmaoğlu.

Goebbels 1939

In the spring of 1939 Joseph Goebbels was impressed by a visit to Hagia Sophia.

The last three chapters discuss Istanbul during World War Two, as Turkey strove to remain on the sidelines of the conflict between foreign powers. Following the death of Atatürk in 1938, Turkey was itself in a period of political turmoil. Espionage intensified, with the Turkish Emniyet secret police active alongside foreign agents.

PP 1941 bomb

In March 1941 several were killed when a suitcase bomb exploded at the Pera Palace.

Turkey was ever more vulnerable when the Wehrmacht launched its Balkan campaign in April­–May 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union in June.

refugees

Jewish refugees, probably survivors of the doomed Mefküre convoy,
arrive at Sirkeci station from the Black Sea coast.

Efforts increased to rescue Jews from occupied Europe. In February 1942 nearly 800 Jewish families stranded aboard the Struma, anchored off the coast as they hoped to gain passage to Palestine, lost their lives in a massive explosion. By 1944 Ira Hirschmann, with US government support, was leading rescue efforts in Istanbul, working closely with the well-connected Chaim Barlas from his base at the Pera Palace to negotiate labyrinthine bureaucracy. Meanwhile the Turkish press printed antisemitic cartoons, and a wealth tax, though short-lived, squeezed minorities further. Despite the otherwise dubious wartime record of the Roman Catholic church, in 1944 Archchishop Roncalli (who became Pope John XXIII in 1958) played a major role in rescuing Hungarian Jewish refugees.

In the Epilogue King can only outline the later story. In 1950 the one-party system was dismantled with the Democratic victory over the Republican People’s Party that Atatürk had founded. In 1952 Turkey became a member of NATO; but in 1955 another pogrom against Greeks, Armenians, and Jews soured the mood—the last straw for Istanbul’s minorities. Military coups followed in 1960, 1971, and 1980.

King reflects on the tensions between the national and elegiac modes of writing modern European history:

Both are, in their way, fictions. National history asks that we take the impossibly large variety of human experience, stacked up like a deck of playing cards, and pull out only the national one—the rare moments in time when people raise a flag and misremember a collective past—as the most worthy of our attention. The elegiac asks that we end every story by fading to black, leaving off at a point when an old world is lost, with a set of ellipses pointing back toward what once had been.

His engaging style is a model of popular history—in the best sense.

See also The Janissary band.

Iranian lives

In reportage, a cartoon book, and feature films

I’ve been seeking to glean a few basic perspectives on Iranian society beyond its (seemingly “autonomous”) chamber music—note Laudan Nooshin’s useful Songlines introduction to the sound spectrum in Iran.

  • Ramita Navai, City of lies: love, sex, death, and the search for truth in Tehran (2014)

makes a compelling read, an effective blend of interviews, observation, and research. The eight vignettes read like a novel—in “Sources” she explains how she compiles each account, giving further references. In a final note she summarises her own story: based in London from young, returning to Iran as a journalist since 2004, engaging with the poor of south Tehran. Her website also includes her excellent films for Channel 4 from around the world.

With the long avenue of Vali Asr as a thread linking bourgeois north Tehran and the gritty south of the city, the characters (both male and female) encompass all the contradictions of changing modern life there—regime supporters, mullahs and judges, party-goers and dissidents, morality police and mobsters; fashion, nose jobs, and rap; opium, crystal meth, and heroin.

Among all the waves of repression and executions since the 1979 revolution, the protests of 2009 loom large, as well as the constant lure of refuge in the diaspora—including the murky Iranian underworld in Japan.

The book opens with the tale of an MEK hit-man returning to Tehran for a botched assassination attempt. Other characters include Somayah, a devout girl who still falls foul of the regime’s moral strictures, reveals the society’s misogyny; Amir, unable to forgive a repentant judge for sentencing his parents to death; Leyla, whose divorce leads to her to sex work and the thriving porn scene, exploited by hypocritical police and judges; Morteza, an abused young member of a basiji militia who finally manages to have a sex-change operation (a chapter that opens with a vignette on ritual self-mortification); and Farideh, a widow from an affluent family fallen on hard times, who, having learned that swinging 60s’ London was uptight and “backward”, finally decides to make a home there, but returns to Tehran after only two months.

While the contrast between tradition and modernity is a staple cliché of travel writing, here Navai brings real insight to these life stories, always nuanced, conflicted.

Even in large cities, the soundscape is among ways in which such conflicts are evident—in this case, not just the contrast between rap and the call to prayer, but the duality of the art music of the radif and more gritty sounds like festive shawm bands. As Morteza observes the incantations, sobs, and drum-beats of ritual self-flagellants in trance, he notes that they appear strangely like the north Tehran ravers they abhor (cf. Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

To varying degrees, duplicity is perhaps a universal in societies, “the consequence of surviving in an oppressive regime”. While it has been noted as a characteristic of socialist societies (e.g. The whisperers), Alan Bennett also regards hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English. More basic is the imposition of power through intimidation, exercised both by political regimes and by traditional values—often reminiscent of China.

* * *

I was reminded of the educative cartoon book

  • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2000­–2003; complete English edition 2007),

another fine introduction to the modern urban society of Iran.

At 343 pages it’s a substantial autobiography, whose innovative format belies its serious message. Under headings such as “The veil”, “The party”, and “The croissant”, it evokes her early experiences after the 1979 revolution, her troubled teenage years in Vienna from 1983, and her return, feeling defeated, four years later to Iran—where she gets married and divorced before leaving again for good. Since 1993 she has been based in France.

Here’s a trailer for the 2007 film version:

* * *

One of Ramita Navai’s characters approves of the film A separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), by contrast with the “overrated and pretentious” Iranian films, with their heavy-handed symbolism, that beguile the Western media—a suspicion that is widely common within societies, again as in China.

Still, the new wave films of Iran have a distinguished history, the “second wave” led by Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) such as the Koker trilogy—here’s a trailer for Where is the friend’s home? (1987):

As to the “third wave”, Samira Makhmalbaf (b.1980), following the path of her father Mohsen (b.1957; family website here) directed her first film The apple (1998) at the age of 17, a moving story of a Tehran family in difficulty (reenacted by the family themselves) that again blurs the line between documentary and fiction.

By contrast, Blackboards (2001) depicts the plight of Kurdish refugees in desolate countryside, against the backdrop of the chemical bombing of Halabja, only revealed at the devastating greyed-out ending. As an itinerant teacher struggles stoically to convince poor villagers of the remote benefits of literacy, he creatively puts his blackboard to more practical uses:

All this just to remind myself again that music is never autonomous… Cf. Three women of Herat.

Leyli and Majnun

Majnun

Huseyngulu Sarabski as Majnun in the premiere of
Leyli and Majnun, Baku 1908. Source: wiki.

The great Bruno Nettl gave a useful outline of the diverse responses to modernisation and Westernisation in traditional cultures.

The opera Leyli and Majnun is a youthful work by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885–1948), premiered in Baku in 1908. It was not only the first Middle Eastern opera, but apparently “the first piece of composed music” in Azerbaijan—just at a time when orientalism was in vogue in western Europe (see e.g. Mahler, Ravel), in between Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West.

As Hajibeyov recalled:

The first musical education I got as a child in Shusha came from the best singers and saz-players. At that time I sang mughams and tasnifs. The singers liked my voice. They would make me sing and teach me at the same time.

(For “growing into music” in Azerbaijan, note this site).

He was influenced by great Azeri musicians like the khananda singer Jabbar Garyagdioglu (1861–1944)—here he is accompanied by tar and kamancha:

Leyli paintingSoon Hajibeyov also picked up the language of WAM.

The ill-fated romance of Leyli and Majnun (“the Romeo and Juliet of the East”—Byron. YAY!) [1] is widespread across Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Indian cultures. And it’s a major subject for Uyghur culture, encapsulating the mystical association of love and madness that is such a common theme in the muqam there.

So here’s the opera (libretto here, with cues to each of the mughams used). Don’t be misled by the staging, or the unpromising orchestral opening—what really intoxicates the ear is the traditional style, accompanied only by tar plucked lute—first heard from 8.49, with searing, ecstatic singing from 15.54; further instances from 49.12, 1.14.06, and the long, tragic final sequence from 1.37.28:

So, far from using “ethnic culture” as a mere colorful prop, it is the Western elements which serve as occasional decoration. Indeed, since the mugham is at the heart of the drama, one might wonder why it was considered desirable to go to the trouble and expense of using an orchestra and chorus—but that’s precisely the irony of the evolving power relations between tradition and modernity.

This considerably predates similar Chinese experiments in the conservatoire fusion of traditional and Western idioms—to which I’m quite resistant.

And somehow I find the opera more interesting than the recent adaptation of the story by Alim Qasimov with the Silk Road Ensemble, with Mark Morris. But exploring the whole canon of the Azeri mugham is a most enriching experience. Here’s Qasimov in concert with an ensemble including his daughter Fargana:

See also The genius of Sergei Parajanov.


[1] For amazing WAM versions of Romeo and Juliet, see Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. For “Suzhou, Venice of the East” and other clichés, see here.

Self-mortification: dervishes of Kurdistan

with a note on Tibetan spirit mediums in Amdo

dervish

Leading on from my post on Yazidi culture, here I consider a distinctive kind of ritual activity among the Kurds—mainly through a fine documentary from 1973.

Suffering in the quest for union with God is a universal theme, such as among the Uyghur ashiq, or indeed the Bach Passions. An extreme instance is the controversial yet widespread practice of tatbir ritual self-mortification by such acts as flagellation and skewering the body. Practised quite widely through the Islamic world, mortification of the flesh is a theme in other ritual cultures too, including Christianity: it was practised by Lutherans and Methodists, and among Catholics, rituals continue in Spain and Italy. It seems rare in China, though spirit mediums perform self-mortification at extreme northwest and southeast regions: Tibetans in Amdo, and Hokkien in south Fujian and Taiwan. [1] As ritual performers in the public domain, they are male (see here).

As to Kurdistan, dervishes—broadly members of a Sufi tariqa lodge/order/fraternity, sometimes also religious mendicants—perform dhikr (zikr) ecstatic devotional acts, commonly in the form of litanies, but also in rituals of self-mortification. Of course, as in other cultures, this is only one among many manifestations of faith. Beyond sensationalist voyeurism, one hopes for a more sober ethnographic approach—like the documentary

  • Kurdistan: the mysterious dervishes (André Singer and Ali Bulookbashi, 1973, in the series Disappearing world).

It shows the daily lives and religious practices of a dervish community in the Kurdish village of Baiveh on the border between Iran and Iraq, at a time when the two countries had cut diplomatic ties. Many were refugees from Kurdish areas of Iraq; a major source of their economy was contraband. They were dervishes of the ecstatic, mystical Qadiri cult. The film explores the spiritual and temporal power wielded by their leader Sheikh Hussein. By serving him the dervishes consider that they are also serving God. He presides over rituals in which they have the power to carry out acts which would normally be harmful, such as having electricity passed through their bodies, eating glass, and skewering their faces.

It is the less privileged members of the community who seek to enhance their status through performing such acts of subservience—demonstrations of loyalty, as much to the Sheikh as to God. The film also includes explores the tensions with the local mullah, representative of orthodox Islam; but it is the complex of modern secular values that pose a greater challenge to the ways of the dervish, and to the Sheikh’s feudal power.

Here’s the film—not at all for the faint-hearted:

A restudy would be interesting.

This more recent French documentary also features extreme scenes:

The resilience of tradition in troubled modern times is also shown in the revival of ritual pilgrimages, again often featuring tatbir (on the revival since the fall of ISIS, see e.g. here). The ancient battle of Karbala is commemorated in the Arba’een pilgrimage to Karbala that marks the end of the Ashura festival.

As ever, the commodified urban dervish performances for tourists that are often featured in the media—invariably cast as “whirling”—are a world away from local rituals—though they too are a proper subject for ethnographers.

Tongren 1

Qinghai 2

Tibetan self-mortification, Rebkong: source here.

[1] For trance mediums in Amdo, see here. For the 6th-moon Klu-rol festival of Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren), Qinghai, note
Charlene Makley, “Rebgong’s Klu rol and the politics of presence: methodological considerations” (2013), perceptively situating the event within the changing politics of the area as it has become a tourist attraction since 2001 (as you can see from online videos). And now she has published The battle for fortune: state-led development, personhood, and power among Tibetans in China (2018).
Among several other articles, see e.g.
Kevin Stuart, Banmadorji, and Huangchojia, “Mountain gods and trance mediums: a Qinghai Tibetan summer festival”, Asian folklore studies 54 (1995);
Cao Benye 曹本冶 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵, “Renshen gongwu: Qinghai Tongren liuyuehui jishen yuewude diaocha yanjiu” 人神共舞: 青海同仁六月会祭神乐舞的调查研究, in Cao Benye (ed.), Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究, 西北卷 (2003, with DVD);
and Katia Buffetrille’s chapter in a special volume on Mediums and shamans in Central Asia.
For more, see Isabelle Henrion’s extensive Western-language bibliography on the Tibetan performing arts, §10.

For self-mortifying mediums in south Fujian, note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven; for Taiwan, see Donald Sutton, Steps of perfection (2003), Margaret Chan, Ritual is theatre, theatre is ritual; tang-ki: Chinese spirit medium worship (2006), and Patrice Fava’s 1995 film Mazu la déeese de la mer, réalité d’une légende.

For a broader treatment of self-inflicted violence in the imperial history of Chinese religion, see Jimmy Yu, Sanctity and self-inflicted violence (2012).

The Kazakh famine

Trauma and memory

famine

The famine in Ukraine of the early 1930s (see posts under Life behind the Iron curtain: a roundup) was publicised abroad by early journalists like Gareth Jones, and later through the work of the Ukrainian diaspora and scholars like Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum.

But from 1931 to 1934 there was widespread dearth throughout the Soviet Union; the Ukraine holodomor has largely eclipsed other devastating famines in the North Caucasus and the Volga, and notably further east in Kazakhstan—a vast territory the size of continental Europe. It makes an important piece of the grisly jigsaw filling in the troubled histories of Russia, Xinjiang, and China (see e.g. here); and it also relates to the commemoration and recognition of guilt in Germany (see e.g. here).

Conquest had already addressed the topic in chapter 9 of his 1986 book The harvest of sorrow (1986), “Central Asia and the Kazakh tragedy”. Now we have two major books to help supplement the picture: [1]

  • Robert Kindler, Stalin’s nomads: power and famine in Kazakhstan (translated by Cynthia Klohr, 2018; German original, 2014)
  • Sarah Cameron, The hungry steppe: famine, violence, and the making of Soviet Kazakhstan (2018)

It is no easy task to unravel the threads of forced collectivization, famine, and all the social changes that they entailed. In Central Asia, the state’s attempts to implement socialism were further complicated by their mission to permanently sedentarise nomads. While I look forward to reading Cameron’s book, here I’ll discuss that of Kindler.

Central Asia since the 1990s

Central Asia since the 1990s.

In his Introduction Kindler summarizes the main themes.

More than a third of all Kazakhs died, or a fourth of Kazakhstan’s entire population. People died of hunger or disease, were shot, or slain. Hundreds of thousands were displaced; some turned to begging or banditry. Social nets fell apart. As the nomads’ herds were confiscated and depleted, the economy of the steppe collapsed. […]

Clans were replaced by kolkhozes, brigades, and other collectives that produced and distributed indispensable resources. People became dependent on the institutions of the Soviet state. […] It was Sovietization by hunger.

These initiatives “threw the region into chaos, causing mass flight, civil war, and an unprecedented shortage of food”.

As Kindler observes, Soviet modernity made no provision for pastoralists. Nomads were difficult to tax and difficult to supervise, thwarting the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Citing James Scott, he notes that

the probability of catastrophe grows when authoritarian leaders use such methods on societies that are unable to ward off radical change. […] But the road from theoretical sedentism to real permanent settlement was long, arduous, and paved with suffering.

For the competing groups within Kazakh society,

collectivization and sedentarization gave them opportunities to advocate their own particular interests. […] Different levels of loyalty [to the Soviet state] were often difficult to distinguish.

While the whole system was built on confusion and terror, violence, omnipresent throughout the USSR under Stalin, was not a simple two-sided war between the state and the people. As later in China,

The Soviet project to rebuild society rested on the generation of perceived differences. […] Stalin pitted various institutions against each other to keep them under control.

Kindler unpacks the inadequacies of analyses of famine:

Students of the Soviet famine of 1932–33 have often focused on the social, political, and economic causes of famine and its demographic consequences. Much of this research has suggested that under the circumstances of food shortage, frustrated people had no influence on the events dictated to them. People affected by famine were mostly depicted as vague, passive, helpless victims with almost no agency. What happens to people who starve, how they behave when threatened with death, and what it means to survive a food shortage have seldom been described. Rarely do we read that people confronted with starvation become self-centered and asocial. Post-Soviet historiography in particular has cultivated the myth that peasants and nomads formed mutually supportive groups to master the crisis collectively, but that, unfortunately, they failed.

It takes time for food shortages to wreak devastation. Citing Amartya Sen on “food entitlement decline”, Kindler suggests a broader approach going beyond economic analyses. Strategies to cope with vulnerability; even in extremis, when a crisis becomes so great that it can no longer be met with the instruments normally employed in such situations, people are not merely victims. Still, by the early 1930s the Kazakhs had lost much of their capacity to resist external threats. Hunger may not have been premeditated, but it broke the nomads’ resistance.

Kindler disputes the popular theory of deliberate genocide that has become common for Ukraine. He notes the inevitable bias of the text-based, largely Soviet and Russian, sources; naturally we have few written accounts from the largely oral, illiterate culture of the nomads themselves. Even major sources that he utilises in the Kazakh archives still only contain the nomads’ own views as mediated by others.

Chapter 1, “Kazakh nomads and Russian colonial power”, shows that in the hierarchical traditional Kazakh society, the term kulak was no more relevant than for other cultures in the Soviet Union. Waves of state sedentarising policies predated the revolution but escalated. In 1916 the conflict between peasant settlers and nomads erupted in a major uprising, with hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fleeing to China. Civil war soon followed, bringing anarchy and starvation.

In Chapter 2, “Soviet rule in the steppe”, Kindler shows how the Communists gradually expanded their power by destroying the old clans, at the cost of deeply alienating the people. But as later in rural China, there were severe obstacles to the reach of the state:

Many party members were technically and politically illiterate: they could neither read nor write. When documents could not be translated into Kazakh, the most rational solution for aul leaders was simply to gather, acknowledge, and then ignore them.

Alliances between indigenous leaders and the Communists were fragile.

Kindler goes on to explore the process of sedentarization. As later with the Chinese peasantry, the thorny issue of “raising the cultural level” of the nomads loomed; the Bolsheviks considered them “backward”, their whole culture “inferior”. But their efforts to transform the nomads’ customs by addressing issues in hygiene, and the status of women, were largely fruitless.

Source: Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan (courtesy of Zhanbolat Mamay), via Sarah Cameron.

The leadership only briefly countenanced the warnings of experts that nomadism was the only form of productivity on the steppe, and that to transform it would be to destroy the economy. State power depended on limiting mobility.

As the conflict between nomads and settlers intensified, Russian farmers also suffered. With land reform, many were forcibly deported in a reign of terror led by Georgii Safarov. Resistance in 1920 was crushed: as one report commented, “These evacuees are almost exclusively women and children. There are no men among them; the men have almost all been executed”. The Kazakhs saw land reform as an opportunity for revenge for the massacre of 1916.

Land reform came to a halt soon after Safarov was demoted in 1922. Meanwhile unyielding grain procurements led to another famine in 1921–22, when conservative estimates suggest that over 400,000 died. As the pendulum swung again, a fragile peace obtained. Kazakhs were given preferential treatment over settlers migrating to the region, but the latter put up a fight, and with Party leaders unable to reconcile the disparate interests, by 1928 settler migration was once again condoned.

In 1925, as Filipp Goloschekin was installed as the first Party Secretary of the region, conflict, repression, and purges escalated. Kindler goes on to unpack the complex competing networks among clans and within the Party leadership. Kazakhs within the Party were often marginalized, as mere figureheads—a pattern later all too common among the minority regions of the PRC.

Chapter 3, “Collectivization and sedentarization”, shows how central policies continued to impact on the regional picture. In the wake of the national Great Terror of 1927–28, the Great Turn of 1929, implemented with violence, initiated the destruction of the private sector. Confiscations and requisitions of grain and livestock from pastoralists soon led to destitution. Many fled across the border to Xinjiang, as they had often done before. But “collectivization was not only a war of the state against the people, it was also a war of the folk against itself”.

Both peasants and nomads had to pay. In the winter of 1929–30 hell broke loose in Soviet villages, with brutal raids. The task of the young activists sent by the central leadership to implement the brutal decree, often with no experience of either rural or nomadic life, was also unenviable:

Emissaries from the Soviet regime were threatened, beaten, tortured, and murdered when they collected tributes or tried to force people to join the kolkhozes.

1929 ganbu

While many of them had been successfully educated to believe in their task, not all were crusaders for the cause.

Numerous reports of the men’s enormous consumption of alcohol and their excessive carousing perhaps indicate that many suffered emotionally from the strain of their duties.

In March 1930 Stalin briefly put a brake on coercive collectivization—immediately prompting mass defections as well as further agricultural ravages. But even while 20,000 “kulak” families were deported from Kazakhstan, the region had to accommodate 30,000 “kulak” households from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. As the catastrophe escalated, herds were destroyed: by 1933 over 90% of all livestock had been lost. “Sedentarization through expropriation turned nomads into refugees and beggars.” Settlements were decreed on land unsuitable for cultivation; lack of materials made building work fruitless. Chaotic measures took a terrible toll.

Nomads would also have to make way for the vast network of labour camps for victims of repression from elsewhere, that was being planned from 1930.

In Chapter 4, “Civil war and flight”, Kindler shows the tenuity of Bolshevik rule if Kazakhs could manage to mobilize in resistance. By 1930 the long hostility of both nomads and peasants to state policies escalated into a fragmented civil war—Kindler again unpacking diverse motives for popular violence. Some Muslim groups waged holy war and sought to establish sharia law. Brutal revolts were brutally suppressed; after September 1931 serious uprisings ceased.

flight

Amidst the vast coercive displacements of the whole Soviet people, the indigenous Kazakh population was inundated with outsiders, including many inmates from labour camps. While nomads always depended on mobility, they now resorted to more radical migration across borders, with a vast exodus of refugees. While state policies eased somewhat after 1935, with nomadism tacitly condoned again, the pattern of cross-border migration would continue over a long period—and in both directions.

Warfare was intense in the Sino-Soviet borderland. Many Kazakhs fled by arduous routes to the Chinese-held province of Xinjiang; but there too, complex power struggles were under way, with smugglers, spies, and bandits among the population. [2] Nomads were accustomed to moving between borders, and there had been major flights in 1916 and 1928. Soviet forces carried out several massacres. For those Kazakhs who managed to reach Xinjiang, starvation was a danger there too.

Within the Soviet borders many Kazakhs also fled to Turkmen and Uzbek territory, as well as western Siberia. Unwelcome in such regions that Soviet policies had also reduced to desperation, they often became beggars.

Chapter 5, “Famine”, most lengthy and harrowing of all, opens starkly:

Between 1930 and 1934 at least a quarter of Kazakhstan’s total population perished.

