Monday, April 20, 2015



At the height of excitment, when the music is so frenetic you need quantum equations to describe all the things your feet are doing, you shout this word if you’re a man. It means simply ‘Go!’ in Kurmanci. The last syllable only fails when your breath does.

(If you’re a woman, you let loose with an ululation that shatters glass.)

I am talking about the dance called ‘govend’—a dance as vital to a Kurd’s identity as their language. For Kurds, in my experience, dance at every opportunity—at festivals and protests, at home and on the way home, in sickness and in health. Wherever music is played—and it’s played everywhere—someone’s going to leap up, grab a few others and break into a govend.

A govend in Ovacık, Dersim

I used to run into it everywhere I went with Delal and though I managed to learn the basic steps of the slower dances, it knew it was imperative for me to take a course to catch up with what years being in the middle of her own culture had taught my wife. I was not going to be on the sidelines forever. But no course was forthcoming it seemed—none that focused on the Kurdish dances of the Southeast at least. And then we saw the poster in a cafe in Kadıköy—Kursa Govend—offered at one of the culture centers that have popped up since the Gezi protests in 2013.

I have a “liberal” Turkish friend at school—let’s call her Aleyna. Aleyna’s a middle-aged woman who seems more up to speed than most on the issues of minorites in her country. And so when I excitedly told her over lunch one day that I had started taking a course in the ‘halay’, the Turkish word for govend, I was surprised to hear her laugh. ‘What in the world is there to learn? You should take Salsa or Tango or something.’

I had assumed, drawing from my experience among my inlaws, that absolutely everyone in this country were fanatical dancers of the halay. But I found out rather quickly that most Western Turks at least, look at it as, say, a Boston Harvard grad would look at mudslinging in a pick-up truck (which is fun by the way). I was more surprised by the reaction of my school’s service bus driver, Mehmet. Mehmet is a young Kurdish man from Kiğı, the same region as my wife, a place where people wake and sleep dancing the govend.  When I told him I was taking a class in Kurdish folk dance, he furrowed his brow and said, “What in the world is there to learn from our dance? You should learn the Black Sea horon or something like that.”

Well Mehmet. This blog is for you. There’s a lot to learn from Kurdish dance, the first thing of which is politics. Your answer alone, in a nut shell, demonstrates the effects of a hundred years of assimilation if you ask me. If it belongs to us, you’re saying, it must suck. Try something Turkish—that’s real culture.
Enough politics.

The basic concept of the govend is this—at weddings, protests, and pretty much anywhere two or more people gather, folks join hands in a line as someone plays a rhythm on the davul (drum) and a zurna, an oboe-like wind instrument. A radio or iPhone will do if davul and zurna are not handy. Everyone performs the same steps which vary in complication and generally get faster and faster until all but the best dancers drop out. The first in line is called the “head” and is the leader. He or she commands what steps are done at what speed and when. The head flourishes a handkerchief which is bright colored—among Kurds it tends to be red or yellow. Sedat, the young teacher of our course, said that the handkerchief was a symbol of a piece of flame taken from the fire people used to dance around. The Kurds, eons ago, were Zoroasterian (possibly) and many of your more nationalist Kurds seem to want to reclaim that heritage. And indeed there seem to be a lot of Zoroasterian remnants in many areas of Kurdistan—prayers to the rising sun and moon in Kiğı, for instance, also a reverance for fire. Anyway, the head waves and brandishes the handkerchief just as the flame itself would flicker from the embers.

A govend at a village wedding in Xiwek, Kiğı

For my people in the American South, maybe it would be easiest to say the govend is essentially an ancient line dance of great variation and I have seen people from all over the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Western Asian doing some version of it—Armenians, Arabs, Israelis, Greeks, Turks, Turkmen and Kurds. In Kurdish, the word for this dance is ‘govend.’ And Sedat insisted that we call it the ‘govend’, for the dances he taught are specific to Kurdistan (he says) and so it’s going to be ‘the govend’ from here on in. And if you are non-Kurdish and want to argue over who owns the copyright to this dance, all I have to say is, ever ask a Southerner who makes the best barbecue? To the outsider Kansas City and North Carolina might all be meat with sauce on it, but child please.
If any of you have any doubts as to how hard this dance can be, I just want to give you a bit of a video introduction.

Here’s a video of the şewko—go on, y’all. Grab a friend and give it a whirl.

And here’s another type of govend from Iğdir—these girls are doing the most basic of all versions. Think you can spin quickly from the şewko into this?

That basic dance step in the video of the Iğdir girls is the Delîlo (Üç Ayak in Turkish which means ‘Three Legs’ though I couldn’t begin to tell you why, as it’s done on a count of four with two legs.) According to our teacher, the word Delîlo has no special meaning but is made up of three exclamations heard in Kurdish dance and song—‘De!’ ‘Lê!’ ‘Lo!’  The best translation might be ‘Oh Hey! Hey!’. It’s the easiest of all the dances and I’ve known the basic moves since the first few weeks I met Delal. You can learn the footwork in a second (though the finer subtleties are lost on most people) and it’s the one that laymen usually think of when you say the word ‘halay’, which is probably why so many people think the class I am taking must be so laughably easy.

