Thursday 28 April 2011

Putting the 'Man' in 'Manisa'

At the end of March, a small city on the outskirts of Izmir hosts a rather unusual festival. Welcome to Manisa, known for mental hospitals and, possibly related, the craziest drivers in the Aegean region.

The festival is a week-long celebration with appearances by minor celebrities and politicians. But the city is really celebrating another local claim to fame...

On the last day of the festival at approximately 2pm, the Imams climb up onto the roofs of their mosques and spend the next hour or so hurling a natural Viagra down into the seething mass of men below.

What they are throwing is a sticky paste containing a mixture of 41 spices wrapped it shiny paper. This is the nationally famous Manisa Mesir Macunu.

The medicinal claims include: increased energy, stronger heart, heightened brain function, longer attention span, calmed nerves, easier urinating (not that I've ever found it particularly taxing), easing sciatica and rheumatism, increased appetite and an erection that you could swing on.

I had been counting down the days to this event since April last year. I knew this was one part of Turkish culture I could not miss. It was certainly an experience. But probably not one I'll deliberately re-live.

Arriving in Manisa, we followed the hoards in the direction of the minarets in the distance. As we approached, the first warning signs became apparent. Armed police were mounted high on the spires giving the feeling of a concentration camp.

We walked around looking for the best viewpoint down into the crowds. It was clear that we were never going to get near enough without becoming quite brutal. Being the English gentleman, I stood at the periphery, looking around like a meercat.

Before long, the Imams and their entourage clambered onto the roofs, sitting, watching and waiting. The whistles and cheers from the growing crowd became deafening as we approached the time of the 'sacim' or 'distribution'.

Suddenly a tannoyed voice bellowed out from the main mosque and the Imams rose to their feet, grabbing white hessian sacks bulging with shiny treats.

What followed was nothing short of disturbing. As the natural bongo pills showered down, men fought with each other in, what can only be described as, a punk concert mosh pit. Upturned umbrellas reached out through the sea of hands to catch what they could.

I stood, open-mouthed, at this bizarre spectacle. I couldn't think of any other situation where people would behave like this. As though being showered with the riches of the world, the crowd had seemed to lose sight of the fact that a mere 50 metres down the road, they were selling packs of five for 30p (which, by the way, is where I got mine).

OK, so the Imams were throwing Macun that had been 'blessed', but even so, come on humanity! Forget Primark opening on Oxford Street. Forget wartime rationing. Forget images of aid distribution in famine stricken Africa. Those that came to Manisa that day were displaying a whole different level of desperation.

A middle aged woman standing next to me started hurling deeply upsetting insults at the Imam when his aching arm started to lose the required strength to project the macun far enough to reach her. But when the first rock came flying from one side of the crowd to the other, I knew things were turning even uglier and that, perhaps, it was time to head home.

I'm surprised at what I saw in Manisa. This is not a new tradition. In fact, this year was the 471st Mesir Macun Festival held in the city. I am, however, glad that I didn't stick around to see what happened when the thousands of men gathered there that day started to feel the effects of the erection-inducing Macun.