A Kurdish Wedding in the Belly of Istanbul
By David Joshua Jennings
Since 1984 the Turkish Republic’s attempts to crush the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group recognized to be a terrorist organization by the United States, the United Nations and the EU, have resulted in the deaths of nearly 40 thousand people, the great majority of them Kurds.
The major phase of this violence seems to have ended, but the “Kurdish problem” still exerts the single biggest impact on Turkey’s internal security, as well as its foreign policies and domestic political life. A few months ago, in October, a member of the Kurdish Freedom Hawks broke through police barricades in Istanbul’s Taksim square, the heavily populated “Times Square of Istanbul,” climbed aboard a police van and blew himself apart.
Kurds are the single largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. After WWI, when the Great Powers carved up the defeated Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were divided between five countries. Today, most Kurds fall within the borders of Turkey, numbering at least 12 million, about 20% of Turkey’s population.
Istanbul is the largest Kurdish city in the world.
The sky was dark, moonless, smeared with clouds and we stood at the second story window in a Kurdish neighborhood in West Istanbul, looking out onto a quiet, dusty alleyway. We were at the groom’s house, waiting for the wedding procession, suited up, adjusting our ties as the women, in another, hidden, segregated room, attached coins and beads to their dresses and coats.
The father and brothers of the groom were pacing around, nervous, smoking or watching the nature documentary that played on the men’s television, a documentary that showed bears across Turkey being hunted down with packs of dogs and executed at point blank range.
And then they came. A procession of vehicles, with the newlyweds’ black sedan in the lead, pulled in from the main avenue honking and pumping Kurdish music while women in headscarves hung out of the windows shouting, waving sashes and trilling like birds.
My friend Max and I went downstairs, hopped into the van at the front of the parade and began snapping video and photographs. We pulled out of the alley and onto the main avenue with our back doors thrown open for a good view of this wedding march. We had been asked to document it by the family.
Mali, one of the groom’s brothers, held Max’s jacket as Max leaned over the street with his camera to get a closer shot of the headscarved sister of the groom who had emerged through a sunroof like a sudden flower and was trilling into the night, waving to pedestrians as though she were a beauty queen.
Our van slammed to a halt and Max and Mali and I nearly tumbled out onto the pavement as the long line of cars following us all nearly collided into one another. It was a stoplight. A dozen men jumped out of their vehicles to smoke cigarettes for thirty seconds before the light flashed emerald and the procession pushed on, pouring onto the highway like a ribbon of honking geese.
A motorcycle shot out of a side street and weaved through our rope of traffic towards the newlywed’s sedan. He dodged a rock in the road and was reaching out towards the bride’s window as the highway narrowed and pushed him and his motorcycle towards a tree on the sidewalk that he had to slam his brakes to avoid smashing into.
He recovered swiftly, ramped the sidewalk, swerved through a few pedestrians, and ramped back onto the street and up to the newlyweds’ sedan and snatched one of the envelopes of money they were waving out the window. It is Kurdish tradition for the newlyweds to throw out gifts of money to children and other passersby on the march towards the wedding ceremony.
When we finally arrived at the Life Spirit Wedding Palace, chaos erupted. The children who had been running down the streets alongside the newlywed’s sedan, shouting for the money envelopes, now surrounded the vehicle.
The night was alive with a thousand horns honking. Nearly two hundred Kurds were already inside the wedding auditorium, dancing in one enormous circle, working themselves into a frenzy, holding hands and celebrating the impending arrival of the bride and groom. When some of the women got word we had arrived they rushed out into the street screaming and waving an extravagance of scarves in the air.
Then they found the traffic nightmare we’d created. All twenty cars of the procession had stopped and clogged up the main road. For a half mile in each direction taxi drivers waved their fists out of windows as our cars reversed and turned around in the middle of the street, hopping and parking on the sidewalks.
“Damn Kurds,” I heard some passerby say.
Max and I jumped out like the paparazzi and swarmed the newlywed’s vehicle, elbowing past the fanatical women and their inferno of waving scarves and hands bloodied with henna to get a shot of the groom emerge from the car with his bride, both of whom looked overwhelmingly nervous and sedated, as though they’d eaten Valium to deal with the unspoken sadness.
The procession pushed on, a large blob of squat old women surrounding us, yipping and dancing in fanatical confusion, waving scarves in the air as though they were the flags of a newly-born country.
Explosions of confetti popped at us from every direction and balloons fell from the ceiling like rain as we made our way up and down stairwells and through the dark graffitied hallways of the wedding palace to the “dungeon” room where the bride and groom were made to sit on a soiled old divan and wait until all the guests had arrived.
