The other night, Delal and I strolled down İstiklal Avenue for the first time in months—unprecedentedly relaxed among the ever-present crowds and hullaballoo that usually sends us both into the fetal position, shivering in a ball right there in the middle of the promenade. We were feeling so good that we popped into a türkü bar and after a few melancholy songs from the East, the singer broke into something much jauntier and we leapt up and let loose with a spirited halay.
It reminded me of West Virginia.
That’s right. Of our Kurdish square dance in Helvetia.
Helvetia, West Virginia is a small village up in the mountains, an hour’s drive from my mother’s hometown of Buckhannon, which is already up in the mountains by virtue of being in West Virginia. The tiny two lane road winds and curves up through forest and farmland—past barns, deer, wild turkeys, lazy cows and a small tavern in the woods that should be located anywhere but this twisty road lined with dangers. We were heading to Helvetia for a festival celebrating Swiss National Day.
|The Creek--leads into the Buckhannon River eventually|
Some random facts about Helvetia. First of all, it’s smaller than most villages in Turkey—a fact I like to flaunt because it always silences people here who see all of America as an urban Frankenstein consisting of CSI teams in Miami and New York. ‘In Turkey, we have rural places…’ Oh yeah? Try this-- according to the US Census of 2010, Helvetia sports a population of 59 people. A flip through the year book revealed a graduating class of 2—the whole high school had a total of nine kids and that’s only if you count from the ninth grade. The village was settled after the Civil War by intrepid Swiss immigrants including the ancestors of my Uncle Keith (not really my uncle, but the husband of my mother’s first cousin which in Turkish or Kurdish I’m sure has a specific word, but we just say Uncle.) Uncle Keith has a book published for one of his family reunions that describe the journey across the mountains. Harrowing is the word. They walked up through the forests without roads or signposts—dragging all their worldly goods along with them. And, yes, maybe to people who frolic among the Alps, the old, worn-down Alleghenies didn’t seem like much more than pleasant hills--but moving a home on foot in this country would not be the easiest task in the world for anyone. It would involve scaling large boulders and small cliffs, forging straight up hill for years through blackberry briar and poison ivy, and no doubt fighting bears.
In the dance hall there are yellowed pictures of these early days--of men with enormous two-person saws cutting lumber in the forest, and of a rather robust woman in a Sunday dress holding up an enormous tom turkey whose plumage looked like the hoop of a giant skirt (In fact, at first I assumed she was holding up a young woman by her braids—turned out to be the Turkey’s neck). The community has kept alive a lot of Swiss traditions which is what today’s festival is all about.
I say festival—this word undoubtedly conjured up images of game stalls, dunking booths and perhaps even midway rides in my American family’s minds. For my Kurdish family, I suppose that there were teeming crowds of people milling about several music pavilions. But when we pulled into the village we found that ‘festival’ in the Helvetian dialect meant a line of 4 tables, a grill, and about fifteen people in a meadow—20 if you count the folks manning said tables and grill. To be fair, that’s over a third of the population. Not that more weren’t on their way—a guy pulled up in a truck shortly after we did and the taciturn guy cooking the Bratwurst said that he was sure their yodeler was coming, though no one had heard from him in months.
We got a plate of Swiss National Day food—which included a bratwurst, sauerkraut, and spinach dip with corn chips. Delal loved the sauerkraut. She had already fallen in love with hot dogs, so the idea of pairing them with this wonderful new pickled cabbage was magical. We ate our dinner in the meadow—the village’s answer to Taksim Square. Now Helvetia is a very green place in summer. The color is electric—it sparks off the trees and grass. The forests surrounding the village are so thick with foliage it looks like an emerald fog hangs over the hills. There’s a brook that winds through the village sporting one pensive duck who peers fiercely into the water as if seeking enlightenment (Note to visitors: the duck really hates to be disturbed, even with bits of bread, and will use violence) They even have a log cabin library, which amazed our Kurdish visitors who come from a city of over 15 million people where I can think of not one genuine public library that anyone uses.
