Turkey Pulse

Turkish fest takes Roma culture upmarket, but Roma still down

Article Summary
Roma music and dancing dominate the Hidirellez festivities that usher in spring in Turkey, but the country’s 4 million-strong Roma population finds little to celebrate in their daily living conditions.

Thousands of women all over Turkey donned colorful skirts, gaudily ornamented headbands or any accessory resembling traditional Roma costumes and joined the Roma in mostly impoverished parts of their towns to celebrate Hidirellez, the festival of spring, on May 5-6.

Turkey, along with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, is working on including Hidirellez in UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of the world. A promotional video prepared for this purpose reflects the various theories about the origin of this spring festival, celebrated approximately 40 days after the spring equinox. Some of these theories suggest that Hidirellez belongs to Mesopotamian and Anatolian cultures, and other theories say they belong to pre-Islamic Central Asian Turkish culture and beliefs. Roma people in the Balkans celebrate it as Ederlezi. In Serbia, Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans where there was an Ottoman influence, it is called Durdevdan.

The Anatolian name of Hidirellez is derived from the names of the two prophets — Al-Khdir (Hidir or Hizir) and Elijah (Ilyas) — and their meeting on earth to bring prosperity and abundance. One widespread belief suggests that Hidir is a prophet who has attained immortality by drinking the water of life (ab-i hayat) and wanders around among people from time to time, especially in the spring, and helps people in difficulty and distributes prosperity and health. “He reached me in times of trouble, just like Hizir,” goes the Turkish proverb, referring to the efficiency and speed of help required.

For many Turks, however, Hidirellez is simply and politically incorrectly identified as the time of the “gypsies” — celebrated with loud Roma music, dancing in the streets or belly-dancing in the small squares, jumping over a fire, throwing wishes scribbled on a piece of paper into the sea or hanging them on a rose tree.

“We have celebrated Hidirellez ever since I was a kid,” Aynur Tartan, a culture writer who specializes in the diversity of Anatolia, told Al-Monitor. “Hidirellez is celebrated in slightly different ways in different parts of Turkey. In Edirne, Turkey’s border city with Bulgaria, it is almost always celebrated in the woods and people eat lamb, ideally, the first lamb of the spring. In Izmir, the tradition is to jump over the fire and then throw your wish into the sea, to make sure that it is realized. In the Thrace and in the Aegean, the celebrations are always together with the Roma, who bring color to any festivity. In Izmir, chic, middle-class women or conservative housewives gather in groups to go to Kahramanlar or Kadifekale, the impoverished Roma neighborhoods, for the evening out, where they will match their belly-dancing skills with that of the Roma dancers.”

In the past, these festivities used to be very spontaneous, with the Roma musical bands and dancers coming to the center of town, said Tartan. She stressed that they had now turned into formal and slightly commercialized festivals, where people pay money to get in.

In Istanbul, the free and open-to-all festivities took place at Ahirkapi where Istanbul residents and tourists rushed to the neighborhood for several hours of dancing with a Roma band.

“We were not able to have the feast last year because of terrorist attacks,” explained Osman Dursun of the Ahirkapi Band to Al-Monitor. “This year, we were able to carry out the festivities and not hundreds but thousands of people have shown up. It was a time to dance and be together. Ten thousand people joined our Facebook page.”

The “commercialization” of Hidirellez extended to upmarket venues. In Istanbul, Uniq, a new and chic cultural center, celebrated May 5-6 with nighttime picnics of gastronomic extravaganza that ranged from Turkish street food to Far East cuisine. Opera singer Serap Ciftci performed a series of Roma songs from all around the world in Izmir’s chic music hall, the Ahmed Adnan Saygun Arts Center. Outside in the city, however, a larger audience jubilated in an open concert to Kibariye, a popular singer of Roma origins who rose to fame in the 1990s after a time of poverty and lack of education in her early years. A typical rags-to-riches story, Kibariye’s dramatic life reflects the difficulties that the Roma face in getting access to education and jobs.

Journalists held their own Hidirellez festivities in the Dogan Plaza on May 5, where Turkey’s largest media group resides, complete with a wish tree and a makeshift fire. “Shall I make a wish for the release of imprisoned journalists,” said someone as she hung her wish on the rose tree. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has jailed more journalists than any other country in 2016, including Dogan Group’s Ankara representative Barbaros Muratoglu.

In the eastern city of Gaziantep, where there is an Alevi community, Mayor Fatma Sahin heralded the festivities as a symbol of harmony and tolerance between many beliefs. “Hidirellez shows us that despite different languages, religions and races, various cultures can come together and celebrate the same traditions,” Sahin said in a statement. “Hidirellez is one of the symbols of harmony and tolerance.”

Not everyone is so optimistic about harmony. Despite the positive headlines in the media — “Hidirellez is fun with Roma,” wrote daily Cumhuriyet — the festivities in the Roma neighborhoods revealed once more the poverty of the areas where the Roma live. Turkey’s Roma population, whose number is estimated to be 3-4 million, mostly live in areas that lack correct infrastructure and are under risk of natural disasters.

Ozcan Purcu, the first and the only Roma-origin member of the Turkish parliament in 92 years of its existence, said that while his seat in parliament was a “turning point” for the Roma population, not much had changed — neither in terms of living conditions, access to education or discrimination. “I grew up in a tent in Aydin, in the Aegean region of Turkey. My relatives still live in a tent. I visited the Roma in Umraniye in Istanbul. They also live in tents,” he said in a meeting with the Europe Roma Rights Center in December 2016.

Purcu also asked for a parliamentary inquiry on the problems and living conditions of the Roma citizens in December 2016, when a Roma woman died in a tent due to bad living conditions. The motion was rejected.

Found in: turkish society, dance, music, festival, unesco, roma, culture

Nazlan Ertan is Al-Monitor's culture editor. She is a Turkish blogger, journalist and editor who has worked in Ankara, Paris and Brussels for various Turkish and international publications, including the Hurriyet Daily News, CNN Turk and BBC Turkish Service. She served as culture and audiovisual manager for the European Union delegation to Turkey, director of the EU Information Centre in Ankara and director of communication, culture and information in Turkey’s Ministry for European Affairs.


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