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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.