Kurdish culture in Cape Town
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
It often happens in Cape Town that one could walk past a building for years without knowing the rich experience hidden behind its walls.
This could be said of Mesopotamia restaurant on the corner of Church and Long Streets in the city centre. Behind a wooden door one meets a staircase that leads to a Kurdish cultural wonderland. Colourful carpets, lamps, music and tastes tell a story from another time and place.
Baran Kalay, the Kurdish owner of Mesopotamia, introduced his cultural trademarks to Cape Town in 1999. Since then he has opened a second Kurdish restaurant, Baran’s, overlooking foreign traders from all over the city in Greenmarket Square.
Kalay is a pharmacist and chemist from Van, in eastern Turkey. He says his town used to be called Kashim but was renamed Ucgozler when the Turks took over the land that was once part of Kurdistan.
Kurdish history dates back 5,000 years, says Kalay, and his people total 45 million worldwide. An estimated 20 million live in Turkey with minority groups in neighbouring Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Kalay wanted to pay tribute to Kurdistan with his Mesopotamia experience.
“The menu, music and set-up of the restaurant are Kurdish. The restaurant, food and music tell you a story about the Kurdish people,” he says.
“Kurds are a people without a land. Our land, natural resources and wealth was taken by others over time and wars.”
Kalay says that Kurds still experience discrimination in Turkey where they are “not free to speak our mother tongue”. He is a founder member of the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group in South Africa, which he says works to build dialogue between Kurds and Turks.
Cido Yildiz, the Kurdish manager and head chef at Mesopotamia, says food is one way of bringing people closer to each other, so that they may know each other’s cultures and traditions.
She serves traditional Kurdish specialties usually reserved “for weddings and other occasions”.
“Kurdish people love eating lamb because we are mountain people. Kurdish people also eat very hot food. Our food is similar to Turkish food because we have lived together for hundreds of years,” she says.
Belly dancing is another aspect of Kurdish culture on show at Mesopotamia. The restaurant has belly dancers that regularly perform in the evenings for diners.
Belly dancer Surika Arendse was the restaurant’s belly dancer for a few years but now performs at festivals, corporate and private events. The beauty therapist says this dance is “an art form about femininity and sensuality”.
“Some people have a misperception about it and think it’s only sexual. But it’s a very ancient form of dancing and the costumes are beautiful. There is so much history to this art form,” says Arendse.
Arendse says she teaches “women from all walks of life to dance”.
“Belly dancing brings women together and there’s a lot of nurturing,” she says.
To improve her craft, she has traveled to Egypt and Turkey to “see the culture, how they dress and how they dance”.
“Once you understand the culture and folklore then you enrich yourself and your dancing,” says Arendse.
And so, right in the centre of Cape Town, is a pharmacist, chef and belly dancer opening doors to experience another world.