Famine was widespread throughout the Soviet Union, not just in Kazakhstan and Ukraine but in North Caucasus and the Volga region. Other ethnic minorities within these regions also starved. But relief was secondary to the central goals of procurement and collectivization: the crisis reached its peak following the introductions of measures contrived to reduce it.

The catastrophe had unfolded gradually, but in the midst of armed struggles and mass migration, reports of famine multiplied from 1930. As solidarity and social cohesion dwindled, no-one could escape violence and its consequences. Children were orphaned or abandoned. Kindler cites documents describing cannibalism, and tellingly discusses the very countenance of starvation:

Going hungry radically changes people. They do not suddenly become recognizable victims. Over a longer period of time their figures, facial features, and ultimately their natures begin to change. Death by starvation is not sudden and unexpected. It announces itself gradually over days, weeks, even months. […] The hungry lose weight and look haggard and boney. Their skin loses suppleness and becomes pale. Muscles atrophy and warp posture. The starving often become apathetic and passive toward their environment. Finally they lose interest in anything except food. Starvation blocks out all other emotions and and induces a condition in which people tend to develop extreme forms of what, under other circumstances, they would consider their “normal” behaviour.

The faces of the starving frighten and horrify others. Their countenances speak of imminent death. Others may feel as if the radical change in facial expression comes from a loss of individuality and personality.

He cites the shocked reports of officials on the disaster.

But after experiencing the initial horror most people became complacent and callous. No-one could handle such constant confrontation with misery. […] The majority gradually became accustomed to the starving around them and resigned to accepting it. The longer they were confronted with hungry people, the less it bothered them. […]

Rejection of the starving often enough turned into overt hostility. […] The starving formed society’s lowest stratum. They were chased off, threatened, and often killed. They were strangers and beggars. Refugees were part of an undifferentiated gray mass with no future and a past that interested no-one.

As with the later Chinese famine,

It is no coincidence and it was not for a lack of camera equipment that there are few photographs of starving people in Kazakhstan. The catastrophe had no countenance and it was to be given none.

The food distribution points set up by the authorities were sites to which the starving were banished and left to die, reflecting “what characterized the Soviet Union as a whole: the conviction that useless people must be cleared away and disposed of as waste”. Violent ethnic tensions increased further. Officials too were vulnerable, concerned only for their own survival in a fragile pecking order. For the Soviet leadership the famine was an opportunity to subordinate the Kazakh nomads and peasants once and for all.

By late 1933 minor policy adjustments gradually led to the end of the worst sufferings. Despite resistance from both the Kazakh leadership and refugees, refugees began to be repatriated. Even people who had fled to Xinjiang, itself in the grip of civil war, planned to return. Still, with provisions for returnees quite inadequate, the death count continued to rise in 1934. A repressive system of internal passports was introduced. Those who had somehow survived now had to resign themselves to the kolkhoz.

In Chapter 6, “Soviet nomadism”, Kindler describes the aftermath. While plans for sedentarization continued, nomadism was now partially tolerated; the size of herds gradually increased, although only a minority would now be under the control of the kolkhozes. The leadership even began to accept national customs and folklore, at least in commodified form—as ever, I’m keen to see local reports on any such grassroots revival. Conditions on Kazakh-run kolkhozes were yet worse than those managed by Russians, and their performances poorer. Kolkhozes often became fictitious entities, lacking permanent buildings.

This standoff continued until the chaos unleashed by the Great Terror of 1937–38. In Kazakhstan regaining control over livestock breeding became a focus, resulting in further expropriations. And the region now became one of the major destinations for mass deportation:

Entire ethnic groups like Armenians, Koreans, and later Germans and Chechens populated the “special settlements” and the Kazakh branches of the Gulag, including above all the gigantic Karlag.

As the plan to “make the steppe arable” was left to prisoners and slave-labourers, the gulag came to form the backbone of Soviet power in central Kazakhstan (see e.g. here and here), a major part of the fatally warped economy. In One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Solzhenitsyn describes his time in Kazakh gulags in the early 1950s. Between 1931 and 1959 over one million “enemies of the people” laboured in the Karlag.

The war that erupted when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 caused grievous losses throughout the bloodlands of the western regions. It also marked a renaissance for Kazakh nomadism, although many livestock froze or starved to death. After the Great Victory, agronomists and ethnologists gave attention to ways of making migratory animal husbandry serve the interests of the socialist economy. “Soviet status was no longer bound to a sedentary way of life”.

In the brief but important final Chapter 7, “Legacy”, Kindler reflects:

Kazakhstan’s present multi-ethnic society is largely a product of Stalinism, forged by the nomads who managed to survive the famine and by the victims of Stalin’s mass deportations who were settled there.

As he explains,

Moral behaviour became perilous during the famine. Many people had no choice but to abet the corrupt system. The distinction between victim and perpetrator was blurred and, even in retrospect, we cannot clearly separate one from the other. A society that deemed the individual worthless and made the collective the greatest good stamped a verdict of guilty on anyone who valued his own life. […]

The crisis did not erode Soviet structures, it strengthened them by making individual survival almost completely dependent on Soviet mechanisms of order and distribution. Whoever survived the famine did so by the grace of the state that had caused it in the first place.

This resulted in complex processes of adaptation and psychological repression. […] Many Soviet citizens who had survived hunger, terror, and war, went on to live under the strain and stress of the Soviet system. They learned to cope with the tension and bury the dark sides of their past. […]

Victory in the Great Patriotic War blocked the tragedy of famine out of the collective memory of Kazakh society.

After the death of Stalin, in the mid-1950s many migrants poured into the steppe in response to Kruschev’s Virgin Lands Campaign—which though an economic failure and an ecological disaster, further integrated Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile I note that after the 1949 Communist victory in China, many Kazakhs and Uyghurs fled to the Soviet Union, particularly in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Backward: a major exodus took place in 1962. And in Xinjiang today, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of the brutal clampdown as their whole culture is assaulted, Kazakhs and other “minority” peoples are also suffering in a pervasive new gulag network.

Kindler explains the partial reclaiming of Kazakhstan’s history in recent decades:

After decades, it was finally perestroika that enabled the mention of famine in Kazakhstan. […] But due to the challenges of life under ongoing social transformation the topic was soon abandoned. After a short phase of public commemoration and rehabilitation between 1988 and 1993, coming to terms with the past once again became the domain of historians whose findings were barely noticed outside the small world of academic research.

This suited the new national narrative of independent Kazakhstan (for the current human rights situation, see here). A monument to victims of the famine, set up in 1992, was only completed in 2017. Commemorations finally increased from 2012. But with the example of Ukraine in mind, the authorities have remained wary:

The oasis of stability that the leaders of Kazakhstan like to present may then soon prove to be fictitious.

By now the urban–rural divide between Russian and Kazakh was even clearer. Kindler shows how the narrative of Kazakh victims impedes the study of the famine, downplaying the role of Kazakhs themselves in the disaster and silencing those who suffered. However, Kindler suggests that the interests of rulers and ruled might in some ways coincide:

Where no-one spoke about dying and suffering, no-one asked about personal responsibility and guilt. Silence held people together. When no-one spoke out, it was not only for fear of the regime. It also suppressed awareness of one’s own involvement. Excluding the victims meant including everyone else and doing so far beyond the end of the famine itself.

As in China (see this post on commemorating the abuses of Maoism), “forced trust” bound Soviet leaders and citizens together. People continued carefully to observe taboos: “the rules prescribed not only what was said, but what was not said as well.” Meanwhile in Germany the recognition of trauma took place more openly. Finally Kindler refrains from suggesting answers:

In light of Kazakh society’s instability, was it a rational strategy for coming to terms with the past to ignore the problematic aspects of the country’s own history? Does it suffice to label the famine a “national tragedy”, like a natural disaster, and leave it at that? Or is it time for Kazakhstan to explore its own responsibility for the outbreak of famine?

