Armenian church gets a real place in Diyarbakir

I do remember the church from before the restoration. I remember feeling sad about an Armenian church in the middle of the old city of Diyarbakir being totally dilapidated. The people once attending mass there were murdered in 1915, the witnesses of their former presence in the city destroyed. So it was really good to see the church of Surp Giragos (almost) fully restored now, and full of people attending a piano recital by Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan.

The church dates back to the fifteenth century and is built out of the big black stones that are so typical of old buildings in Diyarbakir. The church doesn’t look like a stranger in the city but fits in perfectly. Its renovation started in 2009, under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate. It was paid for with funds from Armenians in Turkey and abroad, and with financial contributions from the Diyarbakir and Sur (the old town) municipalities. The mayor of Sur, Abdullah Demirbas, has been a strident advocate of the rights of minorities in Diyarbakir, as has Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir.

Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan playing in the restored Surp Giragos church, 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge.

What I find remarkable is that both Demirbas and Baydemir have called on Armenians and other minorities to return to Diyarbakir. They want a city with cultural diversity, like in the old days. Baydemir was present at the concert, with his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, and in his speech he repeated his appeal. He got applause for it.

Also present in the church was a group of elderly Armenians from the United States on a ‘roots trip’. Over the weekend, they attended a mass at the Armenian church on Akdamar island, in Lake Van, not too far from Diyarbakir. I talked to one of the women from the group during the concert – yeah, sorry, it wasn’t all silent anyway, people were walking in and out of the church and were whispering, kids couldn’t keep quietly, which really all just added to the good atmosphere – and I asked her what she thought of Baydemir’s call to return to Diyarbakir. ‘I think it’s amazing’, she whispered in excitement, ‘considering all that has happened here in the past’.

But of course I wanted to know if she would ever consider living in the land of her ancestors. ‘No’, she replied without thinking. ‘Not because of the Turks of course, that would be no problem. But you know’, she continued, seemingly not talking only about herself but about other people like her as well, ‘we have very comfortable lives in the States, we are not prepared to give that up.’

Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir calls on Armenians to return to Diyarbakir, his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, translates his words to English. Pianist Bedrosyan behind the couple. 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge. (and sorry for bad picture quality…)

After the concert, I talked to an Armenian who now lives in Kusadasi, on the west coast of Turkey. He was originally from Siirt province, east of Diyarbakir. I asked him if he would return to his roots permanently. ‘Oh I come here all the time’, he answered. ‘My life is in Kusadasi now, but my daughter lives here, I have family in Siirt, in Kurdistan (he meant North Iraq, FG), in Syria, in Canada. That’s how it is with Armenians, they are spread out all over the world because of what happened in this region. I will keep coming here and the concert was good and the place is beautifully restored, but I won’t come back to live here.’

The church is not in use as a place to have mass every Sunday, for that there are too few Armenians left. And the wish of the municipality to have more Armenians in the city again is not likely to be fulfilled any time soon. But there will be a concert in the church from now on every month, it was announced. That’s great: it will give the historic building a real place in the vibrant city of Diyarbakir.

Here is a really good pic of the church during the concert, on the site of Diyarbakir municipality. (I’m on the right, fourth bench from the back, second from the right ;-))

Tarlabaşı bubble

‘We have been dancing here’, says Fransesco Lupo. He shakes his head, desillusion in his eyes. ‘It was a lie. We were in a bubble that had nothing to do with reality.’

We are in Tarlabaşı, a neighbourhood in Istanbul, right southwest of the central Taksim Square. Tarlabaşı is in the middle of a ‘renewal’ process. That means: the old, poor inhabitants of the area are being kicked out of their houses to make space for the upper class, and for yet another Starbucks and shopping mall.

Fransesco (20) is an Italian Erasmus exchange student, studying at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. With a group of foreign and Turkish artists he occupied an empty building in Tarlabaşı, cleaned it and started using it as a studio. The few people that still lived in the mostly deserted street, had mixed feelings: some liked the idea, others felt the young artists were intruding. The relations improved when the artists invited the people to the studio.

