Reviving Traditional Sephardi Music in Turkey

July 19 2016

Riding a wave of local interest in the music of Turkish minority groups, the Istanbul-based band Sefarad began performing updated versions of Ladino folk songs—some in the original language and some translated into Turkish—achieving no small degree of commercial success. But the moment did not last, and in 2007 Sefarad broke up, only four years after it released its first album. Ezgi Üstündağ provides some historical context:

[Following its esablishment in 1924, the Republic of Turkey] set out to build a national culture, to which music was critical. The state banned Ottoman and religious music, while, [in the words of one historian], limiting conservatories to teaching government-controlled “Westernized” and “Turkified” folk music. Radio stations exclusively played Western and government-approved folk music in these early decades. . . .

Sephardi Jews . . . were still made to feel like guests rather than natural-born citizens in the early years of the republic; often, when a Jew appealed the denial of his request to serve in the military or bureaucracy, the authorities would remind him that his kin “owed a debt” to the Turkish people. . . .

Language became another serious point of contention. While the constitution allowed Jews to educate their children in Hebrew and Ladino, Hebrew [continued to be used for ritual and scholarly purposes] and Ladino was rarely encountered outside the home. . . . . [In practice], Jewish community leaders [began] to educate their children in Turkish for the first time in nearly 500 years. . . . By the 1960s, Turkish had become the mother tongue of most of the nation’s Jews.

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Read more at Reorient

More about: Arts & Culture, Jewish music, Ladino, Sephardim, Turkish Jewry

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy