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!

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