Essentially, you link hands, often hooking pinkies, and take four steps forward then four steps back and to the right, all in synch with everyone else. That’s it. But one essential trick that I learned while doing this basic step and that I had not known previously is—you’ve got to bounce. Your legs should never be straight. Your body keeps the time by spring-bouncing to an 8 count rhythm as you move through the main steps, so that while your feet are going “1, 2, 3, 4” your knees are going “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”. Learning this bounce makes all the more complicated dances a lot easier later on and ensures that your shoulders and hands bounce as well, an essential component to the flair of any good govend dancer.

The Delîlo is a good primer on why the govend is actually quite difficult—the synchronization among a large group is hard. The difference in rhythms between the body and feet is hard. Okay, in the Delîlo your feet are moving to a count of four while your body is moving to a count of eight—that’s rather easy, but later on feet can be going to a count of four while the music is to a count of six or the music is a count of eight while your feet move to a count of 6, or feet to a count of pi (3.1415...) while the music is to a count of e (2.71828...). And then, of course, the coordination of hand movements and feet movements can get tricky—like the old pat your head and rub your stomach routine.

Here is a rather dorky video that explains the footwork in zombie like monotone but still, it gives you an idea (Try to imitate the Iğdir girls!). Notice how the woman bounces—critical, and yet the instructor in the video does not mention it at all. We spent a good half hour learning just to bounce to the rhythm in our class. It was a blast and tremendously crucial to getting anything right later on.

There are tons of variations on the Delîlo. We learned a few easy ones.

Govend at a Germik (Hot Springs) in Bağin, Karakoçan

You can turn the four step figure, for example, into a two step where the missing steps are converted into a scooping motion with the knees, or else instead of stepping forward you can flip your knee back or else you can kick out as you step backward as if your foot were a spatula flipping a burger. When you launch into each set of four you can skim your foot across the floor instead of stepping fully or you can skip your right foot across the left knee to give it a bit of a flourish. You usually do all of this as a group and so the head has to give a signal of some sort and all must follow. What’s fun, if you’re the head, is that you can break off and kind of do your own thing as the others keep going—one basic step when you do this is to walk just moving your heels. In other words, when you step, your toes stay on the ground and your heels flip up. You can combine this with the skipping motion mentioned early, or the flourish at the knees, or all at once to create a really complicated movement. If you’re young and flexible, you might squat down Cossack style and kick out. Like I said, tons of variations on the basic Delîlo.

The next dance we learned was called the Dûzo, Dizo or just Dûz. It’s based on a three step—in other words you bounce your knees to the count of three. Your right foot moves right on the count of one—that’s the easy part. But what about the left? It follows the right on a half or quarter count at the end—which is an easy sentence to write but very difficult to make your foot do with any kind of regularity. The best thing is to surrender to the rhythm and pray, but God doesn’t always answer prayers and it took my class hours to consistently find that rhythm—some of us still don’t have a clue. The music we first practiced with was by an Iranian Kurdish group called Sima Bina and this song named Sheftaluforush—the Peach Seller. We also used the song Celil Ber Çela.

Here are some people running through the basicthree-count Dûz with variations as the video goes on.

As with the Delîlo, this basic step of course has tons of variations. Just simply stepping forward and backward with the right foot is a good start. You can also break off and do the heel tap that I mentioned in the Delîlo. The davul beat can eventually speed up and then you break into the dance that our teacher called the ‘essential govend’, and which in Turkish is called ‘Dik Halay’ or, roughly translated, ‘Straight-Up Halay.’

This “essential govend” was the whole point of me joining this class. The Delîlo was a walk in the park. Every visit to the village or every wedding that I was commandeered into, I could manage that one and retain some dignity, but then the music would speed up and suddenly people’s knees and bodies were doing something I couldn’t decipher and so I would have to bow out and sit on the sidelines like a dork while everyone else zipped through the rhythms, having an ecstatic blast. It looked simple but every time I jumped in the fray, nothing worked. Delal had tried to teach me a hundred times but to no avail. Well, now I’ve got it now, kids—but I doubt I can explain it in words. It’s a body thing—you’ve got to get used to the unusual rhythms and then just groove. It certainly ain’t the Salsa.

Here’s how it goes. You do the basic three step of the Dûz, then you do a four count to finish, bouncing twice on the right knee and twice on the left. Count-wise—it’s a quick stacatto one-two-three followed by a lackadaisacally slow, one two three four. The trick is the first three steps are blurred together into a count of two—something I never picked up from mere observation. What the hell? Exactly. Let me break it down for the math impaired. If you are doing this count--one, two, three, four, five, six—you will move three steps between one and two and then normally for the other numbers. When you are going really fast your feet don’t move at all. Just your legs and knees go through the rhythm—a phenomenon which can be utterly baffling. People’s bodies are dancing wildly but their feet never leave the ground. I used to think they were just gyrating randomly but since everyone was absolutely in synch, my hypothesis was never convincing. Now, at long last, I know that the knees were doing the dance that the feet could not keep up with. Here is the footwork up close (video taken at a festival in Hasköy's hot springs)

And there are variations. The head dancer can give a signal and off you go—we learned a variety of kicks and skips that tangles up my legs as soon as I think about it. In one version, you kick your left toe with your right heel, skim the floor and then do a heel tap before skipping forward with your left foot—all to that bizarre three in two rhythm. In another the initial heel tap takes place at the knee. Or else, it turns into a triple tap on the floor in front of you.