The woman at the cash register promised that the music and dance program start at six, so we took our places on some benches lain out in front of a little stage set up in the middle of the meadow, ate and waited. Soon a troupe of men and women in red Swiss National Day shirts separated from the ‘crowd’ and climbed the steps together with a guitarist (and in doing so, halved the potential audience). The emcee was a thin woman named Sandy with hair down to the back of her legs that she kept wound on the back of her head like a failed attempt at a cinnamon bun. ‘Unfortunately,’ Sandy the emcee announced, ‘The yodeler doesn’t seem to be coming this year so we will have to make do with this modest little chorus.’ She asked where we were all from. Someone shouted ‘Clarksburg!’, another ‘Pittsburg!’. I shouted Turkey, and helpfully pointed to Delal and her sister. Sandy threw up her hands and gave a cheer for Turkey.
What followed was an hour of Swiss folk music in German with a lot of wisecracks bandied about between songs. One of the songs was a melancholy melody about a Swiss immigrant longing for the mountains of home. I think this one moved my wife quite a bit. The performers apologized for not being in traditional costumes, but it was just ‘too dang hot!’ At the end of the concert, two men brought out a pair of alphorns the length of a mammoth’s trunk and created what passed rather well for a melody by spit-blowing into something the size of a rocket ship. Next came the folk dancers—I think the entire high school participated—but needing more people to make the various reels work, they rounded out the group with some of the older folk and a man forced into labor as soon as he climbed out of his pick-up (summoned there, no doubt, five minutes before by an emergency phone call). Before his arrival, Sandy had shouted in an ominous voice, ‘Let’s make the Turk dance!’ Meaning me.
Now since coming back to Istanbul—among the 21 mosques surrounding our house screaming the ezan into our windows at 120 decibels five time a day, the car horns that never ever stop, the tens of thousands of buildings that spread out in all direction—the dancing and singing on the quiet Helvetian meadow is a pleasant memory that wafts like green smoke drifting in from another world—the sunlight, the people, the smell of grilled wurst and mountains.
After the dancers had finished, it was dusk. Fire flies had started blinking along the creek, the duck broke his silence and let loose some frantic quacking, and the sky had turned a bright flamingo pink. We were invited to the square dance at 8 o’clock up at the dance hall, and when that didn’t seem to capture our interest sufficiently, the locals added that there would be some polka and waltz as well. ‘And maybe,’ said the Emcee who had suggested they make the Turk dance, ‘You all could teach us some of your dances!’
The dance hall was an old wooden building just up the road—it had the look of a barn or church. A huge ornate spider web covered the entire south section of the small picnic area. The little arachnid clearly had some free time and my wife and her sister spent a long while snapping pictures of its handiwork. The band had already assembled inside—a piano player, a fiddler, and a guitarist.
The night started with ‘round dancing’—a term used for single couple dancing, I guess as a counterpoint to square. Our round dance was the polka. Now that word, to my mind, always conjured images of a busty girl with a beer stein doing kicks as a boy in lederhosen went to town on an accordion—but all the old folks of Helvetia--and my mother--could cut quite a rug with the polka. (‘Oh yes,’ she would say, tossing aside the cane which she used to accentuate her pained cries of I just can’t walk anymore at all! as she struggled to cross the ten feet from , for example, the car door to the Walmart entrance.) ‘We used to dance the polka all the time in high school!’ Who knew? The German influence round these parts is thick and sneaky—it pops up in the random memories of family members all the time but no one outright says or even seems to know that this comes straight out of Deutchland. My mother polkaed me up and down the hall for song after song. (This polka trick of my mom’s was rather curious. All day she had been hobbling around on her cane worrying frantically about how in the world she was going to, say, make it from the car door to the picnic table which was a frightening twenty feet away, and now she was swirling round and round the dance hall clearly having forgotten the cane existed)
After the polka came the square dance.
