Some Kurdish bards

dengbej old young 2

Storytelling is always an oral repository of a people’s history and culture—as, for instance, in the Balkans (here, under “Bards”), Ukraine, Central Asia, and China. Now I’ve been trying to learn a bit about the dengbêj bards of Kurdistan.

There are majority Kurdish populations in regions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, * all of whom have vexed relations with the relevant state authorities. Repressed in varying degrees of severity under different regimes, many have gone into exile. **

Kurdish mapMap, CIA 1992. Source: wiki.

Dengbêj
Among the variety of genres, here I’ll focus on Kurdish dengbêj storytellers within the borders of modern Turkey. In English, I look forward to reading

  • Ulaş Özdemir, Wendelmoet Hamelink, and Martin Greve (eds), Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia (2018; contents here), with its evocative cover image:

bards 1931Musicians during the Festival of Folk Poets in Sivas, 1931.

and

  • Wendelmoet Hamelink, The sung home: narrative, morality, and the Kurdish nation (2014) (revised excerpt here, on politics and song texts).

Traditional settings included şevbihêrk evening gatherings, urban cafés, and weddings. For later generations the dengbêj came to be associated with poverty and dependency, working for a beğ or an ağa. Their broad repertoire comprises epic tales of love and war, recited solo, fast and loud; some distinct mournful songs (kilam, stran) may be heard with instrumental accompaniment. Waves of conflict and repression have impacted the dengbêj; and it soon becomes apparent that change over the past century has resulted in reification.

I was drawn to the bards by the enthusiasm of popular singer Aynur for the great dengbêj of yesteryear, such as Dengbêj Şakiro (1936–96):

Biro 1936

Şeroyê Biro (right), 1936. Source.

Şeroyê Biro (c1881–1970) (this song punctuated by a variant of the ubiquitous drum-and-shawm combo):

Karapetê Xaço (d.2005; estimates of his birthdate range from 1900 to 1908), an ethnic Armenian (for his story, see here):

And more recently, here’s the celebrated Seyîtxanê Boyaxçî (1933–2020), from Diyarbakir—with a young singer:

Women dengbêj
While this is formally a male tradition, Marlene Schäfers thickens the plot by finding female dengbêj (“From shameful to public voice: women dengbêjs, the work of pain, and Kurdish history”) (for some readings on women’s music, see here).

dengbej Gazin

As in many traditional societies, women’s voices are heard

mainly in domestic, private and all-female spheres to which outsider and/or male ears are rarely admitted. The impression that Kurdish women lack voice is hence a result less of the actual absence of voice than of the way in which public and private spaces are differently valued. The general devaluation of the private (and female) sphere means that voices whose range is limited to the private become considered as insignificant. What counts, in our modern age, is public voice—precisely that which women have frequently been denied.

The women dengbêj are known especially for their kilam laments, expressions of pain and suffering, “closely related to epic songs (destan), funeral lamentations (şîn), and lullabies (lorî)”. While the kilam may be sung solo, they also match the mournful quality of the qernête (duduk, balaban) double-reed pipe, as we have already heard.

Renowned female singers included Meryem Xan (1904–49) (wiki, and here):

and Ayşe Şan (1938–96)—over two hours of singing here:

Schäfers also cites a kilam by Dengbêj Gazîn (1959–2018) from Van, with a play of words on gazîn, which is both the singer’s stage name and means “cry” or “shout”:

I am Gazîn, I am a dengbej,
I am neither deaf, nor am I mad
My eyes are shedding tears
I tell the sorrows of my heart

Nobody hears my voice
I tell the sorrows of my heart
Nobody hears my voice.

I am the heart-broken Gazîn
My insides are full of blood
I am like Xeçê, like Zîn
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
There remains no place for me to go
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I turn towards the struggle.

I am Gazîn amidst the villagers
I am a milkmaid on the pastures
I cry out like a crane
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I have become a captive in the mountains
In the face of the enemies of tyranny
I turn toward the desert and the mountains.

She appears on YouTube, both on film (others e.g. here, here, and via this post):

and in many hauntingly plangent audio recordings, such as:

Dengbêj Gazîn was sentenced to one year in prison for singing Kurdish songs in 2010, deemed by the state prosecution to constitute “propaganda for an illegal organisation”, though she was acquitted in 2013.

in her chapter in Diversity and contact among singer-poet traditions in eastern Anatolia, Schäfers cites Gazîn’s kilam on the subject of the Van earthquake in 2011, making further acute observations on the topic of the “ownership” of orally-transmitted songs.

Here‘s an extensive playlist for the dengbêj.

“Heritage”
Clémence Scalbert-Yücel (“The invention of a tradition: Diyarbakır’s dengbêj project”, 2009), finds that since the rise of the “nostalgia industry” in the 1990s, dengbêj have been rediscovered, institutionalised, and “protected”. Moreover,

The dengbêj “tradition” as it exists today is the result of a several-decades-long process of negotiation between different Kurdish individual and collective actors, between different parts of Kurdish society, and between these Kurdish actors and representatives of the state. It shows that both the state and the Kurdist movement(s) have demonstrated contradictory attitudes toward dengbêj, ranging from protection to disinterest and repression, and that the practice of the dengbêj as well as the definition of the “tradition” have been profoundly shaped by this process. […]

Even though there is no longer a ban, auto-censorship is still in force and the dengbêjs are represented as “innocent relics” who portray the Kurdish part of the “Anatolian mosaic” promoted by official narratives in the 2000s.

The first part of the paper examines the survival of a certain way of dengbêjîin in spite of repression by state institutions, wider social changes, and a rather disinterested Kurdish movement. The second section looks at the revival of the dengbêj practice and at a renewed interest among some Kurdish activists, looking specifically at the municipality-led project.

Following the partitioning of Kurdish territory with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, under the Turkish Republic the dengbêj have been subject to sporadic repression since the 1930s, most severely in the 1980s.

But dengbêjî was not only repressed by the state. It was also impeded by a Kurdish population that was both worried about persecution and had to some degree lost interest due to wider social changes (urbanisation, the arrival of television, and the development of new, “modern”, musical forms), and because of the attitudes of some within the Kurdish movement.

Scalbert-Yücel notes the change of context to performance at the official Houses of Dengbêj, for festivals, and on TV.

First, the songs performed today are shorter. […] Firstly, lack of practice, sometimes for a couple of decades, led to a loss of memory and shortening of the songs. The second reason is directly linked to the issue of the performance and the audience. The contemporary audience does not necessarily appreciate long epic stories, nor do they always understand them. This is reflected in the way in which people visit the House: they come for a little while, sit in the room with the dengbêj, and listen for them for a few minutes. They also often record the songs with their mobile phones, like they would shoot a photo souvenir. For the festivals and the television, the long epic songs are also largely shortened and cut.

Abbreviation had a longer history dating back to the early recording industry, to which the shorter kilams were better suited.

Economic and symbolic stakes also pushed people toward the use of instrumentation: adding instruments makes the dengbêj easier to listen to, more attractive, and potentially more famous. This changed the form of the music. […]

Political and guerrilla songs are also censored by the associations or TV channels. This means that an important part of the repertoire remains “in the chest” of the dengbêj and may eventually be forgotten. This can also halt the creative process and lead to a fixation of the dengbêj in the past, or give new directions to the creative process. Also, “old” songs seem to be given more value than the new ones as representing the “tradition”, the real “culture”.

As learning from tapes became common, the chain of transmission has been transformed.

Dengbêjs have become symbolic; they have become a heritage [mîras], as said one of the music professionals interviewed, who compared them to swords in a museum: before they were used daily by everyone; now they stand on a shelf.

All this supplements our list of flawed Intangible Cultural Heritage projects around the world; the Diyarbakır project reminds me in many ways of the ICH programme in China, with the remoulding of the “feudal” and “backward” past, and all the ambivalence of “registration” (both “looking after” and “controlling”: see Bards of Shaanbei, under “The reform era”).

In another fine article, Marlene Schäfers (“Being sick of politics: the production of dengbej as Kurdish cultural heritage in contemporary Turkey”, 2015) interrogates the recent construction of dengbê as Kurdish “cultural heritage”.

Given a longstanding and engrained history of systematic and violent persecution, repression, denial, and assimilation of all matters Kurdish by the Turkish state, Kurdishness has effectively been rendered an inherently and inescapably political subject position in Turkey today.

She seeks an understanding that

allows for a continual slippage between cultural heritage understood as, on the one hand, marking the essence of the Kurdish nation and being therefore of an inherently political nature and, on the other hand, constituting a non- or pre-political realm of folkloric engagement with ethnic traditions.

And she notes Nathalie Heinich’s felicitous term “the administration of authenticity”.

As critics of liberal multiculturalism have repeatedly noticed, tolerance is extended only on the condition that the object to be tolerated remains within boundaries determined by the tolerant majority itself.

dengbej old young 1

The dengbêj of Van are briefly introduced here, with this film:

Even those pushing for cultural preservation concede that the dengbêj is now a somewhat nostalgic embodiment of Kurdish identity. Movies and pop music are more influential than their laments, and the form’s rural strongholds are declining as young people move to cities. Whereas performers were once honoured guests at private houses and weddings, they now sing mainly for television, tourists, and folkloristic recordings. Their stories are shorter these days, in accommodation to both modern audiences and their own dwindling abilities.

Cf. Bektashi and Alevi rituals (1: Istanbul, 2: Anatolia). For a very different expressive form, see Dervishes of Kurdistan. See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis.


* For background, note the bibliography by Chris Houston, Anthropology of Kurdistan (2017), and Robert Riegle, A brief history of Kurdish music recordings in Turkey (2013); see also Christine Allison, “The shifting borders of conflict, difference, and oppression: Kurdish folklore revisited” (2016). For introductions to Kurdish music, see sections in The Rough Guide to world music, the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and the Garland encyclopedia of world music. As elsewhere, the popular songs promoted in the media inevitably receive more media coverage than musicking in rural life. But note some fine CDs from Kalan Mûzik, such as Traditional music of Hakkari (2004).

** I think of the Tibetans, also stateless—their homes (within the People’s Republic of China) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Amdo, and Kham, as well as Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, India, and the diaspora; for some Tibetan bards, click here and here.

Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul

Ersu 11
Performance in the presence of Sultan Ahmed III:
Burnaz Hasan Çelebi, the lead singer (left row at top, with hook nose and fur robe,
directing with his frame-drum), with tanbur, kemançe, ney, and santur.
Miniature by Nakkaş İbrahim, early 18th century. Source.

For the broad range of musical activity in late imperial China, I struggle to think of accounts that go beyond the generalised clichés of Confucian theory to depict the diverse soundscapes of local communities of the day.

For musicking in late Ottoman Istanbul/Constantinople, my dabblings (severely limited by my inability to read Turkish) aim merely to gain a very basic perspective. [1]

A major resource is the renowned travelogue of Evliyâ Çelebi (1611–82) (see e.g. under The tanners of Zeytinburnu). Among a wealth of material on all kinds of life, his accounts of the expressive cultures that he encountered on his journeys through the empire are exceptionally detailed. Evliya’s comments on musicking, as a participant observer, are the subject of considerable research in Turkey. [2]

While (as in China) much discussion is based on sources for art music, I learn from a useful online article in English,

He reminds us of the wider soundscape, encompassing venues such as the dergah dervish lodges, the Enderün palace, and the taverns; and occasions such as weddings, circumcision feasts, and parades (note also Ahmet Önal, “Public ceremonies in Ottoman Istanbul”). Music also accompanied dancing (such as kõcek) and ortaoyunu popular theatre, as well as wrestling, acrobatics, and juggling. 

Ersu 10

Bahçıvaoğlu Kolu’s ortaoyunu show in the presence of the sultan and his sons on a raft in front of the Aynalıkavak Palace. Miniature by Levni. Surname-i Vehbi.

Ersu Pekin notes the wide range of performers in a multilingual and multi-faith society,

from the sultan and şeyhülislam to the müderris (professor), qadi (judge), poet, dede, and dervish. Musicians served as religious functionaries in mosques, churches, and synagogues. They performed as street musicians and bards. They lived as concubines in the harem and as housewives.

Meclis gatherings were held by both elite and commoners, when people came together for conversation, poetry reading, drinking, and making music. From the 16th century, coffee houses became popular venues for musical interaction, attracting everyone “from the unemployed to candidate officers, qadismüderrises, high-ranking officials, imams, muezzins, and even ersatz Sufis”.  Among the article’s fine illustrations is this painting of possibly the first coffee house opened in Tahtakale, as described by Peçuyi:

coffee house

Taverns, according to Evliya Çelebi, were mostly located in Samadyakapusu, Kumkapu, Yeni Balıkpazarı, Unkapanı, Cibalikapusu, Ayakapusu, Fenerkapusu, Balatkapusu, Hasköy, and Galata. On the European side of the Bosphorus, there were taverns in Ortaköy, Kuruçeşme, Arnavutköy, Yeniköy, Tarabya, and Büyükdere, and on the Anatolian side in Kuzguncuk, Çengelköy, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy.

Ersu Pekin cites passages showing Evliya’s deep familiarity with a range of genres:

Horos Imâm, with whom I memorised the Qur’an in the has oda [privy chamber], and Tâyezâde Handân, Ferruhoğlu Assâf Beg, Ma‘ânoğlu, Keçeci Süleymân, and Amber Mustafâ, who were my friends reciting the adhan [call to prayer], all gathered in the place for music (meşkhane), near the bath in the palace, day and night, and performed music and fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara. […]

Hânende [vocalist] Kara Oğlan Âmidî was one of the students of Yahyâ, and he was a unique master in usûl-bend and sihr-i helâl. Together with the ruler of Bitlîs, Abdâl Hân, I have performed the fasıls of Hüseyin Baykara for three years in Persia, then in Erzurum with Defterdârzâde Mehemmed Pasha in ’56.

In Constantinople, combining with the makam system, the fasil suite form developed from its Persian origin, with masters such as Buhurizade Mustafa Efendi (Itrî, 1640–1712). Though known as a chamber genre, it also appears in Evliya’s accounts of the mehter Janissary bands (cited by Ersu Pekin):

About the parade of the performers of pipes and reeds: there were eleven instrumentalists who were craftsmen and they all were soldiers. They all tuned their instruments and performed Segah makam, then Emîr-i Hac peşrev and Hasan Cân peşrev, gül‘izâr peşrev;… and the fasıls of Tatar Hân semâ‘î, and paraded in front of the sultan with a great and loud performance. (n.38)

Forty soldiers performed three fasıls in the evening and in the morning; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror. In the four places [jurisdictions] in Istanbul [Evliya uses the name İslâmbol], in Eyyub, Kasımpaşa, Galata, Tophane, Beşiktaş, Rumeli Hisarı, Yeniköy, Rumeli Yenihisarı, Kavak Yenihisarı, Beykoz, Anadolu Hisarı, Üsküdar, Kızkulesi, every evening and morning [dawn], the military band performs; the subaşıs, qadis, and dizdars [castle wardens] stand at attention; this is on the order of Mehmed the Conqueror, because these places were serhads[frontiers] at that time. In fact, they still are serhads. (n.74)

Besides native authors, Ersu Pekin cites the Polish Wojciech Bobowski (Ali Ufki, 1610–75) and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723; see under Musics lost and found). As tastes changed, innovation is a constant theme, continuing with musicians such as the Mevlevi “composer” Dede Efendi (1778–1846).

Despite the broad social base, most paintings depicted events for the upper layers of society:

Ersu 14

Ensemble directed by lead singer Burnaz Hasan Çelebi (Enfi Hasan Ağa)
at the festivities of 1720.
Nakkaş İbrahim, Surname-i Vehbi.

Later, popular forms like şarkı began to replace the long fasil suites. Taking us into the early 20th century, Ersu Pekin sings the praises of Tanburi Cemil (1873–1916), who can be heard on many recordings on YouTube, including this album; here he plays a taksim on kemançe:

Has the memory of the city forgotten the music that reflected the refined taste of the Ottoman elite? Does the rich heritage contained in the records, now transformed into şarkı and peşrevs, semais and ghazels, reflect that old style? Alas, we will never know!

Another useful introduction in English is

  • Cem Behar, “Music and musicians in the city”, in Shirine Hamedeh and Çiğdem Kafescioğlu (eds), A companion to early modern Istanbul (2021).

He too notes the broad social basis of musicking:

Traditional Ottoman/Turkish music could and did survive independently from the impetus or patronage provided by the ruling group, and the court was not the main centre of music making. […]

The musical tradition was sufficiently diffused and ingrained in the urban social tissue and resilient enough to survive the effects of random changes in the musical tastes, whims and preferences of rulers or their immediate entourage.

Cem Behar goes on to cite the biographical compendium of Şeyhülislâm Es’ad Efendi (1685–1753), which besides a few dignitaries and members of various Sufi orders, lists many musicians of humble origin. Many distinguished musicians were Greek, Jewish, or Armenian (cf. Zithers of Iran and Turkey). Behar stresses the blurred lines between “folk” and “art” musics, and between religious and secular styles (just as we need to do for China); as Constantinople became home to migrants from all over the empire, their regional styles were incorporated into music of the capital. Despite the common phenomenon of named “composers”, oral teaching and transmission were primary.

He describes changes in the building-blocks of usûl metre and makam scale, and the emergence of the fasil from the early 17th century.

The 1638 procession
Most celebrated are Evliya Çelebi’s vivid descriptions of the huge 1638 procession of the “guilds and professions, merchants and artisans” for Sultan Murat IV, “a kind of perambulatory census” with 1,001 guilds parading in 57 sections. [3] As the Sultan declared,

I desire that all the guilds of the city of Constantinople, both great and small, shall repair to my imperial camp. They shall exhibit the number of their men, shops, and professions, according to their old constitutions. They shall all pass before the Alay Köskü with their sheikhs and chiefs, on foot and on horseback, playing their eightfold music, so that I may see how many thousand men and how many guilds there are. It will be a procession the likes of which has never been seen before.

