On borders, or the crossing thereof


Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]


Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]


Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]


[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1




The Circassian Olympics: dark history on the Black Sea

IT IS SOMETHING of a sport amongst journalists to write of problems and controversies in the lead up to any Olympic Games. The shortcomings – and down-to-the-wire preparation dramas – of said games are usually manifestly apparent, so journalists don’t have to dig too deep to unearth them.

This is no less the case as we approach the Winter Olympics set to begin in Sochi, Russia, later this week. Sochi 2014 has been bedevilled by complaints of environmental destruction and exploitation of workers in the scramble to prepare. Writer Arnold van Bruggen, who has been visiting Sochi for years, highlights in The Sochi Project the remarkable disparity between the purported glamour of the event and the plight of the region surrounding the new Olympic venues.

Beyond that, the contentious human rights situation in Putin’s Russia has prompted many to wonder why the International Olympic Committee, an organisation whose charter speaks loftily of ‘the harmonious development of man’, promoting ‘a peaceful society’ and ‘the preservation of human dignity’, should have awarded them to Russia in the first place.

Most remarkable is the crassness of the IOC in choosing to overlook the symbolism of the timing of the games. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Russia’s smothering of the Circassians, the indigenous people of Sochi and the north-eastern Black Sea littoral. Circassians claim that the military onslaught visited on their people by Imperial Russia constitutes a genocide. Journalist Oliver Bullough details the background and mournful details of this ‘squalid campaign of attrition and slaughter’ in his terrific Let Our Fame Be Great. (See a brief review I wrote of the book here). Circassian activists continue to rally for the recognition by Russia of the reality of those events and decry the celebration of the games in that particular location at this particular time, marking May 21 in particular as a memorial day.

Pyotr_Nikolayevich_Gruzinsky_-_The_mountaineers_leave_the_aul-1872Circassian comes to us from the Turkish Çerkez (pron: Cher-kez), but they refer to themselves as Adyghe, a name which in their own language is said to denote them as a people who dwelt between the mountains and the sea, making them coastal Caucasian highlanders(!). It is thanks to the reputed beauty of Circassian women that ethnographer Johann Blumenbach classified Indo-European peoples as ‘Caucasian’ in his now discredited hierarchy of races.

Like many indigenous peoples of the north Caucasus, the Circassians are adherents of Sunni Islam, which was introduced to them by the Crimean Tatars and the Ottomans, who were nominal rulers over the Circassian realm from the mid-16th century until the 1820s. Prior to conversion to Islam they had their own ethnic religion, Habze, which was a monotheistic world view shot through with elements of Greek mythology and which has undergone something of a resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The final stanza of Russia’s monstering of the Circassians was the exodus across the Black Sea of large numbers of refugees who fetched up in Ottoman territory. Today there are sizeable Circassian communities in Turkey (anywhere between 2 and 5 million, depending on how you do the counting) as well as in Israel, Jordan and Syria. The descendants of the Circassian refugees are well integrated into Turkish society and are highly regarded for their martial virtues, having a long tradition of serving in the Turkish military.

My first encounter with Circassians was when hearing of them from my students in İzmir in the mid-90s. They spoke of the reputation for beauty of Çerkez women, their propensity to keep scrupulously clean homes and a dish called Çerkez chicken (poached with a ground-walnut sauce). I was intrigued that at a time when ethnicity was such a hot topic (this was the peak of the PKK campaign against the Turkish army) that the Circassians’ cultural distinctiveness was so openly discussed. But then, the Circassians, like many other peoples who arrived in Turkey from the Balkans and the Caucasus at the encroachment of European powers in the late 19th and early 20th century, willingly assumed a Turkish national identity, something many Kurds refused to do. (A great irony here is that the Circassian language is all but lost in Turkey, the country that gave them safe harbour, but in Russia, where they were monstered, it is still spoken.) For all the sympathy in Turkey for the Circassian cause, the Turkish government, for fear of upsetting Russia, a major power supplier, has been unwilling to heed calls to boycott the games.

