Carrying their pride: girls walk toward Cihangir...and a "TOMA" (water cannon).

Carrying their pride: walking toward Cihangir…and a TOMA (water cannon).

I was in a buoyant mood on Sunday afternoon; buoyed with patriotism from the news of the past week: marriage equality, Obamacare standing pat. I hadn’t felt that proud for America in a long time, and I was transferring that pride to my adopted second home, Turkey, looking forward to the 20,000-plus in attendance for what was billed the biggest Pride parade to ever take place in the Muslim world. It was a glorious, not-too-hot summer day in Istanbul. Breezes from the Black Sea, good vibes…. Then…

“Don’t go!” my wife messaged me as the Metrobus groaned and galloped over the Bosphorus Bridge.

They were shutting Pride down, the parade, Istiklal Caddesi, everything, she wrote. Flashing to the event page on Facebook, I found frantic “iyi misiniz, arkadaslar?” (“Are you ok, friends?”) posts and comments on the actions of the police, who were not allowing the protestors to go to the main promenade.

Tear gas, rubber bullets — memories of 24 months ago flashed in my mind.

Back to real world of self expression in Turkey.

Revelers move to Cihangir

Revelers move to Cihangir

Defiant, I went there anyway. I was too late for the water cannons and rubber bullets. Probably for the best.

Pride shines through the darkness

Pride shines through the darkness

By the time I exited the metro station at Taksim, the cops had already formed a human chain around the Ataturk victory statue in Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi. The atmosphere was decidedly non-festive. People, however, were funneling down Siraselviler Caddesi, so I followed them, toward Cihangir, the indomitable bastion of progressive Istanbul, right?

What I found was not defeated protestors cursing the police, more like season veterans clearing their throats of tear gas residue — and then, smiling, defiant revelers.

What I found in the central Cihangir square in front of Firusaga Camii was smiling faces, signs saying “get used to us, we’re here!” “there ARE trans women!” Chanting. Singing. Jumping up and down.

...not before being sealed out by a human police chain

…not before being sealed out of Taksim Square by a human police chain.

Walking down the avenues, I saw blond tourists from Europe, couples meandering the streets, students — including one from the conservative university where I work — music (yes, “It’s raining men!” played at one point, stoking memories of countless parties from my 20’s), great costumes, people from all walks of life.

While it all made me realize how far Turkey has to go before catching up to Europe and the U.S. when it comes to marriage equality, there was a victory of another sort in Istanbul on Sunday. You won’t read about it in the headlines, and rightfully so: canceling an approved parade for no discernible reason is wrong, and Al Jazeera, CNN, etc., were right to put it on their homepages.

But the less reported story, which made me smile, was that pride won.

In Turkey, it’s always 2 steps forward, 1.8 steps back with these sorts of things. But that tiny step kept Istanbul’s link to the biggest civil rights movement of our time alive and smiling.

Indomitable Cihangir, Indomitable Istanbul, Indomitable Pride.

Vendors selling Pride paraphernalia.



Istanbul Pride 2015 Cihangir




Cihangir square pride

Pride silver hair

saudade hüzünlü ahtapot

The saudade/hüzünlü octopus, by Rukiye Uçar.

We crave you, we miss you, we yearn for you
Your eight legs of heaven
Portuguese octopus!
Jump in some rice
or olive oil
for us              –Zeynep & Ezra

Seems like we ate octopus in some form every day during our recent vacation in Portugal: usually chopped up in bit size chunks, drizzled with virgin olive oil, served cold. Once, at a Fado night in Lisbon’s Alfama district, it was mixed with rice, a light and garlicky tomato sauce.

So, on honor of the octopus and her 8 delicious legs, which both Turks and Portuguese love (it was on the tourist menu, at least), I thought I’d write about similarities between my adopted country and Portugal.

8. Yearning for the past — Melancholic nostalgia is so strong in both cultures that both have a word for it: saudade in Portuguese; hüzün in Turkish. For the Portuguese, they yearn for the glory Age of Empires of the 15th and 16th centuries, when Portugal’s tentacles (hey-oo!) of trade and conquest stretched from Brazil to Japan. Turkey’s, of course, is all about the Ottoman glory days — which happened around the same time — and its centuries of land based conquests from the gates of Vienna to the Bab el-Mandeb. Saudade is expressed in Portugal by means of fado.

The Porto waterfront on an early June afternoon.

