Happy Newroz!

One of the many festivals observed in our richly variety of cultures in London is the Newroz Festival, celebrated in Trafalgar Square this year for the first time – celebrations in previous years have taken place in Finsbury Park, Shoreditch and elsewhere.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

Newroz is the Kurdish version of the ancient Iranian New Year holiday, celebrated (as we used to) at the Spring Equinox, and since the 1980s has become widely celebrated as a symbol of Kurdish identity.

Turkey brought in its own official Spring celebration in 2000, Nevruz, in an attempt to replace the celebration of Newroz. It’s now a crime to use the name Newroz or celebrate it there. Newroz celebrations in Turkey, supported by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have at times led to mass arrests and killings, and the same is true in Syria where although in theory it is allowed, in practice the security forces clamp down on it because of its political overtones.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

I’ve photographed many events involving Kurds over the years and come to admire their fiery determination and appreciate the dream that unites and energises them as a people. Their immediate goal is the release of the man who has become a symbol of their nation, Abdullah Öcalan (pronounced ‘erdjerlan’), and the dream is of a Kurdish nation, Kurdistan.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

London now has a Mayor who has made bumbling idiocy an art form, and one he has used to great political advantage, not least in defeating Ken Livingstone. As we are seeing it’s a smokescreen that hides some policies  which will make London a worse place to live in, particularly for those on low incomes and who rely on public transport.  His gaffe over Newroz is a curious one, and suggests to me some serious confusion at City Hall.

Here is a part of Ken Livingstone‘s message about Newroz in 2006:

‘Newroz is an important opportunity for the size and contribution of the Kurdish community in London to be recognised, and with a celebratory concert in Finsbury Park this weekend, an ideal opportunity for Londoners of all backgrounds to celebrate, explore and educate themselves about London’s Kurdish communities. It is my pleasure to wish you a Happy Newroz.’

And here is some of what Boris Johnson had to say in a press release that doesn’t appear to be on the extremely confused official London government web site:

‘I have the pleasure to announce that a Newroz Festival will take place for the first time in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 14 March. I’m proud so many people of Turkish and Kurdish backgrounds, like my paternal grandfather, have made London their home and have brought the rich history, culture, cuisine and trades of Turkish speaking communities to the capital’

Ilhan Genc, in an open letter to  Boris on KurdishMedia, prints the whole of the message Boris sent to the London Kurdish Community, but with a deliberately unsubtle difference to point out the offence his message caused: ‘the words Turkish and Turkey have been substituted with German and Germany, and the words Kurdish and Newroz substituted with Jewish and Hanukkah.’

This results in Boris’s final paragraph now reading:

‘I am proud to be the Mayor of Londoners from every community and I’m extremely proud of my GERMAN ancestry. HANUKKAH is a wonderful opportunity for strengthening the links that exist between City Hall and everyone marking HANUKKAH.’

Genc ends his letter:

‘I hope I have made my feelings clear, and look forward for an apology from the Mayor.An extremely angered and insulted Kurdish Londoner’

Boris is of course rightly proud of his Turkish great-grandfather Ali Kemal, a liberal Turkish journalist and politician, editor of the anti-Nationalist paper Sabah.  Kemal was sentenced to hang by the Military Governor of Smyrna “In the name of Islam, in the name of the Turkish nation … as a traitor to the country” but was seized and torn to pieces by a mob of women with knives, stones, clubs and cutlasses as he was being taken to the gibbet. As the New York Times commented at the time of his death in Nov 1922, he was known as one of Turkey’s most enlightened and most impartial citizens.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

Had Boris been at Newroz, he would clearly have seen that it was Kurdish and not Turkish, viewing the event through a sea of flags with pictures of Abdullah Öcalan, in prison on Imrali Island in Turkey since his kidnapping in Kenya in 1999 and heard the chanting “We are the PKK” and the calls for Öcalan’s release. As the finale of a highly energetic folk dance display on the stage, each of the troupe of young women pulled out a flag with his image and danced around the stage to tumultuous applause.

© 2009 Peter Marshall

Many more pictures from this event on My London Diary.

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