ISTANBUL (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) — Ottoman fezzes and false moustaches abounded. A man dressed as the Grim Reaper waited at a tram stop.

As the masked revelers made their way down Istanbul’s most famous pedestrian thoroughfare, well-dressed diners gaped from the area’s hundreds of restaurants and taverns.

With their eccentric procession, these fancily dressed merrygoers revived a bawdy working-class carnival, known as Baklahorani, banned by the Turkish authorities during World War II.

Huseyin Irmak, an enterprising Turkish historian, and Haris Theodorelis Rigas, an expat Greek, hope this old folk tradition of Istanbul's Greeks will be on display once again next year when Istanbul will be a European Capital of Culture — and that it will serve as a symbol of Turkey's growing willingness to open up to its multi-ethnic past.

Still today, many of Turkey's Greek-, Armenian- and Ladino-speaking citizens feel uncomfortable speaking their languages in public, recalling older times when they would find themselves at the receiving end of the famous nationalist slogan, "Vatandash, Turkce konush" (Fellow citizen, speak Turkish).

The Republic of Turkey was founded from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire upon the principle of 'Turkishness' after the end of the World War I, following the expulsion and elimination of about two million Armenians and ethnic Greek Ottoman subjects during the war and its aftermath.

Minority survivors were subjected to restrictive legislation and the confiscation of their properties and livelihoods. In 1955, three days of anti-minority pogroms prompted many to emigrate.

But things are changing. The assassination of an Armenian newspaper editor by a right-wing nationalist in 2007 shocked Turkish civil society into action. Millions poured out to protest the crime, uniting under the previously unthinkable slogan, "We are all Armenians."

Rigas studied classics at Oxford University before moving to Turkey, renting a room in an Istanbul slum, learning Turkish and starting to play an extinct form of traditional Greek-Turkish crossover music at Istanbul's bars and taverns. His revival of the Baklahorani carnival brings back the days when processions of bawdily dressed revelers drawn from the lowest strata of Ottoman Greek society would parade through Istanbul's minority districts in a bacchanalian feast involving prostitutes, criminals and ample cross-dressing.

This year's group followed that tradition, taking a sloping route down to Tarlabashi, a formerly solidly working class neighbourhood populated by ethnic minorities that beginning in the 1970s became a ghetto of emigrants from rural Turkey.

Greek author Maria Iordanidou described the carnival in her novel "Loxandra":

“When it got to Baklahorani day before the big fast, Rum from all over Istanbul would sing their way with folk-songs to meet in Tatavla. Groups of young girls sang songs and children swung on gondolier swings or ride merry-go-rounds decorated with bands and flags. The young men of Tatavla would give displays of their unique dances and games.”

In a 1918 edition, the Greek newspaper Proodos (Progress), which was printed in Istanbul, described the atmosphere of gay abandon as revelers dressed as “Greek bandits with fustanela [pleated, skirt-like garments worn by men in the Balkans] and scimitars, others appeared as Oriental hamalides [porters] or doctors pretending to deliver pregnant women in the middle of the street. Mock funerals processed with pretend corpses inside the coffins and followed by priests, widows and relatives … .”

A law banning people from wearing masks ended the original Baklahorani carnival in 1943.

With such a surreal history, it was unsurprising that even last weekend’s parade, though far tamer than its predecessors, raised eyebrows in a country where unlicensed gatherings are still banned. Last weekend, as revelers processed past the Tarlabashi police station, a baffled policeman approached a fez-wearing Greek academic.

“Who’s in charge here?” he asked authoritatively.

Quite clearly, no one was. Already, the Baklahorani had acquired a life of its own.

(Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Turkey on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

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