Friday, 30 October 2015

Turkey – the carnival atmosphere of Republic Day

29 October

Hello everyone!

Turkey is a relatively young nation. Its land formed the backbone of the Ottoman Empire, which crumbled in the aftermath of its defeat in the First World War. Though not strictly colonised by another nation, it took a few years for the place which we now see as Turkey to officially declare itself a nation, free from any Allied occupation. This announcement was made on October 29th, 1923: Republic Day. 


This is one of the most notable days in the Turkish calendar. It remembers the birth of the nation and reemphasises the importance of their favourite son, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (the airport in Istanbul is named after him). It was Ataturk who expelled the Allied forces in 1922 and his parliament which formally disbanded the Sultanate, which had ruled for centuries before. When the Republic was officially announced on 29th October in the following year, Ataturk became modern Turkey’s first President.

Ataturk - hero of a nation

A billboard (possibly) reminding people of the date of Republic Day
Festivities take place across the country. One of the recommended places to enjoy Republic Day is a small town on the south coast called Kaş. By remarkable coincidence – it genuinely was as we decided to go before discovering the date of Republic Day – we happened to be staying in Kaş at this particular time.
Location of Kas on a map of Turkey
A photo from an old celebration of Republic Day in Kas' main square
A local drummer in Kas' main square
Turkey, however, has been experiencing a turbulent period in its history. Rocked by bombings in its capital, Ankara, earlier in the month, we were told upon our arrival in the south that a big party wasn’t likely to occur in Kaş for Republic Day. Perfectly understandable.

The aftermath of the Ankara bombings (picture from BBC)

Ever the optimists, we spent the morning of October 29th strolling around the alleys of the town, looking for signs of celebration. What we saw were masses of Turkish flags adorning almost every building. Pride for the nation was clearly unshaken by the earlier atrocities.

An old amphitheatre in Kas
Kaş’s main plaza is situated next to one of its many small harbours. As we ambled towards it in the afternoon sun, the volume seemed to increase. When we caught sight of the square, we saw a small group of men positioning tables from their restaurants…into the square. A canopy of flags hung over the entire square, gently flapping in the light wind. Clearly something was going on.

The main square in Kas, filled with tables in preparation for the evening's events

The main square in Kas
Turns out the big party was on after all! We excitedly made our reservation and were told to be in the square soon after sunset, at around 6:30pm.

Sunset - complete with Turkish flag - from our apartment in Kas

The next few hours were brilliant. It may not have been a truly authentic experience – we were by far not the only foreigners sat at tables in the square – but it was an explosion of Turkish pride.

Two locals capturing their Republic Day
 Red flags were waving frantically as songs capable of perforating eardrums boomed from speakers and the lungs of hundreds of Turks. Possibly thousands. The square was packed, with every table (apart from the table for 29 near us, which arrived so late I wouldn't call it fashionable) enjoying the food being prepared by the plethora of restaurants situated on the three land-facing edges of the square. The other side, where land meets sea, was dominated by a stage flashing its pyrotechnics and hosting a band.

Near the stage, a team of people holding flaming torches paraded through the square

Whilst devouring the salad buffet (my plate mainly consisted of hummus), it was announced that the national anthem would play. Everyone rose. Spines tingled. It was amazing to witness the fervour the locals have for their country. I know this is true in most countries; it still doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring.

Flag-waving and cheering shortly after the anthem had finished
The band played throughout the evening aside from taking cigarette and drink breaks. Lots of people were drinking, particularly their local liqueur of Raki, which surprised me somewhat. I was told that this is one of the few days in the year where ‘everyone drinks’.

People toasting the Turkish nation

A local man singing his heart out
Any area of the square which wasn’t heaving with tables filled with fish, kebabs and alcohol was space in which to dance. Dance we all did. Even if the band only had a few songs, which they mingled with apparently putting on a CD of more popular hits.

The band

Later on, the night sky looking out towards the Mediterranean was illuminated by a series of fireworks. As you’ll see on the video below, the noise from the square almost drowned out the bang from the fireworks.

Fireworks celebrating Republic Day in Kas' main square

Flag-waving and cheering as the fireworks exploded

With what happened in Ankara earlier in October, I would have completely understood if no large celebration had occurred for Republic Day in Kaş. The Turkish population, rather than mourning death, opted to celebrate life. And how. It was a privilege to be a part of. Happy birthday, Turkey!

Love you all


Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Turkey – A fierce, flare-waving football rivalry

October 25

Hello everyone!

Sport is tribal by nature. One will always support their tribe, yet when pitted against a rival, be it a political, historical, geographical or trivial one, that person will cheer a little bit more vociferously than normal. Anyone who has been with me when Wales have beaten England in the rugby – which has happened quite a few times lately – will be aware of this. The event, the sporting spectacle, becomes much more intense when there is a tribal rivalry attached to it.

Galatasaray fans: notorious for their passion

Fenerbahçe scarves on sale before their derby against Galatasaray

I’ve been lucky to witness quite a few sporting rivalries in my life thus far. From a Severnside derby between Cardiff and Bristol City which was tame due to the kick-off time (Sunday lunchtime) and the gulf in quality between the teams (Cardiff won 3-0) to a hostile and extremely loud ice hockey arena where Slavia and Sparta Prague punched holes into each other, I’ve seen many sporting matches between two sides which openly despise one another.