Now you Americans out there have to push the image of elementary school PE classes out of your minds—where teachers who had run out of ideas made kids dosey do till they dropped to a caller from a cassette tape. Folk culture is far more alive in Turkey. At my wedding, hundreds of people spent literally hours dancing the halay, and I am constantly being asked if there were any folk dances in the United States (with everyone secretly and smugly confident that I’ll be forced to say no). Heck, sometimes they answer ‘No’ for me. I even catch other Americans saying the same thing. And yet, I would dare say that by high school, a higher percentage of American kids have square danced than kids in Turkey have done the halay. I had to teach my middle school students the halay for God’s sake, so I was excited for Delal to take part in a square dance and finally see that yes, Virginia, there is an American folk dance. And by the way, according to an article I unearthed, the square dance is uniquely American if only because it combines a European style of dancing with modifications by African Americans (supposedly the caller might have popped out of African call and response music traditions.) So there’s another thing we owe to black folk.
Now apparently there is an ‘Appalachian’ style of square dance, which we were doing that night. One distinguishing characteristic was live music. Another was that we danced in a giant circle of couples as opposed to small sets of couples. This involved a lot of confusing ‘going round the ring’ where you had to make your way through every last person in the room all while doing some fancy step or another—and since many of us had either no idea what we were doing or else had been outside with the man at the house next door sampling the moonshine, this proved no easy task. One result of this sort of thing is that you almost never spent time with your original partner. Another distinguishing characteristic probably contributed to the chaos of the second—namely, the dance is very informal and ‘lessons’ are often given on the spot. There are some unique figures as well like ‘dive for the oyster’ where one couple raised their arms and the rest of us dove through in an effort to tangle up in a hopeless mass. (Actually once—after several disastrous attempts--we were able to completely reverse our positions and then dive for the oyster a second time to set them right again.)
At the end of the dance set, the woman from earlier asked Delal is she would teach the crowd a dance from Turkey. ‘Our musicians are pretty good,’ she said. ‘They’ll pick up a tune.’ So up went my wife to teach the trio the music to ‘Oy naze naze’ by Siwan Perwer. What ensued was perhaps the most improbable melting pot of cultures I have ever seen—here were these Swiss descendants in a circle, holding hands as my Kurdish wife took stage next to the Appalachian fiddle player. She launched into song, and did it in an improvised call and response style—like the old Africans—so that we dancers sang the chorus (Oy Naze Naze!) after every line. Meanwhile, some of the men in the group stumbled a bit due to their imbibing of moonshine. One of the participants turned out to be a Japanese woman—either married to a local or else teaching at the college, I can’t remember which, who I bet never thought she would be buzzed on moonshine while dancing to a fiddle and singing in Kurdish the lyrics of a man exiled from Turkey.
Afterwards, they taught us one of their Swiss folk dances—the Weggis, which I thought perfectly captured the spirit of the US. The Weggis was created not in Switzerland, but in the States, by nostalgiac immigrants who put together in one dance all their favorite moves from the ones they remembered from back home. The nostalgia of immigrants creating something new out of culture brought from the homeland—quintessential USA. Our teachers were very patient and kind and by the end we could do all 5 figures competently enough, perhaps, to perform next year.
West Virginia felt like home to our Kurdish visitors—the tightness of community there, the sense of family and tradition, and the way the best news agency is a nosy neighbor. A few days after our night in Helvetia, we were at a birthday party and a man I had never met before came up to me and said, ‘You must be the folks from Turkey who taught that naze naze dance up in Helvetia’
‘How in the world do you know?’ I ask. ‘We’re you there?’
‘Naw, I got a friend who lives up there and his wife told him about some people from Turkey who taught them all a folk dance.’
‘News travels fast.’
‘Round these parts it does.’
Now if all of this seems unrelated to what I've been writing about--it's not entirely. Nevermind those little human similarities that kept making us smile over and over--the way news travels by gossip so quickly, the dancing in a circle, the warmth of the Helvetians. Imagine, also, two Kurdish women from Turkey coming to a country and watching a group of people have a national festival that celebrates a different nation than the one they live in. They wave the flag of that nation, feel proud of their heritage in relation to that other country, and sing songs in another language other than the main language of the State (I would write 'official' but there is no officially mandated language--not yet). And yet no one arrests them. No one calls them splittists. In fact, people just come to watch out of curiosity.
All in a region of the country traditionally isolated by its mountains and historically often at odds with the government because of it.