A taste of Anatolia in Los Angeles,
The Anatolian Cultures and Food Festival has already become an established event in Los Angeles, California with tens of thousands attending every year. The festival presents the culture and history of anatolia to visitors through exhibitions, food, art and crafts, performance, dance and live music. Visitors are greeted by the ruins of the Commagene kingdom -- an ancient sovereignty in Adıyaman -and Mount Nemrut, followed by remains from the ancient Hittite Empire, once centered on the city of Çorum. Passing through lion-flanked gates, they are met by the Urartu civilization. Phrygia follows. Walking through the gateway of the Assyrian nation leads them to Troy and its eponymous horse in all their magnificence. The path of civilizations meanders on through the Persian Empire, Lydian kingdom and ancient civilization of Ionia. Of course, no list of civilizations would be complete without a mention of İstanbul. This foray into the past continues with the Roman and the Byzantine empires, concluding with the Ottoman Empire and, of course, the Turkish Republic.
This is the entrance to the third Anatolian Cultures and Food Festival, held this year in the US city of Los Angeles. The fair, which transports the past civilizations of Anatolia to the state of California, is among the most comprehensive and spectacular events held overseas by Turkey. Organized by the Pacifica Institute, founded by Turks living in Los Angeles, the festival has garnered attention from every corner of the state. The 30,000 visitors that came in the first year have since doubled; of the 60,000 visitors in 2011, some 5,000 were students.
Anatolians in California
Organizing a Turkish festival in this city carries a lot of meaning in terms of the ethnic mix of the area: California is home to the largest Armenian population in the US; Los Angeles even has a neighborhood known as Little Armenia. Close to 800,000 of the 1 million Armenians in the state live in Los Angeles. While it is quite easy to locate Turkish restaurants across the US, this region is remarkably poor in them, perhaps due to tensions with the Armenian population. In 1973 the murder of Turkey’s consul general in Los Angeles, Mehmet Baydar, was extremely influential in Californian Turks’ choosing to maintain a low profile.
For many years Turkish immigrants, who currently number around 60,000, were reluctant to make them-
selves known. Distanced from their indigenous culture and language, over the years they became assimilated. This is reflected the response from many US visitors: “We’ve known of Armenians, Assyrians, Mexicans and even Arabs, but we’ve only just realized the extent of the Turkish community.” Thus the festival not only introduced Turkey to others, but also helped reunite Turks with their own culture.
The festival has seen protests by local Armenians, who are also very active in state politics. However, İstanbul Armenians were instrumental in preventing protests at the first festival from getting out of hand. They are fond of Turks and Turkey and support the event. And it is not just the Armenians. Los Angeles is home to an Anatolian mosaic of sorts. The almost 70,000-strong Mardinian Assyrian community and 150,000 Greeks are joined by Sephardic Jews and Kurdish and Arab immigrants, creating a small Anatolia in the heart of Los Angeles. The Anatolian spirit, sorely missed and near-invisible for so long, has been restored thanks to the festival. With this event immigrant Anatolian communities have reinforced their bonds of affection with Turkey.
We meet up with Greg Jambazian and his wife Paystar in the section reserved for Van province. They are examining the Armenian church of Akdamar with fascinated curiosity. After a brief conversation it becomes clear their paths have also passed through Anatolia. Jambazian is Armenian-born and has been living in Los Angeles for 30 years. But his grandfather is from Adana and his great grandmother from İzmir. The family first emigrated to Greece, then Armenia and finally the US. As they talk about how thrilled they are by Turkey’s efforts to restore the Akdamar church, their excitement is obvious. Jambazian heard about the event through the Internet and stopped by to gain a more intimate understanding of his grandfather’s homeland. He is critical of those who would like the animosity between the two communities to continue: “You’re probably aware that many Armenians didn’t want to be here. Armenians in Armenia do not like the Turks one bit. We have to move beyond events that transpired all those years ago. I’ve come here to learn more about the culture of my ancestors.”
After our conversation, Jambazian takes us to meet his aunt, Mari Tantiskian. The conversation continues in Turkish. Tantiskian’s family is originally from İzmir, so she speaks Turkish, as do the thousands of İstanbul Armenians living in Los Angeles. She has a great deal of affection for Turkey and Anatolia, which she considers her home. Her family emigrated from İzmir to Greece and then to Los Angeles. She is clearly enjoying the festival and cannot conceal how moved she is as she thanks its organizers.