The installation Fransesco made, is about memory. ‘I am not against progress’, he explains, ‘but we have to remember the past.’ He was proud of his installation. He and his friends danced in it. Then, one morning, he came to the studio and found his piece of art half destroyed. Neighbourhood kids, probably. Everybody can just go in, the buildings of Tarlabaşı no longer have doors or windows. Fransesco: ‘It was a slap in the face to see it destroyed.’

Soon though, he realized this was the only thing that could happen to his installation in a neighbourhood trapped between old and new. He and his artist friends created a bubble that sooner or later had to be pricked. ‘I was full of presumption’, he says. He tried to symbolize the presumption with a sculpture of a woman sitting on the floor.

The only thing he could do, is destroy the remains of the bubble. He waited till sunset and allowed me to film it. Afterwards he said, his face full of emotion: ‘This is the most significant experience of my life.’

Art in Tarlabasi from Frederike Geerdink on Vimeo.

The queen and the pioneer

President Gül paid an official visit to the Netherlands this week, to commemorate 400 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The Queen and the President both disappointed and surprised me.

You could say the visit was a bit overshadowed by our national clown and racist politician, Geert Wilders. He was against the visit to begin with, because of Gül being President of an ‘Islamic country’ – that’s how ridiculous it gets these days in Holland. But Wilders is officially supporting the Dutch government, making sure it has a majority in Parliament to carry out policies. So even though Wilders is not in the government, what he says has to be taken into account by the government. So if he shouts something to humiliate Gül or Turkey, the government cannot lash out at him too hard, so afraid are they of losing his support and thus their decision-making power in Parliament. The government has been taken hostage by Wilders, you could say.

President Gül openly took exception to Wilders’ racist ideas. (He was not taken seriously by some; you can read an opinion article I wrote on that here.) I’m pretty sure the Queen does not agree with his views either, but in the Dutch monarchy, the Queen has no power to speak out about her own opinions. She has to always stay above party politics. But in the end, the Queen did speak out. At least, that’s how I interpret the news that came in on Wednesday, the second day of the visit: the Queen has decided to pay an official visit to Turkey, as early as June. It surprised me, and I applaud her for it. I think it is a way for her to take a stand against shallow, populist opinions.

Maybe I will get a second chance to meet the Queen and the President in June. I thought I was going to shake hands this week, but that didn’t happen. Quite a hilarious story, actually.

I’m also in the Netherlands for a few days, partly in relation to Gül’s visit. Gül and Beatrix opened an exhibition on Tuesday in Amsterdam: ‘Dutch pioneers in Turkey’. The exhibition consists of 18 portraits of Dutch people who live as ‘pioneers’ in Turkey: a big picture and a short text. I was one of the pioneers, and therefore invited to the official opening.

I invited my mother to come with me. We are both totally not lovers of monarchy or in any way fans of the Dutch royal family, and I even support abolishing the monarchy. But I’m a curious woman, so I thought it would be interesting to experience how such openings go, what instructions you get about addressing the Queen and the President, things like that. Besides, I love dressing up, and saw a great opportunity here.

So we showed up right on time at 5.30. We were a bit surprised that nobody checked our invitation and that we got no instructions whatsoever. The invite was strictly for two, but when we saw the relative chaos, mum and I concluded we could easily have taken dad along too. Anyway, we wait for what’s to come, till a friend of mine shows up, also dressed up, also with her mother. She says: ‘Hey, did you hear? The Queen and the President aren’t here, they opened the exhibition at 3 with a very small group of invited guests. This is only for the other people involved.’ Many people misunderstood and were surprised.

So that’s how it goes. As just a simple pioneer, you can’t make it to Group 1; you only make it to Group 2. Small disappointment, but mainly very funny. We had a good laugh, a few drinks, and a great evening anyway, of course.

Want to go see your favourite correspondent hanging on a museum wall in Amsterdam? The expo will be open till 26 August, and can be seen in Amsterdam Museum. All information here! 


Some time ago I was in a bar in Istanbul with some Dutch people and some Turks. One of the Turkish women started to talk about some family affair, in which supernatural powers played a big role. Call me unfriendly, but I just can’t let that pass easily, especially after two, three glasses of wine. At some point, I just can’t help asking: ‘But haven’t you considered for one second that supernatural powers had nothing to do with it? That the whole course of events was just coincidence and had nothing to do with a curse?’

