As in any typical Turkish family, the
men are preparing the “mangal” barbecue while talking about soccer
matches or recent political developments. The heroic acts of their
grandparents in the War of Independence also feature prominently in
discussions. The old women chat with one another and wear headscarves,
as do most older women in Turkey.
Who are these people? Mehmet,
Ali, Ayşe, Rabia, Arzu, Emine, Hatice and Hüseyin, to name a few.
Everything is typically Turkish except for one detail: They are black.
Afro-Turks, as they prefer to be called, are the descendents of African
citizens of the Ottoman Empire. They have come together under the
African Solidarity and Cooperation Association (ASCA) to revitalize one
of their oldest traditions -- a holiday celebrated by their
grandparents: Dana Bayramı, or the Calf Festival.
Deniz Yükseker, a professor in Koç University’s department of sociology,
gave a speech on the culture of Afro-Turks during a conference held at
Ege University. Dana Bayramı was celebrated from 1880 until the end of
the 1920s. “Leaders of the Afro-Turk community, known as ‘godya,’ used
to collect money in order to buy a cow. On the first Saturday of each
May, they sacrificed this cow. Failing to make this sacrifice would
cause draughts, according to popular folklore,” Yükseker explains.
adds that in those years, Dana Bayramı was celebrated in İzmir for
three weeks. Things have changed over time and this year’s celebrations
only lasted two days. On the first day, Yükseker presented at the
conference on the history of Afro-Turks and a photo exhibit prepared by
Özlem Sümer showed snapshots from daily life as experienced by the
community. The second day saw a large picnic at which Boğaziçi Gösteri
Merkezi and Ege University’s Music Band performed. Melis Sökmen, a
famous jazz singer whose grandmother is from Ghana, joined the band and
gave a small concert.
During this year’s Dana Bayramı, the focus
was on having fun and a cow was not sacrificed. “Some of our friends
said that it would be fine to sacrifice a sheep, but maybe next year,”
says ASCA Chairman Mustafa Olpak. He points out that Dana Bayramı used
to be an opportunity for their ancestors to have a family reunion. The
festival served as a venue at which members of a family dispersed by
slavery would come together.
Gülay Kayacan, who works for the
History Foundation, an institute that researches and publishes articles
on Turkish history, says that some of the Afro-Turks are descendents of
slaves who used to work on farms or in houses. Slaves working in
agriculture were concentrated in areas where cotton production was high.
It is for this reason that most Afro-Turks today live on the Aegean
coast and some in the Mediterranean region.
“Some 10,000 slaves,
black and white, were brought into the Ottoman Empire every year. During
the constitutional monarchy period (1876-1878), slavery was abolished
and former slaves settled in areas where they used to work. Some of them
were even given land by the government,” Kayacan says.
the coordinator of the History Foundation’s “Voices Coming from a
Silent Past” project, supported by the European Union Commission
Delegation in Turkey. She underlines that their oral history project
aims to form an archive that will aid in researching the cultural,
economic and social status of Afro-Turks today and to place them in the
mosaic of history. To this end, the foundation is recording the personal
histories of the Afro-Turk community.
“Unfortunately, most of the
elders of the Afro-Turk community who could remember the stories of
immigration and the cultural aspects of the community have passed away.
Written documentation is also scarce, so we are trying to preserve this
undocumented past before it is too late,” Kayacan says. According to
personal accounts collected so far, the ancestors of Afro-Turks came
from various countries, including present-day Niger, Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Libya, Kenya and Sudan. In fact, the Embassy of Sudan sent a
representative to participate in this year’s Dana Bayramı.
also notes that some of the descendents of former slaves remain poor.
Educational opportunities for them have been scarce and they are
generally not property owners. The number of Afro-Turks graduating from
universities is below the national average and most women tend to be
agricultural workers if they live in villages or housewives if they live
in the urban areas. The women that have found opportunities to become
educated work as mid-wives or nurses.
Not all or the Afro-Turks’
ancestors were slaves. Some came from the island of Crete following the
Lausanne Treaty, signed in 1924. This treaty called for a population
exchange between the Greek Orthodox citizens of the young Turkish
Republic and the Muslim citizens of Greece. Most of the black on Crete
were Muslims, so they were subjected to this population exchange. Like
many others who were moved through this population exchange, they
settled on the Aegean coast, mainly around İzmir. Eighty-year-old Emine
Konaçer’s mother and Olpak’s family were among these immigrants.
mother spoke only Greek, which explains why Konaçer is bilingual. She
and her husband have four children, including Mehmet Konaçer (48), a
physical education teacher.