Sobranie_cherkesskikh_knyazey-gregoire-gagarinRussia is certainly touchy about the Circassian issue being pushed into the spotlight and anxious to forestall any Circassian agitation during the games. Several Circassian activists were rounded up late last year, presumably to scare them into silence, while a Turkish journalist who specialises in Caucasian issues, Fehim Taştekin, has fallen foul of authorities and has been banned from entering Russia for five years. Still, anyone with a particular axe to grind about Caucasus affairs shouldn’t feel singled out: it appears Russia doesn’t want any disturbance in any form during the games.

There is considerable concern from many quarters, Russian and others alike, at the prospect of terrorism at the games. The north Caucasus has been a troubled region for decades (if you read Bullough’s Let Our Fame be Great you may see why certain peoples bear such ill will towards Russia) with several unsavoury terrorist groups at large and operational there. But Circassian advocacy groups have denounced the recent terrorist bombings and Volgograd and have repudiated all terror tactics, remarking that they seek to pursue “the unity, preservation and development of the Circassian people” through legitimate means. The No Sochi 2014 campaign highlights that the expulsion of the Circassians from Sochi in the 1860s was an act of violence and terrorism, and perpetrating the same in response cannot redress past wrongs.

One positive that has arisen out of the furore directed at the Sochi games is the reawakening of Circassian political identity in Turkey and elsewhere. As reported on Al Monitor, where once Circassian associations in Turkey were all about ‘folklore’, the thought that Russia should attain the international spotlight hosting a games upon the very ground where the Caucasian highlanders were massacred has catalysed Circassians to demand recognition of the horrors visited upon their ancestors. With mobilisation has come a sense of unity, of identity; perhaps also a chance to acknowledge some of the agonies of the past and, in so doing, salve them.

Georgia: at the crossroads

HAVING SHRUGGED off the jealous embrace of Russia, and after beginning a stumbling approach towards Europe, Georgia is coming into its own. Georgians like to think of themselves as the original Europeans, yet EU membership remains a much-longed for but unlikely dream, for the time being.

In a recently released movie The Loneliest Planet (what was inspiration for that title!?!), a young couple endure travails and challenges to their relationship while trekking in the Georgian Caucasus. Despite not overly positive reviews of the film, it might go some way to putting the country on the radar of Western travellers.

tbilisi-from-metekhiCertain others, however, have already discovered the delights that Georgia has to offer. Georgia is establishing strong business and tourism links with the Middle East. The largest Georgian airline, Airzena, has recently launched direct flights to Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and Kurdish holiday makers are availing themselves of the opportunity to visit the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast, visa-free no less. It appears that few Georgians are returning the compliment, that is taking the return flights, even though the Kurdistan region is the most peaceful and by all accounts beautiful region of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iranians have been for some time making a bee line for Georgia, having similarly launched direct flights and dropped visa requirements in 2010. Economic ties are strong, and there is considerable two-way traffic, with Georgians commonly seen haggling in the bazaars of Iran, and Iranians joining in the clamour of Georgian markets. The two countries have some shared history – if not always entirely happy. In fact it was the threat of ongoing Persian domination that prompted Georgia’s King Erekli II to ask Russia, a fellow Christian nation, for protection in the late 18th century. That ‘protection’ lasted until the 1990s.

In Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s wonderful novel Paper, a tale set, to my mind, somewhere on the cusp of Persian territory and the Caucasus (even though the back cover blurb says it’s in Central Asia) during the Qajar era, a wily  Georgian envoy milled amongst Persian mullahs and other characters, while a tormented scribe hankered after the eponymous paper. (Note to self: must reread this some time.)

I once encountered a wily Georgian of my own in Tbilisi. On my final day of my visit I marched into a carpet shop that I had been circling for some time and announced that I wanted to buy a Georgian carpet. The carpet seller, a woman with a bad peroxide job partially grown out, produced several options, assuring me that all were authentically Georgian. When I had chosen and gone through the haggling process and all was agreed, the woman let slip that this was a carpet ‘from a Georgian village near Tabriz’. I didn’t remonstrate, figuring that there was at least some Georgian aspect to the item. On a later trip to Tabriz (the Tabriz that’s in Iran!) I saw many a carpet very reminiscent of my ‘Georgian’ purchase, and was roundly told that there was no such thing as a Georgian village anywhere nearby… A dodgy carpet seller: who would’ve thought…

