Selina Bieber
Last updated: 26 October, 2012

A family tradition eroded by modernity

Bayram – Eid in the Arab world – used to be a time when Turkish families came together. But things are changing. Selina Bieber has met four Istanbulites who nostalgically remember this sacred holiday before it fell victim to our hectic modern lifestyles.

On the eve of the second Bayram holiday of the year in Turkey, many Turks – revelling in the upcoming seven day long break – can be overheard asking friends and colleagues where they are escaping to while counting down the days until the working week comes to an official end. In the bustle of the week prior to the religious holiday, my thoughts go beyond holidays and religion to linger on an advertisement run nationally during the previous religious holiday, portraying a much different scenario to that manifesting before me.

The old grandfather, fondly known as “dede” in the Turkish language, sits upon the peak of a hill looking down across the valley. His face laden with the burden of the years, a saddened expression masks it. In the distance the sound of car tires precedes the image of a series of cars slowly creeping up the hill and the dede’s wrinkled face breaks into a gleaming smile. One can almost see the tears of joy in his eyes as adult children and children disembark from the cars, his descendants running to embrace him.

A simple description of an emotional confectionary advertisement of a Turkish leader screened during the first Bayram period in August, immediately after Ramadan, but one that also resonates the meaning of this religious holiday for much of the older generation of Muslims in Istanbul. The great contrast between the two, the reality and the ideal, prompted me to delve into the meaning of Bayram for the people of Istanbul by speaking to the generation on the cusp of tradition and modernity.

In its simplest sense Bayram, or Eid as it is known in the rest of the Arab world, is known as a time for charity and giving. Celebrated twice a year, once at the end of the month of Ramadan and once at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Hajj, the Bayram ritual changes from one family to the next. Yet, speaking with four baby boomers originally from Istanbul, their words are laden with a deep nostalgia as they touch upon a sacred holiday that has fallen victim to the increasingly hectic pace of contemporary life in the big city. At a time when Istanbul is said to have been a largely empty city, filled with spaces for children to play, when two or more story houses reined the streets and more than one generation filled the home, the meaning of Bayram was family.

Emine Selbes, a business owner from Istanbul, describes the ritual of preparing for the Bayrams she spent in an old stone house her family shared with her grandparents: “Days before Bayram flannelette fabrics would be purchased for the house attendants together with provisions. Cleaning would begin days before, the carpets, frames were washed and there would be lots of blankets at home because we’d have many visitors stay overnight. On the morning of Bayram, as a family we would carry out the ritual amongst ourselves, then with the rest of the house. On the first day we’d carry out the visits.” An event that swept across entire households, Bayram was a holiday in which no one was forgotten, especially not children.

In the eyes of a child, the magic of an occasion becomes fixed in its anticipation. Experiencing a renewal each Bayram, business owner Cuneyt Apaydın says he would wait eagerly twice a year to shed his skin with new clothes, new stocks for his toy collection and to fill his stomach with the normally banned street food. Having been picked out carefully from the still in print “Burda” textile magazine or the like, children were armed with selected new outfits and shoes for the occasion sewn by tailor friends or family members.

Demet Canbazoglu a mother and professional, gives an insight into the excitement felt by children in the lead up to Bayram. “On the eve of Bayram, the clothes to be worn the next day would be taken out ready. In the morning we would wake up to the smell of my mum’s chicken rice and open our eyes to the joy of seeing our new outfits. My mum would have prepared the baklava the night before and no one could touch them until the visitors came.” Noting too that T-shirts were an unknown, let alone brand names like Lacoste, Apaydın mentions receiving a crew neck vest or new season shirt that he wore proudly.

Today during Bayram, the supermarket shelves can be seen lined with different chocolates and sweets reminiscent of the Turkish delight, chocolate money, small sweets and the classic favourite “chocolate umbrella” that I still hear my mother talk about fondly, wrapped in tissues and handed out to the children, a tradition not yet completely lost. Former Istanbulite and petroleum engineer, Selami Sehsuvaroglu has warm memories these sweet moments: “the holiday we enjoyed the most was the one associated with giving and taking candy, because not only each visit tantalized us with the taste of delicious sweets, but we also had the opportunity to tackle the stock of sweets that amassed in our house following frequent visits from friends and family. Unforgettable were the sugar coated almonds, the succulent Turkish delights stuffed with chunks of pistachio and the hard candy we called ‘akide’, which melted in your fingers and threatened to break your teeth.”