The Porto waterfront on an early June afternoon.

7. Waiting for the savior — Both countries revere strong leaders, and according to a couple Portuguese people we met, at least, Portugal is waiting for that great noble leader to take them back to aforementioned glory days. Portuguese wait for another Alfonso I, the brash first king of Portugal in the 12th century. Some Turks yearn for Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman conquerer at the apex of Ottomania. More recently Turks wait for a benevolent dictator like Atatürk, and the culture of head strong, confrontational leaders explains the popularity of Recep Tayip Erdoğan. Portugal had Antonio Salazar, who was, like Atatürk, a learned and authoritarian leader — albeit far more controversial. Both men presided after times of chaos, Salazar’s being after the first republic, when there were 44 governments in 16 years. Atatürk , of course, came after World War I to resuscitate a devastated Turkish society.

6. Futbol! — Yeah yeah, futbol is big EVERYWHERE, you say. What I mean is the similarity of their respective top-heavy domestic leagues. Both have a “big three” which have won nearly all domestic first league titles. Turkey has the big three Istanbul clubs, Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe. Portugal has Benfica, Sporting Clube de Portugal and FC Porto, which of course, is located in Porto, the second largest city.

5. Lower Brittania — White, pasty bodies hop off the plane; lobsterbacks hop back on. Droves of British tourists and retirees form contribute to a huge portion of the GDPs of both nations. About 2.1 British nationals visit Portugal every year, 2.5 million visit Turkey, according to official statistics.. In Turkey, it’s Marmaris, Kusadasi, Bodrum. In Portugal, it’s Lagos and the south coast.

4, Brain Drain — There was a brief period of hope that Turkey would be a boom country around the time I came to Turkey, but especially now, secular Turks are leaving, fearful of an intolerant, religious, authoritarian regime and sluggish economic growth. The outflow started in the 1960’s with German guest worker programs. Portugal had a similar exodus in the 1960’s of people fleeing Salazar. But those emigrations in both nations were mostly poor, uneducated. Now, it’s the educated human capital which is leaving. Apparently, London is the most popular destination for young Portuguese. Hey, at least Portugal is in the EU.

3, Climate — Both have Mediterranean climates. But both also have a number of climate zones for being relatively small countries. The moist, maritime climate of the costal regions of Portugal is like the Black Sea. The Douro Valley is classic Mediterranean. Lisbon feels like Istanbul: the metropolitan area is at the confluence of Mediterranean and continental/maritime zones. Sintra (north of Lisbon) and Sile/Agava (north of Istanbul) are green and cloudier places influenced by the Black Sea and Atlantic, respectively , while the Princes’ Islands and Lisbon’s estuary fronting areas have distinct Mediterranean feels.

2, Complaining — Ok this one is a bit of reach, since everyone loves to complain. But like the Turks, Portuguese can complain about their culture all they want, but you are better off not complaining too much if you are a foreigner! The sun is shining, there is delicious seafood and wine, but the Portuguese will still find something to complain about, or so I have been told!

This tomato has the portuguese cross! Ay, maria, it's a miracle!

This tomato has the Portuguese cross! Ay, maria, it’s a miracle! (Octopus and rice at Fado night in Alfama, Lisbon)

1. Food! — Did you think I was going to end with anything else? I’ll start with seafood, as it’s the theme here. Hand it to the Portuguese for more creative culinary creations, like octopus rice, but the staple is throwing the fish on the grill, eating it as it looks when it’s alive, as it is in Turkey with balık izgara. Cod, now no longer found in Portuguese seas, is everywhere, but so are common fish found in Turkey, such as sea bream, mullet, etc. There’s loads of olives, too, of course, not to mention mezze/tapas culture (our octopus salads are quite similar) called petiscos in Portuguese, and long slow dinners over a bottle and some conversation.

Turkey could use more of this. Viva viniculture! (Pinhao, Douro Valley)

Turkey could use more of this. Viva viniculture! (Pinhao, Douro Valley wine country)

However, I will end with two key differences, things one can learn from the other: First

Turkey: wine! Learn from the Portuguese example (something unlikely with this government) by refining the wine making process. And Portugal: Breakfast! Any Turk or Turkey expat will very soon miss the royal breakfast treatment of a serpme kahvaltası, with the cornucopia of morning delights. Gulping an espresso and devouring a croissant is too continental for my blood! (but I love the amazing espresso!)

Did I miss anything? Leave it in the comments below!