The answer was a plain ‘No’. So I thought, okay, me and my big mouth, I’ll just shut up – which I managed to do. Forgive me, dear readers, but I didn’t grow up with this kind of stuff. I’m from Hengelo, a small city in the east of the Netherlands, and believe me, there is not much supernatural, spiritual or poetic about it. Not even religion was an important issue in the family I grew up in.

The funny thing is, one year before me, in that very same town, Nazmiye Oral was born. She grew up to be a pretty well known author, columnist, playwright and actress in the Netherlands and lives in Amsterdam now. Last year, her first novel was published, called ‘Zehra’. Nazmiye sent it to me and I finished reading it this weekend. It’s a beautifully written story impregnated with the supernatural. I was a bit hesitant at first, but Nazmiye has a way of choosing beautiful words and of writing down supernatural events very naturally – I just couldn’t stop reading.

Beautiful experiences

Not for one second did I think, as would be my natural reaction: please, this is just too much! These things just don’t happen! There is a perfectly logical explanation for all this! Somehow, Nazmiye managed to convince me with her sad but beautiful story about the young girl Zehra, to convince me that the supernatural is just sometimes very natural in Turkey, where the story takes place.

I live in this country, but I never give any attention to that side of society here. I don’t open myself to it, and as a journalist I can’t check it, so in short, I don’t feel connected to it in any way. That’s where my reaction in the bar a few months ago came from. Now I wish I could do that conversation all over again, put my prejudice beside and ask the woman more about it. How do these things work according to her? How did she learn about it? Are these things mainly scary – as they were in her story – or does she have beautiful experiences with them too?


The great thing is, it was officially announced today that ‘Zehra’ has been nominated for a Dutch cultural prize, called the E. du Perron Prize. It is awarded every year to an artist who manages to break down walls between different cultural groups that live in the Netherlands. At first sight, you might wonder how ‘Zehra’ is doing that. But when I see the effect it has on me, even after finishing it just a few hours ago, I totally understand how this book can build a bridge.

A bridge between the very logical, non spiritual Dutch society, and the supernatural that has a solid place in Turkish culture. So funny, that Nazmiye grew up with this side of life in that small city that I only know as boring, polished, with no spiritual touch whatsoever. I’ll take this from Hengelo to Istanbul and whereever I go in Turkey, and you might find it back in a story of mine one day. Who wins the E. de Perron Prize will be announced on 12 May, I hope I can congratulate Nazmiye that day!

The disconnected

The overhead projector casts three texts onto the wall: one in Turkish, one in Dutch, one in English. Hanneke van der Heijden, Turkish-Dutch translator, explains the background behind translating the book Tutunamayanlar, a cult book of Turkish literature by author Aguz Atay. The book is written in several different styles of Turkish, and,  showing different pieces of text, Hanneke explains how she and her co-translator managed to catch that in the translation. She calls the book an adventure, both language-wise and in the inner world of the protagonist. I’m reading her Dutch translation now – I’m at page 84 of a total 756, at the beginning of the adventure.

Tutunamayanlar – which translates as ‘The disconnected’ – was published in 1972. Language was politics at the time. There was Öztürkçe, ‘pure Turkish’, developed after Atatürk decided to purify Turkish and replace all Arabic and Persian words with Turkish ones, some of which didn’t develop naturally but were made up just for the sake of it. Using Öztürkçe in daily life meant that you supported the principles of Atatürk. But Öztürkçe was not in general use: many people still spoke and wrote the language using Arabic and Persian words. Which variation you used was a political preference, and nobody could refrain from choosing.

In Tutuanamayanlar, French influences were also used, and a language which has hardly anything to do with Turkish: ‘high Ottoman’, from before the republic. And another one: Göktürkçe, a centuries old Central-Asian Turkic language.


Indeed, it is no surprise that Tutunamayanlar has always been considered an untranslatable book. The only attempt made was into English, but it was never published. The translator didn’t make an effort to reflect all the language variations of the book. But they are an inalienable part of it, so without paying respect to the language variations, you can’t pay respect to the book. The problem is how to catch those varieties in another language, where language has never been so extremely politicized and where no two variations of the same language existed alongside each other in the first place?

