Girls on Film: Gender in the Republican Era

I stumbled across a wonderful blog today called One Man's Treasure, founded by Istanbul transplant John Tooey, a man with admiration for the kind of anonymous black and white photography one can pour through for hours in the antique shops behind Istiklal Caddesi. Tooey seems to have stumbled on a collection showing various poses of women in the Republican era in want seems to be a hint at cross-dressing culture. It doesn't take a wild leap of the imagination to infer an underground lesbian culture at the turn of the century of the popularised in Britain by the eye-opening series "Tipping the Velvet." Although this is mostly conjecture, the beauty of anonymous photography is in pulling the clues together and referring to history. As noted by Tooey, 

"lesbian and cross dressing subcultures existed in Berlin, Paris and London and in certain ways, Istanbul [...] was more self-consciously European than it is now. Still, if it was here it has been erased from history books. Even contemporary Turkish feminists confess ignorance of any such subculture. On the other hand, it’s the nature of collecting to be selective.  It’s hard to pass up an old photograph of a woman in man’s clothes even if the explanation turns out tamer than the image implies. So, are these photographs evidence of something more interesting and subversive taking place in Turkey than we are likely to find in the usual memoirs and reflections?"


Istanbul Welcomes The Wailers and Sattas

I'd known for a whole month that the Wailers were on their way to Istanbul to play at Besiktas' Kucukciftlik Park, but even waiting outside the event, I still didn't really know what to expect.

The original line-up had already - both literally and metaphorically - "moved on" before I was born, with new leads, drummers, guitarists and backing singers to boot. In fact, only Aston "Family Man" Barrett on bass is the sole survivor of anyone who played with the band in their heyday.

'Who are these Wailers?' I thought. 'Should I be excited by their musical lineage, or would I be gearing myself up for disappointment?

If you're waiting for the answer don't hold your breath - I'm as undecided in retrospect as I was at the end of the set.

The concert took place in Kucukciftlik Park, down the road from the Besiktas Stadium. In the summer the park holds large outdoor gigs and Electronica festivals, but in the biting February cold a canvas was erected, carpets thrown down and an impromptu bar fitted at the back. The whole thing could have held one and a half thousand, although possibly half that number arrived - tickets still being sold on the door. The thing I love about Istanbul is that my musical taste is eccentric enough to experience bands in a way I would never be able to in the UK (I am recalling especially high-fiving Manu Chao on stage in a tiny bar off Nevezade). 
One of the greatest discoveries of the evening (just seconded by the presence of punk chicks - who confirmed my hope that the late 70s' Reggae-Punk fraternity might be all but dead) was home-grown support act Sattas, who delivered the best warm-up act I've seen in years. I vaguely recall watching Sattas' clips on Youtube a while back, and simply dismissed them as average Turkish reggae. 

Shame on me. After all, what Turkish reggae? Oyku, the group's bassist states in an interview that "Until now Turkey has never seen this kind of music, we're trying to be the first." When seen live however, Sattas are no immitators. The entire outfit, with a special nod to the enigmatic frontman Orçun Sünear, have undoubtedly imbibed themselves with nothing but classic reggae since the age of fetus. Notable songs included Savas Bitmeli (War Must End) and Disko Krali (Disco King). Tight backing melodies set most songs up for well integrated riffs which despite their simplicity, literally dripped off the guitar and frothed in the audiences' mouths. And believe me, I am familiar with the correct usage of the word literally.

Obviously for some of Sattas' fans I imagine it was all too much - Turkey's only reggae fans, witnessing Turkey's only reggae band, followed by the Wailers. 

The Wailers delivered a great set. This is no lie. I hadn't listened to any of their  post-Marley work on the assumption that the group was no more after Bunny Wailer and Pete Tosh went their separate ways, but the first few tracks constituted live reggae at its best. The selection of older tracks was spot on: Crazy Baldheads and War/We Don't Need No Trouble were a nice suprise parenthesis formed around predictable old favourites like Get Up Stand Up and I Shot the Sheriff.

