The shriek of the clarinet cuts the air and suddenly all the young bucks hit the floor, linking pinkies and dancing halay (Turkish circle dance). As the wedding band runs the gamut of popular wedding songs, the bride and the groom take center stage. Now and then a guest comes up and showers the bride with dollar bills, while the kids run around like mad on the dance floor, dashing between the legs of the adults, scrambling for the baksheesh. On close inspection the dollar bills reveal themselves to be fake.
That it is a dry wedding doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. It’s a ball just listening to the live music and watching the dancing. Don’t need no booze to have a good time.
“Look at these people,” says Hadice. “They don’t have a care in the world.”
Some people went to discos in Berlin. Hadice and I went to Turkish weddings. Sometimes we didn’t even know who was getting married. We were wedding crashers.
Hadice had been going to Turkish weddings since she could remember. Her own wedding was an unpleasant affair. It was an arranged marriage when she was sixteen and she had to be sedated with shots. Germans might be tempted to say: that’s how it is with Muslims. In fact, her husband was an atheist.
As soon as we started going out, she dragged me to all sorts of Turkish weddings. Not that I needed much prodding. I really got a kick out of these shindings, and Hadice felt it would do me good to see a bit of life.
Word would go around in the Turkish community that so-and-so, a friend of a friend, someone from Hadice’s Kurdish town or region, was getting married. Hadice would put on all her glittery, glitzy finery, dig out her old gold, and I would don a suit and tie and we would hit the wedding salons.
I rarely knew who is getting married, and I always had a funny feeling shaking the hands of the father of the groom, who thought that that Hadice and I were great friends of the family. The father would pour cologne into my hands and take me under his wing. Little did he know, we were wedding crashers.
Why did we do it? Why crash Turkish weddings? The food was not that great – invariably the same chicken and rice, and maybe some hummus if you were lucky and one of the betrothed was part Arabic. There was no alcohol as a rule. It was just a fun night out. One danced, one saw and was seen. There was a band. One put on one’s best threads.
It is always the parents of the groom that put on the party in a Turkish wedding, which is invariably held in a wedding salon in some former factory space in an industrial quarter of Berlin, sometimes located in a conglomeration of Turkish import-export businesses, warehouses of Turkish supermarkets, the odd inconspicuous mosque.
Inevitably a large freight elevator takes you up a few floors to a salon decorated in a kind of cheap, debased glamour with a lot of white and gold, baroque curves and faux opulence — like the Turks themselves — not understated, cool and abashed, like the Germans.
The men wear sheeny, close fitting suits, the women opulent gowns, lots of gold, wear their hair piled up.
Every wedding I’ve been to guests dance “halay”, a traditional Anatolian dance in which the bride, bridegroom and friends form a circle with pinkies linked, making intricate steps forwards and backwards. The very first and last dancers in the line carries a handkerchief or headscarf in their free hands, twirling it about. At midnight sometimes a DJ takes the stage and there will be dancing to pop songs.
Sultan Tunç is a popular Turkish rapper who divides his time between Berlin and Istanbul and just came out with a new song and accompanying video clip, called Mashalla inspired by the world of Turkish weddings.
In the clip everyone is dressed to the nines, as though they were going to a wedding, and everything goes according to wedding protocol. “We put on a fake Turkish wedding,” said Tunç. “ And then by chance we ran into a real Turkish wedding and they let us film them.”
Speaking to me in a Turkish café at Kottbusser Tor Tunç tells me about the enduring appeal of Turkish weddings.
“I have many, many German friends who like going to Turkish weddings rather than going to Berghain or some club,” says Tunç. “And they think it’s a lot of fun. I think that for a lot of women they long for – because today there is equality, but the women lose a lot of things in the process —this womanliness. And all this comes out in the Turkish weddings. Men are men and women are women. The roles are fixed. And I have heard from many German friends that they would like such a wedding. It’s also something special.”
There are some who say that what goes on at Turkish weddings is crass and materialistic — the business of lining up to give money to the bride while a toaster on a microphone gives a running commentary about how much the various wedding guests have given. This, in particular, seems to be foreign to the German mindset.
“But that’s what the women want,” says Tunç. “It’s about real economics. In Turkey if you look at what people need money for, then it’s mostly for the wedding. Getting married is important for the Turks. And there has to be money. And it’s an important moment in life. Here in Germany Turks have much, much more money. And they like to show what they have. A real economy has developed: a wedding economy.”
In Turkey Tunç’s grandfather played the zurna, a trumpeted clarinet with stops instead of keys, whose shrieking, archaic whine is a staple of every Turkish wedding. Tunç‘s father played in a wedding band, which would go from village to village during the height of the wedding season, playing the halay, the traditional Turkish wedding dance.
“Back in his day the halay was 90 beats per minute. And then the whole thing went to Europe and it met Western music and above all in the 90s this Russian techno and it was ratcheted up a notch,” says Tunç. “So the Turks said why not make a techno rhythm on the beat? And it really took off. And at the Turkish weddings you have the synthesizer, which plays a big role. And it’s a lot faster, and with hip-hop elements. And it’s pretty wild.”