How to Marry a Turk

May 25, 2015

Editor’s Note: This post is intended for Americans marrying Turkish citizens in a belediye nikah salonu (municipal wedding hall) in Istanbul. For other nationalities, other cities in Turkey, or if you want your wedding officiated offsite, kolay gelsin, I have little experience, but if you ask in the comments, I will try to help. -EM

Congratulations! You are going to say your “evets”, and maybe dance the halay and pick up a few gold coins. It’s May and wedding season, so I thought it would be a good time to help those in need with the rather the bureaucratic process of getting married in Istanbul.

Just after our wedding ceremony at the Maltepe Evlendirme Dairesi (municipal wedding hall).

Just after our wedding ceremony at the Maltepe Evlendirme Dairesi (municipal wedding hall).

If you are reading this, you may know that there is some running around to do, and maybe you’ve asked a friend or coworker who is married to a Turk, but you still aren’t totally sure how to go about it.

The first step is to make a notarial appointment at the Istanbul U.S. Consulate located in Istinye on the European side, up the Bosphorus in the Sariyer district (ways to get there).

It’s the first step because the appointment slots fill up fast (there are none available Friday afternoon). Wait periods are long: they can range from two weeks to well over a month. At the time of writing, the appointments for May were fully booked, and the time slots for June hadn’t been made available. Fill out the PDF affidavit at the consular site, print it and bring it.

At the consulate, you will wait anywhere for 5 minutes to an hour (you have to leave your cell phone, so bring a book). You will say an oath swearing that you are not married in the States. The process requires a passport, the PDF form, and $50 cash.

After that, take the affidavit to the valilik (mayor’s office) in Cağoğlu near Sultanahmet. You will get an apostille stamp on the second floor of this sad, dark, bureaucratic building. It’s free.

Meanwhile, you or your Turkish spouse-to-be will arrange to have some medical tests. Turkish citizens just get an evlilik testi. For the American’s, it’s not so simple. American men need to get tested for akdeniz anemesi, or Mediterranean anemia (at least I was asked for that, not everyone is). I had it done at a private medical test lab on Bahariye Caddesi in Kadikoy. Any private lab offering blood tests should be able to do it. It was about 100 TL and took about a week to get the results back. Some clinics, such as the Rana Bese Saglik Polikligi in Kadikoy, can do it all in one shot for at least 200 TL. Call for confirmation.

For regular blood tests, I went to a free clinic run by the Maltepe Belediyesi (municipality). They take chest x-rays (also required), and simple blood tests.

We aimed to save money, so we ran around more. It’s worth paying more to get it all done in one go if you can. Have your Turkish significant other call around to different hospitals and clinics if you are unsure.

After receiving the blood test results, the Mediterranean anemia results, the x-ray image, and making a bunch of passport-sized photos, we went to my spouses family’s local aile hekimi (family doctor). These are located in the saglik ocağı (health clinic) where your future Turkish spouse maintains residency. These neighborhood doctors are determined by the government according to official residence. This site can help your Turkish partner locate his/her family doctor if it’s not known. You can make an appointment over the phone (recommended) or drop in.

After this, you take the health report form, affidavit from the consulate, passport, residency permit, plus the administrative fees and passport-sized photos (ranging from 100 TL to more than 700, depending on the size of the hall rented and the day of the week/time) to the belediye nikah salonu (municipal wedding hall) where your Turkish spouse lives.

NOTE: If you want to get married outside of your Turkish spouse’s ilçe (district) of residence, you take all the above forms to the your local evlendirme dairesi. They give a special form giving permission to marry outside the district, and you take that plus the administrative fees to the district where you want to tie the knot. Both bride and groom must be present at both evlendirme daireleri to get the forms.

For example, my friend Damla and her husband wanted to get married in Maltepe, but there residences were Kartal and Fatih districts, respectively. So they both submitted their required documents to Kartal’s marriage hall, then took the special form to Maltepe and paid their fee.

Some municipalities ask for a birth certificate (Kadıköy did, Maltepe, where we got married, did not), so it’s good to have this as well. Some may ask for a notarized translation of your passport. I got this and wasted 100 TL, neither Kadıköy nor Maltepe required it.

The tricky thing for us was the timing of the whole procedure. Because we wanted to get married at a large marriage hall on a summer weekend, we had to make an appointment at least a few months in advance, but appointments can only be made a maximum of six months in advance.