Note this recent documentary by Zhanbolat Mamay, Zulmat: mass hunger in Kazakhstan:

Now I look forward to reading Sarah Cameron’s book too.

For both nomadic and sedentary populations, Soviet policies led to extreme suffering. The whole period was a nightmare. With my focus on China I find it all the more tragic that some twenty-five years later, the CCP allowed this same disaster, with similar causes and consequences, to befall over forty million Chinese people. Wherever we do fieldwork, people still have to live with the memory of such traumas.

For the destruction of a First Nation community in Canada, see here.

 

[1] Both works are reviewed here; Cameron’s work here and here, as well as this substantial lecture. See also here and here; and note Alun Thomas, Nomads and Soviet rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin (2018). For further comparative studies, see Famine: Ukraine and China, under “Comparisons, figures”.

[2] For the perspective of Uyghur culture, see Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Central Asia, pp.29–33.

For Sama

Sama

Following on from Soviet lives at war, just in case you haven’t yet watched Waad al-Kateab’s moving 2019 documentary For Sama, then you must.

During the siege of Aleppo, Channel 4 regularly featured reports by both Waad and her doctor husband Hamza from the makeshift hospital where he received casualties of the constant bombings. For Waad, filming served as a means of both survival and resistance.

family

Dealing with a vast amount of footage, the editors’ eventual decision to structure the story through baby Sama was a fine discovery, “moving between dark and light, with Sama as their—and our—lifeline”.

Sama, will you remember Aleppo? Will you blame me for staying here? Or blame me for leaving now?

Amidst all the carnage, at their wedding they dance to Crazy. Their friends Afraa and Salem, and their children, are full of resilience and humour. Waad and Hamza question their resolve not only to bring Sama into the world but, after a brief visit to Turkey, to bring her back with them to Aleppo, ever more dangerous as the regime’s grip tightened.

Among all the media coverage, this is good, as well as this Channel 4 interview:

Note also their project Action for Sama.

Amidst such suffering, expressive culture may seem like a dream, but what will become of the fabled musical traditions of Aleppo?

More recently Channel 4 has broadcast a series of reports from beleaguered Idlib—and here’s an article by Waad al-Kateab on the desperate situation there.

See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis.

Iran: chamber music

Talai

Ostad Dariush Talai.

Following my post on shawm bands of Lorestan, I went along to a fine concert of Iranian chamber music at the Purcell Room led by the unassuming ostad Dariush Talai (b.1953).

In contrast to the loud outdoor soundscapes of rural ceremonial, which inevitably draw us towards local social life, outsiders are often attracted to the more “classical”, “refined” urban chamber genres. Such music is much better represented in recordings, and feeds into the WAM taste for “autonomous”, “absolute” music—a notion convincingly debunked by ethnomusicologists such as NettlMcClary, Small, and Bigenho.

Amaneh Youssefzadeh provides context (in Michael Church, ed., The other classical musics, 2015; chapter here):

Until the 20th century most classical music was performed in private gatherings—for small circles of connoisseurs, at Sufi brotherhoods, for family and friends, or in festivities including poetry recitation; the public concert was essentially a Western phenomenon. Moreover, apart from military music, public musical performance took place mostly in the context of religious and ceremonial rituals which are not considered musical per se; these include events in zurkāneh (Iran’s traditional fitness-clubs), the recitation of the Qur’an (tajwid), the call to prayer (‘azān), the recitation of the national epic Shāhnāmeh (naqqāli), the Shi’a passion play (ta’zieh) and the singing of laments (rowzeh-khāni) […]. Such ceremonies require singers skilled in classical music, and they have been crucial supports for classical music during the periods of decline and discrimination. And in Iran, as in many parts of Middle East, classical singers have traditionally honed their skills in the call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an; many celebrated singers from the first half of the 20th century sang in the ceremonial mourning rites described above. Mohammad Reza Shadjarian was a noted qāri (reciter of the Qur’an) before gaining fame as a classical performer.

* * *

At the Purcell Room Dariush Talai, on tar and setar plucked lutes, was supported by his younger protégés Hooshmand Ebadi (ney end-blown flute), Kaveh Mahmoudian (tombak drum), and singer Hadi Hosseini. Like the Chinese qin masters of yore, they play for their own self-cultivation—the dedicated audience in the austere Purcell Room must have felt they were eavesdropping on a private gathering.

In the first half Talai played in duo—first on tar with sensitive tombak accompaniment, and then on setar with the breathy ney. The second half consisted of one long suite, with all three musicians joined by the singer Hadi Hosseini. While the progression of such suites is more episodic than the gradual acceleration of Indian raga from alap to fast sections, it’s always engrossing to follow long sequences—by contrast with the short snappy solos of the Chinese conservatoires!

Here’s a track from Talai’s 1991 Ocora CD:

As a novice, while spellbound by the musicians’ artistry, it would require a thorough grounding for me to get a handle on the modal and melodic features of such pieces. Part of a widespread muqam family that also extends to the Uyghurs, each of the two hundred or so gushehs and the twelve dastgahs of the complete radif repertoire are individually named (cf. nanyin in south Fujian).

This music was one of the main focuses of the great Bruno Nettl. In chapter 7 of The study of ethnomusicology, “Contemplating musical repertories: a sampling of descriptive and analytical approaches”, he is as lucid as ever:

Iranian musicians taught the radif, the body of music that is memorized and then used as the basis for improvisation and composition. They labelled its sections (dastgahs) and their subdivisions (gushehs) clearly, although there was some disagreement on terminology and in determining which gushehs properly belonged to which dastgah. Musicians were willing to analyze certain performances, dividing them into sections and stating upon which sections of the radif each of them, in the improvised performance, is based. An ethnomusicologist who has studied with Iranian musicians can analyze such sectioned performances in this way but can’t be sure, on account of the lack of complete consensus, that the analysis will be accepted by every Persian master. This is the kind of analysis in which the ethnomusicologist does what the musicians of the culture do.

But one could go further. There are, for example, performances or sections that masters of the radif are not willing to analyze in this fashion, giving their equivalent of “he’s just improvising here”. They may say about such a performance that the musician does not know the radif, or he is purposely and expertly mixing materials from several sources, or he is simply playing avaz (nonmetric improvisation) in a dastgah in general, not taking account of the differences among the subdivisions of the dastgah that the radif provides. The first approach mentioned here would simply report these anomalies and perhaps point out the difference between the carefully sectioned and the other performances and refer to the fact that it seems to be readily recognized by Iranians. The second approach would take these unsectioned performances and, with the use of motivic analysis, determine almost moment by moment on which part of the radif each short bit of performance is based. Instead of just accepting that a particular five-minute segment is simply “avaz of the dastgah of Shur”, one could show that it is composed of materials from three gushehs (for example, salmak, golriz, and shahnaz), and makes fleeting references to three other gushehs. Now, certain Persian musicians, when confronted with analysis of this sort, pronounced it correct but found the information only mildly interesting, and not particularly relevant. It seemed that I had tried to take their way of looking at their own music further and had managed to avoid violating their way of approaching the analysis, but I had gone beyond where they were prepared to go, had divided their concepts into units smaller than those they were willing to use. I had gained some insights into how the music is put together; on the other hand, I could no longer claim simply to be presenting the system as it presents itself.

By comparison with my Chinese experience, I find it intriguing how the radif tradition in Iran seems to have been maintained more successfully under the umbrella of conservatoire training and concert performances. Again, Nettl’s templates for the various possible forms of change and responses to modernization are salient.

* * *

The concert inspired me to go back to the great senior masters like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian (1940–2020) and Mohammad-Reza Lotfi (1947–2014). Shadjarian, with his ecstatic singing and principled political stance, was a great icon; his death in October 2020 prompted national mourning (see e.g. here).

MRS

This live performance by Shadjarian is part of a playlist:

I’ve included a wonderful kemenche solo from Mohammad-Reza Lotfi under Indian and world fiddles.

