Thoughts on the Dumpling Festival
If we dream of a country and a world where borders are not drawn in minds and hearts, we can start by creating autonomous spaces for ourselves with inspiration from the ‘Dumpling (Mantı) Festival’ or the ‘Story of the Çörek’.
I was busy struggling in a normative world with established rules, principles and a human rights regime with its implementation left to the mercy of the state when I got a call from the Hrant Dink Foundation saying, ‘We are holding a Dumpling Festival!’
I had been in the throes of drafting a petition to the administrative court to reverse the arbitrary and baseless decisions of the Kayseri Governorship, then the Şişli District Governorship banning the Foundation’s international conference, The Social, Cultural and Economic History of Kayseri and the Region, to be held in October 2019.
At the same time, I was contemplating the fact that as humans we assume we have certain birthrights, and yet we are only able to realise those if the state recognises and protects them. How can we overcome the crisis created by this paradox?
The Dumpling Festival was Hrant Dink Foundation’s response to the ban on the conference. The announcement of the festival was accompanied by a touching video that said the dumplings would be made together in workshops for children and adults, then eaten together, and that there would be discussions on 36 different kinds of mantı (dumplings) ranging from the Kayseri to the Circassian style, in a celebration of diversity.
‘That's it!’ I remember thinking as I jumped up from my desk. ‘This may be the new way we are seeking to resist bans and pressure, to protest what is being imposed upon us, in order to overcome the human rights crisis with such actions.’
Oppressive regimes not only violate our rights but also take away our capacity to imagine new and creative forms of resistance. Many of us are focused on standing our ground, at whatever cost, rather than strengthening solidarity and challenging the oppression by producing and acting together. While it is important to stand firm, I think it is even more important to develop ways to overcome a crisis in order to move forward.
Around one table
I was thrilled. A joy that I had only rarely experienced of late had overcome me.
Discussing the past and multiculturalism, unearthing the unseen and unknown through the simple act of preparing and eating dumplings could have only been conjured up by a woman with unbound imagination – and I wasn’t mistaken. It came from Delal (Dink), the vice president of the Foundation's board and the late journalist Hrant Dink’s daughter. The implicit message of this festival was: ‘I have rights that are independent of what the state recognises and permits, and I am using my right to exercise these rights.’ The justice of the law ‘granted’ by the state was questioned, and the ban was challenged.
Even though the announcement was last minute, more than 500, children and adults from various circles attended the Dumpling Festival. The dialogue established that day over food allowed us to build new, solid friendships by shunning the identities imposed upon us and expanding the cracks in the artificial boundaries drawn between us.
That day we created an autonomous space encompassing all floors of the Foundation’s building, making it a place of our own decisions and resistance. Around one table, we produced, shared and talked.
We sang songs out loud, filling our ears with the power of our voices, and we realised how strong we are when we sing and act together. We were filled with hope.
The flavour, smell and taste of the dumplings took each of us on a journey to the past. We remembered and shared with each other the stories of our grandmothers. We questioned the forms of remembrance and forgetting that had been imposed on us, crumpling up the lies and tossing them in the rubbish before we returned to our homes.
My experiences at the festival harkened back to the story of my grandmother’s çörek (braided sweet bread) and the collective efforts women preparing şehriye (hand-cut noodles) and sorting bulgur during my childhood.
Kayseri Dumpling Festival, 2019 || Photos: Hrant Dink Foundation
The price for survival
Those who read my memoir Anneannem (My Grandmother) may remember the story of the çörek, but let me recount it here for those who may have forgotten.
I was unaware of what had occurred in 1915 until my grandmother told me her painful story. What I learned was the heartbreaking story of how she began her journey in life as an Armenian named Heranuş, and from the age of nine, continued it as the Muslim Seher.
At the age of nine, Heranuş was sent on a death march, when a Muslim corporal forcibly took her from her mother, and thus kept her alive. Yet the cost for staying alive was being severed from her mother and the world she knew, only to be thrust among those who had either destroyed her family and loved ones or stood by as this atrocity unfolded. She paid for her survival by losing her language, religion, name, and voice. My grandmother was not the only example of this ‘survival’: There were Heranuşes everywhere. They were the surviving remnants of the genocide.
