Hıdırellez Bahar Şenlikleri - The Spring Fest

We passed three dead snakes on the narrow country road to Çalıklı.  The drive took us through empty fields and near a dry streambed.  The road signs for the town were spelled in different ways – one read “Çalıklı,” another “Çaleklı.”
It’s not a big village.  There are about twenty houses and a whitewashed mosque.  A big crowd had gathered around a cow pasture.  We parked the car beside a few buses and walked over with our cameras.  Circled by a few hundred onlookers, pairs of men – bare to the waist, slicked with oil and sweat, their chests heaving – wrestled one another while a man wandered between them with a drum.  This was unexpected, but we hadn’t really known what to expect – we’d come to the Hıdırellez Bahar Şenlikleri (Turkish for “Hıdırellez Spring Festival”) knowing only that there would be singing and dancing.
It was a hot day in south-eastern Macedonia, some twenty miles from the Greek border, and most of the people cheering on the wrestlers had gathered in what little shade there was – under a few umbrellas and beneath the new leaves of three sycamores on the pasture’s edge.  There is very little information about this festival online, and we had come feeling as though we were following a rumor.
But there we were, watching this ancient Turkish sport and feeling amazed to be part of it.  A man played a kind of wooden horn loudly, the drum beat a laconic rhythm, judges roamed the ring in baggy şalvar trousers.  The contestants did elaborate dances between matches – ritualized, springing, arm-flailing displays to exhort applause from the crowd.  Winners were carried back to their groups on the shoulders of friends.  The losers lay on the grass panting before slinking to the sidelines.  Before every round, the men poured oil over their shoulders, their heads and the leather pants they wore, making themselves as slick as possible.
In Albania, the culture felt more Greek the closer we got to the border – here, though, it feels as though we’ve skipped over the Hellenic lands and landed somewhere near Anatolia.  There are lots of ethnic Turkish and Roma settlements in the lands around Strumica, and the language is heavily influenced by those cultures. Hıdırellez is a pan-Turkic festival that celebrates the coming of spring and the awakening of life – it has roots going back to ancient Mesopotamia, and various Muslim countries celebrate something similar.  In Macedonia, it’s as much about celebrating Turkish identity as anything, and it means a lot to the people of Strumica and Çalıklı.  Groups of dancers and wrestlers come from all over – from Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and even Azerbaijan.
Interestingly, the non-Turkish people in the area seemed hardly to know it was going on – or to know, but not want to say anything about it.
That night, in Strumica, we asked around, trying to figure out where a Hıdırellez concert we’d been told about would take place.  A man at the cultural center shook his head and said nothing, looking down at the ground.  A man at our hotel said he wasn’t sure.  A woman at the highschool was very friendly until we asked about Çalıklı and the spring festival – she began abruptly to walk away.
We actually took this to mean that there had been some mistake, and that nothing was happening.  It wasn’t until that night, when we heard drums and horns in the central square, that we realized there certainly was something going on.
A group of young dancers in red costumes danced energetically and strangely to music played by a few kids.  The musicians had a flute-like instrument, a trumpet and a drum – they played lively, fluttering music as loudly and quickly as they could.  The dancers did a jumping, line dance routine, turning their heads stoically from side to side in unison as they flicked the draping of their clothes and the streamers on their hats.  Only about ten people were watching.
It was a magical, powerful revelry and a beautiful sight in the dark.  And then it was over.  The lot of them stopped and filed into the cultural center.  We followed them and found more music.
Inside, a raucous crowd danced and sang along to unfamiliar songs.  The musicians sat in tuxedos, playing well.  The singer was probably famous.  She wore a long sleeved, flowing, red dress and a cascade of blonde-tinted curls.  Teenagers laughed and talked and cheered, running in and out of the auditorium with friends or standing in the aisles to socialize.  Parents and grandparents sat and gossiped.  The hairstyles were sculptural and full of grease, the clothes were tight and skimpy.  It was hot, the music was loud.  We stayed for about half an hour, standing in a crush of young people near the door.
Later that night, at about 1:30 in the morning, we heard the young drummer and trumpet player go noisily by under our window – the street was still lively and a small ruckus rose and followed them as they played.  It woke us up and we would have been more upset if they didn’t seem so earnestly celebratory.
The next afternoon we went back out to Çalıklı but found ourselves a little late.  The young dancers – more of them now, bussed in from different places – were changing out of their costumes and into their best festival clothes.  The oil-wrestling field was empty now except for a few heifers, but there were still hundreds of people.  We followed the crowds up through a lane of country-fair stands – toy guns and headscarves for sale, grilling kofte and beer drinking men under tarps.  The older women dressed in full tradition robes, their best silks.  The younger people preferred tight pants and tanktops.  There was much hello-saying and groups of talking friends. We made our way up past the mosque to a covered stage, where people were sitting in the shade and waiting for a performance to begin.
We waited too and talked with a few people.  We’d received a lot of quizzical looks but never felt uncomfortable.  Even though we didn’t fit in the locals seemed more proud of their festival than protective.
Eventually, the same red-dressed, probably-famous singer emerged from her van and began to sing the same songs as the night before.  The audience here was more staid.  They seemed to be from the countryside instead of Strumica – they watched more attentively, the clothes were more traditional.  Around the stage, tractors were parked and a few cows were tied up.

We left with the woman’s voice still ululating in our ears.  A few amorous youths were lurking out by the line of parked cars and buses on the road.  Popsicle wrappers and soda cans littered the ground.  As we drove away, we could still see smoke from the kofte barbeques rising behind us.  The festival was winding down, and we weren’t the only car driving out along the little road.  A scattering of townspeople sat in chairs along the way, watching the traffic from their front yards.
It was an incredible experience.  Even after three events over two days, we felt as though we’d only caught a bare glimpse of something.  As an older man said to us by the wrestling field, this was “something very special.”  He watched the athletes and seemed caught by emotion.  “We didn’t always have this,” he said, meaning he and his Turkish neighbors.  “For us, this is something special.”  You can imagine how we felt.

The Hıdırellez Bahar Şenlikleri in Çalıklı is celebrated over three days around the fifth of May.
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