Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009 - No comments

Noel Baba - the Turkish Santa Claus

Little known fact - St. Nicholas actually lived out his days in Demre, just down the coast from Antalya. He was known for his miracles and his generosity to the poor. Nowadays, Father Christmas is becoming an increasingly well-known figure in Turkey, though not in relation to the holiday you'd first suspect....

I'm reposting this article from CNN - it gives some good insight into what "Christmas" looks like in this predominantly Muslim, but increasingly western-looking nation. Definitely going to check the movie out sometime this week, too. Should be the perfect compliment to "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Grinch...."

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- It may be the first modern Christmas movie ever made for audiences in Turkey, a mostly Muslim country that does not celebrate Christmas.

"Neseli Hayat" or "A Cheerful Life" is the story of a down-on-his-luck, working class Turk who is hired to work as a mall Santa.

The trouble is he doesn't really know who Santa Claus is, and needs some very basic lessons.

In one scene, a manager drills the main character, Riza and several other hired Santas on how to give Saint Nick's hearty bellow, "ho-ho-ho."

In another segment, a bearded, costumed Riza enters a waiting room and extends the traditional Muslim greeting "A salam aleyekum" to four other mall Santas, who answer back without looking up "aleyekum salam."
Video: Muslim Turks celebrate Christmas

But Riza then spends much of the film, embarrassed and hiding his job and costume at a posh Istanbul mall glittering with holiday decorations, from his wife and family in a shanty neighborhood where one would be hard pressed to find a single piece of tinsel.

The writer, director and actor who played Riza, Yilmaz Erdogan, says his character is a metaphorical bridge between two worlds in Turkey: wealthier, upper class Turks who live a "Western" lifestyle and have adopted the trappings of Christmas to celebrate the new year, and poorer Turks who have emigrated from the Anatolian heartland to the big city and are more familiar with traditionally "Middle Eastern" customs.

"Riza is the man who is in the middle of these two groups," Erdogan said.

He spoke to CNN at the Istanbul premiere of his film, which debuted in a shopping mall cinema decorated with Christmas trees and female hostesses wearing tight black dresses and Santa hats.

Erdogan agreed it was an unusual decision to focus a Turkish film on Santa Claus, which Turks often refer to as "Noel Baba" [Father Christmas].

"It is a symbol that we all love. Any person who sees him will smile," Erdogan said.

"We don't have a religious relationship with [Christmas]. We have a relationship based on a date, based on modern times. A significant group of us love this Western date and we celebrate it with the ones that we love," he added.

This month, one could easily mistake the shopping malls and commercial districts of Istanbul for any Western, Christian city. Stores and hotels are bursting with Christmas trees, lights and ornaments. Only the sound of Christmas carols is perhaps missing.

And the Yuletide pageantry is not only confined to shopping destinations of the wealthy.

Christmas kitsch is also on display in labyrinthine, working class street bazaars built in the shadow of centuries' old Ottoman minarettes. Amid stalls selling everything from middle eastern baklava sweets to hunting rifles, shopkeepers also sell animated, life-size Santa dolls and giant inflated Frosty the Snowman figures.

"Its been busy these days," said shopkeeper Saime Elkatmis, who wore a woman's Muslim headscarf as she sold plastic wreaths and glowing stars to passing customers.

"Within the last two or three years, people are a lot more interested in New Year holiday, from all the sectors of society," she added.

Next door, Tuna Alkan, a member of Istanbul's tiny Jewish community, was helping her husband Joshua sell plastic Christmas trees to mostly Muslim customers.

Alkan said Turks usually refer to the trees as "New Year's trees."

"It's a good symbol, it's a happy symbol," Alkan said. "Why wouldn't we use it?"

Part of the enthusiasm for Western holiday pageantry stems from economics. Turkish merchants have clearly embraced Christmas colors, to generate consumer excitement and help drive up sales.

"A Cheerful Life" creator Yilmaz Erdogan agrees that Santa is a symbol of capitalism.