It must be acknowledged that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of children and women shared the same fate as my grandmother, their lives enveloped in a terrible fear, carrying the scars of the brutality they experienced in 1915 and the chain of disasters they witnessed with them until they died. It is impossible to know what they endured throughout their lives. They undoubtedly suffered great psychic wounds. I assume that most left this world without the opportunity to heal those wounds. Still, before they passed from this world to the next, they imparted the memory and the truth to the next generation, even if it was but a whisper.
Resisting with mahaleb çörek
If I find myself at the Kadıköy Market in Istanbul and am not in a hurry, I always stop by Hasan’s bookstore. Like me, his childhood was also spent in Maden, a town in the eastern province of Elazığ. Our families knew each other. Hasan and I met in Istanbul, and soon became friends. After my grandmother’s death, I visited Hasan’s shop one day. He offered me a coffee, as he always did, and then, as always, we slipped into deep conversation.
After a while he said, ‘You know what? We came to your house with my grandmother when I was a child; your grandmother made mahaleb çöreks. After visiting your home and eating your grandmother’s çörek, we visited other houses on the same day. What caught my attention that day was the same çörek that was served at all the houses we visited. The çöreks at the other houses were also made with mahaleb, eggs and black cumin, just like the ones we ate at yours. While I was disappointed that something else wasn’t served, my grandmother ate the çöreks and drank the tea offered in all the houses we visited. Years later, I realised the common characteristic of these homes. Saşo İbrahim’s wife, Auntie Seher was Armenian, and Auntie Tadımlı, like your grandmother, was later Islamised.’
I was surprised. I asked Hasan about the timing of this visit. He couldn’t remember exactly, but he remembered the instance very well, and was able to establish the connection between the breads and the women serving them years later.
I also remembered that my grandmother used to make the mahaleb çörek that we loved for her guests sometimes. But the truth is I didn’t know that in those days, this çörek was made and served in the same way in homes where women shared a common destiny.
When I thought about it, our Armenian neighbours in Elazığ came to mind. Aznif Hanım and Yıldız Hanım used to make the same çöreks at Easter and offer them to visitors. Mahaleb çöreks were the Easter bun of our region.
As Hasan and I put together what we knew and remembered, what we realised made both of us emotional, bringing tears to our eyes. While these women hid it from their children and grandchildren, they kept a quiet tradition among themselves, remembering the holy days by visiting their neighbours and celebrating Easter.
They transformed the Easter çörek into a unique way of communication, understanding one another with their eyes and challenging the ways of thinking and remembering imposed upon them by forming strong friendships. These women who had developed various survival strategies after the disasters that had befallen them had turned the private sphere into a field of resistance through these çöreks.
Perhaps this was their way of challenging the lopsided power dynamics they experienced at home and the society they were a part of.
When women come together
Women not only transmitted memory and tradition within the spaces they created for collective solidarity, they also challenged the discrimination and hostility against them. Among the work of food preparation for winter was cutting noodles and sorting bulgur, done collaboratively by meeting at one house each day.
Large, clean sheets were laid on the floor of the largest room in the house. Everyone who came, regardless of their ethnic identities, religious beliefs or political views, sat on the floor around this cloth. The day’s noodle cutting was done together, and meals cooked by the host were eaten together. The entire process was accompanied by memories, stories, anecdotes and folk songs. Everyone was equal around the cloth. With the power of producing together, women opposed discrimination and stereotyping, and rewrote their own narrative.
The light emitted through cracks
Since those days, we have gradually grown apart, we approach one another with wariness, and as a natural result, we have become increasingly isolated. Just as tyrannical regimes want, we can no longer come together. Each of us stretches our necks toward the noose they want to wrap around our throats, or our strength is inadequate and we are defeated.
We know and experience every day that the worst nightmare of oppressive systems is that those who have been sacrificed and whose lives have been devalued will one day emerge from their separate ranks to act together.
If we dream of a country and a world where borders are not drawn in minds and hearts, we can start by creating autonomous spaces for ourselves, inspired by the ‘Dumpling Festival’ or the ‘Story of the Çörek’.
The spaces we create can witness a new beginning where we can remember what we were forced to forget and imagine a common future.
As humanity has shown, even thousands of years ago, remembering is justice, forgetting is injustice.
While remembering, we also carve a mark on the present. Like any cut, it hurts, but let’s not forget that light also enters from there. 
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley
- Fethiye Çetin, Anneannem, 12th ed. (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2016); My Grandmother: A Memoir (London: Verso, 2008).
- As Leonard Cohen sang in his song ‘Anthem’ from The Future album released in 1992, ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.’