1638 procession

1638 procession 2
Source.

Among the groups parading were carpenters, fur-makers, toy-makers, bakers, butchers, mariners, cooks, confectioners, tavern keepers; civil servants, entertainers, madmen; corporations of beggars, of thieves and footpads, and of pimps and bankrupts; fools and mimics. Evliya even records disputes over precedence between rival groups.

This instance of Evliya’s attention to music (translated, impressionistically, by Joseph von Hammer, 1834) introduces some singers:

Evliya 42

And the 43rd section (pp.233–40) is a fine inventory:

If I, poor Evliya, should be asked where I found such a complete catalogue of musical instruments, I would answer that in my travels in Arabia and Persia, in Sweden and Denmark, in Germany, Poland, and Bohemia, I, myself, saw all of these instruments and many more, and, if it please God, I shall give a more complete description of them in my travels; but these are the instruments used at Constantinople, which I am much more conversant with, as I at all times delighted in the company of singers and musicians…

In the 39th section (pp.225–8) Evliya further describes the mehter Janissary bands, as well as instrument makers.

See also Landscapes of music in Istanbul, and Istanbul: multisensorial experiences.

* * *

Returning to late imperial China: there too the literati elite experienced a range of musicking in their quotidian social activities, even if they rarely described it. Apart from qin zither and pipa lute, or attending performances of opera and narrative-singing, they frequented temples, mingling with clerics, as well as taking part in chamber music with  lowly blind retainers. A useful alternative source is fiction, such as the detailed accounts of ritual life in The story of the stone, or Jin ping mei.

But material on Ottoman musicking, with the insider detail of Evliyâ Çelebi, seems particularly rich.


[1] I have yet to read other major sources in English such as

  • Walter Feldman, Music of the Ottoman court: makam, composition and the early Ottoman instrumental repertoire (1996), including chapters on the kanun, and taksim
  • Martin Greve (ed.), Writing the history of “Ottoman music” (2015), whose four parts discuss historiography, periodisation, folk music, and reconstruction.

Along with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians and The Garland encyclopedia of world music, for the “classical” forms, see also Robert Labaree’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. Dare I say it, the wiki article makes a useful introduction…

[2] An Evliya Çelebi bibliography by Robert Dankoff and Semih Tezcan (2015) lists Turkish studies on his discussions of music, as does Ulaş Özdemir (n.34 here). See also Aida Islam and Stefanija Zelenkovska Leshkova, “Ottoman music culture in the Balkans through the prism of the travel writer Evliya Celebi” (2016), and Dilek Göktürk-Cary, “Ottoman music in travel books” (2017).

[3] Some sections are translated in An Ottoman traveller: selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim (2011, pp.24–31). Along with his book Istanbul: the imperial city, John Freely uses Evliya’s account the 1638 procession as the basis for his own explorations in Stamboul sketches (1974, reprinted by Eland in 2014).

Aynur: Kurdish popular music

Aynur

To follow my recent posts on the soundscapes of Istanbul (here and here):
for the contemporary scene, here’s the film Crossing the bridge: the sound of Istanbul (Fatih Akin, 2005), with German subtitles:

Among this wealth of creativity, I’ve been admiring the Kurdish–Alevi singer Aynur Doğan. As a recent Songlines article observes, the media find her a potent symbol for the cause of the Kurds, “Europe’s latest fetish”. Weary though I am of the “Songlines effect” (cf. here), she much deserves her reputation on the World Music scene.

Aynur was brought up in a small Alevi mountain town in Tunceli province of east Anatolia. In 1992, when she was 18, her parents brought her to Istanbul, anxious about the clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK. As she studied at the Arif Sağ Music School there, she came to focus on the Kurdish–Alevi songs of her youth (for one source of her inspiration, see Some Kurdish bards).

Her song Keçe Kurdan (“Kurdish girl”, 2004) was briefly banned in Turkey, misunderstood by some as inciting women to take up arms for the Kurdish cause rather than as a call for women’s rights. Here she performs it live in 2017:

In Crossing the bridge, Aynur’s scene (filmed in an old hamam) is exquisite (you might start watching from 54.32)—here’s her lament Ahmedo (with Italian subtitles, to keep us on our toes):

In 2005 she appeared with her band in a meyhane scene in Yavuz Turgul’s movie Gönül Yarası (“Lovelorn”):

Following the lifting of the ban on the use of the Kurdish language in public life in 2004, when it was at last heard on the national TV station TRT, this was a progressive period for the arts in Istanbul. But the scene soon suffered from Erdoğan’s drive to Islamify and Turkify society, affecting Turks and Kurds alike. And the situation in the Kurdish homeland of east Anatolia remained tense. Following the 2011 Istanbul Jazz Festival, when Aynur was shouted off the stage for not singing in Turkish, she left for Amsterdam in 2012. Here she is that year with an impressive line-up at the Morgenland Festival in Osnabrück:

Her first solo album in exile was the 2020 Hedûr, solace of time:

with the official video of the title song:

And here’s Min digo mele live, on a return visit to Istanbul in 2020 (lyrics here):

But the Turkish authorities continue to hamper performances of Kurdish pop.

For handy introductions to modern Turkish history and society, see Midnight at the Pera Palace and Turkey: what everyone needs to know—among many posts in the west/Central Asia tag.

Ethos: one of a kind

Ethos 1

After The Club, I’ve been hooked on Ethos, another fine Turkish TV series on Netflix (Berkun Oya, 2020), again popular both in Turkey and abroad. Among many reviews [1] is this perceptive critique by Haziran Düzkan on the feminist site 5Harfliler, from which I borrow below.

Here’s a trailer:

The Turkish title Bir başkadır (“One of a kind”) alludes to Ayten Alpman’s 1972 song Memleketim (“My homeland”). Set in Istanbul, the story exposes the faultlines within Turkish society. It’s centred around the mesmerising character of Meryem, played by Öykü Karayel. At once naïve and astute, Meryem is a part-time cleaner who lives on the outskirts of Istanbul with her ill-tempered brother Yasin and his traumatised wife Ruhiye. After experiencing fainting spells, Meryem consults the uptight psychiatrist Peri, whose culture is quite different: educated, affluent, and secular, she is prejudiced against openly religious people.

Ethos 2

Peri herself sees the therapist Gülbin, to whom she complains about the growing conservatism in Turkish society. Gülbin, from a Kurdish family, has a fraught relationship with her headscarved sister, a supporter of the ruling AKP Party; and she is having a desultory affair with the feckless playboy Sinan—as is the soap-opera star Melisa, who has some wise words to offer Peri when they meet socially. Meryem is under the influence of the benign hodja of the local mosque—whose daughter Hayrünnisa is a gay electronica fan.

Gradually the paths of this disparate group of urban, working, lonely women intersect; their attempts to seek meaningful relationships with men only exacerbate their sense of alienation.

The first episode ends—somewhat obscurely for outsiders like me—with footage from a concert by Ferdi Özbeğen, evoking a nostalgia for “old Turkey”—as Haziran Düzkan explains, as the gay son of an Armenian mother and a migrant father born in Crete, Özbeğen too carried a social burden on his shoulders. Düzkan also notes that while the finale offers a certain redemption, the (female) characters’ triumphs are petty, suggesting that the real “triumph” is that of the (male) director, “for showing us how much we missed talking about the society rather than getting sick and tired of talking about those in power”.

The filming is distinctive, with evocative scenes of the Istanbul landscape, and static portraits of the characters facing the camera framed against a sumptuous colour palette.

And there can be no better incentive to learn Turkish than to relish the nuance of Meryem’s speech in the exquisite dialogues with her therapist and with her suitor Hilmi.

Ethos 3


[1] E.g.
https://ewn.co.za/2021/01/05/turkey-s-latest-netflix-series-ethos-interrogates-the-country-s-social-divides

https://www.duvarenglish.com/ethos-has-put-us-all-in-the-therapists-office-and-asked-us-to-speak-article-55126

https://www.trtworld.com/life/netflix-s-ethos-takes-turkey-by-storm-41790

https://dmtalkies.com/ethos-tv-series-analysis/

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/do-not-burn-coffee-beans.

Istanbul: multisensorial experiences

Further to Landscapes of Istanbul:

Complementing the Music in the Ottoman empire and in Turkey project of the Orient-Institut, and as part of the institute’s online workshop series, Esther Voswinckel Filiz and Salih Demirtaş recently convened “Experience of a city: multisensorial approaches to past and present” (booklet here).

1

The series aims to bring together approaches from musicology, historical ethnography, anthropology of religion, and cultural studies in exploring experiences of the city. Its theme moves away from ocularcentrism (a useful word!), and the assumption of silence—exploring how sound, smell, taste, touch, and other senses are vital in cultural practices of dwelling, movement, and social life (cf. China: film, and attempts to correct the discursive bias of approaches to religion).

After a keynote by Cambridge anthropologist and musicologist Peter McMurray on dreamscapes, Martin Greve discusses the changing atmosphere of Alevi rituals in Dersim and Istanbul (cf. his 2018 article). Older people remember the greater spirituality of cems in ordinary village houses, including both trance and the performance of keramet supernatural power:

Music was not perceived as something isolated, but rather was a part of the all-encompassing atmosphere, where musical elements such as intonation, melody, or the control of voices had no separate importance.

2

Burcu Yaşin explores the sonic atmospheres of Romani wedding ceremonies in the Sarıgöl neighbourhood of Istanbul, where meticulously chosen songs stress the wealth of the spouses’ families, and recals (improvised poems performed mostly by women) praise the beauty of the bride. The festive atmosphere relies on the dynamic communication between participants and performers, all coming together as the members of the same community. She analyses how the Romani community employs music and sound to reproduce social hierarchies, to strengthen intercultural relations, and to subvert gender roles within the uniformed kinaesthesia imposed by the lead singer.

3

On late Ottoman Istanbul, Onur Engin explains how “talking machines” generated new modes of listening. Jacob Olley discusses the multisensorial clamour of the gazino, the screeching of the tram, and the seemingly unintelligible songs of migrant street musicians. Nazan Maksudyan explores sound and temporality, with houses of worship orienting their believers to the tempo of daily routine and religious life—citing the ezan call to prayer and the Orthodox semantron, as well as the secular innovation of clock towers. And Tülay Artan evokes soundscapes of the Ottoman Bosphorus:

Rain, nightingales, oars splashing and creaking, busy landing places, the hymns of dervishes, gulls and other sea birds, fishermen’s songs, calls to prayer, the wind in the trees, waves swirling around the wooden piles of piers and waterfront mansions. Reflected in the hues of the opposite shore, whether in sunlight or by the moon, and occasionally dotted by flickering candles, lanterns, torches, or fireflies.

4

It’s good to see (hear, taste, smell, touch…) Istanbul still serving as a hub for such creativity.

Small—Far away

Europe is all very well, but the Asian side of Istanbul is really quite enough.

When I do venture to cross the Bosphorus, being aboard a boat still gives me a buzz—my first time afloat since looking after Li Manshan and the Daoists in Venice in 2012.

Yusuf painting

The centre of the world, by renowned Kuzguncuk artist Yusuf Katipoglu (1941–2018).
Üsküdar on right, Kuzguncuk on left.

us on boatReturning to Üsküdar the other afternoon, as landmarks gradually became visible I was trying to recognise its mosques from afar. I was on the lookout for the Yeni Valide Camii (1703)—where we had previously admired a double ezan call to prayer—and the charming little Şemsi Paşa Camii (1581) on the coast; perhaps even the Atik Valide Külliyesi (1583) further up the hill. But at first I couldn’t quite make out any of them.

Uskudar mosques

Şemsi Paşa Mosque (right), Yeni Valide Mosque (left).
Not actual size (Discuss).

I made some fatuous remark like “The big mosque looks very small”, whereupon my Wise Companion Augusta patiently offered me a lesson in perspective not unlike that of Father Ted to Dougall:

Augusta promised me the mosques would soon look bigger—and as if by magic…

In art, the development of perspective is commonly associated with Renaissance Italy (Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and so on). BTW, for China, do read the fascinating article by Hannibal Taubes on the use of perspective on temple murals and opera stages in rural north China since the 19th century!

OK, we’re not talking Art here, more the disconnect between my eyes and brain. Like hello?

Kuzguncuk: nostalgia for cosmopolitanism

In an earlier post I began to introduce the delights of the mahalle neighbourhood of Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, just along the coast from the teeming hub of Üsküdar.

Kuzguncuk is the subject of many works in Turkish, including several books by Nedret Ebcim; and Suzan Nana Tarablus has written on its Jewish history. In English, a most thoughtful study on Kuzguncuk is

  • Amy Mills, Streets of memory: landscape, tolerance, and national identity in Istanbul (2010).

Mills cover

Cutting through the cosy nostalgic image, she finds that the neighbourhood’s landscape not only connotes feelings of “belonging and familiarity” connected to a “narrative of historic multiethnic harmony” but also makes these ideas appear to be uncontestably real, or true. The resulting nostalgia bolsters a version of Turkish nationalism that seems cosmopolitan and benign.

Whereas Kuzguncuk was long dominated by Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, their numbers dwindled through the 20th century, with Turkish Muslim immigrants coming to form the great majority there. But by around 2000, Turkish historians, journalists, memoirs, and novelists displayed a growing interest in minority issues, their nostalgic images articulating hopes for a tolerant, multicultural society. Kuzguncuk has become popular as a film set, and has been rapidly gentrifying, attracting a mixture of dwellers from relatively comfortable but diverse backgrounds.

Mills interrogates what it is that such images, and the landscape, conceal. Memory, amnesia, and violence are major themes (cf. China).

In the early 20th century, non-Muslim minorities and foreigners comprised 56% of Istanbul’s population, and were even more prominent as property owners, tradespeople, and skilled workers; by the end of the century, following massive emigration and the influx of Turks and Kurds, they were less than 1%.

However powerful the state may be in producing nationalist ideology, the ways in which people negotiate with it are inconsistent and unpredictable; individual identities are multiple and fragmented, and cohere, sometimes only briefly, in specific places.

The shared memory of the past is selective, fragmented, with tensions; as people remember or forget the Christian and Jewish past, they engage in self-censorship of dissonant information. In the face of the “contemporary malaise” of alienating social change, nostalgia “may appear to be escapist, romantic, or even regressive”. The 1942–43 Wealth Tax, the riots of 1955, and the 1964 expulsions have belatedly been acknowledged for Istanbul, but are still denied for Kuzguncuk, where they also had dire consequences.

Chapter 1 concerns the Ottoman background of the Istanbul mahalle neighbourhoods—which were neither monochromatic nor static. Migration to Istanbul increased through the 19th century; between 1840 and 1880 the population doubled to 800,000 (!).

map 2

Since at least the 19th century Kuzguncuk had mainly been populated by Armenians, Jews, and Greeks. In 1865, fire burned five hundred shops along the main street. In the process of reconstruction, a steamboat station was built, whereafter some elite Muslim families also began to move in. A 1914 census showed 1,600 Armenians, 400 Jews, 250 Greeks, 79 Muslims, and four foreigners, although the Armenian population had already started to decline after an 1896 decree expelling Armenian workers from Istanbul. By 1933, sources suggest that the population was still 90% non-Muslim.

Turkification under the new Republic from 1923 eroded religious and ethnic plurality. As economic power was transferred into the hands of Muslims, the “Citizen, Speak Turkish” campaign ran from 1928 through to the 1950s.

Kuzguncuk’s Armenian church, built in 1835, was rebuilt in 1861 and repaired in 1967. Of the two Greek Orthodox churches, the smaller one near the coast road was built in 1823, rebuilt in 1871, and restored in 1951; the larger church further up the main street was built in 1836, and restored in 1911.

church and mosque

Armenian church and mosque.

By the 1940s, migrants from the Black Sea region were settling in significant numbers in Kuzguncuk. The mosque next to the Armenian church was built in 1952, “the first moment in the neighbourhood’s long history when there were enough Muslim Kuzguncuklus to necessitate a local, regular, community gathering space.” By that time, as Mills notes, the Armenian community had virtually disappeared.

Still, even then, Kuzguncuklus who remember this period describe a culture in which it was common for residents to speak “a little Ladino, Greek, Armenian, or French”, and sharing the various religious holidays with their neighbours.

The Turkification of Istanbul intensified in the period after World War Two. While the Jews had tended to favour assimilation more than the Greeks and Armenians, after the 1942–3 Wealth Tax, which penalised minorities heavily, 30,000 Turkish Jews emigrated to the new state of Israel in 1948.

The anti-Greek riot of 1955—also impacting Armenians and Jews—and the expulsion of Greeks in 1964, led to further departures. By 1967 only around three thousand Greeks remained in Istanbul. The confiscation of minority-owned properties continued; many of these became homes to new waves of rural migrants. Between 1945 and 1975 Istanbul’s population swelled from one to four million. Ironically, “it is this very period that is nostalgically narrated in the dominant collective memory as one of tolerance, siblinghood, and belonging in the mahalle”.

By 2004 Kuzguncuk was home to under a hundred non-Muslims; the churches and synagogues are now maintained and attended mainly by Christians and Jews living elsewhere in the city (see Epiphany in Istanbul).

Chapter 2 shows how from the 1980s Kuzguncuk became a major backdrop for nostalgic memory-making in Istanbul. The mahalle’s material landscape “was popular precisely because the seeming reality of the memory so successfully obscured the tensions and disharmony of everyday life in Istanbul”. Indeed, the Kuzguncuk landscape had to be restored to conform to the image, not just by TV companies but by new immigrants to the mahalle, although they were themselves continuing its socio-economic transformation.

A common feature of the loss of community was the erosion of mahalle social life by families owning TVs and the disappearance of open-air cinema.

The TV series Perihan Abla began screening in 1986, portraying the interconnectedness of the lives of mahalle people—middle class, Turkish, and Muslim.

From 1978 the architect Cengiz Bektaş was the pioneer of restoration in Kuzguncuk, inspiring artists and professionals even before the wave of gentrification from the 1990s. His goal was to foster a sense of care and responsibility among residents, based on its (earlier) history of multiethnic tolerance. His work began from the dwellings said to have been occupied by a former Armenian artisan community near the ferry, but it didn’t actually bring this history to light.

Gentrification (common to various other districts of Istanbul) is a “lifestyle preference of a particular population”; but by contrast with earlier residents, it is typically led by smaller families, from urban backgrounds, well educated, with both spouses in work, connected to the outside world.

However, community in Kuzguncuk fails not only because of gentrification but simply because the same social and political divisions that fragment Istanbul society are also present in Kuzguncuk.

Kastamonu deli

While the media mostly portrays a romanticised fairytale, a 2002 novel evoked the social changes of the 1960s, with the influx of new rural migrants.

However unintentionally, the narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of collective memory mahalle works to support the nationalist historical narrative of Istanbul life in that it obscures the traumas and events that pushed out the minority communities.

As we saw above, the Armenian church near the ferry dates from 1835, but the mosque next to it was only built in 1952. The church and the mosque seem to suggest that cosmopolitanism is alive and well in Kuzguncuk; what remains unspoken is the fact that the congregation of the 19th-century church is gone, replaced by the Muslims who attend the 20th-century mosque.

In Chapter 3 Mills discusses the “contested space” of the Bostan market garden, established by the Kuzguncuk Neighbourhood Association since 2000—another major symbol for nostalgia and community.

In a common instance of illegal expropriation, the state had confiscated the garden from a Greek family in 1977. Mills becomes aware of her own emotional investment in the project through a “disturbing and exhilarating” meeting with the last descendant of the original Greek owners, who embodied the sense of loss; her claims to the land and those of the Association turned out to be incompatible.

For some time after 1977 the status of the space was in limbo. Opposition to planned development grew from 1992, part of the wider protest movement against corruption, and further stimulated by the 1999 earthquake.

Active in the Association were young adults born in Kuzguncuk to parents of Black Sea migrant families who began arriving in the late 1930s, working with the professionals and artists who had joined them in the mahalle later.

The project was not without its critics. Some residents were wary of potential political activity; among those who failed to support the project were people from peripheral, poorer settlements, as well as the leaders of the churches and synagogue.

In Chapter 4, the mahalle’s nostalgic memories of a vibrant and tolerant social life sit uncomfortably alongside the collective silence surrounding the state-instigated anti-minority riots of 6th to 7th September 1955. Two hundred Greek families were still living in Kuzguncuk. While the riots, fomented by Turks arriving by boat, seem to have been less severe than in some other neighbourhoods on the Asian side of Istanbul, windows were smashed, houses ransacked, shops vandalised, the Greek churches damaged. The events marked a watershed in the exodus of minorities from Kuzguncuk.

The moment of contradiction hinges on the neighbourly relationships—that in a neighbourly place like Kuzguncuk such a thing couldn’t happen (and yet it did), that there was no difference between religions (and yet there was).

People’s contradictory memories reveal

the pressure of being caught between maintaining loyalty to one’s collective identity as a member of Turkish society and possessing personal knowledge of events or moments that challenged the popular historical narrative.

The memories of senior residents also suggest a distaste for the new immigrants from rural Anatolia, even if those people too shared the nostalgia for the former cohesion of the mahalle, partly to authenticate their own claims to belonging.

Chapter 5 discusses belonging and exclusion mainly through the fluid proprieties of female neighbourliness, and the intersecting identities of class, ethnicity, economic position, and regional origins. Mills describes visits between women, including the therapy of “reading” fortune in the coffee grounds (fal). Apart from positive aspects, such relations can also have oppressive implications, as in the ramifications of gossip.

As Mills observes, gentrification too is a gendered process. Mahalle norms reveal tensions for female residents who assume non-traditional gender roles, making difficult their access to the social support networks of the community.

Because of the ways it is threatened by new urban lifestyles, the mahalle has become exclusive, a space for those who already belong or for those who move here through previous friendships; it is not an inclusive community for otherwise disconnected newcomers.

Despite the small number of minorities in Kuzguncuk since the 1950s, intermarriage, common for several generations, remains something of a taboo topic.

Chapter 6 focuses on the Jewish history of Kuzguncuk. Today the main synagogue at the foot of the main street, though inconspicuous, is still maintained, with regular services. Another one, tucked away on Jacob street further up the hill, is currently inactive. Further still up the hill, the Jewish cemetery is now forlorn. Jews in Istanbul have tended to assimilate, a delicate balance that they have long performed in Turkish society; still, they remain vulnerable.

Mills learned much from a visit to Tel Aviv, where Jewish people who had emigrated from Kuzguncuk were keen to share their memories (including the anti-minority events before, during, and after World War Two)—underlining the silence that reigned within Istanbul.

After an absorbing section on early Jewish migrations to Istanbul, Mills describes the early 20th century. Their economic status varied; many were quite poor. They often spoke only Ladino, not Turkish. Jewish people migrated to the mahalle from other regions, and from elsewhere in Istanbul; some also moved away, to neighbourhoods on the European side. But Turkification under the Republic prompted an exodus. Emigration (from Kuzguncuk, and from Turkey) began to become common. It was a long process, increasing markedly in the 1940s, after the 1955 riots, and through the 1970s and 90s. As Muslim migrants continued to arrive from Anatolia, the mahalle’s former ethnic diversity was lost. Again Mills finds former Kuzguncuk residents now in Tel Aviv more prepared to discuss the 1942–3 Wealth Tax than those still living in Istanbul.

* * *

Mills is always sensitive to her own role, reflecting on the narratives that people offer her (and don’t). In conclusion, she asks

Whose cultural politics does the nostalgia for Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism serve? What does this nostalgia do? The nostalgia that foregrounds tolerance in enterethnic relationships obscures the tensions and violence of the processes through which the cosmopolitan city became nationally Turkish. By appearing to be real, by the ways in which the materiality of landscapes seem to authentically represent a tolerant multicultural past, this nostalgia preserves the illusions of the state, illusions that the nation is inclusive, that it does or can exist for all.

While both Turks and minorities comply with the code, the agreement is not entirely succeeding. […]

If nationalist, secularist, and Islamist intolerance is ever to subside in Istanbul, people must openly perceive that antiminority discrimination and oppression is a problem and must also imagine a peaceful, shared diversity to be possible. […]

Memories of cosmopolitanism must be examined for how they speak of loss and betrayal, and how they articulate a stake in the future of the city.

You can find more posts on Istanbul in this roundup; note in particular Midnight at the Pera Palace.

From Kuzguncuk, delightful as ever

Birds without wings

Birds cover

Continuing my education on the Armenian genocide and the Greek-Turkish population expulsions, I’ve been admiring the epic historical novel

Dedicated to “the unhappy memory of the millions of civilians on all sides who became victims of the numerous death marches, movements of refugees, campaigns of persecution and extermination, and exchanges of population”, it brings to life a convulsive period throughout Asia Minor.

The story revolves around inhabitants of the fictional town of Eskibahçe (apparently based on Kayaköy on the southwest coast of Anatolia), with vivid vignettes evoking how the lives of the town’s Christian and Muslim inhabitants were intertwined. Not that such coexistence was without tensions—on the antecedents of the wider catastrophe, De Bernières notes

There was between 1821 and 1913 a prolonged and atrocious holocaust which we have chosen to forget, and from which we have learned absolutely nothing.

Still, life in Eskibahçe had been largely tranquil—until

The machinations of the Great Powers, and the immemorial turbulence of the Balkans, had dragged the Ottoman state from one impoverishing, bruising, and demoralising war to another. Those who were conscripted found themselves serving for indefinite numbers of years in vile and hostile places hundreds of miles from home, whilst the womenfolk broke their own health in the desperate attempt to run their farms and homes alone.

The stories are interwoven with that of Mustafa Kemal, who became the national founder Atatürk—narrated in the historical present (a device that usually Gets my Goat). Eskibahçe scenes are also interspersed with visits to cosmopolitan Smyrna and Istanbul.

A trifling incident results in the humiliation of Levon the Armenian:

There was not a single one of those there who would not have helped Levon if they had found him injured by the side of the road, but as a mob they were individually not a wit superior to hyenas.

De Bernières gives a succinct account of rising tensions with the Armenians in east Anatolia, before troops arrive to deport Levon along with the minority of Armenian families in the village.

The centrepiece of the novel is the Gallipoli campaign, with Iskander the Potter’s son Karatavuk evoking in hideous detail his time serving at the front.

Later in the book the author incorporates some neat links with his earlier Captain Corelli’s mandolin.

Even by 1916,

Little remained the same. In Eskibahçe the work was being done by children, the women, the very old, and the few men who had returned crippled from active service. All the townspeople were half starved, and most of them were desperate. The stock was regularly rustled by gangs of deserters, and there were those who stole from their neighbours’ fields, even though the punishment for being caught was absolute and condign. […]

The town evinced its economic and moral decline in its very appearance. The dilapidated streets remained uncleaned, broken shutters hung at drunken angles from torn window frames, and the cheerful pastel paintwork of walls and woodwork had long since begun to peel away. The stray dogs, no longer benignly supplied with crusts of bread by the kind-hearted, died in the streets and rotted there, filling the air with the same pervasive, sweet, and rich stink of death that had supplanted the scent of satisfied earth and wild flowers all across the disfigured fields of Europe. […]

The few shops that opened had almost nothing to sell, and no-one had any money with which to buy. Some of the ones that used to belong to the Armenians had been looted. The wonderfully varied stalls that used to make the meydan almost impassable were sagging on their trestles, unused and unmaintained.

And yet worse was to come, as Greek and Turkish forces descended into a cycle of vicious atrocities, culminating in 1922–3 with the forced Christian–Muslim population expulsions between Greece and Turkey. Again, de Bernières manages to explain both the wider political picture and the personal stories of Eskibahçe townsfolk as they too are engulfed in the cataclysm. With the surviving community impoverished by the loss of its Christian neighbours, the story of Philothei and Ibrahim makes a tragic dénouement.

A postscript on the (real) nearby town of Fethiye (Telmessos) jolts us to the glib tourism of the present day.

In conjunction with historical studies such as Twice a stranger, such well-written fiction as this, blending macro and micro perspectives, is both moving and revealing, reminding us of the human suffering that grand political agendas inflict.

Rom, Dom, Lom

kids

Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *

Rom map

Elmas Arus is deeply involved in the campaign for Roma equality, with her campaign Zero Discrimination. Perhaps unavoidably, some of the filming looks exotic, contrasting with the articulate comments of locals and scholars on poverty, social issues, and discrimination. It deserves to be revamped with a more comprehensible version of the subtitles.

Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.

kemence

The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).

From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:

If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.

Urban demolition, as in the Sulukele quarter of Istanbul, is ironically followed by Erdoğan expressing support for the Roma in 2010. The film goes on to sketch weddings; the transition from nomadic to settled lives; the hıdırellez festival and the annual pilgrimage to Hacıbektaş. All the themes deserve more lengthy treatment.

In her excellent book Bury me standing, Isabel Fonseca only touches on Turkey in her chapter on the Bulgarian Roma, but it makes a fine introduction to the wider context around east central Europe.

This is the latest in my series on culture in Turkey.


* See e.g. here. Relevant wiki articles include

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_Turkey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdal_of_Turkey

Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers

Gurdjieff 1

As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.

Anyway, I thought I should catch up with George Gurdjieff (c1877–1949; besides various Foundations, see e.g. the websites of the Gurdjieff Heritage Society and the Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation).

Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.

By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.

Gurdjieff cover

Meetings with remarkable men is the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).

I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.

And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.

Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.

While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.

Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.

Gurdjieff 2

To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.

He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.

This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.

Music
Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.

movements
Source.

This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:

and Meditation:

Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.

If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.

It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.

* * *

Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.

Landscapes of music in Istanbul

Landscapes cover

The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in

  • Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).

Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.

Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces the work of Martin Stokes work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.

All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:

Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.

Papadopoulos continues with “Rembetika as embodiment of Istanbul’s margins: musical landscapes in and of transition”. He cites the classic ethnography of Ilias Petropoulos (watch the film An underground world here). The whole ethos of the genre, indeed way of life, was transgressive (see Songs of Asia Minor; cf. Deviating from behavioural norms).

Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.

rembetika 52

If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.

Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multi-ethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.

He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses its transgressive edge once transplanted from its underground neighbourhood hangouts into the safe settings of commercial clubs, concert halls and CDs. Since the 1960s it has become a classical, popular musical genre rather than a subversive one. New forms of music such as hip-hop have emerged to serve as commentary on, and resistance to, exclusion, and as community connective tissue and a link between marginalized communities and the world. This leads to Kevin Yildirim, “ ‘Poorness is ghettoness’: urban renewal and hip-hop acculturation in Sulukule, Istanbul”.

Resistance to the condominial agency of the state and finance capital in the gentrification of the low-rent neighbourhood is internationalized through the dissemination of hip-hop performances on social media.

Before Sulukule was destroyed by an urban renewal project in 2009, it was an established Romani neighbourhood in the central Istanbul district of Fatih. Its entertainment houses (eğlence evleri) were the main source of income for the community, but they were closed down in the early 1990s on the grounds that they were hotbeds of drugs and prostitution.

Now officially called Karagümrük, the neighbourhood is still known as Sulukule. As one analysis comments, the neo-Ottoman style of the new project is “in the direction of reviving a mythical ‘Ottoman past’ and an Islamic ethos”, and that it was decided upon so that Sulukule would “acquire new, impeccable morals based on Islam and the tourism sector”.

But the destruction kickstarted young people’s interest in hip-hop. Here’s Wonderland by Tahribad-ı İsyan, deploring the destruction (lyrics here):

But Yildirim looks/listens beyond video to “the aesthetics of everyday life in Sulukule as displayed through speech, within personal style, and in spaces”.

He notes that rappers in Istanbul must confront the irony of expressing their localized and rebellious identity through a globalised music genre. Here’s Istanbul by Nefret (lyrics here):

The Sulukule hip-hop scene is not homogenous in ethnic, gender, or social terms. Over the course of my visits to the Atelier [a youth centre that operated from 2010 to 2015] I interacted with male and female attendees who self-identified as Romani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Armenian; Sulukule residents and outsiders; those whose homes were destroyed in the renewal process, and those whose weren’t.

In conclusion Yildirim observes:

Instead of indicating a wholehearted rejection of capital accumulation in Istanbul, the rebellious urban identity of young Sulukule rappers and dancers may well signal their cautious entrance into the formal circuits of urban production.

While I’m clearly very far from home with Istanbul hip-hop, I’m uneasy too with the theoretical vocabulary that, however well-meaning, seems to assert another kind of ownership over it. Like the rappers, scholars seek to carve a niche for themselves in their own market.

Thomas Korovinis, “The âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).

Here’s the blind Alevi bard Âşık Veysel in 1969 (YouTube topic here):

The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.

Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]

Shuttling between marginality and victimisation (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalised by the commodification of their music.

This leads suitably into Ulaş Özdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,

Inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.

As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:

The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:

I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.

The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:

An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.

This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.

Papadopoulos provides an Afterword, Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Part protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.

Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.

Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s,

Social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:

You are saying this and that
We are fed up
Your one-man decisions, your commands
We are fed up We are so bored
What kind of a wrath this is
What is this anger?
Take it easy
When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests
They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares
Everywhere it is shopping mall
I don’t like to pass from your bridges
What happened to our city?
It is full of buildings with hormones.

The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.

In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:

Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.

See also Istanbul: multisensorial experiences.

Zithers of Iran and Turkey

To follow my posts on bowed zithers (Korea and China, and Alpine), among an extensive family of plucked or hammered zithers around west and central Asia are the Persian santur and the Turkish kanun. Both have developed a solo repertoire quite recently.

Some of us were first entranced by the Iranian santur with Nasser Rastegar-Nejad’s playing on the 1970 film Performance. Here’s a further selection.

This 1955 recording is by Hossein Saba (1924-1957):

Here’s a 1984 LP by Faramarz Payvar:

And Hossein Farjami:

* * *

Whereas the Persian santur is also often part of chamber ensembles, the Turkish kanun now seems to be more commonly heard solo.

Plucked or hammered zithers were part of the multicultural musickings of the Ottoman empire and its periphery. [1] I can’t interpret the clues from early written sources and iconography, but the term santur looks more common. In Constantinople, zithers seem to have been played mainly by musicians of the peripheral minorities; by the 17th century Evliya Çelebi described the santur as of Jewish origin. This 1779 image shows six Muslim and six non-Muslim (Greek or Armenian) musicians, including a santur, as well as ney flutes and both rebab (keman) bowed lute and Western violin:

Ottoman music 1779

Concert at the official residence of Sir Robert Ainslie, British Ambassador in Constantinople,
by Chevalier d’Otée 1779.

In Constantinople the kanun seems only to have become a regular member of elite chamber ensembles from the late Ottoman era. In his entry on “Qānūn” in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, Christian Poché states

Turkish writers agree that the qānūn in its present form was introduced into their country during the reign of Mahmud II (1785–1839) by a Syrian immigrant, Ūmer Effendi, from Cairo. It would thus seem that the instrument was diffused from the area of Egypt and Syria. […]

The more recent history of the qānūn resumes at the time of the technical revolution that reached Istanbul in 1876. There is a gulf between the old qānūn and the new, the earliest examples of which were made by the Istanbul instrument maker Mahmut Usta.

In wider Turkish society, both urban and rural, Sufi ritual groups and davul-zurna drum-and-shawm bands continue to maintain imperial traditions. By contrast, I’m unclear if the kind of “art music” traditions that incorporated the kanun have survived beyond the concert platform; perhaps someone can tell me if it’s commonly part of folk ensembles around Anatolia.

Anyway, it’s a most beguiling sound—especially in solo free-tempo modal taksim, always to be relished (cf. Indian alap).

Here’s an early recording by Ahmat Yakman (1897–1973):

In her vimeo series (in Turkish) Esra Berkman profiled some masters from the senior generation, some samples of whose playing you can hear below.

Nuri Şenneli (1922–2006) (interview):

Nevzat Sümer (b.1927) (interview):

Cüneyt Kosal (1931–2018) (interview):

Erol Deran (b.1937) (interview):

Chinese parallels for the shift from folk activity to the conservatoire might be the zheng zither and pipa lute; cf. Musicking at the Qing court 1 and Amateur musicking in urban Shaanbei, also featuring the yangqin dulcimer.

If Pachelbel played the zither, it might be called Pachelbel’s kanun—to complement Pachelbel’s capon.

 


[1] For musicking in Ottoman Constantinople, note the work of Ersu Pekin, e.g. here. See also the introduction to Ottoman music on wiki, and Dilek Göktürk-Cary, “Ottoman music in travel books: a path to restructure the forgotten Ottoman instruments” (2017).

In praise of Fatma Yavuz

Fatma
(In the automatic Google translation of Turkish,
“he” and “him” should of course read “she” and “her”.)

The story of Fatma Yavuz (summed up here) encapsulates several age-old debates within Turkish society.

Born in Istanbul to a conservative family in Üsküdar, she graduated from the Imam Hatip high school there, and in 2000 from the Theology faculty of Marmara University. A devout Muslim, in 2004 she became a Qur’an course teacher for the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), teaching women and children there for fourteen years.

With cogent arguments, she disputed irrational decrees in Islam like the menstruation taboo; she sought to waive fees for children of poor families. Such rational thinking eventually led to her excommunication in 2019. She was then fired from her job at the Faith desk of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Since 2017, with the 10th-anniversary commemorations of the murder of Hrant Dink, she has come to embrace Armenian identity. Her political affiliation is with the HDP People’s Democratic Party.

Under vitriolic attack from the mainstream Islamic establishment (further animated by misogyny), the sinister charge of “insulting Turkishness” was aired yet again. As she responded nobly,

I have the manners to know that it is the minimum requirement of civilisation to respect not only one’s own but all beliefs, and to share their joys and sorrows. In this respect, I approach every belief, every culture with respect; I try to understand, and to establish good relations; but I only worship what is necessary for my own faith.

She also rebuffs the accusations more specifically.

Fatma with Orthodox

On social media she celebrates the diversity of religious experience within Turkey (Alevi, Kurdish, Jewish; Greek, Armenian, and Syriac Christians; and indeed atheism), speaking up for belittled minorities, criticising human right violations—including terrorism in the name of religion—and supporting women’s and LGBT rights.

Among expressions of support for her vision, see e.g. here. Her cause has been championed by the Freedom of Belief Initiative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Fatma cover

Now she tells the story in her book Hangi Diyanet? Bir Aforozun Öyküsü [Which Diyanet?: the story of an excommunication, 2022, reviewed e.g. here).

While one wonders if the resilient stance to which she is driven by the polarising effect of social media may be counterproductive (for some variant views, see e.g. here), Fatma Yavuz’s mission is to build bridges, setting forth from an entirely laudable desire to contribute to the creation of a more humane vision of Islam and to embrace the diversity of faiths.

Three Women of Herat: a new edition!

Herat 1
Veronica Doubleday practising a piece with minstrel Shirin, Herat, mid-1970s.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, the most recent calamity suffered by the people of Afghanistan had receded from the news; but both have heightened awareness of the trauma of conflict.

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the splendid Eland Books (“the quintessential travel publisher”, in the words of Michael Palin), they have just issued a handsome new edition of Veronica Doubleday’s classic Three women of Herat (1988), which I introduced here.

Herat cover

Having last heard Veronica singing in a cameo for the launch of Musics lost and found in the Wigmore Hall (as WAM concert halls go, rather a satisfying venue, but still rather grandiose and formal), I sallied forth to Exmouth market (clearly still a great place to be young…) for a double celebration, held at the charming church hall of the Holy Redeemer (cf. Buildings and music). Veronica led a concert of live music, her intimate singing with daireh frame-drum accompanied by John Baily on rubab and dutar plucked lutes, with Sulaiman Haqpana on tabla.

Even before she begins to sing, Veronica’s gift for natural communication is revealed in her spoken introductions, portraying the world of women—notably as evinced in their wedding songs. Of course, through no-one’s fault, for a London audience to bask in exquisite singing in a cosy venue over a glass of wine is far removed from the sufferings of Afghan women today.

Wedding bands, 1970s.

The new edition contains a section of Veronica’s evocative photos. In her thoughtful Afterword she reflects on changing recent perceptions.

Now and then “the plight of Afghan women” resurfaces, but media images tend to stereotype Afghan women as downtrodden victims of abuse and violation—a simplistic message that does not reflect my own experience.

Still, reflecting on her visit to the Peshawar refugee camps (described further in her Epilogue to the original edition), she comments:

After all, men had choices. They could take up arms and fight, they could go and find work in the city, meet new people and adapt to their new surroundings. Women had no options. They were trapped at home with harrowing memories and the psychological pain of dislocation and isolation, impotent to act against the powerful forces that had transformed their lives.

Veronica relates her sporadic access to the stories of the women she befriended: news of the 1979 uprising in Herat, the visit to Peshawar in 1985, and a trip to Herat in 1994 on the eve of the Taliban takeover. She outlines the clandestine resilience of women’s culture even during those dark years of violence and forced marriages. In 2004 Veronica and John managed to visit Kabul and a dangerous but fast-developing Herat; and in 2014 they returned to Kabul—amidst heavy security—to teach and perform at the Afghan National Institute of Music. They continue to serve as ambassadors for an endangered culture, giving fund-raising concerts to support urgent charitable causes.

You really must buy this book! And as you read, do listen to the tracks, and watch the films, in my original post.

The tanners of Zeytinburnu

Z cover

Following our visit to the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul [1] to seek the wisdom of a senior Bektashi couple, I’ve been admiring

It’s published in a bilingual edition, lavishly illustrated, with chapters on the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, holy springs and churches, lodges and mosques, the walls, health institutions, economy and demographics, and leisure.

Zeytinburnu map

I find the exemplary diachronic ethnography of the tanneries particularly impressive (cf. the cinematic climax of Jason Goodwin’s novel The Janissary tree), in the chapter on the Kazlıçeşme quarter (pp.100–153). I suppose I’m drawn to it partly by my interest in the changing social role, and technical expertise, of low-status craftsmen in China—including household Daoists, ritual artisans, coffin-bearers and grave-diggers.

In the 15th century, under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, 360 tanneries were constructed in Kazlıçeşme. The great 17th-century ethnographer Evliya Çelebi described the scene:
(here and in other citations below I’ve revamped the somewhat unwieldy English translation, attempting—not necessarily reliably—to make it more reader-friendly, while inevitably sacrificing the nuance of the original)

In the Byzantine era, people coming from plague-afflicted regions could not enter Istanbul before staying at Yedikule [Kazlıçeşme] for seven days; this was called nazarta (quarantine). After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror resettled all the tanners and slaughterhouses to this region.

[Kazlıçeşme] is a developed town by the seaside. It has one large and seven small mosques, one inn, one bath, seven fountains, and three lodges. It has three hundred tannery shops, fifty glue workshops, and seventy string workshops. But few of the inhabitants are married; it is a bazaar of bachelors. During wartime, the town can mobilise five thousand strong tanner bachelors who are tough as iron and very courageous.

People who are not used to the foul smell of this town couldn’t tolerate it even for one moment. But for the inhabitants that smell is like musk and ambergris; they don’t like it when people who put on musk approach them. They treat others with respect and honour. They have abundant property. Their spiritual master, the late Ahi Evran, asked a caliph who was passing by with his skirt filled, “What’s that in your skirt?” He replied: “It’s kuruş (piasters, coins).” But he was actually carrying dog faeces—he gave this answer out of shame. Ahi Evran even recited prayers saying, “May Allah bestow blessings on your goods and supplies”. Thanks to such auspicious prayers, the trade of the leather workers has been prosperous, and they are always generous in treating others. Moreover, a leather trader called Hadji Ali had worked with dog faeces for forty years, and the English infidels wanted to buy his supply for forty thousand kuruş but failed to do so. This is a famous story.

A vivid image known beyond the town is the relief of a goose under the arch of a fountain, carved in white marble by a master craftsman. It’s indescribable in words; when people see it they think it’s alive. Hence the name Kazlıçeşme, Goose Fountain.

Goose relief

Source: wiki.

In another account, Evliya Çelebi surveys the trade over the wider city:

Evliya 1

Evliya 2

In that last paragraph, note the reference to the furriers on parade with their own Janissary band!  Among other guild parades that Evliya Çelebi documents are those of sable merchants, falconers, leopard- and lion-keepers, barbers, and acrobats (see under Musicking in Ottoman Istanbul).

The book goes on:

People who had committed a serious crime sought refuge in one of the tanneries at Kazlıçeşme, working there so as to evade conviction and rid themselves of state prosecution. Since the tanneries faced difficulties in finding workers, they took the risk of providing patronage to criminals. Around the 1720s, this state of affairs passed to kadi registers, and the state took active measures against the brigands who had converged at Kazlıçeşme. The names of the enterprises and the workers operating in the area were recorded in an effort to stop the brigands linking up again.

123

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the founding of the Republic, the tanneries were modernised in the 1920s. The chapter gives a list of seventeen factories, as well as a further ninety-six workshops. Besides Muslim Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were prominent in the trade.

106

Some tanneries were still operating in the early 1990s. We read fascinating interviews with elderly workers. Saim Çetintaşoğlu (b.1932) gave a vivid account:

The gate of Kazli’s bath was next to the house where I was born. I used this bath a lot during my childhood, so I recall it very well. Its basins and even floors were covered with marble. At the place where the carpenter Nayır brothers make cupboards for leather tradesmen were the changing room and cooling room. In the boiler room, the water was boiled in a square boiler, using leather remnants and cobs instead of wood or charcoal. There was a heavy odour everywhere. The boiler that opens to the cross street was named Çıkmaz Sokak (blind alley) after this. In 1950s Münir Altıer rented the bath and turned it into a tannery. When he died, the bath passed to metal workers, who have been doing casting work ever since then, such as Kaplan Deri and Kemal Kurban.

Bath-keeper Srap Zehra, the bath employees, and Osman the Cook used to live in this building. Opposite, where the tanneries are located today, lived Artaki, who provided the tanners with egg white, egg yolk, and cattle’s blood for polishing purposes. Kazlıçeşme’s headman, the blacksmith Cezmi Öztemir, lived there too. In the building of Faik Cihanoğlu lived charcoal seller Mustafa and Murat Gökçiğdem, imam of the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa mosque. The two-storey wooden house on the opposite corner was inhabited by Süleyman Effendi, owner of the Safa bar-restaurant at Yedikule.

Sara nightclub occupied an important place in the lives of the Kazli tradesmen. In the evenings, tanners used to go drinking there. Bahçeli restaurant, run by Pehlivan İbrahim, which one reached by climbing down a staircase near the Castle Gate, was famous as a venue frequented by tanners for drinks. Quarrels caused by the drunkards were settled at the gate of the military police to the right of the Castle Gate. Women, drinks, and insults were indispensable passions of tanners. Those who couldn’t help having a drink during working hours in the daytime stopped by Arap Şevket’s Kazliici bar.

At the site of Celil Tanatar, at the entrance to Karakol Street, was the stable of “everyone’s uncle”, the “walking bank” Abdürrahim Gezer, who was the backer of everyone at Kazli. Gezer owned two horses, one black and one white, and a fine phaeton. Originally working in the pumping business, Uncle Gezer was a benevolent Kazli property owner, an exceptional personality who had grown up among Greek rowdies and enjoyed giving money to people in need. Fifty years ago, the carts went about their work and phaetons carried passengers, bringing women to the Kazli baths from Samatya and Bakırköy. Unlike today, the passage through Demirhane Avenue was easy.

Kazlıçeşme, 1986.

Proceeding along Demirhane Avenue, on the site of Bekir Uyguner we come to two-storey wooden terrace houses. I lived on this terrace together with my father. Next door was Kirkor’s repair-house, and next to that was the three-part casting and lathing maintenance house belonging to Kazli’s backer Rami Bey. And on the site of the present Derimko was a two-storey white wooden house belonging to Kumcu (Sand-seller) Mustafa. In the red-brick house on the site of Hayati’s tannery at the beginning of Yeni Tabakhane Street resided Mustafa Ulus, the oldest and the best known machinery manufacturer. Here the houses ended and the stout-leather factory belonging to Kamhis began at the site of Alber Beresi.

Demirhane Avenue used to end at the factory of Alekos Dulos, which extended as far as Genc Osman Avenue. Because the coast road wasn’t yet built, there was no entry to Kazli through Genc Osman. The passage was made via Yedikule Gate, and one approached Demirhane between cemeteries. To the right of Demirhane Avenue was a spinning mill run by the British; in its garden was a large pool, with water channels. There were about twenty workers’ houses in a field full of trees. From this field one could get to the Kazli train station, which was in the form of a shed. At the site of Ümit Soytürk lived Muhittin Aga.

Mustafa Ulus and Dokumacılar Inn was the vegetable garden of Hüseyin Aga and Ayşe Hanım, where delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley were grown. When her husband died, Ayşe Hanım sold the place to the Çengiçs and bought a four-floor apartment block at Aksaray with the proceeds; the Çengiçs constructed an inn in the garden and rented out rooms to textile workers.

Near the mausoleum of Derya Ali Baba (who endowed all his property to the leather tradesmen and was probably the oldest leather tradesman in Kazlıçeşme) was the Guild Coffee-shop, which passed by inheritance from him down to us. One climbed up to it by two staircases, and people sat on berths around the walls. The administrative room of the association was entered via the coffee-shop, and its affairs were conducted at the back of the mausoleum. Beside the room, under black fig trees was the garden of the association. Later, a cookhouse was opened for the garden workers, run by the late Ahmet Ahmet İşbilen. During the tenure of Cezmi Öztemir the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down and a building was constructed in its place; the first floor was rented to Yapı Kredi Bank, while the upper floor was allocated to the association. In this way, the mausoleum area was invigorated.

Beyond the Guild Coffee-shop were restaurants, the Kazli Bakery, the porters’ coffee-shop, the cartwrights’ coffee-shop, and the restaurant of Cemil the Cook. Next to Mumhane [Wax-house] cul-de-sac were Greengrocer Hüsamettin’s father Hadji Mustafa’s restaurant, Zemci the Butcher, coffee-maker Acem Şaban, and a large recreation area at the back of Kazlıçeşme. Next to that was Acem Süreya’s coffee-shop, with bachelors’ rooms at Taş Han [Stone Inn] above. After becoming Süreya’s son-in-law, Policeman Memduh ran this coffee-shop for many years. Along with Taş Han it was turned into a tannery, with the open space behind the fountain enclosed by a wall. This ancient fountain, which hadn’t failed to supply water to everyone for five centuries, was cast into the middle of the street; still, it hasn’t been offended and continues to function today.

 Opposite Taş Han was a wooden police station, rebuilt before 1950 in stone and brick by the Association of Leather Manufacturers. After the police station were wooden sheds. The Fatih Hotel was constructed much later. Aya Paraskeva on the opposite side faced Müezzin Hasan Street—it wasn’t covered by the Arkadaş Coffee-shop then. No tanneries were yet built in Müezzin Hasan Street. At the entrance of Hadji Mehmet Street was the workplace of Salih Usta the Carpenter, with his house above. Among the habitués of Kazli who were born in this house were Metin and his brother Alaettin, who carried the goods of many Kazli factories to the marketplace. In Hadji Mehmet Pasha Street was a rented property of Mehmet Pasha; when my father and his associate purchased this place, about ten or fifteen families had been lodging there.

The front of the rented property was open, giving access down to the sea from the hill 20 or 30 meters in front of it. The present Salhane Street and Kotra Street had not yet been created in the 1950s. In front of and to the right of the property, beneath oar-level, the seawater was deep blue where people entered the sea. From there, sweet water, like sweetened fruit juice, came to the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha Mosque. whose fountains supplied drinking water with a gurgling sound.

There was a square on the intersection of Müezzin Hasan ve Mosque Şerif. At the site of the present Sezai and Sabahattin Gülsever brothers was a wooden house, and just on the opposite corner was the fishermen’s coffee-shop. On the hill behind the coffee-shop customs officials worked. People went down to the sea by the side of this hut. Boats were pulled onto the sandy beach. Near Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Mosque, at the position of the present Rıza Pedük Factory, was a boathouse where boats were repaired and rowing boats could be protected when the sea was turbulent. In the direction of the fountain square of Camii Şerif Street were the stone-made houses of Greeks who earned their livelihood by fishing. Fifty years ago, the shores of Kazli were not yet polluted [really?—SJ]; an abundance of sea bass, mackerel, lobster, and hermit crab was to be caught. Tasula’s children Koço and Lambo used to go fishing early in the morning, putting their catch into willow-branch baskets and bringing it before Patronlar Kahvesi Tevfik to put on sale. When fish became scarce at Kazli, the famous fisherman Karaçivi and his son Panayot came over to our stout leather factory.

Among the cartwrights of Kazlıçeşme there were famous figures such as the theatre actors Naşit Ziya and Dümbüllü Halil, as well as İsmail Efendi, who made his fortune as a coachman. So that his stout leather wouldn’t get damaged, Fettah Koşar had his items carried in a coach until his death—how can one forget Fettah’s cart, drawn by white horses?

Also with roots in Kazli, our colleagues the leather tradesmen İsmail Ilgaz and Selahattin Ilgaz were born in houses next to the Kara Mustafa Mosque. Towards the fountain at Mosque Şerif, there were Greek houses on the site of the inn of Nusret Canayakın, Zeki Özzengin and Bakkalbasi. Right at the end, on the intersection of Öcal Street, we come to coffee-shop keeper Tevfik’s place, where tradesmen used to gather after the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down. In a sense it became the marketplace (stock exchange) of the leather tradesmen, where raw hides and stout leather were bought and sold. Fettah Koşar used to open the market and dictate the prices of stout leather, and lesser tradesmen would wait for his sales before adjusting their own prices. After business was completed in the mornings, backgammon parties and card-playing contests were held in the afternoons.

At the site of the gas station, opposite Tevfik’s, was the coffee-shop of Acem Dervisih, with tables and chairs placed around, surrounded by half-walls, with people drinking tea and coffee. This was the main stopover for workers and masters. At the back of the coffee-shop, opposite the police station, where Ergun Çelikoğlu now lives, resided Hüseyin the Charcoal Seller. Next to him lived Artin Usta the Cook, while Lambo the Fisherman lived above. Next to them was Koco Usta, the carpenter who made the best cupboards in Kazlıçeşme. Right next door was the workshop of Hasan Usta, then the best lathing master at Kazlıçeşme. Hasan Usta always shaved his head with a razor, walking the streets bald-headed; he had weird ideas, but he was a good master. Bachelor workers used to inhabit the three-storey wooden house on the site of the present premises of Türkiye İs Bank.

At the site of the Eren Depot, reached by following Demirhane Avenue up from Kazli cemetery, was a vegetable garden with a wood. At the site of the present leather tradesman Nezir or Caglar’ın yerinde was the pickaxe- and spade-factory belonging to Hanris. What remains from this factory is a stone wall, stretching all the way along. Further on, in Semsiye Street, were summerhouses and houses overlooking the sea. Kazli’s backer Rahmi Bey and İsmail Efendi the Grocer used to live in this street. The area from here up to Gemalmaz Street, and the places opposite it where Derby Lastik, Kadir Safak ve Hayriş dye-houses are found, were just empty fields belonging to Kör Sıddık the Coachman. Kör Sıddık used to live at the house at the beginning of Gemalmaz Street. Ali Rıza Efendi the Butcher, father of yogurt-maker Halik Efendi, the father of Ergun Celikoğlu, is said to have resided further on. Our colleague Celikoğlu was also born at Kazlıçeşme—his mother still lives here.

The editors supplement this fascinating account with further notes on the locations and characters listed.

127

The oldest tanner the researchers found was Nurettin Keskiniz, whose rather more technical account describes the transformation of the business:

I was born in Yugoslavia in about 1900. Both my grandfather Musa Usta, whom I remember, and my father Ahmet Usta were tanners as well. My grandfather migrated from Leskovca to Kumanovo during [the 18]93 war and practiced tannery there. After the Balkan War they became emigrants for a second time and moved to Skopje. When I was 8 years old, while I was attending the district school, I was going to the tannery. During my holiday periods, I was doing tannery work. This means I’ve been going to the tannery for seventy-six years now; that’s how long I’ve been inhaling the smell. It’s a blessing for us. To some extent, my tanner guests and friends, who’ve been visiting over the last decade since I’ve had problems with my legs and feet, bring me that smell. All tanners carry it with them and exude it.

In 1935, when we immigrated here, Turkey was a poor country, where the rate of unemployment was very high. Production of vileda at Kazlıçeşme was too backward , and there were [only] five or six factories producing it. Because we had come from Yugoslavia as free immigrants, we had brought high-quality vileda and rubber heels with us. I had the chance of selling even these high-quality items. Mahmut Bey had not yet immigrated. Worried about the market conditions of the period, I wrote to him, “Do not disrupt your system. Things are not moving smoothly here. I will return as soon as possible.” He replied, “Assume that I have not read your letter. Drop your plans of returning here. Continue to work at all costs.” Mahmut Bey was a very experienced and far-sighted man who managed to serve as a member of parliament in Yugoslavia. He was older than me. After less than a year, he also migrated with his family to lend me a helping hand. This letter incident was instructive. A few years later, there was a coup in Yugoslavia and the Communist regime was established there.

When we arrived in Turkey, the first thing we did was to rent a shop at Kapalıçarşı, Perdahçılar Avenue. We tried to create capital by selling the goods we brought from Yugoslavia. One year later, we started to dye the tanned leather that we obtained from Anatolia, on the second floor of an inn in the Kapalıçarşı Örücüler (Weavers) Market. At one point we returned to tanning and the business went well. In the meantime, I had been going to Kazlıçeşme, the centre of the leather industry. There I talked with the tanners and did some shopping. I saw that in order to continue in the tannery business, it would be necessary to settle there.

We first rented and then bought the factory building in Çapraz Street from Rahmi Gezer, who was regarded as the mobile bank of Kazlıçeşme and who extended interest-free financial assistance to tanners. When I came to Kazlıçeşme in 1937, there was a small number of Turkish tanneries here: Rasim Gürel, Ahmet İşbilen, the Çengiç brothers, Saraç Hüseyin, Fettah Koşar, Mustafa Kantarlı, İhsan Sarı’s father. Except for the Çengiçs, all of them processed raw leather. They didn’t know about chromium tanning. But we had learned how to do it while in Yugoslavia. We had been producing chromium undercoating material and chromium Moroccan leather. In a sense, we may be regarded as one of the first appliers of chromium tanning in Turkey. Afterwards, the late Tahir Öztemir, father of Cezmi Öztemir, started to process chromium vileda together with Spitzer, one of the German masters. State Railways put out to tender a project for removing fabric-covered train seats and covering them with leather, which was more durable and clean. Luckily, we won the tender and were given the work of covering all the train seats with red and green chromium Moroccan leather.

We thus proved our talents in chromium tanning. In 1944, patent leather was in demand, but only Alecos Dulo’s firm had been processing it. Because we had been processing chromium leather, we transferred Panayot Sani, the master at Alecos Dulo, and began to process patent leather. For us, the most enjoyable years in tanning were the ones spent with the sale of patent leather. In order to buy one reel, the customers used to make a deposit and form queues to buy the goods. Panayot Sani came over and made things difficult for us. In the meantime, Hasan Yelmen began practicing tanning as a chemical engineer. Patent leather was prepared by boiling linseed oil. The first thing we asked Hasan Yelmen to teach us was how to bake patent leather, to rid us of the hegemony of Panayot Sani; after a short while, we succeeded and freed ourselves from him.

Over the following years, production of stout leather increased rapidly and the golden age began. Along with this increase, the number of tanners at Kazlıçeşme went up too. I don’t know who should come first, but I wish to commemorate my friends with this list, most of whom have passed away: [24 names]. These friends of mine used to deal with stout leather production. Among those who used to work in chromium tanning were: [19 names]. These characters sum up the Kazlıçeşme of the 1940s.

Forty years have passed, and we are now in the year 1984. The outlook of Kazlıçeşme has changed almost totally. Some old firms are now represented by their offspring. What I mean by the outlook changing is that there are now more newcomers than seniors. During this transfer, this outlook will be subject to change once more. If God permits us to live longer, I think no-one from the older generation will remain.

117Later we went into partnership with Hasan Yelmen and worked together for thirty years as Nurettin Keskiniz & Hasan Yelmen Co. When Hasan Yelmen stepped in, Panayot Sani, who had been making patent leather, moved back to his place. In those days, we could do chromium baking with the double-bath technique. But Hasan Yelmen managed to obtain better results by applying single-bath chromium baking. After he stepped in, we began to process chromium leather from sheep, designed for jackets. Thus it was we who first launched in Turkey the production of leather for jackets, which is in great demand today and which brings two hundred million USD of foreign earnings to Turkey. This is an important historical account. A Belarusian master tailor named Timochenko began to collect chromium sheepskin from us and sew leather jackets. When making chromium Moroccan leather for the railways, we had been highly skilled in the application of cellulose dye. The jacket material kept people warm, so it was in demand in the winter. Also, thanks to its cellulose finishing, it was water- and rain-proof. After learning how to sew leather jackets while working for Timochenko, Sabri Aykaç and Selahattin Tuncer left the Belarusian tailor. We supported them by providing them with jacket material on credit. Afterwards, Dona da Leon also began to sew leather jackets.

First, drivers and police officers began to wear leather jackets. The centre was established at Karaköy. In particular, the crews of the steamers that docked at the Galata quay were the first serious customers. Later, State Railways awarded the contract for purchasing leather jackets for its staff, and numerous workshops were opened at Karaköy and Mercan for the purpose. Shops were opened at Beyoğlu, where finer leather jackets were sold and this business spread among the people. Then women started wearing leather jackets, coats, and skirts, which constituted the third phase. In the fourth phase we exported leather jackets to foreign countries.

Undoubtedly the most important phase began with the entry of Derimod into leather fashion. Ümit Zaim is part of our family circle because he is the grandson of my partner Mahmut Bey, and the cousin of Hasan Yelmen. I can say that it was we who developed the leather-jacket business, and that Ümit Zaim took it to its peak. I trained many staff, both workmen and masters. Some of those we trained became bosses at Kazlıçeşme: Faik Altıer was one of our masters back in Skopje. After coming to Turkey, Rıza, Halil, Münür Altıer too worked for us. Zekeriya Tabakçı had worked for us in Skopje. Sadettin Toprak and Halil Öztürk were our patent-leather masters. Emin Sez made travels for us. Rıza Pedük worked in the emery-stone trade. I was happy to see all of them becoming bosses.

What a bustling subaltern society these vivid recollections evoke, hinting at the variety of trades centred around the tanning industry—factories, slaughterhouses, glue workshops; carpenters, cartwrights, blacksmiths, charcoal sellers; landlords, rowdies; cooks, fishermen, police posts, steamers, the railways; ambient venues like lodging houses, baths, mosques, coffee-houses, inns, vegetable gardens… 


[1] In recent years, Zeytinburnu has become home to increasing numbers of Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang (see e.g. here, and here). Rachel Harris’s studies of the expressive culture of the Uyghurs have expanded to their life in exile there.

The struggle for Turkey: a revolutionary female journalist

Sertels 1930s

In Midnight at the Pera Palace Charles King introduces some progressive figures in Republican Turkey such as Halide Edip and Nâzım Hikmet. Now I’ve been reading about Sabiha Sertel (1895–1968), whose autobiography

  • The struggle for modern Turkey: justice, activism, and a revolutionary female journalist (1968; English translation 2019), tells of her eventful life before she went into exile in 1950 (see website).

Written in exile in Soviet Azerbaijan, with inevitable self-censorship, it’s ably translated by David Selim Sayers and Evrim Emir-Sayers, and edited by Sabiha’s granddaughter Tia O’Brien and great-niece Nur Deris Ottoman, with helpful annotations.

Sabiha Nazmi was born in Salonica to a Dönme family, a community of Jewish origin that had long converted to Islam. In 1913, following the loss of the city to the Greek army, she moved with her family to Constantinople, “a city lost amidst the ruins of a shattered empire”.

In 1915 she married outside her Dönme ancestry to Zekeriya Sertel. While identifying with the new nationalist, secularist agenda, they would soon take issue with the new regime. As they founded the magazine Büyük Mecmua, their house became a meeting place for progressive thinkers.

Even in her Salonica childhood, Sabiha had gleaned clues that inclined her towards feminism. By now, as she wrote,

The war had also changed the lives of women. The country’s economic collapse had drawn them into public life, despite all resistance by supporters of sharia law. Women were beginning to act in ways that went against traditional norms. A small number had even started working—for the state, commercial firms, and factories. Women wanted to show that they, too, were strong and smart enough to cope with the struggles of life.

She describes the debate over women’s education; despite the arguments of reactionaries (“ridiculous and pathetic in equal measure”), it was ruled that men and women should be allowed to study together at university.

Zekeriya was imprisoned for the first time after the Greek occupation of Smyrna/Izmir in 1919. Sabiha took over the licence of the magazine, under scrutiny from the British censors. She describes her first meeting with Halide Edip:

That same day, I went to the notary’s office and finalised the transfer of the licence. Later, when I was working in the study, the doorbell rang. It was a short, slender woman dressed in a black çarşaf.
“Who would you like to see?” I asked.
“I am Halide Edip”, she answered.
I was stunned—I’d never met her before. She’d been writing for the journal, attending the secret meetings at our house and even presiding over them. I was not allowed to attend those meetings. Still, I’d been an avid reader of Halide Hanim’s novels since my childhood and was thrilled to find her in front of me like this. I asked her in. She entered and removed the top part of her çarşaf.
“How is Zekeriya?” she asked.
“I went to see him today; he’s fine.”
She asked me whom else I’d seen in Bekirağa Prison. I told her.
“What happens to the journal now?” she asked.
“I’ll publish it myself. I’m taking over the licence.”
Halide Hanim looked me up and down. “You’re just a child,” she said at last.
“I’ll grow up eventually.”
That made her smile. She asked what we were doing for the Izmir issue, and I told her about it.
“I can write your editorials if you want,” she said, adding that she’d send me an interview on the Izmir occupation.
On her way out, she said, “Tomorrow, we’ll hold a protest rally in Sultan Ahmet against the occupation of Izmir. Come along.”

After Halide’s rousing speech at the rally, she

had become a different person. She no longer entreated the sultan, sought refuge with the Entente powers, or talked about an American mandate.

As Zekeriya was released from prison, they formed a secret cell to support Mustafa Kemal’s campaign in Anatolia. Despite her opposition to the çarşaf, Sabiha discovered its usefulness when concealing letters between Halide and the National Assembly. But censorship forced the magazine to close.

In the USA
A new Turkish intelligentsia now had to be with modern learning. In November 1919, with the help of Halide Edip, the Sertels, now with a young daughter, gained scholarships to study at Columbia University in New York—at a time when Franz Boas and his students there were revolutionising the study of anthropology.

(In the right-hand photo, Sabiha is actually first on the left)

In New York Sabiha was acutely aware of the divide between rich and poor. Studying sociology, she learned to theorise ethnic and religious conflicts, as well as gender and class. She applied such learning in an immigrant neighbourhood at the New York School of Social Work, encountering poor workers. But finding that the school’s purpose was “to restrict the activities of labour and stifle any emerging workers’ movements or revolutionary tendencies”, she became sceptical of welfare organisations.

They’d come from Europe expecting an El Dorado, braving the oceans with their families in the hope of getting rich. But America had turned them into slaves; they worked at factories day and night, barely making enough to buy food. They didn’t speak the language and had no technical skills, so they were given the hardest jobs. Their labour was exploited ruthlessly. Women and men, children and elders—they were like mules at a mill, endlessly turning the wheel. […]

They worked in gardens of Eden but never touched the fruit. There was no way out. There was no way back.

Sabiha NY 1919

She needed to overcome obstacles in becoming involved with the poor Turkish community there. Acquaintances advised her:

“You couldn’t even get through the door of that coffee house. You’d be an alien to them. They don’t like intellectuals; they’re from Anatolia, from the villages. It’s even worse that you’re a woman; they’ll never tolerate a woman mixing with men. This isn’t a regular New York coffee house we’re talking about. And there’s so much cigarette smoke in there, you won’t even be able to see what’s in front of you.”

As she received letters from Turkey describing the hunger and misery back in Anatolia, she made contact with Turkish immigrant workers, eventually winning them over to labour organisation and support for the homeland. She conducted a survey including other US cities; as word spread, she visited Detroit, where it was no easy task to organise Kurdish workers toiling in the Ford automobile factory, gingerly negotiating a path through their antagonism with the Turks. She organised fundraisers for the cause in Turkey. When she returned to the USA in 1937 to visit her daughter, she found that her initiative had born fruit.

Return to the new Republic
Now with a second daughter Yıldız, the Sertels returned to Turkey in July 1923 on the eve of the proclamation of the Republic—a time when debate was wide-ranging, over topics such as the constitution, the secular-religious balance, and women’s rights. Sabiha had an offer of working for the Society for the Protection of Children. But

We didn’t know what to do with our lives. I wanted to move to a village and found a community organisation, but like any dreamy socialist, I had no idea how to do this. Like all youngster fresh out of college, I was living in a fantasy world. All I knew was that I wanted to be useful to the newly emerging Turkey.

Zekeriya was soon appointed to the Directorate General of the Press in Ankara.

This put to an end my dream of moving to a village and working among the peasants.

Still, when she followed him to Ankara, she found that the new capital was itself little more than a village.

Ankara was simply one of the countless Anatolian towns that had been neglected since Ottoman times. My train had passed through many villages and hamlets after leaving Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul, and in all of them, I’d encountered the same sight. Wherever we stopped, children with bare feet and torn trousers approached the train, begging for newspapers, cigarettes, a single cent. Village women tilled the soil in the burning sun, their faces scorched and wrinkled despite their young age. It was in their villages that I’d wanted to work. […]

It was time to say farewell to my dreams.

