Monday, May 2, 2011


I have a good, fairly tightly organized piece coming up about wedgies and genocide, but until then, I would like to offer up this messy bit about May 1st—International Labor Day. This is not a holiday that the average American knows about—which is a bit odd since it started with us. I had somehow associated it with the founding of the Communist Party and Soviet Russia, but it actually commemorates the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago way back in 1886 when police fired on demonstrators who were holding a strike for an eight hour work day. The Turkish left celebrates in a huge way. Today, more than a million people converged on Taksim Square and sang leftish fist pumping marches in Turkish and Kurdish, gave (to my mind) rather longwinded speeches, waved banners written in Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian, and of course, danced the Halay. I was one of them.

I am not sure I can say Delal comes from a leftist family—but her father is definitely leftist and he brings home the political bacon, thus not going to the May Day celebration would be a bit like my family not celebrating Christmas. The trick is, of course, that it’s been forbidden in Istanbul for quite some time. Last year was the first time in decades marchers were allowed in Taksim—May Day, like most everything else remotely interesting, was made illegal after the coup of 1980.

Our cortege was the BDP—the Peace and Democracy Party which is made up mostly of Kurds. Yes, ‘cortege’. I had no idea what that was either, and yet that’s the word in the Turkish English dictionary for kortej and it baffled everyone why in the hell I couldn’t understand what it was. It’s in the damn dictionary! I am rather left leaning American—far left for a good many of my relatives, and yet in the rest of the world that means I’m slightly right of center and so I am pretty unfamiliar with the jargon of demonstrations. The cortege, if you wallow in decadent capitalist ignorance like I do, is the column you march with. Your comrades. The BDP are new this year because they didn’t exist last year. Before that they were the DTP (The Democratic Society Party), and before that the DEHAP (The Democratic People’s Party) and before that...well you get the idea. The Turkish government has a fun time banning the Kurdish party and making it reshuffle its initials to incorporate under a new name. This year is special though, because, as I explained in the last entry, several of their candidates were banned from the elections a few weeks ago (and reinstated after bloody protests) and the turnout today was meant to be a show of solidarity and strength—the triumph of democracy and all that.

We woke up at eight in the morning. Delal’s grandfather wakes with the sunrise and was impatient with all of us ‘young’uns’ sleeping the day away. He was very excited. When I came out of the shower he’d turned on Roj TV—a Kurdish channel broadcasting out of Denmark--and explained excitedly to me about the post-coup days when the Kurdish language was formally forbidden. ‘Imagine!’ he said. ‘You can’t teach your own children their mother tongue!’ Grandfather had attended last year’s celebrations when Delal and Zelal marched the 81 year old villager up and down the hills on the European side for nearly six hours. While visions of workers of the world uniting danced in the heads of most, sore legs and feet danced in Grandfather’s head. Our ‘You coming with us?’ was met with a wave, a shove out the door, and ‘Have a nice time!’

We had a light breakfast and then hit the street—me; Delal, and her sister Zelal. Down at the wharf we met their cousins Yağmur and Yasemin, along with two of their friends, then took the ferry across the water to the European side. I was just a tiny bit apprehensive. The Turkish May Day has a checkered history. There was a massacre in 1977 where over thirty people died in a stampede. Some blame the police, some the Maoists, some (as always and maybe with a ring of truth) the ‘Deep State’ and CIA. Plus demonstrations just two weeks ago had been met with tear gas bombs (over 200 on Istiklal alone) and water canons, and rightwingers were angry with the Kurds. Moreover, the TV that morning had announced some39,000 security forces deployed around the city. (Before we left, I had asked Delal, with a bit of my smarmy American humor, what we should do if we were hit by tear gas. ‘Rub lemon in your eyes,’ she’d answered with a straight face, then pulled a lemon from the fridge, and put it in my hands.)

The streets around leading up to Taksim were closed to traffic and empty except for Gypsy musicians on the drum and zurna trying to make a buck (or a lira) off the people winging their way up the hill toward the square. We passed through the first police checkpoint—men and women were divided up and frisked. I was patted down by no less than a line of twenty policemen who formed a sort of tunnel of uniformed groping arms and fingers. I felt like I had just finished a little league baseball game and was tagging the other team’s players.

On the other side was a man standing on a barricade holding a fountain pen high in the air, turning it left and right, and clicking the top. Now in Turkey, everybody’s got a conspiracy theory—you can tell a lot about a person by knowing what group they secretly believe is controlling the country—but I couldn’t quite figure out any reason for this man to be clicking a pen in the air except that he was a plain clothes security agent taking not-so-secret photos of the crowd.

There was a huge stage next to the Marmara Hotel (from which shots were fired in ’77)—flags and banners and plankards were everywhere you looked—red and yellow and more red and a couple of blue ones. A gigantic banner of a socialist realist worker with giant arms covered the Ataturk Culture center. The main flag bearers were DİSK (The Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey), who had organized everything (as they had in the 70s) and marched around in smart Che Guevara berets, patrolling the crowd. There was also KESK (The Confederation of Public Workers' Unions)—a Union with affiliates all throughout Europe. The Worker’s March called, I guess, ‘May the 1st’ blasted from every speaker and each band that took the stage lead with that song so that by the end I had memorized it and now cannot drive it out of my head even—I suspect—with a chainsaw lobotomy.

Bİr Mayis! Bir Mayis! Işçinin emekçinin bayramı

Bir Mayıs! Bir Mayıs! Işçinin emekçinin bayramı

Or in Kurdish:

Yek Gulan! Yek Gulan!

Or in English:

The first of May! The first of May! The holiday of workers and laborers!

Granted, the lyrics are not all that poetic but the music is rousing enough. I felt dropped into a socialist rally right out of the 60s. The Proletariat unite!

I must stop for a moment and say something rather personal—Delal was particularly gorgeous today. She chanted and belted out songs and danced and pumped her fist to slogans—this must have been how Woodstock felt—only without the sex and drugs. She was filled with such energy and life and enthusiasm that it made her whole body glow. I felt I had caught a glimpse of her in her early twenties. And her black hair and black eyes were breathtaking—maybe it was something about the long awaited warm weather stirring my blood.

We joined a halay going on in the middle of the square. I don’t quite get the politics of the halay. It’s a folk dance found, in one form or the other, all across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. When I tell my students at the elite richy school, they sneer and smirk and make disparaging comments. It‘s like telling your friends on the Harvard crew club that you do line dancing. I get the impression the dance, like everything else here, marks your politics in some way. People on the left (Kurds, socialists, the intellectual poor, bleeding hearts and artists) dance the halay. Or rather I should say ‘Pull.’ In Turkish, you don’t use the word dans but rather halay çekmek which means ‘pull the Halay’ or even oyun oynamak which means ‘play the game.’

In the middle of our Middle Eastern socialist line dance, we ran into one of my old students (how I will never know, given the two million pushing shouting people thronging every nook and corner) and together we cleared a space and pulled halay like taffy on carnival day.

Engin is Kurdish and an activist and was delighted at my T-shirt which I had bought in Diyarbakır. It has a picture of a dengbej singer on the front with the G and B in caps standing for ‘Gigabyte’ to commemorate the legendary mnemonic powers of these Kurdish story tellers. Engin has just finished starring in Press, a movie about the harassment of reporters from Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda). It’s hitting the international festivals soon, and I highly recommend it. Engin plays Alişan, the young reporter who gets shot in the end (that’s not much of a spoiler—almost no one on the newspaper staff survived the nineties—it’s the whole point of the film).

Engin and I were talking about the strange religious reverence for Ataturk in Turkey. ‘When I was a kid,’ he told me, ‘I remember my preschool teacher telling me that Ataturk lived inside all of us. Well I imagined a tiny little Ataturk clone living in my stomach, so for three days I wouldn’t drink any water because I thought it would drown this Great Man Who Saved Us All and my parents had no idea why I had suddenly gone mad. That’s how deeply these ideas infect you, and how early they start!’

I thought this was a very funny story and not particular indicative of any dangerous idolatry, yet Engin was deadly serious. And of course, to be honest, though this seems like some cute anecdote of how mixed up kids can be, at the same time another friend’s two year old daugther is being taught to memorize her basic shapes which apparently include a circle, a square, a triangle, and Ataturk’s profile (she triumphantly identified the strange shaped blob next to the triangle on her homework paper to the bafflement of her American mother), and, sorry if this offends you and makes you want to shoot me, or insults your whateverishness, but it’s weird. Just profoundly freakishly weird. And as one offended Turk said, ‘You will never understand because you are not a Turk!’ I have to agree-- a cult is often incomprehensible to the people outside the cult.

We ended with a picnic under Galata Tower, the 1st of May March still echoing in my head. I kind of have a special relationship with Labor Day—I was born on it, the first Monday in September in the United States at least (I am not sure my mom ever thought of the pun on ‘labor’—she celebrates by showing me the scars on her stomach that mark the C-section that brought me into the world—‘See, this is what you did to me.’). And despite its rather homely associations with picnics and veterans parades and the opening of football season, it was once a celebration of America’s Worker until our own Red Purges, I suppose, made suspect any sympathy with the working stiff. (In fact in 1949 May 1st was proclaimed rather unsubtly ‘Loyalty Day’) Our US Labor Day commemorates the massacre of demonstrators by Federal troops during the Pullman Strike and was set up by then President Grover Cleaveland to placate the fury of the labor movement. You still get your occasional wacko and foreigner trying to get them some May Day stuff going in America—but like with our system of measures—I am sure they will never get it changed to fit with the rest of the world.


Jeff Gibbs said...

An addendum: The latest conspiracy crazy--it ain't just the Turks. I found a couple of Websites that claim that A: Osama Bin Laded died in Tora Bora in 2001 B: That all the tapes, bombings, etc. since that date were engineered by the U.S. to justify the Iraqi operation and, my favorite part in all this, and the part that relates to the above article, C: Obama announced Osama's death on May 1st so he could trick the U.S. into celebrating the communist holiday of May 1st (and also the Witch holiday, Walpurgis night!)

Stephen Freer said...

Hey Jeff, love the new picture. Glad you made it out ok. Of course, you know that Osama died of kidney failure six years ago, and we have fozen him untill now. And he studied at an American military school with George Bush which is why they are such close friends (and business partners). This is why he wasn't killed until the Obama administration...I mean he wasn't killed because the picture is fake. I mean the reason they didn't release the fake photo is because they he isn't dead. At least that's what my students tell me.