"This is capitalism and Riza is a victim," Erdogan said. In the film, Riza resorts to working as a mall Santa after an economic crisis drives his restaurant bankrupt, and after he plunges himself and his friends in debt by falling for a pyramid scam.

But in the end, with the help of the Santa suit and some very strong Turkish family values, Riza succeeds in saving the day.

The split identity between east and west is often a source of social and political tension in Turkey. This gentle, Turkish Christmas movie shows Turks they can have a foot in both worlds and still enjoy the holidays.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday, December 09, 2009 - No comments

From Bloodshed to Barbecues

**NOTE: Several of the photos below are pretty graphic. If you are squeamish about blood, don't scroll down past the text! (And if you are sensitive about the treatment of animals, please understand the cultural context within which these were taken.)

I arrived back to Turkey just in time for a good load of festivities as American Thanksgiving and Kurban Bayrami (The Muslim Sacrifice Festival) were a day apart this year. This prompted some amusing conversations as we explained the traditional Thanksgiving meal - I'm sure many of our neighbours now think we "sacrifice a turkey" in the same way they would sacrifice a cow. :) (Incidentally, some of our neighbours recently decided that a rooster would be a suitable pet for their three-year-old, so now we have a rooster that terrorizes our otherwise quiet complex, crowing at all hours of the night and assaulting dogs and children at will. Seriously, the thing is a beast. We'd been hoping someone would get creative with their sacrifice this year and offer up the offending bird, but alas, it still roams free.)

Kurban Bayrami has its roots in the Quranic story of when God told the Prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and then at the last minute provided a ram to die in his place. Every year, Muslims around the world (at least all who are financially able and who consider it their religious duty) sacrifice a cow, sheep or goat to commemorate Hazreti Ibrahim's willingness to give up his son. If you dig down a few layers, you'll find that this tradition is also perpetuated by the underlying belief that in order for Allah to forgive man's sins, their must be the shedding of blood. (This, of course, opens the door for many good conversations with our neighbours.)

In order to present a less barbaric face to the Western World (ie the EU and whatever tourists may happen to be roaming the city's streets) it is illegal to kill the animals in your own garden, so after they've been tied up and moo-ing or baa-ing all night, people drive their animals to the designated sacrifice areas (ie somewhere out of town, the neighbourhood carwash or an empty covered bazaar) where either they themselves or, more often, actual butchers will perform the ritual sacrifice. Sometimes, if they aren't too well off, several families will chip in together to buy an animal. The whole thing has an air of community and festivity about it, even despite all the gore. Prayers are offered, then the animal is tied up and swiftly killed, often with a loud reaction from the other animal-spectators who know their turn is coming. Following the removal of the hide and the draining of the blood, it is usually the women (who must have remarkably strong stomachs) who set to work at cutting up the meat and dividing it into portions - a third to be eaten by the family, a third to be shared with friend and relatives, and a third to be given to the poor.

I was pretty impressed with how the whole operation goes like clockwork. You've got a guy with a clipboard collecting the fees for the butchers, the guys who chant the prayers, the guys with the knives who do the dirty work, the guys with rubber boots and hoses who clean up the blood, and the guys in the "Deri Toplama Ekibi" truck ("Skin/Hide Collection Squad") cleaning up the remains. And by afternoon, the whole place has cleared out and you'd never know anything had gone down.

On the morning of the sacrifice, one of my roommates and I set off in search of the action. We found it a few kilometres up the road where there it seemed every field or open space had become the scene for the slaughter. It seemed that heaps of "city people" had come out to the village to make their sacrifices, cuz what are normally quiet-ish streets turned into a village-wide traffic jam. It was interesting, too, to see how many not-covered women had come out our way, too. It was obvious who was and wasn't from around there!