tbilisi-castleGeorgia is also establishing stronger links with its neighbour to the west, Turkey. There is a sizable Turkish community on Aghmashenebelis street in the neighbourhood of Marjanishvili in Tbilisi, and I have encountered Georgians working (usually at menial jobs) in Istanbul. In fact, there was a long history of Georgians playing significant roles in the Ottoman hierarchy. Relations between the two countries are again strengthening, with plans afoot for the construction of a new mosque for the Turkish community in Batumi, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. In return, Turkey has pledged to contribute to the refurbishment of derelict Georgian churches in the valleys in and around Yusufeli in the northeast of Anatolia.

I recall visiting a church near Dörtkilise, in Turkey’s so-called ‘Georgian valleys’, in the mid-1990s. The church, a sturdy structure in golden stone, appeared along a remote track, surrounded by robust greenery but no other constructions, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Inside: whizzing bats, dim  light coming through slim, arched windows. On a bare stone altar, delicate curlicues of Georgian script. And on the back wall, conflicting graffiti scrawled in charcoal in Turkish: ‘one day Islam will rule the world’; and ‘we must protect this church’.  There is hope now that the latter sentiment may be acted upon.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the recent experience of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is not indicative of Georgia’s prospects as it embraces its near neighbours: on a recent trip in Turkey he fell off his bike and broke his arm…

Tracking St George

RECENT RESEARCH suggests that Indo-European languages first arose in Anatolia some time around 8000 years ago, then gradually spread out in a ripple effect across Eurasia, through Persia, south to India and northwest into Europe. This doesn’t mean that all European languages are descended from Turkish, or that the European peoples all have Turkish blood coursing through their veins. The (Seljuk) Turks didn’t arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century, fully 7000 years after these languages began to arise.  It does however lend credence to the theory that this corner of the world has long been home to human populations that were, as one blogger nicely puts it, “fluid and frequently stirred”. Anatolia has long been a melting pot; before that, it appears, it was a launching pad.

With the people moved myths, legends. An anthology of folk tales from the Caucasus, in the same neck of the woods as Anatolia, has just been published by David Hunt, a Caucasian folk literature specialist. This compilation is yet more evidence of the fluidity and well-stirredness (!) of the region and its impact on Europe more broadly, because amid epic sagas and feats of derring do from peoples you’ve never heard of (Ubykhs, Lezgins, Kabardians, anyone?) are tales that have become familiar tropes of folkloricists, bed-time storytellers and raconteurs across Europe and beyond. This is the region that gave us the Golden Fleece; that particular tale isn’t here but David Hunt’s assortment offers several takes on the legend of Prometheus, fables of the Cyclops (a figure that crops up everywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to Slavic tales and The Book of Dede Korkut, an Oghuz Turkish epic from before the Turks arrived in Anatolia), the voyage of the Ark (which we may rightfully classify as a fable, and which everyone knows lodged on Mt Ararat, on the border between Turkey and Armenia) and St George’s almighty tussle with the dragon.

In the last few days I’ve been learning more about St George as I’ve been writing a review of an edited volume of academic papers that documents and interprets instances of religious syncretism and hybridism. (It’s called Shared Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: sounds fascinating, huh? Well, actually it is. And , especially at this time when hotheads, who claim to be religious, are running around howling for blood, it makes salutary and instructive reading.)

One of the most intriguing chapters, “St George the Anatolian”, by ethnologist Maria Couroucli, details in discrete, concise academic prose an intricate lattice work of connections, echoes and parallels between St George and a host of other notables from an incredibly diverse range of traditions. In my excitement (I looooooooooooove this stuff), the page became a blur of names instantly recognised, links only half grasped; a litany, a roll call, a wave of names and golden threads: St George, St Elias (the prophet), Hidrellez (the Turko-Anatolian  harbinger of spring; his name is a hybrid of the Arabic for greenness – Hdr – and a Turkic corruption  – Ilyas – of Elias), a mythological slayer of dragons who arose in Armenian and Persian canons, Alexander the Great, Digenis Akrites (an Orthodox hero of the Byzantine-Abbasid marches) who is descended from two races (hence: Digenis), a trope that occurs through chronicles of Shiite Persia, Greek folk songs, episodes from The Arabian Nights and legends of Sufi mystics in the Balkans. Here is a flurry of legends so ambiguous, so blurred, so overlapping, so passed-around-and-shared, so dog-eared-from-constant-use that they must belong to everyone.

