Is a society’s happiness and sense of freedom directly related to how much ice cold beer, sizzling kebabs and spontaneous dancing you can fit in a neighbourhood street without police or a permit to party?
The Hidrellez Festival in Sultanahmet on May 5 made me think: Yes, it could be!
In a week where May Day brought Istanbul to a standstill and social media was flooded with concerned comments about the city, the Hidrellez Festival was a much needed reminder of how modern and spontaneous Istanbul can be.
Strolling along the Old Istanbul waterfront on May 5, we followed the sound of drumming in the distance. Weaving through Sunday picnic goers and their smoky charcoal BBQs and dodging the hooks of fishermen casting into the Marmara Sea, we eventually stumble upon a large crowd of people behind the Kalyon Hotel.
Musicians, playing the zurna and davul, were providing the soundtrack for a lively street party. Fists were proudly punching in the air, a woman danced freely on an upturned drum and hairstyles, tied with flowery bandannas were bouncing to the beat of the 9/8 Romany rhythm. The Hidrellez Festival was in full swing.
Hidrellez (or Hidirellez) is a festival signifying the start of Spring. Traditionally, it is believed to be the day when the two prophets, Hizir and Ilyas, met on earth.
On May 5 and 6, many rituals are performed to celebrate Hidrellez. People will spring clean their homes and leave windows and pantries open with the belief that Hizir will visit in the night and bring abundance to their lives.
In rural areas, young girls will wear white dresses to signify they’re ready for marriage and people will jump over fires or bath in chilly rivers to cleanse their soul of sins.
A popular ritual throughout Turkey, is to write down your dreams, pin it with an evil eye and tie it to a tree or throw it into a river believing Hizir will collect it and grant you your wish.
In Istanbul there’s a more modern entrepreneurial touch to the Hidrellez celebrations. Opportunistic street sellers set up shop along narrow cobblestone streets with their makeshift picnic tables and BBQs.
As we push our way through the crowded street of dancers and musicians we’re offered $1 fish sandwiches, 50c bags of roasted walnuts, BBQ kebabs and sweet corn, bottles of $5 wine and $2.50 cans of ice cold Efes beer. There’s so many people here and it’s dinner-time – why not try to earn a little cash on the side if you can!
Other money-making savvy locals have tables set up selling flower headbands, small wedding veils and other novelty items that promote the merry mood of the crowd.
I am certain there is no formal approval from authorities to host BBQs on such a crowded street and there are no police around preventing what could go wrong in such a confined area. But we’re all adults here and people partake peacefully and respectfully in the offerings of cheap food and dancing.
The streets are filled with talented musicians playing favourite Turkish tunes for tips and the rhythm of an attentive crowd spills out down the street like an avalanche of contagious dance moves. When one band finishes you simply swarm to the next duval or zurna player nearby. Everyone is smiling and welcoming people of all walks of life. It’s liberating and a total, “only in Istanbul” spontaneous moment that leaves you besotted with the hospitality of the Turkish people.
This is happiness, this is freedom and – with our wishes tied to a nearby tree – this is a night of hope that life will continue to be full of happiness and fun in Istanbul!
Hidrellez occurs every year 5/6 May – ask the locals in Sultanahmet for details of next year’s festivities or travel to Edirne and celebrate among the Romany community.