GeriGündem Greek carnival saunters back to life
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Greek carnival saunters back to life

Greek carnival saunters back to life
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ISTANBUL - Masked celebrants snaked their way into Tarlabasõ, a suitable path to mark the essence of parades past. A Greek newspaper printed in Istanbul, "Proodos" (Progress), noted in 1918 the air of revelry among "Greek bandits with fustanela [pleated, skirt-like garments worn by men in the Balkans] and scimitars".

In place of the velvet-clad prostitutes on horseback of old, men and women in carnival masks or fezzes and false mustaches led the revival of a 500-year-old Greek festival this month that had been banished from Istanbul during World War II.

Hüseyin Irmak, a Kurtuluş-born researcher, has been on a mission to revive the carnival. In Istanbul’s Şişli district, called Tatavla by its Greek name for centuries until the start of the Republic, taverns used to brim with crowds throughout the three-day festival, Irmak said. He told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review last month that he hopes to bring the carnival back to the Despina tavern on Açıkyol Street in Kurtuluş-Son Durak each year.

An Oxford University graduate, young Greek expat Haris Theodorelis Rigas moved into a poor neighborhood of Istanbul, learned Turkish and began playing a near-extinct Greek-Turkish crossover music in Istanbul’s taverns. This year, Rigas also sought to restore the Baklahorani carnival processions through Istanbul's minority districts in a hedonistic feast involving prostitutes, criminals and ample cross-dressing.

Succeeding in their venture, Irmak and Rigas joined the colorful procession as celebrants snaked down from pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi into Tarlabası, a suitable path to mark the history and essence of parades past. Tarlabası is a central neighborhood inhabited by working class ethnic minorities in the 1970s that later became a slum of sorts for migrants from rural Turkey and immigrants from elsewhere.

Shoppers and diners in Istanbul's cosmopolitan center stared as men dressed as women paraded by in shiny pink carnival masks. Following a festival tradition of dressing as regional characters and ancestors in local dress, others donned colorful beaded dresses or fezzes and elaborate mustaches.

Tradition was tawdry affair
Until a ban on masks shut down the festival in 1943, it had been celebrated in Istanbul for 500 years, with Turkish politicians and diplomats celebrating in the homes of wealthy Greeks. Celebrations were organized in the square in front of the historic Hagia Dimitri Church in the Kurtuluş neighborhood in Şişli. This Istanbul parade was known Ğ and celebrated as Ğ a tawdry affair for the working class strata in the days leading up to the Christian holy day Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of lent. Lent is a time for abstaining from things such as meat, liquor and festivities until Easter. In Greece and around the world, perhaps most notably at Brazil’s Carnival, the days before Lent are a time for indulging in life openly in homes and in the streets. 

According to Iason Athanasiasis who wrote about the event on GlobalPost, in 1918, the Greek newspaper printed in Istanbul, "Proodos" (Progress), noted the air of revelry as "Greek bandits with fustanela [pleated, skirt-like garments worn by men in the Balkans] and scimitars, others appeared as Oriental hamalides [porters] or doctors pretending to deliver pregnant women in the middle of the street. Mock funerals processed with pretend corpses inside the coffins and followed by priests, widows and relatives É ."

For the Baklahorani fair in Tatavla, a wide variety of people, especially Rum citizens, used to come from all parts of the city to attend events. A type of plump broad beans called "bakla" were popular during the festival, evolving as the namesake of the fest.

Athanasiasis also recalled Greek author Maria Iordanidou’s description of the carnival in her novel "Loxandra": "When it got to Baklahorani day before the big fast, Rum from all over Istanbul would sing their way with folk-songs to meet in Tatavla. Groups of young girls sang songs and children swung on gondolier swings or ride merry-go-rounds decorated with bands and flags. The young men of Tatavla would give displays of their unique dances and games."

Minority survivors of the Turkish War of Independence and the founding of the Turkish Republic faced confiscation of their properties and businesses. Three days of anti-minority pogroms in 1955 prompted many to leave the homeland of their ancestors for centuries. According to Irmak and Rigas, the festival’s reincarnation represents a chance for Turkey to open up to its rich multicultural past. For many longtime Rum citizens and expats from abroad who joined as merrymakers, it was an opportunity to indulge in a bit of freedom from daily woes and restrictions.

While there were no reports of mock baby deliveries or pretend corpses this year, a man dressed as the Grim Reaper was spotted waiting for a tram. Last weekend, Athanasiasis wrote that as revelers paraded past the Tarlabası police station, a puzzled policeman approached a fez-wearing Greek academic.

"Who’s in charge here?" he demanded to know. In its first year back in action after 66 years, it seemed that the Baklahorani had commanded a presence of its own.

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