İstanbul déjà vu
For Congressman Dana Rohrabacher the festival has a very different meaning. Rohrabacher is the only member of the US House of Representatives to have swum the İstanbul strait; he is both pleased and surprised to see a model of the strait before him. Noting that Los Angeles is his constituency, he adds: “It’s very important for an event like this to be held here, as we strive to maintain good relations with Turkey in Washington. It is crucial in terms of getting acquainted with the Anatolian and Muslim culture.” Two other members of the House of Representatives also
visited the event; sisters Loretta and Linda Sanchez. The siblings give great importance to improving relations with Turkey and building reciprocal understanding between the two nations. Linda Sanchez is due to visit Turkey soon, while her sister will be heading there with a later tour group. Loretta Sanchez feels that a purely trade-oriented relationship between the US and Turkey is not enough and underlines the importance of such festivals in strengthening cultural relations, further noting the large contribution Anatolia can make to world culture.
California State Senator Bob Huff has recently returned from a visit to Turkey. “Things we saw in Turkey are now here right in front of us,” he says, musing that his previously held views on Turkey were as different to his newfound understanding of the country as black-and-white television is to 3D. Having stayed in the houses of local families in Turkey, Huff says that he had the opportunity to learn about the community firsthand. The senator notes the historic roots of Turkish hospitality, as well as the importance of exchange programs and frequent visits in improving relations between the two countries.
Sharing a different view of Turkey
The Pacifica Institute was founded in 2004. According to President İbrahim Barlas, the institute’s objective is to protect the Turkish community and foster cultural dialogue. He adds that the tours they have organized have allowed the governing elite in and around Los Angeles to gain a deeper understanding of Turkey. The idea of organizing a festival that introduced Anatolia and all its cultural values was suggested by the institute’s board. Barlas, who laments the limited scope of Turkish festivals held in the US, adds: “We wanted to do something different that represented the myriad colors Turkey has to offer. We worked with a design team from Norm Design. We’re improving the festival every year with new additions.” İstanbul, of course, is the star of the festival. Konya, because of the greatly popu- lar Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi; Antalya as the holiday hotspot; Mardin as the home of the Assyrians; and Van, which holds great significance for the Armenians, are also represented. This year İstanbul is symbolized by Topkapı Palace, the İstanbul strait, the Maiden’s Tower, the historic peninsula, the gate of Dolmabahçe Palace, the Grand Bazaar and Şehzade Mosque. A Turkish tradition was honored by the continuous reading of the Quran in the section housing sacred relics from Topkapı Palace. Meanwhile the five daily calls to prayer resonat
ed from the Şehzade Mosque.
Sıddıka Hanım’s gözleme
Food plays a major role in organizing a festival in the US -- without a cuisine element, people are just not interested! For this reason, the festival also includes traditional and historic Anatolian foods. A rich variety of dishes, ranging from döner to kebabs, baklava to Maraş icecream, and gözleme (a thin Turkish pastry) to künefe (a Turkish dessert), were on offer. The stalls were surrounded by queues of people throughout the event. As one might imagine, ensuring such variety and satisfying demand is no mean feat. There were many significant contributions from volunteers from both Turkey and neighboring states. In particular, thanks should go to the women who
worked day and night to have the food and desserts ready on time. Some of these volunteers continued to prepare food throughout the entire festival. Most notable among them was Sıddıka Hanım, a volunteer from İstanbul who was responsible for preparing gözleme.
She saw an advert for the festival in the paper and applied as a volunteer and has now been in charge of preparing the gözleme for the past two years. Despite nagging back problems, Sıddıka Hanım prepared gözleme from scratch, rolling them out by hand, for four days, resting only for prayer. When we asked her why she was here, she said: “For years, our husbands have gone elsewhere to serve others. We sat at home. I also wanted to make myself useful, so now I come here every year.” When she was asked, during her visa application at the consulate, why she wanted to go to the US, she replied, “To make gözleme,” and was granted a 10-year visa. Her husband was unable to accompany her on this trip, but one of the festival staff has kept her company. Sıddıka Hanım is delighted to be of service at the festival. Volunteers like her are the unsung heroes of this enormous undertaking. A total of 400 volunteers are employed during the festival. Every one of these volunteers has a job or a career; they are teachers, engineers and homemakers like Sıddıka Hanım. They work, unpaid, for four days and do their best to introduce the different people of the US to their country. The smiling and determined faces in their souvenir photos show their belief that the hardships and sleepless nights have all been worthwhile.
Turkish Review was honored to be among sponsors of this festival.
The third Anatolian Culture and Food Festival was held in the US city of Los Angeles.