On a recent trip to İstanbul, with junior Gourlays in tow, I witnessed the Turkish fascination with St George. We caught a ferry to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast which have long been a retreat for well-heeled İstanbullus. A festive air reigned as we left Kabataş, a boatload of tourists, day-tripping locals and Iranian visitors, one of whom insisted I partake liberally of his trail mix (in which dried Persian mulberries featured prominently). Büyükada (Prinkipo in the Greek) is home to a monastery dedicated to St George. On April 23, St George’s Day, the island is swamped with Turkish visitors who come to the monastery to light candles and request the mercies of St George. Even in September, when we visited, there was evidence of the festivities: votive rags tied to cypress trees and coloured threads along the steep cobbled paths that lead to the monastery sited at the peak of the island with views across the European and Asian shores of the great metropolis. You can read a piece I wrote for Eureka Street about the monastery here. Most visitors to the monastery who we saw were Turks, but on the ferry back to the city we encountered all manner of Levantine visitors: Syrians and Lebanese. The journey was a gaggle of Arabic and Turkish and the plaintive cries of the seagulls that followed in our wake, diving for scraps of bread.

Also in Sharing Sacred Spaces, Dionigi Albera and Benoit Fliche document some of the intercommunal practices that happen at the church of St Anthony of Padua, just off İstiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood of İstanbul. Despite being written in plain academic prose, some of these struck me as quite moving (well, perhaps I’d been reading too long…): shared breaking of offerings of bread, which is then eaten by both Muslims and Christians in a “paraphrase of the Eucharist”, the case of a female visitor berating a male church attendant who extinguished votive candles before what she felt was an appropriate time (the candles had been lit by Muslim visitors; the woman made the attendant relight them). These are unorthodox practices that belong to no particular tradition, but perhaps belong to all.

I have a memory of visiting St Anthony of Padua. It was in the late afternoon of a weekday in the late autum of 1995. I was with a Turkish friend. A biting wind blew along İstiklal Caddesi, the sky was a bruised grey, lights were flickering on. We lit candles in St Anthony and paused for a while. Back on İstiklal we passed a small boy, in his blue school tunic, cross legged on the pavement beside a set of scales. A cardboard box nearby was intended for coins offered by anyone using the scales. The small boy was so intent on writing his homework in his exercise book that he didn’t even look up as I dropped some coins in the box. I weighed 76kg; Aylin was 49. We departed into the twilight of that eternal city.

Caucasian dominoes

FOLLOWING ON from an earlier post about the restoration/redevelopment of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, it was recently reported that the Georgian border crossing at Ninotsminda is getting a makeover. Have a look at some images here.

While Georgian architects and stonemasons have long enhanced the already stunning landscapes of Georgia with striking buildings – they have a penchant for lofty churches on hilltops – this creation is of an altogether different timbre. Georgia and Armenia may joust over which of them is the most ancient European nation, but now their border will be adorned with a structure that is futuristic. To my eye it looks like an almighty series of dominoes rippling across the border. Perhaps there is supposed to be some symbolism in that, but I can’t determine what it is.

Ninotsminda is one of several border posts Georgia shares with Armenia. To the north, Georgian border posts with the Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are unlikely to see similar architectural embellishments.

The border crossing with Armenia that is closest to Tbilisi is Sadakhlo-Bagratashen. I wonder if this will get the Ninotsminda treatment. When I crossed Sadakhlo-Bagratshen back in 2007 it was certainly of the old-school frontier post ilk. There were no architectural idiosyncracies here, just a couple of desultory sheds and a boom gate painted in barber-pole stripes. It was an appropriately grey, drizzly day. The mood was like something out of a Graham Greene novel: lots of waiting, loitering, bored soldiers with automatic weapons over the shoulders pinching cigarettes between thumb and forefinger. Small groups of swarthy (and hirsute: Caucasians are so hirsute) men muttered in languages entirely foreign to me. I couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t some greasing of palms or deal-making going on. The boom gate was manually raised to allow us to pass at some signal that I couldn’t fathom, meanwhile a woman with a bad dye job selling sunflower seeds in twisted newspaper cones crossed back and forth with impunity. Call me Orientalist, but I enjoyed the shambolic, post-Soviet nature of it all.