I went out onto the balcony overlooking the ballroom. Over 200 guests were down there, lounging among the long pink floral-covered tables drinking non-alcoholic beverages under flickering neon rainbows lights and watching the enormous oval of humans with hands interlocked shaking their shoulders in laughing happiness and dancing.
Earlier today, back at the groom’s parents’ house, after we’d eaten a meal of beans, rice, and goat meat on the floor of the men’s dining room, the brothers of the groom had shown us how to do this traditional Kurdish wedding dance.
You grab the hands of the people next to you, take one, two, one, two tiny steps to the right, go loose as though your body were suddenly liquefied and, before you collapse to the floor, snap back into rigidity and take another step, all the while making the shoulders dance as though you were continuously shrugging off a cloak.
We made our way down to the ballroom and were pushed out into the center of the circle of dancers to take pictures. There were sixty eyes and hawk-like faces with jet black hair encircled and staring at us. The men wore cheap black suits and the women who weren’t bundled in cloaks and headscarves wore long, conservative, ornamented dressed, with silver buckles and beads and coins glittering like mirrors as they danced with their well-concealed bodies underneath moving with inaccessible beauty.
Only one sprightly Kurdish man inhabited the central caldera with us. He resembled Pan, the drunken satyr of Greek mythology. He was skipping around with his head bouncing loosely and singing while he bowed the Black Sea Kurdish violin on his hip. Occasionally a young troublemaker pushed his way inside the circle with us, but Pan skipped and hopped over and kicked him in the bottom and chased him out.
He skipped up and danced in front of me, bowing his violin and laughing and winking at me, and he asked my name and where I was from. Then he danced back around the perimeter of the circle singing about Joshua from America.
Once we fought out way out of the circle I asked my Turkish friend, Murat, what the man had said to the crowd.
“I have no idea,” he said. “They’re speaking Kurdish. Kurdish is nothing like Turkish.”
I asked him about the name of the violin being played.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I’m a foreigner here too!”
When the bride and groom were finally about to enter the hall, the lights were extinguished and a firmament of candles sprang out. Sparklers began to flair up and the room was filled with acrid smoke.
A tunnel of human bodies formed for the bride and groom to walk through, a gauntlet of dripping wax and fire. With all the sparks and flames leaping about I was surprised the long flowing hair of the secular Kurdish girls didn’t catch fire.
I hopped up on the stage for a privileged vantage of the newlyweds making their way through and just as I got up there three large fountains began shooting up sparks in front of the stage, showering them over the people and over the musical equipment strewn about the ground.
Luckily nothing caught fire, and soon the bride and groom had made their way through the people. A carefully balanced wedding cake, tall as a human, was brought through the crowd with two men holding spiked torches making way before it. They handed the groom a long curved sword and with the bride’s hand guiding him he chopped down the front of the cake to cheers and celebration.
The bride and groom then had to stand there for about an hour while one by one the guests came forward and pinned American dollars and Euros to the sashes that hung around their necks. And then the dancing broke out again, a different kind of dancing this time, a climactic dance that segregated into competing circles of men and women, inside of which a single person was pushed, where they lifted their hands in the air, twirled their wrists and shook their shoulders as the spectators around them sank down to their knees and cheered them.
By the end of the night I was exhausted, speaking pigeon Turkish to the wedding guests who, after long hours of staring with suspicious amazement at Max and me, we bearded, presumably godless long-haired foreigners who had assumed such a focal role within the celebrations, had finally mustered the courage to speak with us. Some shook our hands, some thanked us for coming and adding “color” to the wedding, some asked us what we thought of Kurdish people, some invited us to a wrestle match. None of the women spoke to us.
Only when I got home had I the ability to reflect on what I’d seen. Every night in the Life Spirit Wedding Palace a wedding like this goes on, regardless on the political turmoil beyond the walls. Life comes, life goes and the Kurds, spread across eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria, and areas of Azerbaijan, proud, stateless, continue dancing.
Before bed I saw something on Facebook that made me smile. My Turkish friend Murat, the Murat from the wedding, posted this on his status:
“Turkey – Kurds = Nothing”
David Joshua Jennings is an award-winning author based in Istanbul, Turkey, where he is currently completing Midnights in the Garden of Civilizations, a non-fiction novel about Turkey. His short stories, travel essays, photographs and poetry have appeared in The Windmill, Transitions Abroad Magazine, Bradt Travel, The New Internationalist, and GoNomad.com, and he has contributed to two travel guides about Colombia and Venezuela. His story Roraima: Venezuela’s Lost World was voted one of the top travel stories of 2010 by GoNomad.com. He can be found at: davidjoshuajennings.com
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