So you need to start the process early enough that all the documents in order to give yourself a few months time to snap up a desired summer weekend time. However, all marriage documents are only valid 6 months maximum. So there is a time window. Compounding this is the fact that Ramadan falls smack in the middle of summer in this decade, and nearly all Turkish families wouldn’t prefer attending marriages during Ramadan — especially if booze will be involved in the düğün (reception).

Also, check with the belediye (municipality) where you plan to get married to see how far in advance you can reserve a ceremony date. Most are 6 months, but could be less, which could make your window of time to get all the documents ready even shorter.

(Of course, if you wouldn’t mind going in and signing the papers at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, then this doesn’t apply to you.)

For example, if you are planning to get married on a Saturday in August — and you need to tell Aunt Greta back home the exact date — given the wait times at the consulate, it would be best to get an appointment at the consulate for February or March, meaning making that appointment in January.

Good luck!

PS: The Turkey Travel Planner has some nice general advice on what to do.

The Frontier Carnival

March 7, 2015

He is not holding a bag. It's the traditional musical instrument "Gaida". It's a bagpipe, an airtight bag of sheepskin or goatskin. He is "just a fat Greek old guy who is drinking alcohol, eating sausages, playing music and enjoying his life," according to Sotiris, our host.

The Xanthi Carnival parade man isn’t holding a bag. It’s the traditional musical instrument “Gaida”. It’s a bagpipe, an airtight bag of sheepskin or goatskin. He is “just a fat Greek old guy who is drinking alcohol, eating sausages, playing music and enjoying his life,” according to Sotiris, our host.

A blazing effigy of the Carnival Tsar, parades of floats and costumed troupes serenaded by blasting techno and Euro pop, fireworks, and walking around stumbling drunk with a water bottle filled with tsipouro.  Oh, Yes. Istanbulus don’t have to go to Brazil to enjoy Carnival season. In fact, there is a carnival just down the road — with all the confetti, costumes and dancing in the street. And it’s all a few hours away by bus. To top it off, it’s mostly locals: you don’t feel like part of a tourist spectacle.

Got to get down before Lent!

Partying in Xanthi Square the last Saturday night before Lent

But like other Carnivals around the world, this one is filled with costumes, pranks, whistles and (a few) scantily clad women. This is perhaps the closest carnival to the frontier of the Christian-Muslim world. We first got wind of this mysterious Greek carnival from our friend Fatih, who booked an ETS weekend tour trip to Thessaloniki and towns in western Thrace. It was over drinks at a friend’s farewell party in Kadikoy. A carnival you dare say? We asked incredulously. What is this…close-by, small town revelry of which you speak? I was suspicious at first. Eh, I’ve been to “Thess” thrice, I murmured, when my wife Zeynep immediately begged us to go. I’m not going to join a tour where we spend the night there.

Xanthi Carnival parade

A woman stands on a parade float during the main parade in central Xanthi.

So we went…alone, minus Thessaloniki, and on the overnight bus/Couchsurfing style like it was 2010, when I was a border-running, private-English-lesson vagabond. Xanthi (Iskece in Turkish jive) is located about 400 km and one boring border crossing to the west of Istanbul. It’s home to a significant Turkish population (about half of the total city’s count) a quaint old city with late Ottoman era buildings and charming winding little streets…and the second largest carnival in Greece. For those (like me) who didn’t know, it’s not just the Catholics who enjoy colorful festivities in February. In Greece, it takes place in the weeks leading up to “Clean Monday”, the Monday in late February (this year, the 23rd) which kicks off the meat-free Lent season. DSC_0893 We arrived on an Ulusoy overnight bus from the big Istanbul otogar (Esenler) at 5:30 in the morning, after the border round up featuring a zombie middle-of the-night duty free shopping spree. It was a good sign that there were still a smattering of drunken revelers heading home. Yes, I thought to myself, this seems like a bona fide carnival. Not wanting to disturb our Cuchsurfing host — a man who turned out to be the Greek god of Couchsurfing hosts — at such a wee hour, we were surprised to find a börek shop open, and more surprised to discover they spoke Turkish quite fluently with a strong Greek accent. (I’ve been told that the Turks in Kominti and Alexandropouli, towns closer to the Turkish border, speak Turkish better than they do Greek, but those of Xanthi speak Greek as well or better than they do Turkish).

A festive vendor sells souvlaki.

A festive vendor sells souvlaki.