“When I was young, our neighbors would
sometimes speak in Greek on our street in Ayvalık and I used to shout
at them: ‘Citizen, speak Turkish!’” he says. At the time, the Turkish
government had launched a program calling on all citizens to speak only
Mehmet Konaçer enjoys dancing the traditional folklore
dances of the Aegean area and he performed a dance for the crowd at this
year’s Dana Bayramı.
As with every teacher, his students coin
nicknames for him. “They first used to call me Clay [after the famous
African-American boxer Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali]. But
nicknames come and go. As other blacks become famous, the nickname my
students choose for me changes,” he says.
Konaçer is married and
has two children. As is the case with multiracial children, they take on
the features of both parents. This is the case with many Afro-Turks as
the small community has many interracial marriages. Some Afro-Turks are
blond and some have green eyes, like Konaçer’s cousin, Hüseyin Hançer.
Being “different” has, however, also led to discrimination. The society at large holds many misconceptions about Afro-Turks.
interviews show that Afro-Turks living in villages do not feel
discriminated against. They are not labeled as the ‘other’ or excluded.
In a village, everyone has known one another since birth. Cities, on the
other hand, are a different matter altogether, though Anatolia is still
a land that is able to absorb a variety of cultures,” Kayacan says.
Sözer, a young Afro-Turk, says that Turkish society does not have a
racist approach, but that sometimes the Afro-Turk community does
experience “exaggerated interest” and social discrimination from
“I am asked many odd questions; for example, some ask if I
get whiter by taking baths. Sometimes people stare at me and end up
tripping or bumping into a pole. I have learned to not get angry at
people, but when I was at the university, my roommate left our dorm room
because she said she was afraid to live with someone that is black,”
Sometimes people have a hard time believing that
Afro-Turks are Turks. On one occasion, Sözer was shopping in Denizli and
the shopkeeper, mistaking her for a tourist speaking in perfect
Turkish, tried to complement her by saying she speaks Turkish better
than him, a native Turk.
Not being considered a “Turk” can at
times be problematic. Most Afro-Turks live in the Aegean region, famous
for human smuggling. This has cast suspicion on the Afro-Turk community.
in the Aegean region also have some superstitious beliefs about “black
people.” Some believe that if they see a black person and pinch the
person next to them, their wishes will come true. Sözer recalled one
case in which two ladies pinched each other upon seeing her. She was
understandably upset. “I told the ladies that if they really wanted
their wishes to come true, I also had to pinch both of them! They
accepted and I pinched them very hard,” she says, laughing.
superstition some hold is that the kiss of a black person can bring
luck. “When I was small, I was asked to kiss many girls because there
was this superstition that if a girl does not get kissed by a small
African child, she would not find a husband,” Olpak says.
from being the focus of some superstitions, most Afro-Turks say they
have never been humiliated or discriminated against by the society.
However, overcoming prejudice while looking for someone to marry is not
as easy as one would hope. Kayacan notes that sometimes the family does
not approve of their son or daughter marrying an Afro-Turk.
are often called “Arabs” in Turkey. They also refer to themselves as
Arabs, at times. This has led to a situation in which “Arab” means
“black.” Ege University Professor Ahmet Yürür explains. “For the Turks,
Africa was only the northern part of the continent: from Egypt to
Morocco. This part was of course under Arab influence. Turks were never
really interested in the south of the continent. This is why this
community has come to be called ‘Arab,’” he says.
that Turkey can build bridges between itself and Africa with the help of
Afro-Turks. But even establishing an association was difficult, Olpak
“Our people did not even know of the word ‘association.’
They were suspicious at first, but in Turkey, all ethnic groups have
solidarity associations except for us. We had some difficulties at first
because we lived in a closed society,” he says. This is not to say that
Olpak is pessimistic. The Dana Bayramı is evidence that the Afro-Turk
community is being revived.
Olpak has authored two books: “Slave
Woman Kemale,” which tells the story of his own family, a slave family
from Kenya that lived on Crete and had to migrate to Turkey, and “The
Shores of Slaves,” in which Olpak presents a collection of stories by
“I am a third-generation Afro-Turk. My
grandparents were slaves. The first generation lived through the sad
events, the second generation tried to forget and deny these events, but
the third generation wants to know what happened and how,” Olpak says,
adding: “We are black and we are from here. We are a part of this rich
Anatolian culture and we are ready to make an effort to be noticed by
the society. I believe that in this way we will be able to contribute to
the tolerant culture of this beautiful land.” Olpak has a wish for his
community: to celebrate Dana Bayramı on the national level one day as a
festival of tolerance.