Sabiha broadly supported Atatürk’s agenda, but found him “surrounded by reactionaries, conservatives, and liberals”. She now designed a social survey project (“in order to cure an illness, one must first know what the illness is”), but it was soon blocked. With Zekeriya she returned to Istanbul.

I had returned from America with fanciful dreams. I had prepared to work for the good of the people in the heart of Anatolia. But now, the dream was over and reality showed us its true face. Zekeriya told me he would return to journalism, his true profession, and proposed that I work with him. This meant abandoning my own vocation. But what could I achieve in that field anyway? Teach sociology at a school? I wanted to work in a broader setting, grapple with social issues and disseminate my learning and ideas. Journalism seemed a suitable outlet for this.

Resimli Ay

In 1924 the Sertels founded the magazine Resimli Ay (Illustrated monthly), conveying progressive ideas to ordinary readers in an accessible and engaging style, aiming “to raise the people’s cultural level”. But repression intensified, and along with other progressive journalists, the Sertels were often taken to court.

From 1928, when Nâzım Hikmet returned from Moscow, he became a regular contributor to Resimli Ay, influencing a young generation of writers. Among his protégés was the novelist Sabahaddin Ali. The magazine defended workers’ rights and highlighted peasants’ issues. Sabiha devotes a lengthy section to a trial in 1930, at which her vigorous defence resulted in the prosecution’s case being dismissed on appeal.

The circle continued debating literature and socialism. Still, Sabiha reflects: “At the time, I’m sorry to say, socialist thought in Turkey was little more than romanticism.”

Under continuing police surveillance, Resimli Ay was forced to close down early in 1931. Certain press freedoms came into operation in the 1930s, and with more time on her hands, Sabiha translated several works on socialism (this study focuses on her work as translator). Zekeriya spent another period in prison, again leaving Sabiha to continue the struggle.

Besides the internal dynamics of Turkish society, with their anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist stance a significant part of the Sertels’ energies was devoted to opposing foreign domination. But as David Selim Sayers’ lucid Introduction comments,

The internal and external threat perception of Turkey’s ruling elites helped them justify a very loose attitude—to put it kindly—towards democratic values.

From 1936 to 1945 the Sertels ran the daily newspaper Tan, continuing to argue for democracy and human rights, and struggling to oppose single-party authoritarianism—which only increased after Atatürk’s death in 1938.

In 1937, before visiting the USA to see her older daughter Sevim, Sabiha held discussions in Paris on the ominous international situation. After World War Two broke out, at a 1940 trial to vilify the poet Tevfik Fikret—twenty-four years after his death—Sabiha herself came under attack for defending him. She was forced into silence several times.

Though she described the Wealth tax of 1942 as carrying “the stench of fascism”, she seems to miss the point that its main purpose was to discriminate against non-Muslim citizens of the Republic.

Among the controversial literary figures whom the Sertels championed, Nâzım Hikmet was incarcerated from 1938 until he was released to Soviet exile in 1950, and Sabahaddin Ali was assassinated in 1948.

The postwar period
After the end of World War Two, the Turkish press “stopped defending fascist Germany and jumped on the Allied bandwagon”. But the Sertels soon found that the new stirring of democracy was only a figleaf. As Sayers explains,

Leftist thinkers and activists like Serkel, who had been persecuted for opposing Nazism and the far right during the war, were now subjected to a new round of persecution for refusing to endorse the political and economic objectives of NATO and the USA.

Tan riot 1946

On 4th December 1945 the Tan printing house was demolished by a government-instigated mob and the Sertels were put on trial yet again. Though their appeal was successful, they were under ever greater surveillance. In 1946 they were arrested. At yet another high-profile trial they were sentenced, but soon released. While in prison, Sabiha continued to conduct social research among her fellow inmates.

1946 trial

The Human Rights Association was briefly launched before being suppressed. Unable to work, the Sertels’ position in Turkey was untenable.

After all our years of struggle, we’d run out of ways to defend the nation’s and people’s cause. We’d run out of ways to speak out for peace and fight for our ideals. We were exiled in our own homeland. Our days were barren and empty; our lives were without purpose.

In September 1950 they boarded a plane for Paris. There Sabiha’s account ends.

* * *

I’m curious about the Sertels’ life after going into exile—much of which they spent in the GDR and then Soviet Azerbaijan. In 1958 they started a secret radio collaboration with Nâzım Hikmet, broadcasting from Leipzig. When Zekeriya was dismissed in 1962, he relocated to Baku, where Sabiha joined him the following year. Soon afterwards their passports were confiscated. Following Sabiha’s death in 1969, Zekeriya and Yıldız defected to Paris in 1969.

The enthusiasm for the USSR of many leftist supporters abroad was largely untrammelled by knowledge of the actual situation there. Once they lived there, the Sertels must have sensed the people’s extreme wariness; as Orlando Figes describes,

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.

I wonder how much they knew of the appalling abuses taking place, either within the USSR or with the Soviet repressions of uprisings in the GDR (1953), Hungary (1956), and Prague (1968, shortly before Sabiha’s death)—just the kind of popular movements to which they had devoted their energies in Turkey. But Sabiha must have reflected privately on having to keep her strong opinions about press freedoms to herself. *

At least she didn’t have to agonise over the tragedy of Ukraine today, or the silencing of dissent within Russia; nor, indeed, did she have to confront cases of state repression within Turkey since 2005, with charges of “insulting Turkishness”, the murder of Hrant Dink, and the Gezi Park protests. But that’s rather like wondering how Lu Xun would have reacted to Tiananmen or the genocide in Xinjiang.

For all her jargon of “reactionaries” and “imperialists”, Sabiha Sertel analyses Turkey’s political malaise acutely, constantly advocating on behalf of the most disadvantaged parts of the population, and championing free speech. Among her blind spots are the complexities of Turkey’s ethnic composition: she barely mentions her own Dönme ancestry, and gives little consideration to the plight of Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, who continued to be repressed under the Republic. Her take on religion is unreservedly negative. But all this hardly diminishes the value of her valiant struggles within Turkey—where many of the dynamics that she confronted remain today.


* See also posts under Life behind the Iron Curtain. Some time in the mid-1950s, Zekeriya and his younger daughter Yıldız spent two months on a visit to the People’s Republic of China, touring both urban and rural areas. Zekeriya seems to have been becoming disenchanted with the USSR, but in his apparent enthusiasm for the revolution in China he may have glossed over the Party’s increasingly draconian control over people’s lives there too. “More on that story later”, I hope…

A blind accordionist

Muammer

Further to my series on blind musicians, and on Turkish culture, Muammer Ketencoğlu (b.1964), based in Istanbul, is a popular performer and collector of folk music from west Anatolia and the Balkans, including rebetika. Besides fronting his own band, collaborating with a range of musicians, he has hosted the weekly radio programme Tuna’nın Beri Yanı since 1995. His website is useful, and he’s on Twitter.

A few tracks to whet your appetite (more here):

In a thoughtful interview on rebetika in Istanbul (cf. Songs of Asia Minor) he mentions the reception in Turkey of the 1983 film Rembetiko (watch here).

  • Istanbul: between Orient and Occident, playlist:

  • Ayde Mori, playlist:

  • Karanfilin Moruna (booklet), playlist:

  • From Balkan journey:

  • Sandığımdan Rumeli Türküleri (booklet), playlist:

  • On film, a trailer for Whose is this song? (Adela Peeva, 2003):

  • A TV show:

Sevdalinka:

See also Musical cultures of east Europe; and click here for Annie Proulx’s great ethnomusicological novel Accordion crimes.

Self-mortification rituals in the Balkans

Bektashi 1891 for blog
Albert Aublet, Ceremony of Rufai Dervishes (1891) (Houston David B. Chalmers Collection).

 At a tangent from Bektashis and Alevis (here and here) is the Rufai (Rifa’i) Sufi order, now most common in the Balkans.

Again thanks to Kadir Filiz, I note two remarkable early film sequences showing a Rufai lodge in Skopje performing the burhan ritual (“proof” of faith) with self-mortification (cf. Kurds, Amdo Tibetans, and Hokkien Chinese)—demonstrating both the shaykh’s charismatic powers and the worshippers’ transcendence of the mundane world. This silent footage shows a healing ritual at a lodge in 1930:

And this 1951 film—now with sound—was shown in 1955, with useful commentary:

That second footage shows the same group, in a much reduced lodge. By 1930 Skopje had just become part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia; after German occupation in World War Two, by the time of the 1951 footage it was part of Tito’s socialist state—offering food for thought on the maintenance of traditional ritual practice under such regimes, just as I find for Maoist China.

Kosovo BektashiRufai Sufis, Prizren, Kosovo.

Here’s a more recent clip of a Rufai (not Bektashi!) ritual in Kosovo, for Nevruz:

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 2: Anatolia

 

Cler sema
Alevi cem ritual, Tohal.

Further to my post on Bektashi and Alevi practice in Istanbul, Alevi ritual groups are widespread throughout rural Anatolia. As an instance, I’ve continued to admire Jérôme Cler‘s fieldwork there.

In 2003 he documented Alevi cem rituals in hill villages of Tohal in the region of Tokat, eastern Anatolia. Here’s a more extended sequence of the second video in his post:

Cler’s research in the hill villages of the southwest also extends to some fine documentation of the annual cem ritual (birlik) in the Alevi village of Tekke Köyü, sacred site of Abdal Musa, who was among the founding saints of the Bektashi, a disciple of the 13th-century sage Haji Bektash Veli.

When the diligent observer Evliya Çelebi visited the village in the 17th century, the inhabitants served the three hundred celibate mücerret dervishes of the lodge there, feeding visiting pilgrims with cauldrons stoked throughout the year.

Cler birlik

Despite later reverses, Abdal Musa still attracts pilgrims today, and the confraternity still performs regular cem rituals, led by güvende ritual specialists and bards. Cler gives a detailed presentation in this article, and on his site (with short video examples). The segments of the ritual sequence run as follows:

  • Opening:

initial hymn to the Twelve Imams
babalar semah (semah of the baba)

  • sofra (meal):

dem nefesi
oturak nefesleri (seated songs that Cler likens to Byzantine kathisma)
Kerbelâ song

  • End of the sofra and departure of the assembly:

semah of Forty;
two or four “additional” semah (these semah cannot be danced if the cem is to be finished early, as is often the case when spring approaches and brings the first agricultural work);
gözcü semah (semah of the gözcü!);
lokma
(new agape meal), hand washing and taking leave of services.

Here’s Cler’s CD Turquie: cérémonie de djem bektashi, la tradition d’Abdal Musa (Ocora, 2012) as a playlist:

For more bibliography, see my first post.

The call to prayer

Imam

Imam declaiming from prayer niche in mosque following the call to prayer, Kuzguncuk 2022.

In Turkey, whereas the rituals of Sufi groups like Bektashis and Alevis take place largely beyond the earshot of outsiders, the call to prayer (ezan; Arabic adhan), declaimed five times daily by the muezzin, is the most public soundscape of mainstream Islam.

As I write from Istanbul, it punctuates my day; even on a fleeting visit, one might soon begin to take it for granted—but whatever the varied responses of those who have heard it from birth, its impassioned free-tempo melisma accompanies the hubbub surrounding the mundane lives of people who might otherwise be impervious to the complexities of traditional makam.

To make an impertinent analogy, it’s rather as if the entire population of Europe went about their daily business constantly hearing Mark Padmore as Evangelist sing the heart-rending recitative that leads into Erbarme dich in the Matthew Passion, growing up to internalise it as the bedrock of their aural experience.

Many of the great singers of the Arab and Persian worlds came from a background of performing sacred chant, like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian in Iran; musically, “sacred” and “profane” styles are related. A general Arabic term for sacred chant is inshād (cf. China: nian “reciting”, rather than secular “singing” chang), imbued with ḥiss “a voice charged with an acute potential for relating the spiritual needs of the community to God”. [1]

Again, of course I can only get a glimpse of this vast topic, but for Turkey, the Ottoman and Republican history of the ezan is introduced here. The Republican government’s attempt to make Turkish the compulsory language of the ezan lasted only from 1930 to 1948. Here’s a 1932 recording of Sadettin Kaynak in Turkish:

Meanwhile amplification became standard, with a loudspeaker mounted on the minaret—which suggests to me that muezzin no longer need to be so fit…

This sequence features ezan from Istanbul, Bursa, and Konya:

Note also the CD by David Parsons, The music of Islam vol. 10: Qur’an recitation, Istanbul, Turkey (1997), part of an extensive series.

Meeting a wise imam
In small villages the imam also assumes the role of muezzin; in larger communities they are usually separate duties. However, at the mosque just opposite the Kuzguncuk ferry (next to Armenian and Greek churches and a synagogue!) Aydin Hoca serves as both imam and muezzin; we learned much from our meetings with him.

Aydin Hoca cropped

Aydin Hoca is an exceptionally wise and tolerant man. Born in Manisa near Izmir, he studied “Islamic mystical music” (tasavvuf müzigi) at the ilahi (“spiritual”) department of the Imam Hatip High School—he has kept in contact with Manisa, joining in events there. He furthered his studies of ilahi by enrolling at the Open University in Eskisehir. 

In 1990, aged 25, Aydin Hoca settled in Istanbul, becoming muezzin that same year at the Kuzguncuk mosque, while taking vocal and musical training with the renowned Amir Ateş at the Üsküdar Music Society, and furthering his education in Turkish classical and sacred music with Mehmet Kemiksiz. He values the inspiration these teachers gave him, as well as his overall education in morality and humanitarian ethics under Hafiz Fahri, based in Bursa.

In 1996—the year his first son was born—Aydin Hoca became imam at the mosque. He continued to receive training in solo and choral singing under respected teachers. Though offered positions as imam in more prominent mosques in the city, he prefers to remain with his Kuzguncuk parishioners.

He cites the popular expression Aşk olmayinca meşk olmaz “without love there can be no dedication” (meşk “devotion to practice”, often used in the context of music, perhaps resembling the riaz of north Indian raga). As in any walk of life, a voice can only be trained through diligence and application; oral transmission from master to disciple (usta-cirak) is crucial, as he learned through his training and now finds in nurturing his own students.

As to the Turkish branch of the vast makam family, he outlined the sequence for the five daily ezan, such as Saba for the dawn call, and a somewhat variable list for subsequent calls that includes Rast, Uşşâk, and Segah (see e.g. under this overview of “religious music” in Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul, and here).

As Aydin Hoca explained, while the maqams are important, they are only an opening. Inside the mosque, for the fourfold rekat (standing, bowing, and prostrations) the imam recites in four different maqams: Isfahan, Rast, Hüseyni, and Evic. In between the four sections, in order to “lighten” the maqams and give the congregation space to reflect, ilahi hymns are chanted.

Reminding us aptly of the wider theme of liturgical chant, the imam also notes the expression of dhikr in ayin communal gatherings at lodges such as Karagümrük Cerrahi tekke of the Halveti-Jerrahi order (many instances on YouTube under Jerrahi zikr e.g. this); here the worshippers accompany their group singing with frame-drums (bendir, def) and sometimes ney flute. He mentions the qaṣīda (e.g. here, and here), a three-part form with opening, a more expansive central section, and a calming conclusion; again, between sections they may add ilahi in various soulful moods.

Aydin Hoca stresses feeling. He often listens to early ezan recordings, “to reconfigure and order my mind.” Whereas some Muslim listeners lament “bad” or “ugly” voices, he has a more benign view, since all voices are given by Allah. But as he says, there are uneducated voices.

The muezzin are careful about the volume of the ezan: the mic should be neither too close nor too distant, not too loud or piercing; the sound must be natural. The broadcast of the Kuzguncuk ezan is linked to the central transmission of Kadıköy district. Aydin Bey decides when he wants to recite live; he often does so to keep his voice in practice. On Fridays he always chants live.

As to the ezan in the media, “everyone may recite the ezan, but first he has to be heard and recognised by the muezzin/imam.” The vocal style isn’t alien to daily life; it’s commonly adapted by pop singers. Aydin Bey considers Arabesk star İbrahim Tatlıses an important voice:

Further questions are addressed in the documentary Muezzin (Sebastian Brameshuber, 2009), based around a kind of Pop Idol competition for ezan—here’s a trailer:

Here’s an early rural fantasy from the iconic trans singer Bülent Ersoy, answering the plea of an ailing villager:

The call to prayer may be performed alternately by two muezzin (çifte ezan, double ezan), not only from different mosques (quite rare in Istanbul, though it may be heard at Sultanahmet and Üsküdar), but even from the same mosque. Here’s an instance of the latter from Izmir:

Here’s another video (which a BTL comment suggests comes from Ankara rather than Istanbul), with father and son declaiming:

And here’s a popular TV contest with çifte ezan:

* * *

The message of the text and the act of dhikr are primary; as in other sacred traditions, zooming in on the use of pitches in the various scales, and on melismatic decoration, may be largely the preserve of the muezzin—even if such details are at the heart of the ezan‘s efficacity. Its varied delivery deserves to be appreciated; clearly many of the faithful do so, rather than allowing it to become part of the aural wallpaper.

A with Kadir's mum

Augusta with community leader Saliha, visiting from İskenderun in the far south.

Curious about what the ezan means to different types of İstanbullus, I suggested a little project to Augusta. With her precious gift of rapport (cf. Bruce Jackson, Antoinet Schimmelpenninck), she relishes interacting with people in all walks of life, chatting easily with labourers, simit vendors, taxi drivers, intellectuals; pious Muslims, as well as Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish İstanbullus; men and women, old and young… Ours was a tiny sample, but I was impressed by their firm opinions on the topic; no-one merely takes the ezan for granted.

