Gypsy in Istanbul

Here is a Turkish expression to break your tongue: Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdan Mısınız? This bouquet of suffixes means: „Are you one of those whom we could not Europeanize?”

Istanbul’s physical separation between two continents, between East and West, also transferred to the minds of its people and their ways. The city could have been an outdoor museum showing the best of both worlds. A merger rather than an object of separation. But instead, it became a double-ended sword in the hands of political elites and their attempt to transform Istanbul into a regional tourist and financial Mecca. Numerous mosques and old Ottoman buildings are now part of a city redevelopment ”plan” that’s getting out of control. This ”urban transformation” in a form of arising skyscrapers has a long tail of corruption scandals. Critics are accusing political insiders of the ruling party for „constructocracy”, claiming that historical/archeological sites’ vulnerability is not being considered in the process of building villas, residencies or recreational and shopping centers.

In the fight between politicians, opposition, quasi opposition and NGOs-activists, one voice remains unheard. One of the authentic and vivid parts of the city and its history. Of those who are still considered a stan on a ”European capital of culture 2010” medal. Voice of the Roma people.

Gypsy areas in Istanbul

Gypsy and Roma in Istanbul

Roma people came to Turkey from Persia in the 9th century. Upon their arrival they were already labeled as the Other: pagans, thieves, lazy, dirty, immoral… During the Ottoman rule they usually did construction work in navy or served in a military. This made them at least somehow integrated into society – just to fit the country’s needs. Today, the country doesn’t need them. In an already seen and failed scenario, political elites are trying to marginalize and use them by giving fake promises. Except for officially labeling them as ”Roma” rather than ”gypsies” – there is no significant shift.

The Roma population in Turkey is only about 500,000 strong (official sources). But according to the more reliable reports by non-governmental organizations, the number goes beyond 4 million. Their average monthly earnings are around $ 250 – less than half the Turkish average. Although still not (so) exposed to physical attacks in Turkey as in some other European countries, they are still economic and social subclass, stigmatized and looked upon.

The 1934 Habitats Act referred to “Gypsy travelers” as a group that is to be treated differently upon immigration. It will be difficult for “those who have no connection with Turkish culture, Gypsies, anarchists, spies and deported persons”.

Roma children often give up on formal education. Too busy trying to meet the ends in everyday life, they end up doing things they are already familiar with: mostly street play, flower sale or begging (often pretending to be Syrian and Iraqi refugees). The recycling industry is also popular and allows a better life for the whole neighborhood. It is also possible to find old horseshoe masters, although it’s – along with horses as a means of transport – on its way to extinction.

”Death of a gypsy brings an end to the song, dance, love … and all concerns” (Roma song)

Popular culture and tour guides banalize the difficult living conditions of Roma with the stories of “gypsy damnation” and romanticize their misfortune through poetry, music and belly dancing. Crafts that have come to the fore as a result of social-historical conditions, today represent a marketing gold mine: their music still plays at cafes and clubs of Taksim, entertaining the tourists on Bosphorus boat tours. As if they are not citizens concerned about their existence, just like everybody else.

Gypsy street in Istanbul

Once in Istanbul, Roma people settled down by the Byzantine Walls in the Suluku area in the 11th century. This was a new step for then nomadic Roma community, making it probably the oldest Roma settlement in Europe. Life in tents, cooking and dancing made their village famous for its “fun houses” where they played and danced for wealthier visitors from Istanbul and other cities. Musicians from other parts of Turkey were also coming to improve their music skills.

Turkish government shut down these famous houses in 1992 under accusations for gambling and prostitution. This led to the economic and social deterioration of the area.

There is no place for us in new Turkey

For the city to shine as the European Capital of Culture in 2010, Sulukuleu had been diagnosed as “disgusting” and “pigsty”. It needed an urgent urban transformation, they said. Along with gentrification that was already going on, it captured the entire core of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. So it began: the construction of more than 600 Ottoman styled villas for the upper class, in the spirit of the 21st century.

Roma were offered the following: they can sell their places for the price way beyond the market one. If not, they can move further from the city where the accommodation will be repaid for the next 15 years (something many of them can not afford).

streets of Istanbul

Accused of destroying the soul of this part of town whose music ensembles and the local community represent a unique way of life, city leaders reply: No worries – the new Sulukule will include a cultural center where Roma will learn about music and dance as well as a hotel where they will be able to perform and entertain guests.

How will they manage to do that once they are dislocated? And why should they believe the city will do something for them instead of the chic young couples who will move in? Questions remain unanswered.

On the bottom of the ghetto hierarchy

Another object of demolition and the commercial transformation was the Tarlabasi slum. It is placed in the village of Beyoglu, just a few streets away from the cosmopolitan Istiklal street near Taksim. When the Tarlabasi boulevard was constructed in the 1980s, the slum was cut off from the city. It belonged to its center, but now it’s the world for itself.

Former middle-class residents – non-Muslim diplomats, Armenian architects, Greek and Jewish merchants who worked here in the 19th century – suffered the pogrom of a non-Muslim population in the mid-20th century. First, the Turkish authorities imposed a property tax on non-Muslims in 1942, then the so-called Istanbul massacre happened in 1955, following the conflict with the Greeks and deportation in 1964… This led to empty and abandoned buildings that will later become a magnet for squatters in the very city center. Since the 1950s, the poor Roma and Kurdish families, African immigrants, Syrian and Iraqi refugees, transvestites and prostitutes have gradually settled here on the very bottom of the ghetto hierarchy.

When the neoliberal wave of the 80s struck Turkey, the reconstruction of Tarlabasi’s began too: hundreds of buildings were being demolished in a process of cities’ cosmetic surgery.

The gypsy plays, and the wolf is dancing …

Yesterday’s historical and archeological features became a nuisance. Instead of resolving the problems, officials just swept them under the rug. Neighborly communities have been replaced by window cages, shopping centers and metal detectors. Places that used to be public became private and commercial spots. Officials never took into consideration the need to unburden a city, chaotic enough as it is. The spectacular illusion hides the community divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’. No-go zones of the poor were suppressed by the no-go zones of the rich. All in the name of ”modern age”.

Ironically, when an unqualified or wrong person is doing the job, Turks say: cingene calar, kurt oynar – gypsy plays and the wolf is dancing.

We will always have Bosphorus?

And Roma, where are they today? As always: everywhere and nowhere. Some of them have probably found their place under the sun where they can still enjoy a cup of tea. As Orhan Pamuk said: „Life can’t be all that bad. Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus.”

But until when? We are leaving Istanbul and Roma with a Turkish proverb:

To love is like tea, to be loved is like sugar. Poor like us, drink their tea bitter.

As Orhan Pamuk said: „Life can’t be all that bad. Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus.”
The article was originally published in Croatian media:

4 thoughts on “Gypsy in Istanbul

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  1. When I went to my ancestral home in Pacentro, Italy, they have an annual run, La corsa degli zingari. This literally translates to Race of the Gypsies, but in Pacentro, zingari is used to mean barefoot or naked. They get very offended if you translate it as gypsies or refer to gypsies at all. It’s an insult.


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