We waited until the more reasonable time of 6:30 to head to Sotiris’s house. After we took a short nap we headed out to see the action. Sotiris took us to the Saturday bazaar. If you live in Turkey, or have spent more than 16 hours here, this bazaar will make you feel right at home. The difference may be the consignment-store feeling of the name brand steals in jackets that can be had, or the kalamata olives, but other than that not too much to make you feel alien. We walked the main streets of new town, where the carnival takes place, past the famous 19th century clock tower in the platia (square), past a couple costume shops and the large speakers placed along the parade route. This being Greece in winter, the weather can be rainy, but on the Saturday of that last weekend of Carnival, it was a fairly pleasant 8 C and sunny.


Fireworks on Saturday night in Xanthi.

That night we partied. We watched a minin-parade warm up featuring people dressed in last year’s carnival costumes, a prelude to the grand parade the next day. Wooo boy! we partied like we were at, well, a you know. Sotiris took us to a quaint, low ceilinged bar in a stone building owned by a friend. Most of it’s a blur. I will say this: I’ve never seen my wife more drunk. Moving on…

Revelers walk through Old Town Xanthi after the parade .

Revelers walk through Old Town Xanthi after the parade .

xanthi parade woman The next day we stood in attention waiting for the big parade, hungover heads absorbing the music from the baboon-sized speakers posted every 50 meters along the main drag (it starts at about noon). At about one, there was the Carnival king float (see first picture), and the procession began: There was about an hour of various Greek “societies” consisting of 20 to 100 people, walking down the street in matching colorful costumes — dogs, Mickey Mice, cavemen and the like. I thought they were unions, but Sotiris said they paid like 30 euro and got the costumes.

One of the parade clubs in their matching costumes.

One of the parade clubs in their matching costumes.

“One thing that used to be different at this carnival,” said the 30-something Sotiris, born and raised in Xanthi “is that people used to take time to make their own costumes. Everyone’s was different, no cheap masks. People also used to throw candy to the parade watchers.” We then meandered around the city. The town gets very quiet very fast once you leave the main area. Perhaps it’s my own bias: but the Muslim community there seems happier, calmer, more prosperous and content than most Turks do, and you get an inkling of what it might have been like in the more peaceful times of Ottoman days, various cultures living with what — on the surface, of course — appeared to be multi-cultural harmony. IMG_1340 After a mediocre meal with atmosphere in a village house-themed restaurant, it began to get dark and rainy. Nevertheless, we were going to take an overnight bus to Istanbul in a few hours, and we’d be damned if we weren’t going to see an effigay of a giant headed Russian Tsar, who looked eerily like a caricature of a 19-the century “trickster” Jew, albeit with a green beard and a purple vest like something from a Duran Duran video (in other towns in Greece, they do call it the burning of the Jew). The tsar was in a riverbed below a bridge and flanked by a park. Finally, around seven, some men lit brambles of dried brush placed around the head, and the Tsar was blazing. As he smoldered, a fireworks show, rivaling that of any small town July Fourth show, kicked off. It was a fitting end to a great weekend escape, to the beginning of Lent, and to the ingraining of a memory of a weekend getaway that beat the late winter blues.

The "Carnival Tsar" before and just as he was burned on Sunday evening.

The “Carnival Tsar” before and just as he was burned on Sunday evening (below).

IMG_1457 To get there…  Ulusoy (the better alternative) has two buses daily to Kavala-Xanthi-Thessaoloniki, departing at 9 am and 9 pm from Esenler Otogar. It takes between 6 and 8 hours to Xanthi, depending on the wait at the border. Return trips are at 11:45 am and 11:45 pm. Metro also has three daily trips to Xanthi leaving Istanbul Otogar at 10 am, 6 pm and 10 pm. Exact Return times are unknown due to a crappy Metro website. Google “metro turizm” for theirs.

Rose Turkish Funeral

When you live in a different country for long enough, you begin to experience some major life events there. If those years coincide with your late 20’s and early 30’s, you will attend a few weddings there and…maybe you will be lucky enough to have one one of your own.

One thing I hadn’t been to — fortunately — since arriving in Turkey was a funeral. My purpose in this post is to inform what to expect when this solemn event occurs.

I attended two funerals in the past few months. The first was a Sunni funeral. The second was an Alevi funeral. Both of those who passed on were fathers of friends.

The Sunni Village Funeral

The body of Mehmet's father in the courtyard of a Sakarya mosque.