I think what Hanneke van der Heijden and her co-translator Margreet Dorleijn have done in this first translation ever world wide of Tutunamayanlar, should be considered the most advanced form of translating. They used words and structures with Romanic and Germanic roots, they used Dutch with a touch of French, they made up words just as was done in Öztürkçe, they used both formal and basic language, and more. Of course, in Dutch these kinds of variations don’t have such intense political implications as in the seventies in Turkey, but Hanneke and Margreet explain all that in the postscript to the book. I can only applaud.

When the book was published, it was not liked very much by the public or by reviewers. As I said, society and language were very polarized, and Oguz Atay didn’t choose: he used both traditional Turkish and Öztürkçe. He couldn’t be put in one camp, and that was just unbearable in those days. As well, the two protagonists in the book don’t take sides either: they have doubts, they struggle with their convictions. Not okay. In other words: society was conformist, Tutunamayanlar was pluralist.


More than a decade later, that changed. Hanneke and Margreet explain in the postscript that due to political changes in Turkey,for example the military coup in 1980, the environment became more open to doubt, to less polarization, and Tutunamayanlar was re-published. (Needless to say, Hanneke and Margreet state this without in any way supporting the coup.) Since then it has been officially reprinted 49 times (and counting!), and unofficially innumerable times. It has become a cult book, and ‘tutunamayan’, a disconnected person, has become a concept.

Nevertheless, the title of the book in Dutch is not ‘De griplozen’, which would be the most accurate translation of Tutunamayanlar, but ‘Het leven in stukken’, (in English: ‘Shattered Life’). In the end, the publisher decides about the title, and probably a weird Dutch word like ‘Griplozen’ in combination with a totally unknown author wouldn’t do the trick, sales-wise. Maybe that’s true. Actually, I hope they are right and that because of this title more people decide to read the book and experience the adventure of Tutunamayanlar. 

 You can buy the Dutch translation here.

A kiss on the cheek

The gay men in the film Zenne Dancer kiss on the cheek, not on the mouth. The only time they go further than that is when they need photographs of gay sex, to convince a military committee they are actually gay and for that reason get exempt from doing their military service (which is not a procedure invented for the film but still common practice in the army). Then, when they ‘have to’, we see full kisses, and then the suggestion of sex. The funny thing is, one of the men, the German Daniel, is bisexual, and a girlfriend visiting him does immediately sit down on his lap and starts kissing heavily, as lovers do. He rejects her: he is in love with his Turkish boyfriend.

It must have been very hard for the director and producer to make a film for a broad audience about a gay honour killing and about how gays are treated in Turkey. To find a balance between telling a true tale of gay love and friendship and not shock the audience with too explicit images. Because in Turkey that is what still shocks mainstream audiences: real love, including sex, between two men. 
The other shock in the film is the tragedy the film is based on and which happened in 2008: Ahmet Yildiz, a student in Istanbul from the conservative south-eastern region of Urfa, was killed by his own father because he was gay. The murder is known for being the first gay honour killing that drew widespread public attention. The father has still not been arrested, and is most probably hiding in northern Iraq.


In short, you could say that Zenne Dancer (meaning ‘male belly dancer’) tries to find a balance between what shocks Turks in general – gay love – and what is condemned often but nevertheless still happens and often even understood: honour killings. Some statistics: a survey at Bahcesehir University showed that 88% of the Turks object to a gay or atheist neighbour or an unmarried couple living next to them. Stats from the Turkish government show that in Istanbul alone every week an honour killing takes place (and usually women and girls are the victims), and about thousand were carried out in the whole country between 2003 and 2008.

Turkey as a society is not primarily based on freedom of the individual and seeking happiness in your personal life, but on protecting the family and tradition you are a part of. Individual choices are subordinate to that. Who challenges the order, can get into serious trouble.
In the film, that is very well shown by a conversation between the two lovers, Daniel and Ahmet. Daniel encourages Ahmet to be honest to his conservative family about being gay. ‘Honesty is always the best way’, he says. ‘In the end, your parents love you’. Especially that last sentence made me giggle: it is so utterly typical of a western way of thinking. Your parents will at most be shocked for a while about their child being gay, but if you give them some time, they will adjust and welcome you into their arms again. Ahmet replies: ‘You don’t understand. Honesty could kill me.’

