Greek Carnival in Istanbul makes a comeback
Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec
Turks watch with surprise when they see a parade of dancing party revelers in costumes in the heart of modern Istanbul. The joyful music from the clarinet, accordion and violin sounds familiar like in the old taverns of Istanbul, but the costumes draw the attention. Because this is the only carnival in the Islamic world.
I see a woman with a huge knife through her head dancing with two men; one is dressed up like an oil sjeikh, the other as Einstein. Then there is a woman with curlers in her hair, XL breasts and huge buttocks who tries to control her husband with a rolling-pin.
A man with a partly cut open rubbish bin on his head asks for attention with the caption: ‘Don’t ignore me because I’m rubbish’.
The small carnival parade of Greeks, Turks and Armenians – maybe 100 participants – is applauded by people of the neighborhood and passers by in the small district of Kurtulus. That is special as well, because several Turkish media and nationalistic politicians like to portray the Christian Greeks and Armenians as enemies of the Turkish state.
The organizers of this so-called Tatavla carnival didn’t announce the celebrations in advance to the media. “We have avoided announcements knowingly because there would be people who would want to make a disturbance. We wanted to prevent that”, said Hüseyin Irmak, head of the organization committee. “Our only aim is making people remember a culture that is about to disappear”.
Greek culture and the Greek minority are indeed threatened with extinction. In 1923 there were more then 130,000 Greeks in cosmopolitan Istanbul. One in five inhabitants was Greek.
By intimidation, bureaucratic and judicial measures, deportations, threats, illegal confiscations of properties, deportations and a bloody pogrom in 1955 only 2,200 Greeks are left. Most of them are elderly people.
The Tatavla carnival was celebrated for 500 years by the Greeks of Istanbul.
In 1943 the celebrations died in silence: only 20 people came together for the last time. It was a sad day. Greeks had been forbidden to be active in more than 30 professions – from lawyer, architect and doctor to tailor and real estate agent. And the state had ordered a discriminatory ‘wealth tax’ that was only targeting the non-Muslim minorities.
I admire the initiative of Hüseyin Irmak who tries to revive the age-old Tatavla carnival. Although the Greeks who were born in Turkey may be a minority that faces the real threat of extinction, that doesn’t mean that the carnival cannot make a comeback.
Because of the detente between Greece and Turkey and the current neo-liberal economic policy more and more young Greeks come to Istanbul to work and study here.
It is possible that they will marry Turkish men and women and start families here.
It would be nice if tolerance between Greeks and Turks would blossom again in Istanbul like in the best days of the Ottoman Empire. This growing tolerance should be accompanied by an annual Tatavla carnival that would be bigger and more colorful every year.