The body of Mehmet’s father in the courtyard of a Sakarya mosque.

The first who passed on was the father of my “godfather”, Mehmet, Ali. Mehmet is a dear friend of ours. He is a sort of godfather because, in the absence of my real father, he “requested” Zeynep’s family for their daughter’s hand in marriage. He was a witness at our wedding. He’s shown time and time again what a true friend he is.

So rushing to his side wasn’t a question when we heard the dire news.

“Hey Mehmet! How you doing, buddy? You want to watch the match?” I called on a Saturday evening in October. Galatasaray and Fenerbahce were playing their semi annual derbiy and being good-natured fans of the opposite teams, we enjoy watching the matches together with my wife Zeynep and our mutual friends.

“I’m…not bad I guess, not bad.”

“What’s up, man?”

Then he told the story: his father had begun mysteriously bleeding internally approximately a week earlier. He was admitted to Göztepe Hospital (in Kadikoy), and his condition deteriorated. I offered my sympathies, then watched the match alone thinking he’d pull through.

But later that evening, a mutual friend called.

“It’s getting really bad, we are going to congregate at the café at the hospital,” she said.

In Turkey, like a lot of other cultures, friends and family congregate near the hospital to be near the grieving at the time near demise.

We sat around on that chilly, rainy Friday night drinking cheap cays with his mom and grandkids, eating homemade börek, pastries and sour ayva (quince) with salt. The fruit was from Mehmet’s village in Sakarya, a forested province about two hour’s drive east of Istanbul. One of Mehmet’s uncles tried to lighten the mood with a story of flipping a 50 kurus coin and it landing upright. “It is basically impossible!” He tapped the table with that proclamation.

Mehmet’s dad’s condition stable, we went home. Next morning, around 10, we got the call that he passed on. We greeted sobbing relatives back at the hospital.

Then, unexpectedly to me as an American, everyone started arranging car ride options.

We were going to a funeral. In a village. In Sakarya. Two hours away.

Not what I expected…though not surprising to me given that Jewish burials also take place very shortly after death.

We rode with Mehmet’s good friend’s brother. It was a crisp, cool sunny day in the bosom of autumn. We turned off the expressway in Sakarya, the topography began to look like parts of the Coast Range in the Pacific Northwest of the US.

Municipalities offer to transport the deceased for free, even to villages hundreds of kilometers away.

Municipalities offer to transport the deceased for free, even to villages hundreds of kilometers away.

We came to the village, on a hillside with varied, modest, cozy looking homes, a slapdash of colors with some haphazard sheds and lean-tos thrown in, potted plants on small front porches surrounded by unpruned fruit trees.

This was a sunni village, so women and men gathered separately to mourn in front of Mehmet’s old childhood home.

Zeynep and I split up, as did our driver friend and his wife. Slowly , a procession of strangers from the village came to shake my hand, and the hands of Surreya and Cengiz, other friends in our close crew who had made the trip with us.

Suddenly, a van showed up. It was the Istanbul Municipality’s Department of Dying, so to speak, and they, as a free service, carry the deceased to his or her final resting place. This service is surprising in that it’s free. More surprising is that they brought the body a couple hundred kilometers.

Prayers were said, hands were held upright with finger tips touching. This pose felt spiritual, a pose for receiving life energy not unlike some meditation gestures I’ve learned.

After a protracted silence, wailing by the widow, the imam, with a portable loudspeaker of terrible sound quality, said prayers over the body.

The men in the group, carried the body to the mosque. There, I shook hands with people and we murmured “Başına sağ olsun” (literally “health to your head”) to each other. This condolence is said among close relatives and distant acquaintances alike when someone dies.

Then I went along with the heard of men and lined up in the courtyard of the mosque, facing the body and Mecca for the cenazi namazı (funeral prayers).

All Turkish Muslim funerals contain some version of the following question/response:

Imam: Hakkinizi helal ediyor musunuz?
Congregation: Helal olsun!

This is a blessing given from the congregation to the deceased. While no exact translation exists, the imam is asking the people in attendance to accept and bless the deceased person, to proclaim before Allah that they have no claims against or misgivings toward the deceased, and will therefore not have any divine grudges, so to speak. It seems like a ritualistic letting go.

Onlookers react as loved ones bury the deceased.

Onlookers react as loved ones bury the deceased in a Sakarya village.