Changing attitudes

Ahmets parents do love their son, that is clear throughout the film, but that love is not strong enough to wipe away traditional convictions. Ahmet refuses to come back to his family and get ‘help’ from the Imam to overcome his ‘sickness’. So then the father sees no other way: he travels to Istanbul and guns down his son. In a later scene, we see Ahmets mother, who encouraged the murder, crying uncontrollalby.

The film won a series of awards at Turkey’s most important film festival, in Antalya. It is now in cinemas all over the country, also in conservative cities like Trabzon, Konya and Diyarbakir. I do wonder what kind of audience it is attracting, and about how they feel afterwards. The message of the film is clear, and what should be the most shocking part is the honour killing. How big a part of the audience has to admit that deep down they are more shocked by the one vague but unmistakably gay sex scene? How much will the film contribute to changing attitudes towards gays in Turkey? Can gays really kiss in the next big release film about gay rights?

The foundations Cornelis laid

The bottom line is: Turkey and the Netherlands are friends. Officially since 400 years ago, but in practice even much longer. No temporary political wind can change that. According to Jan-Paul Dirkse, the Dutch ambassador to Turkey, all you need to do is look at the map: ‘Then you see that we are in the same sphere. It makes it very obvious: Turkey and Europe should join forces in as many fields as possible.’

I talked to the ambassador at what you could call the unofficial kick-off of the 2012 celebrations. In December 1611 Cornelis Haga left the Netherlands overland to, probably, Venice, from where he would take a boat to Constantinople. The trip took five months – not because he was travelling by bike but because he made stop-overs on the way at other Dutch representations.
Once he arrived in what was at the time the richest and most vibrant city in Europe, Cornelis had to wait some months before he got to meet the Sultan to officially establish ties between the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire. In 2012, that historic event will be celebrated extensively with many economic and cultural activities, and with an official visit from President Gül to the Netherlands.

Civil servant

Some circles in the Netherlands are not too happy about celebrating the 400 years of diplomatic ties between the Netherlands and Turkey, and about Presidents Gül’s visit. For political gain, they picture Turkey as a potential Islamic threat. I asked ambassador Dirkse his opinion about this, but of course he is not a politician but a civil servant, so he replied: ‘I’m being paid to reconcile, not to contribute to controversy.’
As a journalist, I might find that reaction somewhat disappointing, but of course this stance can only be supported. It’s actually the same as the approach of the Turkish government. On several occasions I have tried to get some reaction from Turkish government representatives about the current political atmosphere in the Netherlands, but they are always wiser than to become emotional. They don’t give any importance to anybody who deliberately wants to screw up good relations. However irritating it must be for them to be pictured as ‘the great Islamic threat’, they apparently at some point wisely decided to ignore racist, ill-intentioned Dutch politicians. I heard Mr. Davutoglu, Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkey, say, some months ago: ‘We only deal with the Dutch government, and our relations with the Dutch government are very good.’

Ignoring certain politicians, however, is something else than ignoring a sentiment that is alive in Dutch society. A fear of Islam, a fear of losing Dutch identity because of the influence of other cultures. The celebrations that are about to begin could contribute to reducing the fear of Islam and, more specifically, the fear of Turkish culture. ‘I don’t know what you thought about Turkey before you came here’, says ambassador Dirkse to me, ‘but weren’t you surprised about how Turkey is developing like crazy?’


He talks about his driver, who recently went to the Netherlands to follow a special course for diplomatic chauffeurs. In the plane back from Amsterdam to Ankara, the chauffeur was stunned by his fellow Turks who had been living in Holland for decades and now returned to Turkey for a visit: it was as if he was looking into the past. Dirkse: ‘I have seen details of all the festivities that are planned for next year. Of course, they are partly aimed at people who are already sympathetic towards Turkey. But I hope, and expect, that the side effect of all the festivities will be that it will become more clear in the Netherlands that Turkey in 2012 is a totally different society than the one that Dutch people come into contact with in Holland.’
In other words: Turkey is no threat, Turkey offers possibilities with its young population and growing economy. Dirkse: ‘Of course, you have to be realistic, but if we manage to convince a few people, that’s already a success.’

