Personal Notes on Village Fairs by a foreign wife
By Lois Cemal….
An accidental fall from a homemade roundabout at a school fun fair left me with a broken arm just before the holidays and a healthy fear of whirling around for the sake of “fun”. I knew someday I would have to get back on the horse; that day came at my first panayır, or village fair, back in1986, the year we arrived to settle in Cyprus. (It was to be the last fair to be held in our village.) My two young children pulled me through the crowds to watch the only ride at the event. In front of us were twelve or so ‘airplanes’ on mechanical arms that rotated around a central axis and rose hydraulically to about 4 metres high while lights flashed and music blared. It was fairly tame by most boardwalk funfair standards; I would even call it a ‘kiddies’ ride. What worried me was that it seemed to flaunt all safety rules. There was no security fencing around it and kids swarmed in to claim a seat whenever the ride started to slow down. Two adult-size persons could fit in each ‘plane and there was a pedal on the floor that made it rise while it went around.
The children were jumping up and down. “Come on, Mommy, come on!” My husband refused point blank (he gets sea-sick in an elevator) and disappeared into the crowd, so I squeezed into the open cockpit with them for a bit of adventure. As it started to turn I recall letting out a loud whoop that was halfway between a scream and a laugh. (I also remembering crossing myself…odd, because I was never raised Orthodox or Catholic) Then, as faces around us blurred, we rose above the crowds for a few minutes of exhilarating fun which the child in me enjoyed greatly, flying free and uninhibited.
“This isn’t what village fairs used to be like” explains my husband with a sort of disapproving sniff as we walked around the tiny event. He then went on to paint a picture from his memory of the yearly panayir of his youth being a gathering that was more like a rural ‘craft, produce and livestock’ market. The fair would have been visited by people from surrounding villages who came in by foot, donkey or by cart, to sell and to buy. These villagers, dependent on locally available materials in their areas, each developed expertise in specific crafts such as clay pots, rush chair seating, cane baskets or edibles like olive oil and cheeses. Blacksmiths made extra scythes, axes and horseshoes in their spare time during the year, as did women who wove bolts of cloth or embroidered headscarves in preparation for the rural gathering. One could buy beaten copper pots, sieves made of silk or bread troughs carved from a single piece of tree trunk. Farmers could bargain for a pair of oxen to pull their plough or a new ram for their flock of sheep. It was also a time of important socializing, a gathering for families and friends to meet and where those of marriageable age were able to be seen and courted.
What the panayır has become is a poor shadow of what must have been a truly valuable gathering for rural peoples. Although the trade aspect is gone, the fair still serves an entertainment and social function. Beginning in July and going until the end of September, fairs are held in various villages across north Cyprus. The two nearest to us that we have attended as a family are the one in Iskele in July and Mehmetcik in August. Both are at the beginning of the month (when people have money in their pockets) and run for 10 days or so.
Opening time for the events to start is sunset, about 8 pm or so, as rural life in Karpaz is still dictated by chores around agriculture and livestock. Everyone gets dressed in their finest as this is a time to be seen. The fairground, either a closed street or a sports field, is lit up by stings of lights from gaming stalls and the flashing bulbs of the rides. Tented booths offer dart-throwing at balloons, where your prize can be a framed picture of a pop star, or there’s ring toss, where the prize is what the hoop encircles, either cigarettes or a bottle of brandy.
The largest selection of prizes can be found at the homemade pinball stalls, ranging from an Islamic-theme clock that wakes you up with the call to prayer (yes, they do exist!) or a chintzy plaster bust of a German shepherd dog for your front porch and all kinds of stuffed animals, clothed statues of Venus, plastic toy rifles and even birds or turtles. A steel ball is hurtled into a wooden box by a spring loaded knob which you pull and let go. A tailor’s measuring tape, cut into 10 cm segments, is held in place with rows of nails, making little platforms where the ball finally comes to rest after bouncing around a bit. You get three chances and if the number where the ball stops matches one on the card that you hold (you have a 1 in 10 chance), you walk off with a prize. Let me warn you that small children don’t understand when they don’t win, especially after their brother just did. It’s good to know that the toys on display are also for sale, albeit at inflated prices, but a definite alternative to trying to cope with a crying 3 year old.
Open air restaurants with white plastic chairs and colourful vinyl covered tables offer places to rest, eat and drink around the edges of the fairground. In front of these eateries the crowds parade past in a movie of Cypriot society, families pushing sleeping babies in prams, tottering old men and women, giggling clusters of mini-skirted girls and groups of lads with slicked hair, all dressed in their best clothes, all intent on socializing, actively or passively. Döner kebab is cooked at the front of the fair’s restaurants to entice people with the smell of the grilling meat while those selling lamacun have the portable ovens placed at the back, behind the table where the cook rolls out the dough for these little Turkish pizzas. Yet another stand sells only lokma, sweets made by frying little balls of yeast dough in hot fat and soaking them in sugar syrup. You never go away hungry.
The smell of barbequed corn always gets my attention. I choose a young tender cob while my husband likes a mature one. These are fanned furiously on the coals, turned until slightly blackened all over. Holding it in a handful of corn husks and liberally dusting it with salt, we join the wheel of people moving around the fairground to watch and be watched. Another must is to stop at the dried fruit and nut stand to buy some pastelli made with carob molasses and sesame, and also some fresh hazelnuts or almonds.
Tombola, the local equivalent of Bingo, is the main adult attraction of the panayır. Held every night towards the end of the evening, tombala draws a large crowd all seated at small chairs and desks emptied out of the local school. Cards are bought and pens readied while the numbers, between 1 and 99, rolling about in a wire cage, are called out over a PA system. The prize money rises each night until the last day of the fair. A few years ago I actually won that big one, worth about 200 sterling! It was drinks and roasted nuts for all at our table and a donation to the village soccer club, who hosted the draw. I was congratulated for weeks after by any number of people from different villages who had been there that night, showing what a small place north Cyprus is and how word gets around.
Compared to fun fairs elsewhere in the world, the local panayır is a pretty rustic affair where, if you’ve been living here for a while, you’re bound to know at least half the crowd. The pictures that come to my mind in describing the whole event are the antiquated rides, the outdoor eateries with their expensive beer, smoky charcoal fires, the super sweet pastries, the parade of people going round and round, girls, boys, grannies, babies, the cheap trinkets for sale at stalls under strings of bare bulbs, my teeth filled with corn fiber…that’s what the village fair is for me. It may not be the most exciting event, but the village fair for many rural Cypriots is a good way to indulge in time among friends and family, to spend a little, maybe win a little, let the kids run wild a bit. But best of all, there’s something special about a warm mid-summer night on a Mediterranean island for those who are young at heart.
Lois Cemal, a Canadian, has been married to her Turkish Cypriot husband for 38 years and they have 3 children. For nearly 30 years she has raised her family in a village in north Cyprus, keeping chickens and goats, making cheese and baking bread and learning much about Cypriot traditions and culture.