City and United are the two main protagonists in the Manchester derby, which I've seen twice

Watching from the away section of a Slavia-Sparta ice hockey derby was a fascinating experience

There does seem to be a stereotypical difference for my generation in how exactly these rivalries are played out off the pitch. Mainly, the further east you go in Europe, the more violence there is between fans. Growing up supporting a team which had one of Britain’s most notorious hooligan groups, I’m aware that this is…codswallop. However, television footage often shows Eastern European football derbies, whether inter-nation or intra-nation, descending into chaotic violence due to the tribal vengeance spilling out of the segregated stands.

Fans in Greece are stereotyped as being loud and loving flares

An image from the Bosnian football match I watched earlier in the summer, when play was briefly delayed to allow the smoke to dissipate
Which brings me nicely onto the Kitalararasi Derbi: the Intercontinental Derby, played between Fenerbahce SK and Galatasaray SK. Istanbul's two football behemoths.

A newspaper on the day of the game

Europe vs. Asia
The rivalry between these two teams is legendary and bloody. It’s geographical: Europe (Gala) vs. Asia (Fener). It’s historical: their match in 1934 apparently resembled a warzone by the end, with all players fighting. It’s equal: these are Turkey’s two most successful teams and both have won the league title in the past few seasons. It’s not passionate: to say that these fans are passionate is like saying Siberia is a little bit chilly in winter. They’re nuts. You’re also recommended not to wear certain colours in certain areas of the city. They take their teams very seriously over here.

Gala and Fener are the two most popular teams in Turkey

Tempers often fray both on and off the pitch
Tempers once flared when the manager of Galatasaray (a Scotsman) planted their club flag in the middle of a pitch. Fenerbahce's pitch. He caused a riot. 

Graham Souness inciting the hatred of millions with one idiotic action

Luckily for us, this derby of great magnitude was happening in Istanbul when we…were in Istanbul. Ticket prices were extortionate (€300 was the going rate online) for the match, to be hosted by Fener on the Asian side of the city. I’d never made it across to Asia on my previous visit to Istanbul in 2008, so we combined this new experience with sampling a bit of the pre-match atmosphere.

Of course, this could also mean 6pm as the times were still not synchronised at this point

Fans in Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul: Fenerbahçe's patch

The scenic way to get to the Asian side is to take a ferry from the port of Eminönü in the old city. Whilst queueing to board, we realised that we were in the company of numerous Fener fans. One had a drum which he banged until dropping his sticks. Which happened fairly regularly.

Aboard the ferry with the noisy Fener fans
On board we sat outside to witness the spectacular views of Istanbul from the Bosphorus, as well as listen to some of the chanting. We were allowed two minutes of this before this happened…

Safety first! It gets quite difficult to breathe when your lungs are being filled up with smoke from flares, in addition to dodging the sparks whizzing off them at random directions.

We followed the swarm of Fener fans briefly upon disembarking at the port of Kadiköy before heading into the markets to get a feel for Asian Istanbul. The feel we currently had was marvellously loud and mad. All of this was over five hours before the game was due to start.

Fans continued to chant wildly as they left the ferry and headed towards the stadium
Preferring to return to Europe in daylight, we left the Asian side with a plan to watch the match when it kicked off in the evening. Owing to the religious tendencies of the majority of locals, bars are in short supply. It is therefore nargile – shisha cafes – which display the matches on giant screens. They were packed beyond capacity even before the game had started. 

The cafe we were recommended for the match was full before the game had started
On a whim, we headed for the modern centre of Istanbul: Taksim Square. Prior knowledge (also known as looking at a map before visiting) had suggested two reasons why the game might be shown there. Firstly, it is where most of the city’s nightlife of bars and clubs are located. Just as importantly, however, it is situated in the district called Galata. I’ll let you put two and two together there.

Taksim is in the Galata district of Istanbul: GALATAsary claim this as their home

The streets near Taksim Square were dominated by the yellow-and-burgundy colours of their local team
Sure enough, we found a shisha café in an alley just off the middle of Taksim’s busiest street just as the half-time whistle blew. Locals weren’t impressed: Fener were one goal ahead. I settled down to my mint and rose water pipe and watched as the game recommenced. Dozens of other people soon gathered behind us, resorting to standing as all of the seats were taken.

Where we watched the match, in a side street off Taksim's main thoroughfare
My lovely, relaxing, light-headed-inducing shisha pipe

Every misplaced pass was met with a howl of derision. Every ever-so-slightly contentious refereeing decision was greeted with what I’m assuming was abuse in Turkish. Then, with seven minutes left on the clock, Galatasary went and scored an equaliser in the stadium of their arch-rivals.

The game finished 1-1. From where we were sat, it seemed as if the Gala fans had just actually won the league. Particularly from the main street. We popped down to discover why there was so much noise.

These were on sale in Kadikoy, on the Asian side. It might explain why so few had been bought...
Turns out that the Galatasaray club shop was about 50 metres away from where we had been watching the game. The ‘leader’ of a group was on the balcony leading the fans in a variety of songs. I’m sure the lyrics were lovely.

Fans singing outside the club shop in Taksim

A little part of me would have loved to witness this intensity, this insanity in person. However, throughout the day we saw fans lighting flares, banging drums, screaming songs and hugging with joy when their team hadn’t even won. We observed enough to understand the rivalry between Galatasary and Fenerbahce. This was sporting rivalry at its bitterest…and I loved it.

A point apiece left both teams chasing Besiktas, Istanbul's third team, who top the table at present

Love you all