Barber Murat, and simit vendor Irfan.

Taxi driver Serkan, around 50, from Kayseri: “The ezan is imperative, denoting order. Of course I love it, as do all Muslims!” Still, “not everyone has a good voice! Not everyone can recite the ezan, I can tell you! But they recite with the voice Allah gave them. Whether it is beautiful or not does not matter. It is our call.” He feels a difference between the different makam, but is not aware of them. His wife prays five times a day, and he has started to join her a few times a week.

Another taxi driver, around 60, commented, “There is no voice so honourable as the ezan. It is the wisdom and blessing of Allah, bringing confidence.” For him the ezan “opens the heart, changes one’s outlook on the world, bringing people to their senses, to find peace”. For a simit vendor from Kastamonu it denotes honour, respect, reverence. As a 28-year-old cleaner commented, the ezan is a reminder that we have a conscience, an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, to remember any wrong-doings, and to be thankful, opening a door so that abundance and blessings may enter the home.

A Kuzguncuk barber (49) speaks with pride of his local imam Aydin Hoca reciting the ezan for the ceremony after his own birth and those of his children and grandchildren.

All mentioned the dawn ezan, finding it soothing, welcoming, a blessing, setting intention at the opening to the day. And any music that is playing must be stopped during the ezan; it is even “sinful” to play music on the radio or TV then.

Despite Aydin Hoca’s enlightened view, themes that emerged include a distaste for “ugly” reciting, and for the “cacophony” that results when nearby muezzin fail to listen to each other; the poor quality of some loudspeakers; and the “centralised” broadcasts, which are at least dependable.

* * *

Among other regions, note the SOAS “Sounding Islam in China” project, notably here (as in Germany or the UK, contrasting with societies where Islam is the dominant culture). For Gregorian and other traditions, see Chant and beyond, as well as A cappella singing. For free-tempo preludes, click here—notably the alap of dhrupad, star exhibit in my series on north Indian raga.


[1] For more, see e.g. Scott Marcus, “The Muslim call to prayer” in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.6). A good introduction to various styles of vocal liturgy just further south in Aleppo is the CD

  • Syrie: muezzins d’Alep, chants religieux de l’Islam (Ocora, 1992), with notes by Christian Poché. It opens with a solo adhan sung by Sabri Moudallal (1918–2006) (listen here; playlists devoted to Sabri Moudallal, largely featuring concert groups, including the Ensemble Al Kindi, are here and here).
    Indeed, the CD features further devotional songs led by the qāriʾ Reader of the Qur’an. Following the solo free-tempo qaṣīda is the choral muwashshah hymn, accompanied by frame-drums (listen here). The disc also includes instances of salawāt prayer and du’a’ invocation.

The Janissary tree

 

Janissary cover

As a fictional spinoff from my taste for Bektashi–Alevi rituals, Turkish crime thrillers are a substantial genre, for whose Ottoman branch I enjoyed

a most entertaining romp through late Ottoman history.

First in a series (gaily described by Marilyn Stasio as “a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth”) starring Yashim the eunuch, the novel is set in 1836 Constantinople, ten years after the “Auspicious Event” that seemed to rid the empire of the overweening Janissaries:

Once the Ottoman Empire’s crack troops, the Janissaries had degenerated—or evolved, if you like—into an armed mafia, terrorising sultans, swaggering through the streets of Istanbul, rioting, fire-raising, thieving and extorting with impunity. Outgunned and outdrilled by the armies of the west, stubbornly they had clung to the traditions of their forefathers, contemptuous of innovation, despising the common soldiers of the enemy and rejecting every lesson the battlefield could teach, for fear of their grip loosening. For decades they had held the empire to ransom.

Yashim foils a plot threatening a vengeful revival, as he goes in search of mysterious, elusive tekke Sufi lodges. The cast features grisly ritual murders, harem plots, an Albanian soup-master, a transvestite entertainer, a Polish ambassador, fire-tower watchmen, and an archetypal Russian femme fatale.

The street scenes are evocative:

A troupe of jugglers and acrobats, six men and two women, took up a position near the cypress tree, squatting on their haunches, waiting for light and crowds. Between them they had set a big basket with a lid, and Murad Eslek spent a while watching them from a corner of the alley behind the city walls until he had seen that the basket really did contain bats, balls, and other paraphernalia of their trade. Then he moved on, eyeing up the other quacks and entertainers who had crowded in for the Friday market: the Kurdish story teller in a patchwork coat; the Bulgarian fire-eater, bald as an egg; a number of bands—Balkan pipers, Anatolian string players; a pair of sinuous and silent Africans, carefully dotting a blanket spread on the ground with charms and remedies; a row of gypsy silversmiths with tiny anvils and a supply of coins wrapped in pieces of soft leather, who were already at work, snipping the coins and beating out tiny rings and bracelets.

The climax comes with a splendidly tense cinematic scene in the tanneries.

The first thing Yashim noticed, after the stench he was forced to suck down into his heaving chest, was the light.

It rose from eery columns from the vats into which, across an area of several acres, the animal skins were lowered for boiling and dyeing. Against a forest of flickering torches, each vat threw out a spume of coloured vapour, red, yellow, and indigo blending and slowly dissolving into the darkness of the night air. The air stank of fat, and burned hair, and worst of all the overreaching odour of dog shit used to tan the leather. A vision of hell.

See also crime thrillers from China and Germany; Weimar Berlin, Stasi,Russia, and Hungary, and the Navajo.

 

Bektashi and Alevi ritual, 1: Istanbul

Alevi cem 17
Sema
for Alevi cem ritual, Istanbul 2022.

In modern Turkey, a major component of the diverse Ottoman religious heritage is the ritual life of groups subsumed under the broad umbrella of Sufi dervish ritual—whose histories and evolution the dualistic language of Sunni and Shi’a is quite inadequate to encompass. [1]

Misleading taxonomies are common in world religions. With my experience of China, I think of  Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection Daoism (e.g. for Hunyuan); at folk level, even the terms “Buddhist” and “Daoist” may be problematic, such as in Hunan. And I’ll remark on further features that the Sufi groups seem to share with folk ritual practices in China.

A distinctive strand here is the practice of Bektashi and Alevi groups. [2] While I’m in Istanbul, haughtily eschewing the sanitised stage shows of “Whirling Dervishes”, commodified for tourists, I’m keen to attend a ritual. The devotional religious groups engage in activities with a certain discretion, so—quite properly—they don’t readily offer access to impertinent outsiders. But while they have also gone into partial lockdown since the pandemic, cem rituals are still being held.

I’m merely trying to get a very basic handle on this topic; perhaps my superficial foray below will suffice merely to show how immense it all is—so readers who actually know about it can look away now

* * *

In both their doctrines and ritual practices Bektashis and Alevis, now commonly associated, have indeed long had much in common. Both, for instance, worship Ali (son-in-law of Muhammad), the Twelve Imams, and the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli, and both emphasise the Four Gates and Forty Stations. They make an annual pilgrimage in August to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli at Hacıbektaş in central Anatolia.

To simplify historical nuances of doctrine and terminology that elude me, Alevism is a general belief system with ascriptive identity, whereas Bektashi is an order in which one can enrol. Some scholars have distinguished rural Alevis and a more educated elite of urban Bektashis.

As Caroline Finkel observes in Osman’s dream,

The devotional practices of mosque-goers and dervish could be accommodated side by side in one building, and many mosques today associated with Sunni Islamic observance once had a wider function, as a refuge for dervishes as well as congregational prayer-hall.

In Ottoman times Bektashis were closely linked to the Janissaries; they went into decline after the latter were suppressed in the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 (Osman’s dream, pp.437–8):

Prominent members of the order were executed, and Bektashi properties in Istanbul were destroyed, or confiscated and sold, or converted to other uses. […]

The practice of affiliation to more than one dervish order was so common, and the attempt to eradicate Bektashism at this time so vehement, that sheiks of other orders were also rounded up and sent into internal exile. Largely because of their infiltration into and acceptance by other orders, however, especially the officially-favoured Nakşibendi order—on whom their properties were bestowed—the Bektashi were able to survive clandestinely, and by mid-century they were again finding favour within elite circles.

Following World War One, despite the Bektashis’ supportive role in the War of Independence, Atatürk outlawed such Sufi groups in 1925; since then (by contrast with the recent commodification of the “Whirling Dervishes”) their ritual activities take place discreetly, since some Muslims still consider them heretical. The main base for the Bektashi sect is now in the Balkans and Thrace, notably Albania.

Although some Alevis claim to be Bektashi, the eliding of the two is quite recent. As our encyclopedic Kuzguncuk neighbour Kadir Filiz observes, the problematic term “Alevi–Bektashi” was coined by Mehmet Fuat Köprülü (1890–1966) in his work on Sufism; he also applied the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox” to Islam, recently deflated by scholars like Riza Yildirim (who encapsulates his detailed historical and field studies here and here; also in English, see e.g. here). By the late Ottoman era, as the militant, rebellious kızılbaş “red-heads” [3] were perceived negatively, popular parlance began replacing the term with “Alevi”; but under the new Republic, Alevism came to be associated with radical leftist views.

Lodges and houses of gathering
The situation became further politicised from the 1950s, when Alevis from rural areas of Anatolia began migrating in large numbers to major cities like Istanbul. There they used long-dormant Bektashi tekke lodges as cemevi (“houses of gathering”) [4] and formed local associations, named after their native region; since the 1980s the cemevi have been rented officially, and younger generations have come to refer to them as Alevi–Bektashi lodges. As both context and ritual practice have been modified, this has also been a period of an “Alevi renaissance”, reaffirming identity against the dominant culture of Sunni Islam.

The urban cemevi now have an ambiguous status. In modern Istanbul they often serve partly as social centres, but many rituals are also held in private homes; one dede leader told us that well over fifty cemevi are active there. [5]

State suspicion of the Alevis has been heightened by the presence of a significant Kurdish component among them, making them yet more vulnerable to attack—with serious incidents since the 1960s and 70s, such as massacres at Maraş (1978), Çorum (1980), and Sivas (1993), amidst tacit government connivance. While Alevis make up a substantial part of the Turkish population, at home they may be shunned by their neighbours, and at school children still have to keep quiet about their heritage.

Ritual practice
Along with migration, ritual change has become a major research topic (see Catherine Bell, Ritual: perspectives and dimensions, Chapter 7; for China, see e.g. Guo Yuhua, and north Shanxi).

Alevi studies are thriving too. Alongside the insights of Riza Yildirim (see above), I note works such as

See also e.g.

Such studies lead to a wealth of further research, both historical and ethnographic. [6] Meeting practitioners in Istanbul, I’m also reminded of how much material (including audio and video recordings) is shared online by such groups, who maintain regular contacts with their fellow-believers around Anatolia and Thrace.

As with the Islamic practice of the Sunni majority, Sufi cem (djem) communal rituals are performed with the general purpose of dhikr (remembrance, reminder). While in most Sufi orders women are rarely allowed to participate in rituals, in Bektashi–Alevi practice men and women worship together.

Sites such as this outline the annual cycle of Alevi cem rituals; they may also be held for initiation, commemoration, vows for good health, for joining the army, and so on. Langer summarises the sequence of an individual Alevi ritual thus: after a preliminary “discussion” (sohbetmore commonly muhabbet) by the presiding dede, and symbolic court case (görgü), the main service (ibadet) consists of a sequence of prayers (both solo and choral) to the Twelve Imams, hymns to the Twelve Duties, prayers of repentance, and invocations, concluding with an ecstatic sema dance. Sipos and Csáki (pp.53–66) give a detailed account of a full sequence of Bektashi ritual segments, which I summarise:

  • animal sacrifice and preparations
  • arrival, settlings, furnishings, lighting of the candles
  • “secret” section, including reconciliation of grievances (cf. the Uyghur mäshräp?)
  • sequence of nefes hymns
  • tripling (üçleme), with toasts
  • supper
  • pleasant [rather, instructive] conversation (muhabbet)
  • further sequence of nefes
  • semah whirling
  • closing prayers and blessings.

The ritual leader (dede/baba) presides, flanked by a bard (zakir or aşık), who leads the vocal liturgy accompanying himself on a bağlama long-necked plucked lute.

In orthodox Sunni ritual, even melodic instrumental music is considered unsuitable—just as in Chinese temple Buddhism and Daoism (cf. A cappella singing). Indeed, in China one’s search for “religious music” can easily be misled by such a narrow association (see Unpacking “Daoist music”, and The notation of ritual sound). As long as ethnographers pay attention to soundscape (still, alas, quite a tall order), our main theme should be ritual in society (note Michelle Bigenho‘s thoughtful comments).

Sipos and Csáki mention the collection work of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), reminding me yet again of China:

In the Turkish folk music stock of the TRT, numbering over 4,500 items, there are sporadic tasavvufı halk müziği or “folk religious” tunes, usually under the generic label of “folk song”. [footnote: The TRT repertoire contains the variants approved by a committee of the tunes officially permitted for publication. The committee often makes changes on the tunes before printing, first of all modifying the words not deemed appropriate.]

In China I have expressed grave reservations about UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (see this roundup; note also Rachel Harris’s critique of their programme for Uyghur culture, in particular the mäshräp). For Turkey UNESCO has adopted the “Alevi–Bektashi sema ritual. This film could do with more documentation:

But their outline sums up the issue:

In Turkey, each and every inhabitant of the State is held to be Turkish and Sunni. If Alevis are not Sunni, how then can they be Turks? Since such a notion is inconceivable to many Turks, there is only one possible answer: since Alevis are Turks, they are also Sunnis. If this were not the case, they would become a danger for the Turkish nation and State. Consequently, research on Alevi religious rituals is potentially problematic both for the stability and security of the State and for the Turkish national psyche. To sum up, a large-scale education programme is needed to build bridges of communication between those belonging or not belonging to the Islamic world—Alevis, the Turkish Sunni majority, and the authorities, who usually perceive social reality through Sunni lenses. Future educational projects and campaigns should not concentrate solely on Alevi culture and religious rituals, but rather on folk culture and rituals in Turkey seen as a part of contemporary Turkish culture.

A Bektashi cemevi in Zeytinburnu
Despite my profound ignorance, local practitioners are most welcoming. On the European side of the Bosphorus, in Zeytinburnu “outside the walls” (now also a fragile home for many Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China) we visited a senior Bektashi couple at their apartment, where they hold regular cem gatherings.

Bektashi altar room

Bektashi Bahtiyar baba (on ritual sheepskin) and ana bash.

Bektashi baba and his wife (known as ana bash “leader of the female section”) were both born in Edirne in eastern Thrace, he in 1953, she in 1952; they mainly spoke Turkish. Their ancestors were all devotees. His parents had come to Edirne from Bulgaria in 1950; his father was also a Bektashi baba. Their families moved to Istanbul in the late 1950s.

BB on baglama Sipos and Csaki

Bektashi baba accompanying a cem. From Sipos and Csáki 2009.

He referred us to his solo recordings of hymns with bağlama plucked lute, featured in many YouTube playlists under Bektaş Bahtiyar, e.g. here.

An Alevi ritual in suburban Istanbul
In the distant southern suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we attended a weekly ritual at a well-appointed Alevi cemevi, consulting the wise Erzade Özgür dede (b.1983) and his wife Songül ana, who also possesses estimable ritual knowledge.

Before the pandemic struck, over a hundred devotees would take part in the cem; currently around twenty gather—male and female, old and young, all wearing their ordinary clothes, including the dede, who sits on the sheepskin with a mic, flanked by the zakir. He delivers a long opening muhabbet in his normal voice—instructive, personal, relaxed but serious—with occasional contributions from the congregation. The main participants at the meydan ritual arena tie red or green sashes at the waist, with two young men taking a staff; the gatekeeper holds a staff too.

After the muhabbet of over an hour, the zakir strikes up on bağlama, also amplified. His instrumental taksim leads into a nefes hymn; then another speech, and another song, as an 80-year-old Kurdish elder lights a three-candle electric candelabra. The congregation is now getting involved, with cries of “Allah Allah!”, then call-and-response.

The assistants remove their socks before blessing the carpet and unfolding it. Water is poured into a bowl while chanting, going round the congregation to ritually cleanse their hands and faces. Three women bow with a brush; more call-and-response; longer group chanting. All prostrate as the volume rises; kneeling, the worshippers all beat their thighs to a little suite of nefes with bağlama. The mood is ever more ecstatic.

Alevi sema 7

Another speech as all prostrate again, another bağlama song, then sema around the carpet with two men and two women, barefoot. They stand on the edge of the carpet to bow to the dede, who invites others to dance, with two more men joining in. With the three main dancers, slow and fast nefes alternate, accelerating wildly. The dancers bow again.

Then the women silently brush the carpet while bowing. The simple lokma food offerings are blessed. After another brief discussion, the candles are extinguished, the carpet replaced.

All this helped me appreciate the different roles of the twelve hizmet duties or services (cf. guanshi in north China, assistant to the huitou leader), such as çerağcı supervisor of the candles, süpürgeci sweeper, and selman provider of water for ritual washing.

Alevi cem group pic

Erzade dede A couple of days later, taking the Metro to the southern terminus, we were invited to supper at the couple’s apartment, along with a bright young disciple—another instructive and delightful evening. Erzade dede’s family brought him to Istanbul when he was 3. He was chosen by his grandfather at the age of 13—his father wasn’t a dede—and he sometimes commuted to Ankara for further instruction. After military service, and the death of his mentors, by his late 20s he was already taking over ritual duties. Having learned in his youth to sing nefes while playing the bağlama, now (like many urban dede) he leads the ritual alongside a separate zakir. He is a respected community leader.

