Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Newroz Piroz be--And Happy St. Patrick's

It’s been a long time since I posted anything—I haven’t felt much like writing lately. Maybe it’s the winter. If that’s the case, then yesterday’s Newroz celebrations in Istanbul should have broken the wicked season’s spell—I’ve jumped the proverbial Newrozian fire.

For those overseas: Newroz is the traditional Kurdish holiday to welcome spring and has become quite the political flashpoint in recent years. Then again, in Turkey, what doesn’t? The big hullabaloo this year is an argument over the spelling—Yes, spelling. According to crazed nationalists—patriorts--spell it Nevruz and it shows you don’t hate Turkey’s martyrs, spell it Newroz (with the evil Kurdish W!) and it showsy you are a crazed terrorist.
The devil evilly typing the evil W into every noble Nevruz

Last year, Newroz celebrations were forbidden by the government and police blocked access to transportation as far away as the ferries in Kadıköy. The usual chaos ensued—with one man losing his life to police tear gas cannister. The official Newroz celebrations are set for March 21st in Diyarbakır—and it’s going to be a big day this year because that is the day the Kurdish BDP party announces their vision for a peace plan after long negotiations between them, the government, and Abdullah Öcalan. Okay, it’s a long story—but the most ridiculously hopeful think that it could all mark the beginning of the end—the end of random arrests and of all official oppression as well as the end of the guerilla war that has gone on for 30 years. I don’t enough about politics to speak (comfortably) much about it, but let’s just say, this year, Newroz carries a great deal of weight.

Diyarbakır—unofficial capital of unofficial Kurdistan--is being given the exclusive for the official celebration, so other cities like Istanbul chose to celebrate on the weekend—for us, that meant March 17th.

We caught the ferry from Kadıköy, across the Marmara and Golden Horn to Eminönü. Then from there, hopped the commuter rail from Sirkeci station—a train I’ve only ridden one other time in my five years in Istanbul. It runs along the ruins of old Byzantine walls through neighborhoods of rickety but grand Ottoman and Greek houses that are heart breakingly picturesque, but have seen better days. We got out at Yedikule—the stop for the fortress of torture where the Sultan’s enemies used to rot before being killed and tossed into the sea. From the moment we exited the train, there were huge crowds, a river of people flowing past the fortress, through all the side streets to the Kazlıçesme fair grounds. Tens of thousands of people.

I’ve gotten kind of accustomed to this—but the walk to the fairgrounds is historically stunning. Through the old Greek and Armenian neighborhoods, past the ruins of the Imperial Byzantine gate, along the thousand year old city walls and then down to the fairgrounds. It was nearly a half-mile walk and was packed with people the whole way. Then the fair ground itself was bursting with bodies. The fences set were swelling outward with people and every inch of space was crammed with human beings—they even stretched vertically with lots of people climbing the ruins of an old mosque. Every free space was full. During election year, the AK party filled this space and claimed it held over 200,000 people. I suspect their calculations (made according to how many human bodies could fit into a square meter of land), but I wouldn’t be surprised of that’s how many were there yesterday. Or more—they spilled out into all the side streets after all.

Picture borrowed from Yuksekovahaber.com--gives you an idea of the crowds. Go to the website for more.
All the woman were gussied up in bright colored dresses with silver bangles and head dresses of the Kurdish colors green, red, and gold. There were purple fistans and orange ones and men in the olive green of the mountains. Every member of the Turkish left (an alphabet soup of political parties. Really, it’s best just to nod and smile and sing something pretty in your head when they start naming them all). You had your usual stupid young men climbing the towers that held the speakers and hanging from the rafters with Kurdish flags. Tons of people were dancing the halay, music was blasting between the political speeches and towers of cotton candy were floating over everyone’s heads as vendors wove in and out of the horde. People sold hot köfte sandwiches from carts and the smell of roasting meat filled the air. Some one lit a fire and, feeding it with plastic bags, led a group of boys in the Newroz tradition of fire jumping.