We made the rounds to observe, talk to people and get some photos. I've only ever experienced the Sacrifice Festival in Istanbul, and I found people down here were much more willing to chat and have their pictures taken. (Meaning no one was really concerned about whether or not I was a reporter or threatened to break my camera if I didn't leave...unlike last year....) We played the good students of culture that we are and asked a lot of questions about the meaning behind the tradition. What really comes across is the pride in carrying out an age-old ritual, and the sense of unity that comes from knowing that people all over the Muslim world are all doing the same, as well as joy in being able to share and celebrate with family and friends.

Following the sacrifice is a four-day holiday where there is much visiting of loved-ones, kissing of elderly hands, and sharing in tasty meals. We got in on some good barbecue action with some of our neighbours, and I must say, I am grateful to the cow who gave his life and became those kebaps!

Seeing it all up close really brings to life the OT requirement of animal sacrifice and the grave reality of the need for blood to cleanse us from sin and shame. It makes the gift of the final sacrifice that much sweeter, and the desire to share that glorious, freeing news with my loved ones here that much more urgent.

Here are some photos from the day:

Death row

Somber spectators

I wish I could've captured this old teyze just a few seconds earlier, lugging that big heavy cow head around and laughing the cutest laugh!

Post-sacrifice grill-out with the neighbours

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday, December 05, 2009 - 1 comment

Nurturing the Creative Life: Just Do It

I recently read a good article, Nurturing the Creative Life by Elisabeth Adams, and was challenged by the idea that, instead of waiting for the perfect combination of miraculous free time and lightning bolt inspiration, I need to get in the habit of sitting down and just writing. I have friends who regularly churn out these incredible, witty blog entries, and I think, "Man, I could do that, but it would take me hours!" A dozen times a day I am struck by an event or an image that causes me to think, "Hey, that would make a great story." But by the time the duties and interruptions of the day have come and gone, the moment has past and the time and energy to write about it has, too. So many good stories gone to waste!

It's true what they say: In order to be a writer, you have to write. Just do it. If I neglect the creative process on a daily basis, chances are I won't come up with anything amazingly impacting when I finally do sit down to compose something. And so, in response to this, I know the thing to do is to stop waiting for the time to write to present itself and to start making time, every day, to record the wonder and the heartache, the magnificent and the mundane, the LIFE that is going on all around me. When I first moved to Turkey and everything was fresh and foreign, I used to carry around a little notebook in my bag. Mostly I used it for writing down new vocab words, but many a "cultural anecdote in the making" found its way onto those pages as well. This would be a habit well worth taking up again.

So, this is me, sitting down and writing. We'll see what it turns into.

I woke up this morning to the most delicious sound - that of an intense rainstorm and some good, hearty thunder. The plan had been that if the weather was nice, we'd head out to the ruins at Perge to make use of the last month left on my roomate's Museum Discount Card. I'm always up for a good tramp through an ancient city, but I have to admit that when I awoke to the rain pelting my window, I was more than relieved. It's been a full week, and the idea of being able to snuggle in my bed a little longer and then have a day of true rest sounded amazing. What followed was a good heart-refueling, daydreaming with my roommate about what our "contextualized Christmas decorations" should look like this year, an amazingly hot shower (with much gratitude for the hot water switch upstairs that allows us to have hot showers even when it's not been sunny for days), making and indulging in a pot of curried pumpkin soup (Pumpkin freshly bought from my pumpkin guy at the pazar...yes, I have a "Pumpkin Guy" - isn't that great? He even chops it all up for you.), and now the act of sitting down and writing. All interspersed, of course with good coffee and conversation. Apart from a cookie baking date with one of my neighbours tonight (she is obsessed with my gingersnaps and wants to take some back to her university dorm when she leaves tomorrow), the only other thing on the agenda is some work (fun work, don't worry!) on photos from my Long Trip Home and some time curled up with a yet-to-be-determined novel.

Rest days for me are a determined act of the will - a conscious choice to set aside til tomorrow all the things pressing for my attention and to do things that are life-giving, all the while actively trusting that the One who carries all our burdens can handle all of mine if I stop to take a breather. My world will not stop spinning. In fact, it will very likely spin more smoothly. :)

Here's to deep breaths of life-giving air.