An Alevi–Bektashi lodge in Kadıköy
On Sunday afternoon the following week we went to the Göztepe district of Kadıköy to visit an extensive and imposing Alevi–Bektashi dergâh lodge, rebuilt openly since the late 1980s. A throng of devotees were gathered, visiting the tombs in the grounds and seeking blessings from the dede for their young children and sick relatives, offering lokma. Accompanying himself on bağlama, a zakir sung a wonderful nefes hymn for us in praise of Abdal Musa (see sequel to this post), disciple of the 13th-century patriarch Haji Bektash Veli. I look forward to returning for a regular ritual at their fine cemevi.

See also Alevi ritual in rural Anatolia.

* * *

Alevi ritual in the diaspora
The whole history of Bektashis and Alevis—before, during, and since the Ottoman era—is one of migration over a large area. Scholars such as Robert Langer explore the transfer to the wider diaspora in recent decades. The documentary Heavenly journeys (Marcel Klapp, 2015) illustrates Alevi ritual life in Germany, with comments from older and younger generations:

Note also Tözün Issa (ed.), Alevis in Europe: voices of migration, culture, and identity (2017), introduced here. And for Alevis in Toronto, see Ayhan Erol, “Identity, migration and transnationalism: expressive cultural practices of the Toronto Alevi community (2012). [7]

 

Setting forth from the guidance of Kadir and the diligence of Augusta,
with gratitude to wise Bektashi–Alevi elders!


[1] For the transnational picture, see e.g. The Routledge handbook on Sufism (2021); for a basic outline of Sufi orders in Turkey, see e.g. here, and for Ottoman Constantinople, here (a useful site). Kadir Filiz directs me to the classic study Richard Gramlich, Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens.

[2] I adopt the common form Bektashi rather than the orthography Bektaşi. For the Ottoman social-political context of Bektashi orders, see Caroline Finkel, Osman’s dream; brief mentions that may pique one’s interest include Bruce Clark, Twice a stranger, pp.187–90; Mark Mazower, Salonica: city of ghosts, pp.81–2.

[3] For a casual connection, cf. “red-head” Daoists in Taiwan, e.g. Kristofer Schipper, “Vernacular and classical ritual in Taoism”.

[4] Again, cf. folk hui assemblies/associations/sects in China—by contrast with officially-registered “venues for religious activity”, where only a tiny amount of overall ritual life takes place.

[5] This article includes a list of 64 cemevi in Istanbul (cf. historical photos of the tekke, and this introduction; for architectural features, and more vocabulary, click here). On politics, see e.g. Tahire Erman & Emrah Göker, “Alevi politics in contemporary Turkey” (2000), and sources cited in this post under “Ritual practice”. For the wider religious background since the founding of the Republic, see here. As I write, yet another round of the Alevi Federation’s dispute over the exorbitant utility bills suffered by the cemevi is under way, hinging on its attempts to gain status for them as places of worship.

[6] For briefer introductions to Bektashi ritual and music, see e.g. here; wiki has articles on the Bektashi order, Alevism (here and here), Alevi history, and sema / sama.
For Thrace, in Janos Sipos and Eva Csáki, The psalms and folk songs of a mystical Turkish order: the music of Bektashis in Thrace (2009; 669 pages, consisting largely of transcriptions and lyrics with translations), note “The religious ceremony” and “The music of the Bektashis in Thrace” (pp.38–77). Jérôme Cler’s introduction to the topic for Anatolia is enriched by videos and further links; see sequel to this post. My taste for ritual sequences is amply displayed in the many posts on local ritual in China.

[7] For Mevlevi practice in Germany, see Osman Öksüzoğlu, “Music and ritual in Trebbus Mevlevi tekke (lodge) in Germany” (2019). Among a profusion of Sufi groups around Turkey and elsewhere, the Mevlevi order (founded by Rumi, with its centre at Konya) enjoys a high profile, notably for its association with the “Whirling Dervishes”.

A stammering Byzantine Iconoclast

Left, cell where Methodios was imprisoned; right, Michael the Stammerer.

In classic guide-book lingo,

No visit to [Istanbul] is complete without a visit to [the Princes’ Islands].”

So we took a pleasant boat trip to the Islands (Adalar, as they’re called with casual familiarity) in the Sea of Marmara just south, long home to Greek and Jewish communities. The jaunt introduced me to the Byzantine (and byzantine) story of Michael II (770–829), who rose through the military ranks to become emperor, continuing the Iconoclastic movement. It was in a dingy dungeon on the island of Burgazada (Antigoni) that he imprisoned St Methodios. As described by Edwin Grosvenor,

In 821 Michael the Stammerer became emperor. Having attained the throne by assassination and violence, he was naturally fitted for the role of bigot and persecutor. With fanatic ingenuity he devised new tortures for the adherents of the icons. Methodios was recognised as their most learned leader. The emperor ordered that he should be struck gently seven hundred times with a whip. The prolongation of the punishment was the refinement of its cruelty. Then, unconscious and apparently lifeless, Methodios was thrown, together with two murderers, into a deep pit at Antigoni. Bread and water were let down daily through an opening above. When one of the murderers died, his decomposing body was left in the pit to render the horrid pit still more revolting. Meanwhile Methodios worked day and night to convert the survivor. Michael died after an eight years’ evil reign, and his son Theophilus succeeded, as iconoclastic but less inhuman.

Methodios was eventually released under Theophilus, but was publicly scourged and imprisoned again before becoming the emperor’s inseparable companion.

Antigoni

The island of Antigoni (Burgazada).

Anyway, although it’s good to know that Michael’s im-p-pediment didn’t im-p-pede his career, he transpires not to be a great role model—it just goes to show that not all stammerers are reticent and benign… But at least I can now add him to my list of famous stammerers from Moses to Marilyn Monroe, and from Deng Ai to Gu Jiegang.

My Turkish vocabulary has hitherto been limited largely to the word inzivar “recluse”, some obsolete Ottoman musical instruments, and terms for segments of the Bektashi–Alevi cem ritual, none of which get me very far when I’m trying to ask for a tube of toothpaste. But it has increased with the pleasingly onomatopoeic kekelemek, “stammer”—opening with a fiendish double plosive. For some more staggeringly inappropriate vocabulary, see Language learning: a roundup, notably That is the snake that bit my foot. Cf. Pontius Pilate, and the mad jailers.

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.

A recent scholarly panel offers a critique of the series:

See also Ethos: one of a kind.

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, by way of

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 (see also Fatma Yavuz).

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 (see also here). 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 of 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 (click here for a fine study by Amy Mills).

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.

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol complements this account:

Mehter musicians who became a member of the organisation of the imperial mehterhane in the 16th century were divided into two groups: official and unofficial mehter musicians. As part of the kapıkulu system, official mehter musicians served the palace and high-level Ottoman officials. Therefore, it is possible to claim that official mehter musicians were professional paid musicians of the state. Evliya Çelebi states that these musicians played music three times a day, mentioning the music they played prior to morning ezan (call to prayer) and following night ezan at Yedikule, Istanbul and the Demirkapı building built within the palace by Fatih Sultan Mehmed. Çelebi adds that some similar music was performed in thirteen towns [districts] of Istanbul that has famous towers such as the Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower) and Kız Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower). Moreover, it is known that there was a group of unofficial mehter musicians who were affiliated to mehterbaşı (head of the band) and who lived as a crowd in small towns surrounding Istanbul, even though they did not represent the Ottoman empire officially.

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 (sources seem to suggest 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. For an engaging fictional fantasy, see The Janissary tree.

* * *

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://istanbultarihi.ist/599-mehter-in-istanbul-during-the-ottoman-empire?q=mehter
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. Landscapes of music in Istanbul; 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 Alevis. 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 (see also here).

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 under the west/Central Asia tag.

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.

Musics of Crete

Crete first

The music of the 1960s often appears on this blog—notably the BeatlesMotown, and so on. But meanwhile traditional genres were continuing to adapt; and since I also feature Mediterranean musicking (for island delights, see Sardinian chronicles, and Sicily under Italy: folk musicking), I’m reminded of the musics of Crete. *

As ever, these are largely village traditions for festivities, handed down in the family, based in dancing (syrtá, kondylies, and so on) and sung mantinades couplets. [1] Though audio recordings can’t reproduce the spirit of taking part, compilations of archive recordings can be evocative. I relish

  • Cretan musical tradition: radio broadcasts 1960–70 (3-CD set, Aerakis/Cretan Music Workshop, 1996),

featuring lyra (cf. Middle Eastern kamanche) or violin, with laouto lute and singing.

Lyra players, 1961: left, Nikos Xilouris; right: Vasilis Skoulas. 

Along with the pleasures of the recordings, the liner notes offer a window on the lives of musicians through the travails of the modern era (for more biographies, see here).

Often they came from family traditions in rural Rethimnon, spending periods in Heraklion and Athens, sometimes touring for the diaspora. Musicians include Giannis Dermitzakis (Dermitzogiannis) (1907–84) on lyra and violin, also the author of popular couplets satirising post-war Cretan society; and the blind violinist Giannis Papachatzakis (Stravogiannios) (b.1905)—here he is playing syrtó from Chaniá:

PapadakiIn a highly macho society, the only woman performer here is Aspasia Papadaki (b.1932), the first female lyra player in Cretan music. At the age of 14 she made her own instrument; though her widowed mother persuaded Aspasia to play violin instead, by 1960 she found that she could only record for radio if she reverted to the lyra (see below). Here’s a track:

And here she is on violin, and singing, in later years:

Going back further,

  • Oi protomastores 1920–1955: Kritiki mousiki paradosi (10-CD set, Aerakis, 1994) and
  • The first recordings of Cretan music: original recordings made between 1940–60 (Greek folk and popular music series, 6) (Aerakis), sadly not annotated (some clues hereapart from naming the performers—mostly on violin: Dermitzogiannis, Pantelis Baritantonakis (also heard on the 1920-1955 set), Yannis Papahatzakis, and Georgis Lapokonstantakis.

Here’s the latter CD as a playlist:

As radio broadcasts and festivals on stage came to dominate the media, videos of musicking for local festivities are not easily found on YouTube, although judicious searches using the Greek alphabet may yield more results…

* * *

For all Crete’s long history of Venetian and then Ottoman occupation, the use of violin or lyra seems to have been mainly regional until the mid-20th century. What we might not notice at first when listening to such recordings from before and after 1955 is that the choice became a hotly-contested ideological issue. As we learn from

competing myths now came to portray the lyra either as bearer of the true Cretan and Hellenic identity, or as an inferior Turkish importation.

Thus the violin became an unlikely casualty in the whole troubled story of Greek–Turkish relations. Whereas it had long dominated in western Crete, the ideologically-driven musicologist Simón Karás sought to rescue Greek music from “the tastes of people who play heinous foreign music that feminises and stupefies the youth”—a common lament among dictators, such as Salazar and Mussolini (cf. foreign music in Tang China). So in February 1955 (just before the Istanbul pogrom) the violin was banned from Chaniá radio station, to the “bewilderment and outrage” of locals.

The renowned violinist Kóstas Papadákis (1920–2003) mounted a spirited (if equally polemical) defence of the tradition.

tells his story in revealing detail. Forced to keep on the move by the risk of vendetta (a disturbing feature of Cretan and other Mediterranean cultures), after making a living on the Athens rebetika scene during the war, he returned to Chaniá in 1953, and continued to adapt while resident in the USA from 1959. But after returning to Crete in 1976, he no longer “recycled himself”, instead engaging in vehement cultural resistance against the violin ban. Here he is:

Though the ban still remains in nominal effect today, the violin did resurface on the radio from 1983; but by then most musicians and audiences had accepted the dominance of the lyra. Anyway, the association of Cretan music with lyra is a rather recent fabrication.

For a less ideologically-driven audience, the choice of violin or lyra may seem barely relevant: in many world traditions, indigenous bowed lutes and Western violins can sound equally idiomatic (e.g. in Indian, Uyghur and indeed Turkish musics). Listening to the 1940–1960 tracks, what I’d have imagined as a more likely target of cultural ideologues is not the choice of bowed fiddle, but the use of simple Western harmonies in the plucked accompaniment.

It’s always worth considering Bruno Nettl‘s wider taxonomy of musical change. Argyro Pavlopoulou cites Ross Daly, who considers tradition an illusion: rather than a body of material from the past, it refers to the internal dynamism of a music which develops in time—while it’s not a restricted system that cannot include new components, the novel elements should be compatible with the pre-existing system. 

Gauhur JanGauhur Jan accompanied by harmonium, 1902.

Meanwhile in India, the violin had long been popular in Carnatic music, while in the north, sarangi still dominated as accompaniment to the voice, so there seem to have been no principled assaults on the violin. Instead, over the course of the 20th century some singers began to favour the harmonium, threatening the livelihood of sarangi players, which prompted it to be banned from All India Radio from the 1940 to 1971. Though the sonic differences between sarangi and harmonium were more striking than those between the Cretan violin and lyra, the impetus again came from ideologues rather than performers. [2] 

For the kemençe in Turkey, click here. For now I’ll resist exploring the lyra style of the island of Karpathos… Anyway, you get the idea: the diversity of Mediterranean musical cultures is to be treasured. See also under west/central Asia.


[1] Some useful sources in English, with further refs., are Kevin Dawe, Music and musicians in Crete: performance and ethnography in a Mediterranean island society (2007) and “The engendered lyra: music, poetry, and manhood in Crete”, British journal of ethnomusicology 5 (1996), as well as Argyro Pavlopoulou, Musical tradition and change on the island of Crete (2011).

[2] See Matt Rahaim, “That ban(e) of Indian music: hearing politics in the harmonium”, Journal of Asian studies 70.3 (2011).

* On a lighter note, do read the wonderful story from Captain Corelli’s mandolin. This post on Crete marks an improvement over my previous coverage of Greek music, limited to the bouzouki in the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch. I have at least explored the rituals of Mount Athos; and now, see under Songs of Asia Minor.

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 performances of dervishes 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.

See also Some Kurdish bards.

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).

Cf. the Rufai order in the Balkans, and Sun dance rituals.

Reviving culture: the Yazidis

Lalesh April 2019

Lalish, April 2019.

Among all those who suffered under ISIS, the Yazidi people, and particularly its women, endured most appalling traumas. [1]

Yazidi 1920s

Sinjar, 1920s.

With most Yazidi populations living in north Iraq, they are ethnically Kurdish, speaking Kurmanji dialect; major locations include the pilgrimage site of Lalish and Mount Sinjar to the west.

map

While the fate of the Yazidis under ISIS is shocking, they have long been persecuted, with massacres during the Ottoman empire and tribulations under Saddam. For social and religious change over recent decades, suggesting the region’s troubled history and complex economic and political context, do watch this documentary by Eszter Spät, filmed on the eve of the genocide, about the ritual tour of the sacred peacock standard—with the hymns of the qewwal ritual specialists accompanied by frame-drums and flutes:

For the oral tradition, see e.g. here, and for a detailed textual study,

  • Khanna Omarkhali, The Yezidi religious textual tradition: from oral to written (with CD-ROM, 2017).

Under the ISIS regime the Yazidis were executed, abducted, enslaved, raped. With many survivors now in displacement camps, refugee communities are also quite widespread, such as in Germany and Nebraska.

In extremis, culture may lie dormant (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, and the ongoing onslaught on the Uyghurs), or adopt exceptional forms (cf. the Cultural Revolution in Tibet). Now a project from the AMAR Foundation is working with Yazidis to support and document their musical culture, and earlier this month they brought a group of male qewwals and female singers to England to perform for select audiences in Oxford and London (see e.g. here and here).

While media coverage tends towards clickbait headings like “rescuing ancient music”, suggesting an unspoilt, pristine culture destroyed by a single apocalypse (cf. China), the Yazidis’ fate under ISIS is but the latest and most extreme instance of their persecution.

And music is not a thing, it’s what people do. So as AMAR recognizes, the whole maintenance of Yazidi culture is part of a complex long-term endeavour, depending on the rebuilding of communities with a modicum of stability that require ceremonial and entertainment activities and have scope to practise them. Cultural foundations may play a certain role, but most of what such societies need is beyond their powers. The task is not to become the latest flavour-of-the-month on the world music bandwagon; foreign tours can help promote their international profile, but the regeneration of Yazidi culture depends on their’ own efforts in their homeland, and in the camps where they have been relocated. This was filmed in July 2019 at Khanke displacement camp, Duhok:

As Bruce Jackson observes about “salvage” fieldwork, it’s always too late. The fate of the Yazidis may be an extreme case, but much of this applies to the cultures of the diverse ethnic groups and communities throughout the war zone. For instance, what will become of the rich musical and ritual culture of Aleppo, whose fall is so movingly documented in For Sama? And alongside traditional music, popular genes (rap, hip-hop, and so on) are a major part of the identities of such ethnic and political groups.

For Kurdish ritual culture, see here.

 

[1] On wiki, see here, and for Yazidi religion, here. Apart from the outstanding journalism of Channel 4, I also admire the sincerity of reports by Stacey Dooley; in this programme she spent time with an all-female Yazidi battalion. Among numerous media articles from before and since the 2014 genocide, see e.g.
https://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/03/world/bashiqa-journal-a-sect-shuns-lettuce-and-gives-the-devil-his-due.html
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/07/who-yazidi-isis-iraq-religion-ethnicity-mountains
https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-09-12/photos-yazidi-women-undergo-rebirth-ceremony-after-isis-enslavement

 

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, Zithers of Iran and Turkey, 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.

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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 runni