However, I have some misgivings which I attribute to a number of factors:

  • The intro to the set was a three chord reggae beat without vocals, which may well have fermented the crowds anticipation at other gigs, but following Sattas' charismatic performance, it just seemed a bit, lazy.
  • Of the two young leads singers, it became more and more obvious as the set progressed that one had been chosen purely for sounding the most like Bob Marley, which was great for some of the classics, but when it came to the Redemption Song finale, it just didn't feel right.
  • Redemption Song has been ruined for me by white men with guitars at bar fund-raisers in Birmingham.
  • Redeption Song is not a good way to end a gig for the above reason.
All in all, it felt like watching a cover band. A good cover band by all means, but a cover band none-the-less. The discovery of Sattas, hearing some Marley classics done professionally live and witnessing hip movement in dance (it's not very Turkish) definately made it worth the trip.


The Bulgarian Perspective

For a couple of days in the winter break, I and my American associate headed for the closest border crossing and ended up spending a few days in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

Sofia is cold. I expected as much in a week when around 300 had already died in the East European snow, but it gets real when you can't feel your feet on a two walking tour of the city. Admittedly, I was ill-prepared with converse but that only became more apparent as the day wore on.

Demitra was our guide for the day - a history masters student, something always exciting to this humanities geek. 

The tour began at the High Court, with its impressive lion statues outside and continued up and down Sofia's wide boulevards passing churches, cathedrals, hotels, shopping centres, and old roman bath houses which had been later converted into churches, cathedrals, hotels and shopping centres. 

Bulgaria was carved out of the Ottoman Empire on Russia's demand via the treaty of San Sefano in 1877. Russia's various wars against the empire in the 19th century weakened the Ottomans and made Bulgaria not only independent, but sympathetic to Russia. Unlike most post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe, you get the sense that Bulgarians don't quite curse the day when the Red Army took over after the Second World War. Although the Nazis never occupied Bulgaria per se (they were allies), the old royal-bourgeois establishment was replaced by a functioning socialist state.

I had heard about the Bulgarian hatred of the Turks from those foreigners working in Turkey who go on 'visa runs' to Sofia for a day and shoot back to Istanbul with a freshly stamped three month visa in lieu of a work permit. I had also heard from those Thracian and Izmiri friends whose Muslim Turk families living in Bulgaria fled to Turkey in the early 90s. Rather than focusing on shifting from a communist to capitalist economic set-up, the Bulgarian government focused its efforts on removing the remnants of earlier oppressions. Rumour has it that Muslim marriages were invalidated and circumcision and halal meat was outlawed to promote a new sense of nationhood, again.

From one part of the city centre, suitably nicknamed "Tolerance Square," one can see in the same glimpse, a mosque built by Mimar Sinan, a glorious domed synagogue and the former "biggest church in the Balkans." However, alluding to the treatment of minorities in the times of distress, our guide noted the hollow optimism in such a nick-name.

I pinned Dimitre down in a coffee shop to ask why Bulgaria's historiography has focused more on pre-Soviet days as its moment of glorious struggle than other former bloc countries.

"That is a good question, firstly, I think Bulgarians are very passive people - they just accept their situation, so if it wasn't for the Russians Bulgaria would not have freed itself. I also think Bulgarians' natural sympathy to Russians [and thus to its ideology] meant that during the Soviet period they were spared the worst excesses of the regime, for example it was not like we had a Prague Spring moment where we said 'no'"

The mosque where one Turksih-Bulgarian worshiper, seeing me
stooping down to put on some converse in -18 degrees, shoved
 a 20 Euro in my pocket and told me to put something proper on my
feet before speeding away. 
More info:

Book a free (but worth giving a tip) tour of the city: http://www.freesofiatour.com/
Our back-backer hub of a hostel, internationally recognised and highly recommended, was called Hostel Mostel, right in the city: http://www.hostelmostel.com/