But back to our wedding. The banging of the davul bass drum has announced the arrival of the bride and groom. And after the bride’s dance, the wedding couple go up and sit at their table opposite the stage where the band plays, and where there is a big table and chairs and everything white and gold, and people go up to congratulate the couple.
I am a little shy of dancing the halay initially, but Hadice insists we take to the dance floor, and so we join the bobbing centipede of dancers.
The groom is from the Black Sea region, but he is an assimilated Turk and he was initially against there being davul and zurna, mainstays of Turkish weddings, and traditional Black Sea music at the wedding. But evidently the groom’s parents prevailed in the end, so there was a kemence (Black Sea fiddle) player and some emotive Black Sea dancing.
And then some guy shows up with an accordion, which puts a drag on the party initially. The guy seems like he can’t play, the accordion wheezes out the same melody, until the Black Sea contingent arrive on the scene, link pinkies and show that this music too can be part of the joyful celebration.
And all this without the social lubricant of alcohol. Of course, there are some weddings we go to where alcohol is served: Alevi weddings, Turkish-Bulgarian Gypsy weddings, or weddings where the bride or groom came from fun-loving Thrace, the western Turkish region renown for its hedonism. But even then the drinking is restrained. Half way through the wedding they will break out the booze — Jack Daniels and rakı. Even a Muslim wedding there is always the smoking room with a bar at the back where you can sneak a drink.
In talking with the manager of a Berlin wedding salon in Spandau, I gather that dry weddings are the trend amongst German Turks in Berlin. This either has to do with the influence of Tayyip Erdoğan on Turkish mores, or to the fact that wedding organizers don’t want stumbling drunks causing problems, ruining the show.
“With Erdoğan a whole generation came into being of people who hypocritically present a face to the public, saying I do this and this and this,” says Tunç. “I noticed it in the eighties. The forerunners of Erdoğan. The Milli Gürüş, started making their propaganda that men and women have to be separated at weddings. And then some families – it was very small percentage – did their weddings at the mosque. And thirty years later, now that they are in power and ruling the country they are forcing their lifestyle on other people. And the people are having dry weddings because there is such a fear of doing something wrong, so that the people are trying to fit in. The whole world is becoming more conservative. And people are afraid, so they are latching on to these old values and things, because they can’t deal with this new world. But that doesn’t mean that the people are more religious than they were in the past. It seems that way because they are trying to fit in.”
Central to the successful Turkish wedding is the wedding band. Normally playing music from the particular region where the bride and groom hail from, they nevertheless have about a dozen songs in their repertoire that are Turkey-wide in their appeal. There might be an electric saz player, a clarinetist and almost always a keyboard player. Together they run the gamut of popular wedding songs.
“Very important is the music,” says Mustafa Kepenek, manager of the wedding salon Royal in Berlin, Spandau. “That’s the decisive point. There are differences from region to region. Everyone has their preferences. Turkey offers a big cultural spectrum. There are various musical directions. And usually everyone brings their favorite orchestra.”
“There are people who will come for five hundred,” Hadice tells me. “There are people who will come for a thousand five hundred. For two thousand you can get someone from Turkey who is popular, well known. Well, not the biggest star, but someone who is on TV. He comes here, stays for a day and the next day he leaves.”
A good wedding band is known in the wedding circuit. They play the songs that everyone is familiar with and advertise mainly at weddings. “One wedding can open a thousand doors,” a wedding musician once told me.
Ever present at the Turkish wedding is the zurna and davul player, without whom many maintain, no Turkish wedding can be complete. The zurna and davul player accompany the bride in her progress from her home to the wedding salon. There are stories about weddings that had to be called off because the zurna and davul players failed to show up. One rates a wedding by how many davuls (bass drums) there are. A four-davul wedding is a big affair.
Hasan Yildiz is a zurna player in Berlin who hails from the Kurdish town of Van in east Turkey. Speaking through his wife in their Neukölln apartment, he tells me about his path from rural poverty in Turkey, where music offered an alternative to a life of manual labor, to Switzerland, where he played for free at PKK rallies, to Berlin, where he became one the most reputed zurna players in the city.
“You have to have the breath of a boxer to play this instrument,” says Yildiz. “The lungs and nose and all of it together, the breathing – it’s constant. All of it with the inhaling and exhaling without stopping, and all of it with the lungs and the cheeks pressing and thereby filling the nose.”
For all his success, however, he has had to contend with prejudice from some conservative Muslims who regard the zurna with it’s shrieking sound (The Turks describe a hangover saying, “My head is like a zurna”) as an ungodly instrument.
“The conservative Muslims only play with the def (a large frame drum),“ says Yildiz’s wife. “The hodjas and imams fill people‘s heads with stories, so that people think the zurna is sheytan. Why devil? Where is the devil in the zurna?“
Weddings in Turkey are more or less the same as Turkish weddings in Germany. One difference is the köçeks, cross-dressing men who don elaborately embroidered skirts and belly dance attire and accompany the bride and groom with their zurna playing, davul and castanets. I saw them at quite a few weddings in Istanbul where I lived for a year in 2012, but have never seen them perform in Berlin. From what I have been able to gather, the tradition goes back to Ottoman times, when women were banned from dancing in front of men, and so handsome men dressed as women, or rakkas —dancers — took up the role.