We stood. Hands held up, facing the deceased and Mecca. We then turned our heads to the left and right.

All the men then gathered for tea. After a hot cup in the crisp autumn sunshine, the casket was again picked up. The procession escorted it to its final resting place.

Close male relatives began digging the grave, which had already been started by workers. The casket was laid quite deep (though we have the expression “six feet under,” it’s surprising to see how deep below the headstone the casket is laid). After prayers, various male mourners empty a few ceremonial shovelfuls of earth were placed on the casket before the burying began in earnest.

We then returned to the house for some food prepared by neighbors. Helva — a mealy wheat dessert made with milk, water, butter and semolina — is a staple of Turkish funerals. A full meal is often served. In Alevi funerals, chicken/meat and rice and ayran are served. In Sunni funerals, many variety of foods can be served. I can say I enjoyed the best turşu (pickled vegetables) I have ever had.

An Alevi funeral in a Working Class Suburb

The cem evi in the Anatolian side of Istanbul where the funeral took place.

The cem evi in the Anatolian side of Istanbul where the funeral took place.

As deaths seem to come in bunches, a couple months later, another friend’s father passed on. Ercan, coincidentally, is best friends with Mehmet, which has proven to be cold comfort for their sharing of sorrows.

Alevi funerals can be said to be less orthodox, especially in terms of separating of the sexes. An imam similarly gives comforting words at an Alevi funeral, and say requisite prayers. Men and women are allowed to stand in line together for this. Post-funeral meals are eaten together as well. In my experience, the prayers said seemed quite similar, with head turning and hand gestures.

One would never see a quote from Mevlana (Rumi) in a sunni place of worship. ("What is the guilt of the sea if your plate is small")

One wouldn’t likely see a quote from Mevlana (Rumi) in a sunni place of worship. (“What is the guilt of the sea if your plate is small”).

The biggest difference is perhaps that the alevi funeral takes place at a cem evi. The cem evi is a center of prayer, known as cem to alevis of the Haci Bektas order, and for sema, ritual dances a la the whirling dervishes. A cem evi is a bit like a neighborhood small town church and community center in the States, whereas the mosque is more like a cathedral. The cem evi is not officially considered a place of worship by the government, only sunni mosques are (that’s a controversial topic for another time.)

Cem ceremonies were done in old times done outdoors and with candles, and people gathered outside both outside and inside for this funeral. People often eat in cem evi. A cafeteria and bookstore were located in the cem evi I attended. Songs are sung and even a baglama is played at cem services, though there was no music at this funeral. Nefes, a bit like Christian hymns, are also sung during normal prayer times.

Villagers in Sakarya offered their homes to strangers for a full meal.

Villagers in Sakarya offered their homes to strangers for a full meal.

On this occasion, plain pide (flatbread) and ayran were distributed to the attendees, as was the usual helva. We offered our condolences. Then we went to a suburban cemetery for the burial. There was no formal procession, as the crowding and distances of Istanbul doesn’t seem to be conducive to walking processions.

The experience felt similar, though the plots for the dead were as crowded in as the plots for the living. I noticed in this graveyard that the average lifespans on even the recent headstones was less than 65 years, a reminder that this was a working class Turkish cemetery.

After Ercan’s father’s funeral, we went to kız kulesi (Maiden’s Tower). It was my first time in the iconic Istanbul landmark. Someone asked: should we have felt guilty about taking pictures and throwing them up on Facebook, since we just came from a funeral? Life’s short,  mumbled. I guess the deceased would want to make sure we lived life fully.

The cemeteries of Turkey were a bit like Maiden’s Tower, which is a tomb in its own folkloric right. I’ve seen them from afar, never entered. I must have passed by cemeteries on busses thousands of times, yet never experienced them fully. But now I’ve entered and left both. And in their own completely different ways, experiencing them are reflections of a fuller life lived.

Basic Differences Between Sunni and Alevi Funerals 

Sunni Alevi
n  women and men pray separatelyn  Only Arabic prayers are allowedn  It’s called “cenazi namazi” funeral prayer.

n  Takes place in a mosque

n  Respects are paid to Prophet Muhammad.

n  women attend and are mixed during funeral prayersn  If you have other prayers to say, you are welcome to pray in your own languagen  Its called “cenazi toreni” or funeral ceremony

n  Takes place in a cem evi

n  Respects are paid to Muhammad, the Imam Ali and the other twelve spiritual successors to Mohammed.


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