He refers back to 1612. In those days, protocol was different: if you wanted diplomatic ties with a certain power, you had to get special permission to open an embassy, and once you got that permission, economic favours followed. Dirkse knows very well why Holland got those favours: ‘We had a lot to offer, but we were too small a country to be a threat.’


I would like to draw a line from those days to now. The diplomatic ties that started in 1612, have over the centuries developed into a web of economic and cultural ties. Those ties are solid. They are actually so strong and contribute so much to the prosperity of both Turkey and the Netherlands, that nobody in his of her right mind would even consider putting that in danger. So because of the foundations that Cornelis Haga laid in 1612, huge and prosperous Turkey is not in any way a threat to The Netherlands now.

Not yet convinced? Then please be open to the message in 2012!


Sometimes, I just go travelling in Turkey without a specific goal, just to see where I end up. As I did this week. And where did I find myself a few days later? In the village of Entelköy! Never heard of it? You will: the movie ‘Entelköy’ will be released this year, or the beginning of next year – also abroad.

Entelköy is the name of a comedy with a message filmed close to Didim, a West-Turkish coastal town. I twittered a few times that I was in Didim, and then a tweet came in from somebody I didn’t know who asked me if I would be interested in visiting a film set close to Didim. I had no idea what it was about, I was planning to leave the next day so I thanked the tweep for the tip. His reply: ‘It’s not a tip, it’s an invitation’. As it turned out the tweep-with-nickname was rather famous producer Muharrem Gülmez, who was producing Entelköy, latest movie of totally famous director Yüksel Aksu (see pic). I changed my plans. Next day I was picked up from my hotel in Didim and taken to Entelköy!

Entelköy is an abbrevaration of ‘Entelektuël Köy’, or: Intellectuals’ Village. In Turkey, towns are sometimes named in popular language after what’s happening there: Turistköy for a town loaded with tourists, Kaleköy for a town with a castle, etc. So in Entelköy (official film name Efeköy and in real life called Pinarcik), you find intellectuals. At least, that’s how they are referred to by the original inhabitants of the village.

The ‘intellectuals’ are hippies living in a commune, led by a female German environmental activist. The villagers don’t understand their way of living: the intellectuals for example do yoga and they practice organic farming. They plea for a more traditional way of life. They want ayran, a traditional Turkish yoghurt drink, but the villagers only have cola. They want linden tea, the villagers can only provide them with Nescafe. Trouble in Entelköy, until the fight against a thermal power plant planned near the village unites them. Oh, and there are donkey’s too.

I spent two days in Entelköy – my first time ever on a film set. I felt so welcome, everybody was so nice, open, funny, and wow, hard working. I could photograph and film (well, aim my small basic Flip camera), whatever I wanted. Everybody was open for interviews and Muharrem and others showed me around locations. And I tweeted from Entelköy like crazy of course. Now that’s what I call an everybody happy-situation!

I’ll put a short video of these two days online this weekend. At least, that’s the plan. I might sell a story about it. And… it could be I’ll be in the film myself: filming will last almost six more weeks, and since they could use another foreigner as an extra and asked me to do that, I might come back to the set soon. So you only have to do one thing: go to the cinema and see Entelköy!

And by the way: no, I was not paid (or even asked!) to tweet, blog, publish and flip-film in Entelköy. I was only fed there 😉

Update: Sorry, couldn’t manage video yet…

Arabesk, the blues of Istanbul

Those of you who know Arabesk, Arabic-style music created in Turkey, will be shocked by the title of this blog post. Defining Arabesk as the blues of Istanbul! Ridiculous! Arabesk is a genre by itself, with its own history and development, you can’t call that the blues of Istanbul! I know, dear readers. Still, the title perfectly explains what this blog post is about.

I went to the Istanbul Film Festival, to a film about Arabesk music called ‘Arabesk from street sound to mass culture’. A short film, only an hour. With not too much depth, as even I could see as a non-expert.