* * *

For a general introduction to the musics of Iran, with discography, see Laudan Nooshin’s article in The Rough Guide to world music: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and chapters in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol. 6: The Middle East. Note also the site https://mahoor.com/en/. For the “classical” tradition, see e.g. Jean During, Jean During, Zia Mirabdolbaghi, and Dariush Safvat (eds), The art of Persian music (1991), and Amaneh Youssefzadeh’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

For related posts, see Iranian livesPerformance, and Three women of Herat. For more on the folk-art dichotomy, see e.g. Italy: folk musicking, and Das Land ohne Musik, as well as Popular culture in early modern Europe.

Shawm bands of Lorestan

SMAs my shawm theme expands from China to shawm bands around the world (Tibet, Xinjiang, south Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Europe), one of my favourites among a whole host of wonderful world-music CDs from the heyday of the Nimbus label (not least flamenco) is

  • The music of Lorestan, Iran (1994),

with Shahmirza Morādi (1924–97) on sornā accompanied by his son Rezā Morādi on dohol drum, recorded at a 1993 concert in Paris.

Shahmirza Morādi belonged to a hereditary tradition in the town of Doroud southwest of Tehran. His early training was on the kamancheh bowed fiddle and tonbak drum. He mastered the sornā from the age of 15. He claimed that the sornā he played at the Paris concert, an ebony instrument encrusted with silver, had been handed down in his family for seven generations—the CD booklet notes their imprint on the area around the finger-holes. In north China, while I know of no wind instruments being used over such a long period, this is an evocative feature of shawms, guanzi oboes, and sheng mouth-organs that have been played constantly for even two or three generations.

Shahmirza Morādi began working for the radio in 1971, taking part in cultural festivals. After a hiatus in the early years of the revolution, his first recordings were released in 1981. Both the world music scene and the state troupes tend to pluck out particular musicians for stardom; as in China, brief biographies tend to privilege their official careers above the quotidian (but changing) local ceremonial life of the majority of such players.

While Chinese bands usually feature two shawms with drum, cymbals, and gong, and elsewhere several shawms may play together with a varied percussion section, here (as commonly in the Middle East and east Europe) we find the minimal quorum of one solo shawm and drum.

The shawm often plays instrumental versions of vocal melodies from popular epic tales. The pieces on the CD accompany dance, mainly for weddings—as ever, audio recordings can only hint at the vibrancy of such events. Here’s a video clip from the concert:

What we need now is documentaries about ceremonial life in Lorestan… Indeed, the sornā and dohol also perform a funeral repertoire, not featured on the CD; I’d like to learn more about the Ahi-e-hag cult, the chamariune melody and muye wailing of female mourners.

As in much of the world, outsiders pay most attention to the “classical” (and mainly urban) chamber genres of Iran, which are indeed wonderful too. But now I’m keen to learn about shawm bands elsewhere in Iran, such as Khorasan, Chaharmahal, Bakhtiari, Sistan, and Baluchestan, and the Kurdish and Azeri regions; and to find material on funerary practice and religious cults. There’s a whole other story to be told here of the changing customary life of local society under successive regimes.

The site mahmoor.com has an impressive discography here, notably the extensive series Regional music of Iran.

For Afghan musicking, see here.

.

Lives in Stalin’s Russia

cover

Hand-in-hand with my focus on ritual and expressive culture, I have long been concerned to document life-stories—of ordinary people, artists, and scholars, both in China (cf. my detailed work on the Gaoluo villagers and the Li family Daoists) and Europe.

Under the Iron curtain tag (see also roundup here) I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine (blind minstrels, and the famine)—and tribulations under the Soviet regime were the context for this post on ethnic minorities there. But now, reading

  • Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private lives in Stalin’s Russia (2007)

makes an accessible single-volume study to begin shedding light on my ignorance of ordinary lives in the Soviet Union. Apart from the importance of the topic in itself, I muse (as ever) on the similarities and differences with Maoist—and post-Maoist—China.

Many books describe the externals of the Terror—the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag—but The whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life.

The oral history of family memory makes a counterweight to the official narrative (notes also Soviet lives at war). Figes interrogates the issues in interpreting such sources. His website, following on from his oral history project, is a treasury of related material. For significant caveats on the book, see here (with further links).

As the regime sought to erase the distinction between public and private life, Figes describes both the effectiveness of the Soviet indoctrination of children and the internal conflict with messages they gleaned from their families. The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

Figes details the effects of successive waves of repression, before, during, and after the Stalin regime from 1928 to 1953, interweaving many family histories throughout the book. The case of its central figure Konstantin Simonov, who “embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation”, though revealing in its complexity, is exceptional in his high profile as cultural cadre. The index, and the website, can be used to follow the stories of individual families throughout the book. The cast includes both cadres and the catch-all of “kulaks”, but seems more urban than rural—whereas China was more predominantly rural as late as the 1970s. Even early images of “kulaks” being expelled, and photos from the gulag (however manufactured), suggest that China was still more backward—and repressed—in the 1950s than Russia in the 1920s.

Exiles gulag Siberia 1933 101Exiles in a “special settlement” in western Siberia, 1933.

For Maoist China too, diverse sources can be assembled to modify and counter the official narrative, including memoirs, family photos and documents, local archives, and so on—note Sebastian Veg, Popular memories of the Mao eraMemoirs and biographical accounts have proliferated since the liberalizations of the 1980s. In film, recent projects such as laogai documentaries and Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Work Station are impressive. Also revealing are fictional portrayals—not just laogai novelists like Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke, but films such as The blue kite that suggest the everyday tribulations of ordinary families. But while there may be a comparable wealth of material for China, it’s hard to envisage such an accessible, personal, wide-ranging and diachronic account as The whisperers.

Illuminating his sources perceptively, Figes identifies clear periods in people’s fates under the Soviet regime. The repression took place over a longer period than that of Maoism, and may seem to have been even more terrifying. The gulag—among the extensive literature on which, see e.g. Anne Applebaum, Gulag: a history (2003)—looms larger in the public (and private) image of the USSR than the laogai system in China, although the latter has also become the subject of brave research. Executions, and the all-pervading NKVD, also seem to play a more common role in Soviet history.

Below I can only list some of the main themes of the book, rather than citing the many personal life-stories that illustrate them—which is actually its outstanding strength.

* * *

Figes opens with Children of 1917, on the early years of the revolution, and the beginnings of state indoctrination and the war on religion. In 1926 the peasantry represented 82% of the Soviet population—cf. China, where the rural population peaked at 84% in 1963. But urban populations grew rapidly. Families were dislocated; millions of children were abandoned, having to fend for themselves. Figes describes life at the camps. Some “kulaks” managed to flee from the camps, living on the run.

Young people renounced their relatives, for various motives.

As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs, or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more “proletarian”.

But they were haunted by the constant threat of exposure—many concealed their secrets right until the 1990s.

In The great break (1928–32) Figes describes the temporary relaxation in the assault against religion between 1924 and 1928:

On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.

Thereafter, while clandestine belief may have persisted, I find rather few clues to any public religious (or even customary) activity—by contrast with Maoist China, where it kept resurfacing despite constant campaigns. Am I wrong to see local Chinese populations as more resilient in maintaining their expressive culture under Maoism? Still in Obukhovo:

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. […] There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization.

Kulaks exiled 1930s 89“Kulaks” exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s.

As Figes explains:

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. […] Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened, and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as “kulaks” from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life of the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. […]
There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the “kulaks”. […] The majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear.

Golovins 1940s 78Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s).

In Obukhovo the Golovins were deported on 4th May 1930:

I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours—the people I had grown up with. No-one approached us. No-one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.

Still,

There was widespread resistance to collectivization, even though most villagers acquiesced in the repression of “kulaks”. In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 “serious disturbances”. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches.

Figes unpacks the motives of those responsible for enforcing the brutal war against the peasantry.

Under The pursuit of happiness (1932–36), while observing brief concessions to consumer culture (promoting perfume, cosmetics, fun), he evokes urban projects like the construction of the Moscow metro from 1932, using peasant immigrants and gulag prisoners:

The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states).

