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The Turkish wedding crashers

The men wear shiny suits, the women glitzy dresses, everyone knows how to dance the Halay and everything is covered in gold. Robert Rigney explains how to take a short trip to Turkey without leaving Berlin.

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Photo by Sonia Teruel

The men wear shiny suits, the women glitzy dresses, everyone knows how to dance the Halay  and everything is covered in gold. Robert Rigney explains how to take a short trip to Turkey without leaving Berlin.

The shriek of the clarinet cuts through the air and all the young bucks hit the floor, linking fingers, forming a circle and dancing the Halay. As the wedding band runs through yet another popular song, the bride and the groom take centre stage. Now and then a guest comes up and showers the bride with dollar bills, while the kids run around like mad on the dance floor, dashing between the legs of the adults, scrambling for the baksheesh. On closer inspection, the notes reveal themselves to be fake.

The fact that it’s a dry wedding doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. It’s a ball just listening to the live music and watching the dancing. No one here needs booze to have a good time. “Look at these people,” Hadice, my partner in crime, says. “They don’t have a care in the world.” The davul, the bass drum, throbs through the room as more join the circle. There must be about 700 people here – so just a small wedding then. Initially I’m a bit shy about getting involved, but Hadice insists, and it isn’t long before we too join the bobbing centipede of dancers. People chat, laugh and dance, and all the while a man with a microphone is giving a running commentary on who’s giving what to the happy couple. In Berlin, some people go to nightclubs, others prefer smoky bars, while some even head out to their Kleingarten in the suburbs to escape. Hadice and I, we go to Turkish weddings. Sometimes we don’t even know who’s getting married. We are wedding crashers.

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Photo by Sonia Teruel

A tale of many weddings

So why do we do it? Why do we crash Turkish weddings? The food isn’t that great; invariably the same old chicken and rice, and maybe some hummus if we’re lucky. There’s not even any alcohol. One answer is that it’s just a fun night out. One dances, one sees and one is seen. One always puts on one’s best threads. The other answer is a bit longer and not as clear.

Hadice started dragging me out to Turkish weddings as soon as we first started going out back in 2011 – not that I needed much prodding. But she’s been going to Turkish weddings for as long as she can remember, even if they weren’t always so much fun. Her own wedding – the first one, an arranged marriage back in Turkey – was an unpleasant affair. She was only 16, against the idea and had to be sedated with shots just to get through the night. As for our wedding, well, it was more of a practical affair. This time it was my parents who were against it, so we had a dini nikah, a religious marriage, presided over by an imam and certainly without fanfare. And as for me, all this is just about as far away from my Wilmersdorf/Zehlendorf childhood as I could imagine. For a long time my only experience of Turkish weddings was a convoy of loud music and horns streaming through the city. But I found that with every new wedding I was escaping my Berlin, the Berlin I knew, without even having to leave the city. So now, when word goes around the Turkish community that so-and-so, a friend of a friend, or someone from Hadice’s town or region is getting married, she puts on all her glittery, glitzy finery, digs out her old gold, while I don a suit and tie and we hit the wedding salons. I rarely know who’s getting married, and I always have a funny feeling shaking the hand of the groom’s father – some guy who thinks that Hadice and I are great friends of the family. He will end up pouring cologne into my hands and taking me under his wing.

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Photo by Sonia Teruel

Better than Berghain?

I’ve heard from many German friends that they would like a wedding like that.”

They usually take place in wedding salons, located either in former factories or industrial quarters, themselves often surrounded by Turkish import-export businesses, Turkish supermarket warehouses and the odd inconspicuous mosque. Inside, everything is white and gold, lavishly decorated in a kind of cheap, kitschy glamour. The men wear sheeny, close-fitting suits; the women opulent gowns, even more gold and have their hair piled up. And even though some of these things might seem a bit foreign to the German mindset, it appears I’m not the only one who gets a kick out of them. “I have many, many German friends who like going to Turkish weddings rather than Berghain or some club,” Turkish rapper Sultan Tunç tells me. “They think it’s a lot of fun. I think that for a lot of women, they long for this womanliness. And all this comes out in the Turkish weddings. Men are men and women are women. The roles are fixed. I’ve heard from many German friends that they would like a wedding like that.”