The joy of children was balanced with the social side of the holiday, visiting relatives and friends or entertaining them at home with the vast array of foods that had been prepared. Out of respect, despite moving from home to home and being offered savoury and sweet pastries at each made by mothers and grandmothers, these were never turned down. Visits were usually determined in terms of age, with the oldest relatives being first on the list. Children would kiss the hands of their elders, touching them to their foreheads as a sign of respect. Apaydın describes the changing dynamics of these relationships “I saw elders come together with family and friends, leaving resentments behind, making our generation, at the very least, feel as though “we are a family”. Despite them realising the reasons for the increasing distances between people – the traffic, working life, physical exhaustion –that were eroding the family concept, elders would especially try to mend these ties, develop them and bring individuals together.”

With time, the older generations are lost and the world within which they once lived in changes, now seemingly more rapid than before. Homemade clothes and food are replaced with easier, ready-made solutions while gift choices must now be made from racks of competing colours, brands and prices. Selbes highlights a decline in the scope of preparations after the loss of her grandparents. Family visits appear to be gradually fading, even faded completely if we confine ourselves discussing the big city life. The growing population and introduction of a free market economy have seen old houses being knocked down and replaced with towering apartment blocks as the diameter of the big cities expand with an influx of migrants seeking new jobs and a new lifestyle. The Istanbul of the 60s and 70s is a far cry from the scene visitors are met with today. Selbes recalls their family home being turned into an apartment due to their financial situation while Canbazoğlu acknowledges that as her generation grew up, married, had children of their own, the tradition they tried to continue lost out to working life. With the influx of commercialism, new opportunities hit Turkey’s shores, changing people’s perspectives and priorities.  

21st Century Istanbul is characterised by a ten hour working day, limited holiday opportunities and a city traffic problem that few cities can rival. In our modern world, travel options are endless and communications have become so advanced that we can connect to anyone across the world at any time, provided we have an internet connection. In the midst of the stress and tempo of life, I see many of my peers looking at the calendar to check the dates of the upcoming Bayram holiday, some even comment that Bayram in 2013 is very “rich” in terms of days, weighing up possible holiday destinations and checking tickets to ensure they purchase them at a cheap price before being exposed to inflated holiday rates, usually at least twice the normal prices. Many hoping that the government will officially extend the holiday so they do not have to use up their annual leave.  

Canbazoglu says “today cemetery visits or visits to elders are fit into Bayram eve or have become telephone greetings unfortunately. For our children, it is only seen as a holiday opportunity.” As of Bayram eve, corporate messages for the occasion drop into my inbox one by one, some designs in line with the company’s corporate identity, others choosing a more religious or fun tone, while my Blackberry pings with the merry “happy Bayram” messages flowing in from friends. While my own social circle and working lifestyle are a far cry from the everyday life of a villager in Anatolia, the way the Istanbul traffic alleviates during these holiday periods is a clear sign of the pressures and cost of living in Istanbul forcing people to struggle to try to maintain a particular lifestyle.

“In the past Bayram’s had a special value based on the notions of ‘my family and friends’ and ‘my children’, whereas now Bayram is seen as distancing yourself from the concept of family… to allow yourself an opportunity to rest in new environments. The notion of ‘friends’ has not yet disappeared because we need these people in the places we escape to,” says Apaydın. Younger generations of children are now largely alienated from the tradition of Bayram, being whisked away with their parents to a holiday home on the South Coast or an alternative holiday destination, widowed grandmas often seen supporting their daughters with their children.

Reflecting back on the old man depicted in the advertisement, I question whether modernity is to blame. As a people, Turks retain a level of respect and responsibility towards their elders that is seldom observed in the West, however, the daily grind is vastly different. Speaking of a holiday that is now a distant memory Sehsuvaroglu seems to hit a nerve echoed by all those with whom I spoke; “as much as I try and correlate my earlier memories… the sights, smells and sounds of the days gone by, when children ran free and streets were safe, now seem only too much like a fairy tale, distant and opaque – like something you’ve once heard and knew you loved, but can’t really recall all too clearly anymore.”