Beyond kebabs: Hackney’s Turkish speakers

Our part of London is home to a Turkish-speaking community more diverse than you might think. Two centuries-old faiths with links to Islam are practiced here in vast numbers.

The term “Turkish community” is widely used to describe the thousands of Turkish speakers who live in London today. But it is in fact an umbrella term that covers mainland Turks, Turkish Cypriots and Kurds – the latter of whom also speak the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish – and nowhere in London better represents the capital’s Turkish-speaking diversity than Hackney.

The first to settle in this part of the city were the Turkish Cypriots, who migrated here for work between the 1930s and 1950s. In the decades that followed, their presence expanded from Hackney to other regions, including Haringey and Enfield.

Migration to the UK from mainland Turkey – in particular, the Anatolian peninsula – was barely noticeable until the 1970s, when increasingly larger number began to leave because of military interventions in Turkey. A further military coup in 1980, the deteriorating economic situation and, particularly from the 1990s, a rising conflict in southeast Turkey meant that many Kurdish-speaking Turkish citizens looked to Britain as their new home.

Intellectuals, journalists, opposition figures, artists and poets were among the cream of Turkey’s Kurdish society who made the move to Hackney and other major European areas.
Around 25,000 people in Hackney described themselves in the 2011 Census as a speaker of Turkish as a main language, but the real number of speakers is sure to be higher.
Over the past half century this community has overcome the largest barrier in its path – that of language – to set up its own businesses, community centres and associations.

The Turkish-speaking community is particularly visible on Hackney’s Kingsland Road. From Stoke Newington to Dalston there are mosques, hairdressers and barbers, florists, estate agents, supermarkets, restaurants, law firms and other businesses that make the area feel like a little Turkey. But most of the owners of these businesses live outside Hackney, in places like Southgate, Enfield and Chingford.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when Hackney was an important area for textiles, Turkish speakers had a major presence in the factories both as owners and as workers. It was after these factories closed down that the community began to concentrate in the food and drink sector instead.

The community is also diverse on the question of faith. It is widely assumed that the vast majority – 98 per cent, by some counts – of Turkish speakers are Muslims, but this isn’t quite the entire picture.
After Sunni Islam, one of the main religious groups is Alevism, which accounts for around 15-20 per cent of Turkey’s population. In Hackney, a majority of Turkish speakers are members of the Alevi faith. They are followers of Ali, the Prophet Muhammed’s brother-in-law, and practice a mystical faith that blends Islamic, Shaman and Sufi traditions.

Unlike many other religions, they do not have many strict laws; instead, they observe love among humans, tolerance and the passing of knowledge from one generation to another by means of poetry. Some, but by no means all, of the Alevi believe their faith to be a branch of Islam.

Another major different between Alevism and Sunni Islam is their place of worship. While Sunnis pray in mosques, Alevis meet at the cemevi. Unlike mosques, there is no gender segregation in a cemevi and the manner of prayer is different too: whereas a hodja or imam leads a service in a mosque, a cem service will see music, song and a form of spiritual dance known as the semah. The songs that are performed, often to the accompaniment of a guitar-like instrument known as the bağlama, are centuries-old and well-known amongst Alevi.
One such song goes:
“Learn from your mistakes and be knowledgeable,
“Don’t look for faults in others,
“Look at 73 different people in the same way,
“God loves and created them all, so don’t say anything against them.”
Turkey’s Alevi population has routinely been subject to discrimination and the target of massacres.
“Up until 1993, Alevi funerals were held at a mosque in Whitechapel largely used by the Pakistani community,” says Tugay Hurman, recalling how the Cemevi he leads today, at 89 Ridley Road, came to be founded.

“Alevi funerals were generally regarded as second class and when one particular event experienced disrespectful behaviour, the Alevis realised they were not temporary visitors to this country and needed to establish a cemevi of their own.”
Dalston’s cemevi has four thousand members and the building acts both as a cultural centre and a place of worship.
Like Sunni Muslims, Alevis observe a fasting but they do this during the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, rather than the month of Ramadan.
It is observed to mark the Battle of Karbala, in which Ali’s son Huseyin and his family members were abandoned in the desert and tortured for failing to bow allegiance to the caliphate of Yazid I. Alevis mark the anniversary of this 680 CE battle with theatre and discussions on human values and Alevi teachings. It culminates in the festival of Ashura, where a special dish prepared from a variety of fruits, nuts, and grains is made. It is also known as Noah’s pudding and shared not just within the cemevi but among family, friends and neighbours.

There are three mosques in the Hackney region used by Turkish-speaking people not just for worship, but for advice and cultural events.
One such site is at 117 Stoke Newignton Road, where the building used until 1983 as a theatre and cinema was purchased for £80,000 and transformed into Aziziye mosque.
The local hodja Fahri Baltan tells the story: “When I first came here from Turkey I thought I would be leading services to hundreds of people, like in Sultanahmet [the site of Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque]. But before Aziziye’s building was purchased, we used a flat on the upper floor of a building just nearby. There would be 5-6 people praying with us and I was deeply disappointed.
“But then this building was purchased in 1983 and it took its present form in 1997. We have a lovely mosque now.”
There are two important dates on the calendars of observant Muslims in the Turkish-speaking communities. One is Eid al-Fitr, known as the Ramadan Bayram in Turkish, which takes place over three days after the 30-day Ramadan fast. The other is Eid al-Adha, Kurban Bayram.
Both are festivals where new clothes are purchased and families come together. In a ritual ceremony, the younger generation visit their elderly relatives to kiss their hand and touch it with their foreheads.
Children get money, sweets and presents in return. Homemade baklava, nutty desserts make the festival sweet, while stuffed vine leaves, soups, salads, meaty meals and rice dishes ensure the whole family have a hearty meal together. It’s not just families either: friends will pay visits to one another.
Alevis mark the festival in the same way, and just about every member of the Turkish-speaking communities echo the same refrain: it’s just not like it was back in Turkey.

Words: Yasemin Bakan

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