Here is a video that kind of shows theessential govend. Give the people time to wind up into it (around 40 seconds). I recommend watching from 4:44 to about 6:10--take a look at what happens when the head breaks away.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

New Spring, New Day, Newroz and Easter

Newroz Eggs/Easter Eggs
It's been a long time since I've posted anything, so this is going to be short--just to get my feet wet again. Yesterday, Delal and colored eggs for Easter, or Paskalya as they say in Turkish. It's one of my favourite times of year here--all the bakeries in Kadıköy carry challah bread, a braided Armenian sweetbread with brightly painted eggs in the middle. And of course, the apple blossoms and cherry blossoms are in full swing, the world famous tulips are starting to pop out of the ground, and the sycamores all have incandescent green buds on them.

And as usual, Delal's granddad pops out with a piece of surprise information.

"When I was a boy," Dede says, "We used to dye eggs for Newroz in the village."

Newroz is the Iranian New Year, celebrated by Kurds in Turkey on March 21st, the equinox. In fact, just last week we had gone to what must have been Istanbul's biggest Newroz festival yet in Kazlıçeşme--easily over 200,000 people in my modest opinion. Newroz has become a sort of national holiday for Kurds--and in recent years is the day for important political announcements. This year, the PKK leader Ocalan wrote a letter to be read out at Newroz celebrations, calling for an end to the armed struggle--a historic step in the ongoing peace process between Kurds and the Turkish government.

The traditions don't include bunnies or baskets. Though there are a few superficial similarities. In my family, we used to buy new clothes for Easter Sunday, usually all bright coloured pastels I never ever wore again. On Newroz, Kurdish women dress up in brightly colored bangled dresses called fistan--red, green, and yellow are the colours of choice, but you'll see orange and purple and turquoise Men, on the other hand, will wear black of khaki şal u şapik --a traditional outfit recently banned by Turkey's so-called "security package."

Other things: people build huge bonfires and jump them for luck, and everyone dances the govend (Turkish: Halay) until their legs snap off.

So how were Dede and friends colouring eggs for Newroz back in the early 1930s? We can only guess that it came from centuries of living in close proximity with Armenians. I found a book published by Ragip Zarakolu's publishing house, Belge. It's called Kedername (Document of Grief) and is a compilation of testimony on the Genocide compiled by Armenia's State Archives. In it was a rather telling description of the Kiğı region with harrowing and heartrending descriptions of the emptying out and murder of Armenians in all the villages near Conag--including Xiwek, Akrag, Hasköy and the town of Xolxol (Yayledere). Of Conag, there isn't much. One witness, a church official from Kiğı and the godfather (kirve) to the head of "the Kurdish village" says that on the road that leads to Conag from Xolxol, you can see a grave stone belonging to Prince Beşar.

"And in fact his descendants still dwell in the area. The ruins of an Armenian church sit in a pile of stones in the fields of Suleyman Beşaroğlu. I observed an interesting ceremony at his house. He had told me about the local saint that protected them and I asked if I could watch the ceremony they held for him, for he was reportedly a very powerful saint. I watched as he drew one by one books wrapped in white cloth from a large trunk. As he unwrapped them, I saw pages from the Bible, richly decorated and written in Armenian and Greek. The village headman couldn't read what was written there but just knew that the words held power."

Anyone who has kept up with my blog knows that there is still a pile of stones from an Armenian church that the villagers treat as holy and possessed of healing powers. Could this be the same stones? Dede doesn't remember anyone named Beşaroğlu (this would have been the late 1800s) and none of the books we have on the area mention anyone bearing that last name or anything resembling it. But it's intriguing--especially since the road from Xolxol to Conag could pass by the village of Hasköy which still has an Armenian cemetery and might explain the grave.

As we discover more and more anecdotal connections with the disappeared Armenians, Turkey brings to bear all its powers to deny the Genocide on the 100th anniversary. The government has scheduled an international commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli on April 24th, the day also commemorated as the start of the Genocide. Not surprisingly, most foreign dignitaries have declined the invitation. Turkey's pro-government newspapers claim that foreign officials have received threats from ASALA, an Armenian radical group--the only possible explanation in their minds for the refusal to show up.

And as for Newroz, the ruling party seems determined to roll back all progress made on that day as well, refusing to grant permission for a mediator for the Kurdish Peace process among other things. (Other things including a new ban on all social media and a draconian security bill that makes it legal to shoot protesters wearing a scarf over their faces, which you might if you expect to be attacked by thousands of canisters of tear gas.)

In any case, it felt right to colour eggs--somehow a celebration of both my childhood traditions and the traditions of Delal's granddad. There in lay some sort of symbol of who we were--it's hard to explain. Both American and Kurdish, respectful of tradition but forward looking. Together. United. Happy Easter, D. Newroz Piroz Be!