Content warning death mentions, antiblackness
the self-identifying [Afro-Turk] community of the Aegean region made an effort to reembrace their past, thanks in large part to the recently deceased Mustafa Olpak, a marble worker who in the late 1990s managed to trace his own heritage back to Kenya, via Ottoman Crete.
Olpak was inspired by his research to establish Izmir’s Afro Turk Foundation in 2006, to connect the disparate community, and in the same year, he also reestablished the Calf Festival (‘Dana Bayrami’), a spring tradition practised publicly in Ottoman times by the African slave community, and then in secret after Atatiirk’s ban on non-state-controlled religious institutions in 1925. The festival originally involved leading an elaborately decorated calf from village to village to collect money before sacrificing it to prevent droughts. In the 1960s the secret practice died out, only to be brought back by Olpak with a papier-mâché calf replacing the original sacrificial victim. Bradley and I met the sixty-one-year-old Olpak outside his shabby office in Izmir a couple of days before the festival – he was preoccupied and smoked incessantly, too busy buying plane tickets for far-flung members of the community to go to his chemotherapy session. Very sadly, he died from prostate cancer four months later, having at least lived to the see the ten-year anniversary of the Calf Festival he reintroduced.
On the morning of the festival, Izmir locals sat listlessly outside restaurants in the heat on the main boulevard. Waiters dozed, and all was quiet. Suddenly, the thump of drums broke the peace, and a troupe of straw-clad figures materialized at the end of the street. Bradly and I, and the astonished café patrons, watched as the troupe expanded into a procession of nearly a hundred people, some wearing elaborate Benin-style masks, others garlands and bright prints, while children formed the legs of the velveteen-covered calf decorated with ribbons and amulets, shuffling slowly along at the center of the action. Locals gaped as the crowd careered down the boulevard.
‘Who are these people?’ I overheard one elderly lady muttering to her neighbour. ‘Africans, obviously,’ the other replied. ‘But I heard some of them speaking Turkish,’ said a young man at the adjoining table. ‘Black Turks? Certainly not.’ The second elderly lady’s tone was firm. ‘These are Africans.’
Overhearing this conversation, my suspicions were confirmed: most locals have no idea of the existence of the community, even though there have been several prominent Afro Turks in the history of the Republic – Esmeray, for example, a singer and actress in 1970s Istanbul (‘Dusky Moon’), the modern sculptor Kuzgan Acar or the pilot Ahmet Ali Çelikten, (‘Arab Ahmet Ali’), who fought for the Ottomans in the First World War as one of the first black fighter pilots in the world. During Turkey’s War of Independence, there were many Afro Turks in the rogue zeybek militias who fought the Greek invading forces in the mountains in the Aegean region before joining Atatürk’s regular army. Yet, as a community, the Afro Turks are largely missing from the pages of Turkey’s history.