At the heart of every Turkish wedding is the band. While normally they play music from whatever region the bride and groom hail from – in this case, the Black Sea – the band nevertheless have about a dozen songs in their repertoire that everyone knows. Although there will often be an electric saz (Anatolian-style guitar) and a keyboard, ever present are the zurna, a trumpeted clarinet with stops instead of keys, and davul, which many maintain no Turkish wedding can be complete without. The zurna and davul players accompany the bride from her home to the wedding salon, and there are even stories of weddings being cancelled because the musicians didn’t show up. However, despite their apparent necessity, some conservative Turks consider the zurna – with its shrieking sound – to be an ungodly instrument. “The conservative Muslims only play the def (a large-framed drum),” says Hasan Yildiz, a Neukölln-based, Kurdish zurna player. “The hodjas and imams fill people’s heads with stories, so some people think the zurna is şeytan. But why devil? Where is the devil in that?”

Once the band gets going the guests dance the Halay, a traditional Anatolian dance in which the bride, groom and friends form a circle by linking their pinky fingers and make intricate steps forwards and backwards. Both the first and last dancers in the line twirl a handkerchief or headscarf around in their free hands. Later, around midnight, a DJ will take to the stage and get the crowd dancing to pop songs. But as I’ve found out, a combination of Halay and dance music can be quite the mix. “Back in the day the Halay was 90 beats per minute. Then the whole thing went to Europe and met Western music – above all Russian techno from the 1990s – and it was ratcheted up a notch,” says Tunç. “So the Turks said, ‘Why not put a techno rhythm to the beat?’ and it really took off. Now everything’s a lot faster, and has hip hop elements. It’s pretty wild.”

Alcohol: foggy like rakı
Image for The Turkish wedding crashers

Photo by Sonia Teruel

Turkish weddings also provide a stage for a very delicate topic: alcohol. Unlike in Germany, where a Hochzeit without alcohol is inconceivable, for Turkish weddings the situation is about as clear as the cloudy glass of rakı you might be hiding behind the pot plant. From my own experiences, I gather that dry weddings are the trend among German Turks in Berlin. However, it seems this could be somewhat down to conservative political influences rather than deeply held beliefs. “With [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, a whole generation came into being who hypocritically present a face to the public, saying ‘I do this and this and this,’” Tunç says. “People are having dry weddings because they are afraid of doing something wrong; they are trying to fit in.”

However, despite these attempts to keep face, if you want a drink badly enough, you’ll generally find it. Often the Jack Daniel’s and rakı comes out halfway through the night, while even at the more conservative Muslim weddings there should be a smoking room with a bar where you can sneak a drink. “If there is no alcohol at the wedding they give drinks to the musicians… Secretly, under the counter, because they need to drink,” says Mehmet Kekik, an Istanbul-based musician who plays at weddings in both Germany and Turkey. “They have to drink to play. It looks like they are drinking Coca-Cola, but it has whisky inside.” And sometimes, the social pressure even seems to work the other way around, with Kekik telling me that once the father of the bride insisted on him sipping a glass of rakı in front of him for the whole night, even though Kekik was sick, just so the father could look like a good host.

But back to our Turkish wedding. It’s nearing midnight and I go to the café at the back to get a coffee to pep myself up. A blue haze hangs in the air as people in suits suck hard on cigarettes and sip their glasses of tea – the odd covert whisky no doubt scattered throughout the room. I go to the toilet and splash water on my face. Outside, the wedding guests have embarked on a fresh round of Halay dancing, others are lining up to present the bride with money, while a man on the mic is still giving a running commentary on who gave how much. The zurna shrieks and the davul throb once more, people laugh and dance and chat, and it seems as though this night, this adventure, will never end.