But popular unrest continued. The rise of a new bureaucratic elite also caused discontent:

In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official—one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks, and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.

Figes notes the “hierarchy of poverty”. And meanwhile the lives of women failed to improve:

For women nothing changed in the 1930s—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas, and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

Trotsky had trenchant views on sexual politics:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood”, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Figes documents the constrained domestic spaces of urban dwellers, and the tensions caused by lack of privacy, with some fine room plans.

Above, left: Khaneyevsky household, Moscow; right: Reifshnieders’ room, Moscow.
Below, left: Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm; right: Bushuev “corner” room, Perm.

In later years many people felt a rose-tinted nostalgia for the pre-war years, when

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No-one was stingy with their money—they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

But, as in China (where many peasants felt an equally perplexing nostalgia for the commune system), there’s ample evidence for the contrary view of communal life:

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment, and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.

Still, millions of people were taught to believe that

hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the “good life” would be enjoyed by all.

Though the mid-1930s have been regarded as the calm before the storm,

for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Kondratiev 1938 226Nikolai Kondratiev’s last letter to his daughter, 1938.

In The great fear (1937–38), Figes explains that the Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrest, but a calculated policy of mass murder. Among the complex reasons prompting Stalin’s purge was the imminent threat of war. Not just the direct “offenders” but also their kin were hunted down. The motives of the informers, often themselves under extreme pressure, were also complex.

In 1938, the NKVD chief Yezhov was deposed. “The real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail.” Under his successor Beria the purge was scaled down.

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there was also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends, and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of “enemies of the people”. […]
The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be “enemies of the people”, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). […] It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands.

There is scant consolation in Remnants of terror (1938–41) on the eve of the German invasion. Figes praises the untold acts of heroism of grandmothers striving to keep together the scattered remains of repressed families.

Lebeva 1940 322Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova,
Ak-Bulak, 1940.

But many children ended up in orphanages, roamed the streets begging, joined street gangs, or were themselves sent to children’s labour colonies.

Meanwhile, in a Nazi–Soviet pact that alarmed faithful Communists, both Germany and the Red Army invaded Poland, and the USSR pressurized the Baltic states to accept pacts of “defence and mutual assistance”, extending the reach of their reign of terror.

The theme of Wait for me (1941–45) is the social consequences of the sudden German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Apart from its global significance, it was also crucial for the maintenance of the Soviet regime. Stalin now had no choice but to call for unity, setting aside class struggle and ideology. Many saw that the whole climate of the Terror had played a major role in the USSR’s initial inability to resist the invasion; criticism became open (some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory), and arrests continued.

But the desperate need for self-defence did indeed foster a spirit of national unity. The horrors of war against a brutal external enemy helped people forget, for now, the misery of their situation during “peacetime”. Patriotic morale even produced a new merging of the public sphere and the intimate world of personal relationships.

As the tide turned, the Red Army chased the Germans back. Convinced by the courageous determination of the Soviet forces, Figes seeks to explain it. Terror and coercion played a role, but

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons; their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the “motherland”.

The image of Mother Russia was promoted; controls over religion were temporarily relaxed. Hatred of the enemy was also an important element. But most significant, Figes suggests, was the cult of personal sacrifice:

As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war—the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life—because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.

Still,

Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front.

Even so, people united for the defence of their local communities. And soldiers found camaraderie:

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had “bigger hearts” and “acted from the soul”, and that they themselves were somehow “better human beings”, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of “family” that was missing from the lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

Zinaida 1942 357Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936.
Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs.

During the war the exploitation of the Gulag labour force intensified—in 1942 one in four Gulag workers died.

As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), “When the war broke out, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared to the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.” The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative—they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves, and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia.

The years 1941 to 1943 were described as a period of “spontaneous de-Stalinization”. People were empowered to think critically; a new freedom of expression even included political debate. The revival of religious activity continued through to 1948. Still, over the whole period cultural and religious life at a distance from urban centres remains somewhat obscure.

All this marked the beginning of a fundamental change of values. Towards the end of the war, as the Red Army entered Europe, their encounter with conditions there—clearly superior even amidst its desperately ravaged state, to which indeed they contributed further—also allowed them to question Soviet propaganda. And like the British, their experiences gave them ideals of building a better society—in their case, dismantling the collective farms, establishing democracy and religious freedoms. “Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas.” Such liberal notions were anyway spreading among civilians, not least as a result of the alliance with Britain and the USA.

As Ilia Ehrenburg wrote,

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

Their hopes were soon dashed.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. […] Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

But the Gulag population actually expanded in the years after the war, with forced labour making a significant element in the economy.

People were damaged; fear, and silence, still reigned. All this also makes even more remarkable the widespread telling of political jokes, throughout the whole period.

The post-war period is the subject of Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53).

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union. According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians) […] and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. […] The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children, and old men.

The material devastation was grievous too. Another famine occurred from 1946 to 1948. The brief improvement in the supply of consumer goods before the war was a distant memory. With people no longer afraid to express their discontent, strikes and demonstrations broke out. But as the new threat posed by the Cold War developed, Stalin moved promptly to purge the army and Party leadership, and to rule out any idea of political reform. Censorship was tightened; the new wave of dissent had to continue underground.

Left: Inna Gaister (aged 13) with her sisters Valeriia (3) and Natalia (8), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR).
Right: Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947.

But a new type of middle class now emerged, better educated and less ideological in outlook—though they had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime, perfecting the art of wearing masks. Figes gives more stories of informants. Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. With her “kulak” background,

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

She felt no remorse for what she did. Still,

The “little terror” of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility.

Anti-Semitism, always latent, escalated along with the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, even some victims of the Terror felt genuine sorrow, but

The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.

Even so, there was still no release from fear—indeed, people were anxious for the future. Beria played a role in allaying such fears, though he was soon executed in a Kremlin coup organized by Kruschev. Hopes were high among Gulag inmates; new demonstrations broke out, which helped bring about the abolition of the system. About 40% of the gulag population were released in an amnesty on 27th March 1953—though they returned to their families physically and mentally broken. The climate in the Soviet Union also led to the serious demonstrations that erupted in the GDR.

The story continues in Return (1953–56).

The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the mainstays of human existence—the neighbourhood community, the village and the church—had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationship they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

But former prisoners found it hard to build relationships, to find jobs and places to live. They still had to confront those who had betrayed them, although they also understood the extreme pressures that had led them to do so. The process of rehabilitation was laborious. And millions never returned from the camps.

Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made a decisive break, the beginnings of the reformist thaw. Still, Stalin, rather than the whole system, was the scapegoat. But it also had consequences for the countries of east Europe, notably with the Hungarian uprising that year.

And just as the worst was over in the USSR, China systematically repeated its deadly mistakes. Dikötter outlines many of the same features of life under Maoism, but his treatment is less personal.

As Figes describes in the final chapter, Memory (1956–2006), even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak out openly. The thaw ended when Brezhnev replaced Kruschev in 1964; as dissidents were persecuted, people again suppressed their traumatic memories. Stoicism and passivity became enduring social norms.

But nostalgia for the war persisted, even overriding other assessments of the system. Viacheslav Kondratiev recalled:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. This is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult, and unforgettable years. The memory of our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.

Eventually more candid memories of the war surfaced, such as the 1975 film A soldier went. A whole Gulag literature emerged.

Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Figes reflects on the startling paradox in the later myth of Norilsk,

a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime,

as well as the popular nostalgia for Stalin (and again we might compare the Chinese nostalgia for Mao—see also here), which

reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991; the rising prices that put many good beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.

However,

nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next. […]
Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. […] Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.

Again, the Chinese parallel is interesting: whereas the Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In my post on Bloodlands (n.2) I mentioned attempts to compare death tolls under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—in ascending order, it seems. As Timothy Snyder wrote,

it turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit fewer. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people died.