The köçeks were recruited mainly from among the ranks of the non-Muslim subject nations of the empire, such as Jews, Romani, Greeks, Albanians, Armenians and others. The dances, collectively known as köçek oyunu, blended Arab, Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish elements (Karsilamas dance and Kaşık Havası dance). They were performed to a particular genre of music known as köçekçe, which was performed in the form of suites in a given melody, displaying mix of Sufi, Balkan and classical Anatolian influences, some of which survives in popular Turkish music today.
Mehmet Kekik is a Turkish musician who sometimes performs as a köçek in Turkish weddings. He comes from the conservative central Anatolian town of Konya, and plays the bağlama — a long-necked lute — and the çümbüş — a kind of Turkish banjo. He presently lives in Istanbul and often plays weddings for people in and around Konya, as well as in Germany. Speaking to me over a couple rakıs, Kekik tells me about the role of alcohol in Turkish weddings.
“With Tayyip Erdoğan and everything it got less, for sure. But still, if you go to Izmir and Edirna there is a lot of alcohol. And if Erdoğan goes and another party comes everyone will start drinking again. If there is no alcohol in the wedding they give drinks to the musicians like, secretly, under the counter. Because they need to drink. They have to drink to play. It looks like they are drinking Coca-cola, but it has whisky inside of it.”
In America and Germany a wedding without alcohol is inconceivable. You must have alcohol at the wedding. It’s part of the whole thing.
“I was at a wedding once. The father of the groom was a liberal guy. He drinks and he sent many drinks to the musicians. I was a little bit sick, and said, ‘Thank you, I’m not having.’ He said, ‘Even if you drink or not, this glass of rakı is going to stand in front of you because I don’t want to be called such a wedding maker who doesn’t give rakı to the musicians’.”
Weddings are sometimes big tabloid events in Turkey, famous for how much money gets thrown away as baksheesh on the bride and the musicians. Sometimes tens of thousands of dollars gets tossed into the air, and this becomes big news and makes it to the TV.
Some of the best weddings conversely, are poor weddings celebrated on the street, for example in the Kurdish and Gypsy slum district of Tarlabaşı in Istanbul. In 2012 while I was living in Istanbul I stumbled on quite a few of these open-air weddings and they stuck me as mad, joyful occasions, despite the fact that they are looked down upon by some segments of Turkish society, and have been subject to some mainly half-hearted attempts at regulation. In Berlin occasionally wedding musicians will accompany the bride and the groom from home to wedding salon, stopping to play for a moment on the street, but open-air weddings are an impossibility unfortunately in this city where the Ordnungsamt is ever present.
“If your wedding is on the street in the perspective of society it’s on a low way of living,“ says Kekik. “That you don’t have money, you can’t show off kind of thing. But Kurdish people and Gypsies in Istanbul they don’t really mind. They still have their traditions. In the past it would happen in a village, in an open field under the trees, under the stars. It’s like they are trying to bring this tradition to Istanbul and other big cities, but it’s not working very well, apparently.”
Also part of the tradition of Turkish weddings, particularly in the countryside in east Anatolia and the Black Sea, are guns, shot into the air to express sheer high spirits. The news and popular movies are full of stories about people getting shot and killed by stray bullets at Turkish weddings.
“It’s bullshit,” says Kekik. “People die because of that. Whenever I am doing weddings, I say don‘t shoot in the air; this is like money that you are shooting in the air. A bullet is like one dollar or something. Instead you can go and give the money to the groom and bride.”
Shooting off guns at weddings is against the law in Turkey. Still, the law remains flexible, to put it mildly.
“The richer you are the less law there is,” says Kekik. “If you are poor; if you are making like a poor wedding and you shoot the gun the police will come. But if you are rich then the police will be there shooting in the air with you.”
Finally, I ask Kekik if he can tell me a funny Turkish wedding story. He has this to say:
“We were waiting for a wedding; about ready to go there, shaving, putting on our clothes and everything when the bride’s father came to us musicians and was like, ‘How are you doing?’ Blah, blah, blah. We were getting prepared and the father says, ‘Chill out, relax. My daughter left with another guy last night’. The father had given us a little bit of a deposit before the wedding. So I was like, ‘Take your money back. Your daughter ran away with another guy’. And the father said, ‘No, keep the money. You can have some drinks with that’. And he just left the place and went home all cool like.”
Back finally to our Turkish wedding. It’s now nearing midnight and I go to the café at the back to get myself a coffee because I am feeling tired. A blue haze hangs in the air as Turks in suits suck hard on cigarettes and sip their glasses of tea, occasionally the odd covert whisky.
In the café my eyes start to smart pretty quick. I go to the john and splash water on my face. Outside again the wedding guests have embarked on yet another fresh round of halay dancing after which people line up to give money to the bride, a man on the mic giving a running commentary on who gave how much. The night seems as though it will have no end. That’s how it is with Turkish weddings. Each Turkish wedding is an adventure, with booze or without booze.