But what everyone was really waiting for were the political speeches—this is the year things are changing. And it was in one of these speeches that something interesting happened, something that made me want to pick up my pen. I was standing in the mud, shivering in the cold, when the speaker who was trying to introduce the Kurdish Party’s chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş, said the word ‘Martin Luther King’ into the microphone. He then quoted the famous ‘I have a dream’ segment of King’s eponymous speech.  He ended with King’s geographic call to the four corners of the American continent:

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

Then he began the speech again, substituting this time the cities and towns of Turkey for those of America. Let freedom ring from the plains of Anatolia, let freedom ring from great river valley of Mesopotamia. Let freedom ring from the lake of Van. And I got chills, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. This could very well be history in the making, and the connection to another history that greatly affected my life and my home was electrifying.

I thought of my trip home, this winter, to Washington DC. I stood at the top of the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. It was an extraordinary day, strangely warm and sunny. At the spot where King stood during his famous speech at the March on Washington is a marble block carved with his name and the date, August 28, 1963, ‘the hallowed spot to remind us of the fierce urgency of now.’ I had just stood on that marble block and imagined myself addressing a crowd of tens of thousands on that historical day (I remember the crowds from the video—millions it seemed stretching from horizon to horizon with their banners and their children on their shoulders—just like now in Istanbul) and as I rested on the top step I saw a young black man coming out of the shadow of Lincoln’s statue. He was dapper in a fedora and long coat and carried g a Bible—obviously the preacher of a Baptist bus from Louisiana I’d seen parked down the road. He was very careful in placing his feet on either side of the block, as if measuring the exact place King’s own feet would have touched and then he square his shoulders and looked out over the Washington Mall. I heard him say to himself, ‘So this is where it happened! This is what it feels like!’ He couldn’t stop grinning. And I knew why. I had imagined the same thing myself not five minutes before. And now on this cold Newroz in Istanbul, fifty years later, another group of people who marched to this place compare themselves to the people who marched on Washington that day. From other cities, we heard of attacks by nationalist groups, people disappeared even, and yet here they were, these two hundred thousand with their flags and their optimism and their music facing decades of systematic repression, here, at the ‘thresshold of freedom’ at long last.

We are all skeptical of course. The people on the other side of the negotiating table are still making random arrests, my father in law is still in prison along with all his friends. But we are hopeful.

After the rally, we went to the apartment of a Conag villager in Kadıköy, where the neighborhood of Yeldeğirmeni (Windmill) is a defacto Little Conag. A bunch of ladies were at the house and as the only male in sight every morsel of food available somehow found its way to my plate—a feast of Turkey and lavash and celery root and afterwards, rice pudding. And they talked—in Turkish—about the loss of their mother tongue. One woman told me how, when she was a girl, she had understood nothing of school. She failed the 2nd grade and only later learned enough Turkish to pass.

‘They’d beat our hands with sticks for speaking Kurdish,’ she told me. ‘And it wasn’t just at school either. We were supposed to spy on our friends. And on our families, too. If anyone spoke Kurdish we were to report to the teacher.’

Dede, our trusty granddad, added his two cents, or kuruş. ‘I remember the teacher would line us up and look at our tongues. He said he could see the Kurdish words on our tongues. We believed him because they say ‘mother tongue’ you know and so of course you could see it on our tongues!’

‘We have no strength as a people,’ the first woman said sadly. And then our host reminded her of where she’d just come from, the rally of hundreds of thousands of people, and said ‘We’ve found our strength.’


Anonymous said...

Hah! I like how they're quibbling about the spelling. My Iranian student in the writing class I teach wrote a piece about "Newroz".

In any case, beautiful post. Hints of hope. As you were talking about the gathering and speech, I started to get goosebumps and my eyes began to water as you began to recite out MLK's words. Though cynical, I hope things turn around soon. You never know.

We'll be in Europe in May, and I hope to get to Istanbul for a few days.

Thinking about you on this end.

Anonymous said...

PS: Happy Newroz :-)