I recall the the pop and crackle of bus tyres on a wet and gritty gravel road, the scent of diesel, a Turkish logo on a semi-trailer. This was the first of many Turkish trucks I was to see: trucks that had taken the long route, passing all the way through Georgia to reach Armenia, so that Turkish goods could be brought to market in Armenia, taking such a long route because the Turkish-Armenian border is closed due ongoing political fractiousness between the two nations.

Gigu and Zohrab, the two Georgians I was travelling with (along with John Noble, long standing Lonely Planet author and traveller in the former Soviet realm), laughed as we drove into Armenia and quipped, ‘Georgia is Europe, Armenia is Russia’. It didn’t look all that different to me: the same breathtaking landscapes and ecclesiastic architecture – at intervals, unexpected – breaking the skyline.

We travelled to Vanadzor through an almighty Caucasian rainstorm. In the market in Vanadzor (see the picture above), a toothless man approached me out of the blue and gave me three apples. I offered him money. I felt compelled to make some sort of reciprocal gesture. Of course, he refused it. His gift may or may not have been significant. An Armenian proverb says: ‘Three apples fell from heaven; one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for he who heeds the tale’. Oh, Armenia: poignant to the end…

We turned north again and sped out of Armenia with mighty raindrops slapping on the windscreen, then we recrossed the border as night fell, stars splintering the inky sky. Gigu turned up the radio and in an episode of roadtrip camaraderie we shared chunks of salty Armenian cheese and fistfuls of bread and passed around a bottle of Borjomi mineral water – fizzing and bitter – as we raced towards the throbbing glow of Tbilisi in the darkness. Back we came, from somewhere else, to Europe… perhaps…

Sharing the vision

Image: Vugar Ibadov

THE EUROVISION final was broadcast to a global viewing audience last weekend. All eyes were on Azerbaijan and many observers were suitably impressed by Baku’s “Dubai-on-the-Caspian” boomtown persona. Its combination of belle-époque architecture, the remains of the Shirvanshah’s palace complex and futuristic new constructions is certainly one out of the box. A neon-lit promenade, fireworks displays and the specially built Eurovision venue, Crystal Hall, hovering on land reclaimed from the Caspian, were undoubtedly breath taking. Get ready for an Azerbaijani post-Eurovision tourism bounce. Perhaps…

When you think about it, Crystal Hall shimmering out in the inky Caspian is about as far as you can possibly travel on the Continent and still claim to be in Europe. Across the water is Turkmenistan, and just south is Iran, hardly anyone’s conception of Europe…

It was Azerbaijan’s human rights record, however, that drew more commentary. The Aliyev regime, in power since just after the country wriggled free of the Soviet embrace, has long been accused of cronyism, corruption, suppression of civil and democratic rights and curtailing press freedoms.

Notable too, although little commented upon in the Western media, was the withdrawal of the Armenian contingent from the Eurovision contest. Armenia and Azerbaijan, of course, were at loggerheads during the war for Nagorno-Karabagh at the end of the Soviet era, and although a peace agreement was signed tensions between the two remain palpable. While the premise of this blog is to highlight instances where different peoples come together to create heady bricolages of culture/art/imagination/communal endeavour, it is sometimes the case that the figurative Gypsy wants to have nothing to do with the figurative Kurd, that all they have in common is bad blood. Nationalistic invective on both sides of this Caucasian conundrum continues to be the norm, which is hardly the stuff of the fraternal relations that are supposed to lie at the core of the Eurovision enterprise.

