'Baklahorani' then and now

'Baklahorani' then and now

Sometimes my little habit of checking dates and making silly comparisons pays back. 

Take today. What happened on this day, a few decades or perhaps a century ago? In Turkey, in Greece, in Istanbul, in Athens. How were things then? How are things now?

Today is an important date on the Christian Orthodox calendar: It is the first day of the forty-day Lent before Easter and the day after a three week-carnival period where all festivities and food were free before abstention and spiritual preparation for the big feast of Easter.

Today is the beginning of Lent and a public holiday for Greece. People abstain from meat, but they eat fish and anything that comes from the sea. It is the day after the last Sunday of Carnival, where all over the country people allow themselves the opportunity to enjoy a good street entertainment and to mock everyone and everything under the disguise of a colorful masquerade costume with their satirical floats. Their politicians can be freely ridiculed, often to the extreme. The day after, though, on “Clean Monday” (Shrove Monday), the masquerades finish, and an extended period of fasting begins, at least in theory.

Exactly, one hundred years ago, on “Clean Monday,” in one of the liveliest neighborhoods of Istanbul, Tatavla, today’s Kurtuluş, people were also in high festive mood, a taste of which comes to us via the Greek newspaper “Proodos” printed in Istanbul. In its 1918 edition, we read “Greek bandits with fustanella and scimitars; others appeared as Oriental hamal or doctors pretending to deliver pregnant women in the middle of the street. Mock funerals processed with pretend corpses inside the coffins and followed by priests, widows and relatives …”

For the Greek Orthodox community living in Ottoman lands, especially the Rums of Istanbul, “Clean Monday” had a special importance. “Baklahorani,” as they called it, was a combination of carnival and an event to mark the beginning of Lent. On that Monday of 1918, the Istanbul Greeks, especially in the center of the city, arrived dressed up in humorous outfits, paraded in their main streets, and ended up eating and dancing in large communal feasts. It was a centuries-old tradition that was banned in 1943, much to the disappointment of the Istanbul community.

But customs can be revived if circumstances permit, and in an atmosphere of general optimism for a period of openness in Turkey, the idea to revive the “Baklahorani” was put forward in 2009 by Hüseyin Irmak, a Kurtuluş-born researcher and Greek expat Haris Theodorelis Rigas who had settled in Istanbul. Clean Monday in 2009 was on 13th March, and Hürriyet Daily News describes the event: “Celebrants snaked down from pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi into Tarlabaşı, a suitable path to mark the history and essence of parades past… Shoppers and diners in Istanbul’s cosmopolitan center stared as men dressed as women paraded by in shiny pink carnival masks. Following a festival tradition of dressing up as regional characters and ancestors in local dress, others donned colorful beaded dresses or fezzes and elaborate moustaches.”

There was a lot enthusiasm, the revived “Baklahorani” enjoyed a broad media coverage but fizzled out after a few years.

This year’s “Clean Monday” came early. Orthodox Easter is on April 8. The Rums of Istanbul will be celebrating their Baklahorani with their families at home; the mainland Greeks will be starting the forty days fasting with traditional seafood-based meals, mostly in the countryside. But the crisis with Turkey is in everybody’s mind. The recent incident around Kardak/Imia has caused alarm, and the politicians’ assurances do not seem convincing. Otherwise, how can I explain my elderly’s aunt early morning call asking me: “Are we going to war with Turkey?”

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