But appalling are the death tolls, they are far from the whole story. Now that I read Figes’s account, it seems callous and irrelevant to dwell on such statistics.

With my classical, mystical background, it took me a long time to appreciate the importance of all this—and it may still elude younger people in the UK, Russia, and China. But having long focused on the life-stories of Chinese ritual specialists and their patrons, I continue to find such accounts an illuminating perspective on modern history, for China and elsewhere.

Three women of Herat

Women of Herat

The idea of “women in music” often suggests their starring roles in WAM (as in the T-shirt!) or Anglo-American popular music. But meanwhile gender has become one of the major topics in ethnomusicology (for some refs., see this post on women in flamenco; note also McClary).

Even in the more “classically” oriented confines of ethnomusicology, “women in music” may not immediately suggests the lives of female singers in Afghanistan.

  • Veronica Doubleday, Three women of Herat: a memoir of life, love and friendship in Afghanistan (1998; most recent reprint 2009)

is an engaging, deeply personal story of her time in Herat in the mid-1970s before the Russian invasion. It’s a good illustration of thinking outside the (music) box.

Herat

Gradually cutting through the curtain of purdah, she befriends three young women with different experiences:

  • The authoritative figure of Mariam, from a hereditary family of (male) musicians;
  • Mother of Nebi, whose maraz mental breakdown as a young mother, attributed to jinns, had prompted her to become a diviner (cf. China);
  • Shirin, negotiating the stigma of working as a professional entertainer (see also Veronica’s “Zainab Herawi: Finding acclaim in the conservative Islamic culture of Afghanistan” in Ruth Hellier (ed.), Women singers in global contexts: music, biography, identity (2013).

HeratAs Veronica enters their social world of domestic life and ritual celebrations, she learns to admire their warmth and strength. But her account is never sentimental, acknowledging their tribulations. She reflects cogently on her choice to adopt the veil while living among them; and in becoming a regular member of Shirin’s band and an accomplished singer, she gains direct experience of their tough life.

Veronica’s audio recordings from the period seem to have disappeared from YouTube, but these CDs are excellent:

Ever since those days in Herat, she has worked in partnership with John Baily, not only a fine exponent of the rubab plucked lute but a great maker (and theorist) of ethnographic films (see here), including

  • Amir: an Afghan refugee musician’s life in Peshawar, Pakistan (1986)
  • Lessons from Gulam: Asian music in Bradford (1986)
  • A Kabul music diary (2003)
  • Scenes of Afghan music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin (2007)
  • Ustad Rahim: Herat’s rubab maestro (2008)
  • Across the border: Afghan musicians exiled in Peshawar (2011).

Here’s a preview of Amir:

and Lessons from Gulam:

* * *

Veronica became a beautiful singer, moving both Afghan and other audiences deeply in more genteel concert settings. Here’s an early clip:

And more recently with John Baily:

Tracks on the CD Sweet nomad girl:

Three women of Herat is a model of participant observation, and an early instance of an ethnographic genre that has since flourished. Further to Veronica’s distressing original Epilogue, the 2009 reprint includes a new Preface and Postscript, giving valuable context on changes not only within Afghanistan but in Western perceptions.

She did manage to return to Herat in 1994 and 2004, just before and after the Taliban occupation; but after their initial visits in the 70s, long-term warfare in Afghanistan impelled John and Veronica to pursue their studies mainly among refugee and migrant communities—which was also to become a major theme of music ethnography.

 

They come over ‘ere…

Central Asian musicians, Tang dynasty.

Here’s a companion piece to my post on foreigners during the Cultural Revolution, where I acknowledged my anachronistic use of the epithet laowai 老外.

I read that indeed the term didn’t become common until the 1980s—just in time to greet me on my late arrival (for some words that Shakespeare may not have invented, see here). The Chinese wiki article on laowai makes a useful succinct introduction, explaining its interplay of respect and xenophobia. I’m still curious to learn how the winning combo of lao and wai suddenly caught on. A detailed forum on the nuances of this and related terms has been initiated by the erudite Victor Mair, so here I’ll just add a few personal reflections.

A still more blunt term is dabizi 大鼻子 “big nose”; foreigners in China have to get used to frequent appraisals of their physiognomy, but as an autonym, at least, the term can be drôle. I’m also fond of the more quaintly retro yang guizi 洋鬼子 (“foreign devil”), which a senior Taiwanese mentor—and, crucially, friend!—likes to call me. As ever, such terms are context-sensitive; they may even confirm guanxi (“You’re my mate—we can take the piss together”).

At a tangent, in Shaanbei a fine shawm-band leader is widely known as Jiekazi “The Stammerer”—in rural China, attitudes towards stammering are both less po-faced and less courteous.

Craig and Ming

Waiguoren!” (not yet “Laowai!”). Craig Clunas, Ming tombs 1975.

Staying with China (derogatory terms for foreigners are of course a rich topic worldwide), apart from the various historical terms (hu 胡, fan 番, yi 夷, man 蠻, and so on—mostly with a strong suggestion of “barbarian”), I’m now curious to learn how the Labouring Masses of the Tang dynasty would have hailed the substantial number of laowai on the streets of 8th-century Xi’an in the popular argot of the day.

We may now regard the Tang as the first great world-music boom, but as musical nationalists of the day (like the poet Bai Juyi and his mate Yuan Zhen) might have said,

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy bili and pipa…”

Or their Qing-dynasty counterparts (so does building walls work, then? Eh??):

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy erhu and suona and yangqin…”

OK, I made those up, but this is a genuine Tang quote (adding impertinent male judgment on female attire to the heady xenophobic mix): [1]

Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives, studying foreign make-up;
Entertainers present foreign sounds, servants to foreign music!

Straight out of the Daily Mail, that. With the current surge in “patriotism”, a new campaign to purge corrupting foreign influence from the Chinese instrumentarium would be left mainly with the xun ocarina and the sheng mouth-organ—which might fail to excite even Uncle Xi. It’s ironic that after successive waves, it was the Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution that were largely responsible for a renewed vogue for the instruments of the Western Art Music tradition.

Closer to home (yet equally apposite), a classic rebuke to xenophobia is the great Stewart Lee’s UKIP routine (“Bloody Huguenots, Coming Over Here—doubting trans-substantiation, with their famed ability to weave little jerkins out of lace…”). And to supplement his fantasy chat down the UKIP pub:

“Apparently the guitar is descended from the oud—that’s bloody Moorish, mate! What’s wrong with Morris dancing, that’s wot I say!”

[Inconvenient footnote: an inconclusive etymology suggests that “Morris” is itself derived from “Moorish”…]

As simplistic nationalist agendas rear their ugly orange heads yet again, it’s always worth unpacking language. See also A fine riposte, and Das Land ohne Musik.

For the “Golden Age” of the Tang, Chinese scholars might learn from 17th-century Holland.

 

[1] See e.g. Suzanne E. Cahill, “Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives! Western influences of Tang dynasty women’s fashion”, in Steele and Major (eds), China chic: East meets West. Among many works, see also Marc S. Abramson (ed.), Ethnic identity in Tang China. The works of Edward Schafer (notably The golden peaches of Samarkand and The vermilion bird, written at a time when such study was neither profitable nor popular) have long been an inspiration for those studying Central Asian culture in the Tang.

 

Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty (cf. Rāg Malkauns):

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here for a fine website.

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.

The Korean haegeum is distinctive:

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands (see mainly here):

Poland has some fine fiddle traditions too—here’s Stanisław Klejnas, from a village near Łódź:

From Iran, here’s Mohammad Reza Lotfi on kamancheh:

Kamancha playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for a reified official concert version:

And here’s a stellar gathering of players, all with their own distinctive styles (with thanks to Jeffrey Werbock, himself a fine exponent of Azeri music):

For the Turkish kemençe, click here.

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar (featured in a wonderful muqaddime prelude here), but they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:

Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I leave jazz fiddling to another post… For yet more, see fiddles tag in the sidebar, introduced here. For another concert at the Bhavan, see here.