But nor is it necessarily proof of any so-called ‘ancient hatreds’. Armenians and Azeris have lived together for nigh on a millennia, since the time when the first Turkic groups arrived in this corner of Eurasia. In fact the Caucasus has seen communal commingling since the year dot, and aside from repeated imperial expansions and contractions which have seen considerable bloodshed amongst military combatants, there has been remarkably little inter-ethnic strife at a community level… all things considered. The classic novel Ali & Nino details a fictional love story between an Azeri and a Georgian in early-20th century Baku, painting a picture, based on the author’s first-hand experience, of a cosmopolitan city without any signs of ethnic tension.

Molla Nasreddin, the great satirical magazine created in Azerbaijan at the turn of the 20th century, addressed concerns of Armenian-Azeri tension even in those days, but its position was clear. In a florid cartoon for which the periodical was famed, identically clad and indistinguishable Armenian and Azeri villagers are at each other’s throats at the instigation of a red-horned devil, but soon realise their similarities and collapse into a brotherly embrace. There’s little hope of that these days, of course.

The very existence of Molla Nasreddin from 1906 until 1930 was indicative of a very different political and cultural milieu in Azerbaijan at that time. Then an outspoken Azeri intelligentsia was at the forefront of reformist movements in the then-Russian empire. The magazine was satirical in bent, addressing issues such as social inequalities, the emancipation of women, the prevalence of superstition and religious conservatism throughout Eurasia, the need for educational reform, the need for a free press, and the struggle against European and Russian hegemony. In some regards this was a forward-looking era, one of optimism, when the educated classes were advocating change and highlighting the opportunities that social and political reform would bring. (You can read my review of a recent compilation of the artistic works from Molla Nasreddin here.)

Not much came of all this high-minded satire, then. A friend, a regular visitor to Azerbaijan, tells me that local wags say that Molla Nasreddin would still be highly pertinent – not to say contentious – reading in modern Baku, but that in the current political climate there’s no way the government would allow it to be published. Eurovision, with its glitz and neon and hedonism, is one of the trappings of modernity that the current regime will allow, but social openness and political pluralism are something different entirely.

The gypsy what? The kurd why?

THE TITLE OF this blog is a direct translation of the Turkish idiom “Çingene çalar, Kürt oynar“, taken to mean bedlam, pandemonium, out-and-out chaos. It doesn’t require a particularly perceptive reading to realise that the expression doesn’t rate highly on any scale of political correctness. With its implication that allowing Gypsies or Kurds the run of a place is a recipe for mayhem, it carries with it a fair hint of Turkish nationalist prejudice. A Turkish friend once conceded this much to me, but at the same time remarked that in its own way the expression was “tatlı” (sweet).

I don’t like the prejudicial aspect of it, but I get the “tatlı” thing, too. For all of its pejorative tone it has a poetic ring. When I first read the expression in a Turkish-English dictionary on a wintery İzmir afternoon it was immediately evocative.

I pictured a Gypsy firing off lightning fast riffs on a fiddle, while a Kurd stamped and whirled in abandon and assembled onlookers cheered and clapped. It was a vision of sweaty, lamplit, joy, of unbridled rhythm and melody. Such a scene may strike some people as chaotic, but what fun! And it conjured thoughts of different peoples coming together to produce something distinctive, of traditions and ideas and cultures blending. Over time I have come to imagine this scene not just in Turkey, but elsewhere in the southeastern corner of Europe that so fascinates me, where Turkey bumps into the Balkans, or further east where Turks and Persians and the peoples of the Caucasus have commingled for a millennium and more, and no one can definitively say where Europe ends and Asia begins.

For the purposes of this blog, my gaze will be primarily trained on modern Turkey and its various peoples, but I am equally fascinated by Iran and its culture, the former Ottoman domains of the Balkans and the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and Xinjiang. My purview will be politics and society, but also literature, arts, events and cultural curios: I reserve the right to include basically any “stuff” that interests me. In doing so I hope to investigate both the “bedlam” of the Gypsy fiddlers and the whirling Kurds, the Turkish pedlars and the Persian teahouse regulars, the Georgian vintners and the Uyghur shepherds, but also their collective creative output. I hope to muse on the “mayhem” of domestic politics in Turkey and parts thereabouts, but also to bring to light the rich cultures and artistic traditions of that broad dusty expanse from Sarajevo to Kashgar.