Arabesk started to be popular in the sixties, mainly among poor people with demeaning jobs. Dramatic music, even more dramatic text. Slowly it developed, influenced by urbanisation, economical growth and political turmoil. Unfortunately these factors were only mentioned, and not really explained, even though it raises many questions and awakens your curiosity. It was shown that in time, even the elite started to be interested in Arabesk, and we saw old Arabesk singers who used to sing for poor people, perform in a fancy Istanbul restaurant for rich Istanbulites. At the end of the film, a young modern Arabesk singer sort of jumped onto the screen. A Turk from Germany. He mixed Arabesk with pop music, and won a prize.


The director of the movie, Cem Kaya, was there after the film to answer questions. He didn’t even wait for the first question but immediately asked for the microphone and started to apologize for his product. He defined his film as a ‘Micky Mouse version’ of the documentary he would like to make about Arabesk. The film was made on order for German-French TV channel Arte and German TV channel ZDF. They had a week of programmes about Istanbul, and they needed music too. A pitch was written out, Kaya and two colleague film-makers competed with the idea for this film, and won.

‘They paid for the whole film’, said Kaya, ’so they had a big say in the final product. As soon as it went too deep, we had to switch back to the music. For example we couldn’t handle the influence of the 1980 military coup on the development of Arabesk, because the audience wouldn’t understand.’

And the Turkish-German younger singer at the end? Request from France and Germany. They wanted the East and the West to meet. So apparently this is how Kaya made the East and West meet. Kaya: ‘Yeah, life sucks’. And he mentioned the name of the movie as proposed by Arte and ZDF: ‘Arabesk, the blues of Istanbul’. The audience reacted with laughter and sounds of shock, and Kaya said he resisted that title. It would be beyond every reality to name Arabesk ‘the blues of Istanbul’.


Afterwards I asked Kaya why he sent the film in for the festival when he didn’t like the movie himself. Turns out not he, but the distribution company made that decision. And Kaya didn’t object. ‘On film festivals like this, you can discuss the process of film making, and of how it sometimes works. A product like this is a good start for a discussion. That’s an important function of a film festival.’

A great and honest approach. I hope that at least these commercial productions enable Kaya to make independent films, just the way he thinks a film should be.

Symbol of love and peace

Banned officially in 1925, but still very much alive in Turkey, is the Mevlevi Order, a spiritual Islamic sect. Most people know them from the ‘whirling dervishes’, a ceremony performed by the followers of the order (called ‘dervishes’) as a way to connect with God. Up until now I never really got into it very deeply, probably because they are hardly ever in the news, and because from the outside all you see are whirling dervish ceremonies announced in tourist areas. But since I met a dervish, I’ve become more intrigued.

The dervish I met invited me to a special ceremony this week. A ceremony to make asure, a traditional Turkish dessert with ingredients like rice, chickpeas, barley, white beans, rose water, walnuts, pomegranate seeds and cinnamon. Asure is a very old recipe, and it is a symbol of love and peace. After the dervishes spent the day preparing ingredients and churning the asure-in-progress, I saw the result: tables full of small white buckets filled with asure. Ten thousand kilos altogether. It had to rest for a day, and then after a whirling ceremony the next day the asure would be distributed to anybody who wanted some.


It made me realize how very much alive the Mevlevi Order still is in this country. It was banned by Atatürk in 1925: from those days on, only state Islam was allowed. Much later, in the nineteen-fifties, they were once again allowed  to perform Sema (the whirling ceremony), but only because the Turkish state saw tourist potential in it. Many of their ‘lodges’ turned into museums, and they are still forbidden to lead their lives totally according to their old traditions.

When you think of that harsh reality, it’s amazing that the order didn’t fade away in the past eighty five years. New dervishes are being trained – when I visited a whirling dervish ceremony some months ago, I saw two very young men of around twenty years old performing in it. Okay, the dervishes don’t live their lives anymore like the dervishes in previous centuries and they all have a job besides their spiritual task, but still many men all over Turkey devote a good share of their lives to Sufism (the mystic Islamic tradition that the Mevlevi Order is part of). That means that it’s rooted in society very deeply. I hope through my new friend I will learn more about the old traditions, but especially about the vibrant order that Sufism still is in Turkey today.