Gypsy culture in Turkey: From "half" to "whole"

//From the book "Gypsy Music in Turkey" (Türkiye'de Çingene Müziği) by Melih Duygulu.

"Gypsy plays, Kurd dances". The Turkish proverb summarizes concisely the marginalization and the deep prejudices against the minorities in the country. The widespread image of a Gypsy/Roma and their culture in Turkey is an oversimplified one that consists of singing, dancing and not taking anything seriously; an image often diffused by the mass media. But what are the real elements of the Gypsy/Roma culture? And is it possible to talk about a universal, all-inclusive Gypsy culture in the first place?

"It would not be true to say that all the Gypsies in the world share a common Gypsy culture/identity; we may, however, talk about a phenomenon of a Gypsy culture that distinguishes itself from the geographical locations and social environments in which the Gypies live all over the world", says Prof. İbrahim Yavuz Yükselsin, professor of music ethnography at Dokuz Eylül University, İzmir, Turkey.

Yükselsin underlines the fact that there is not a unique group of a certain ethnic origin called "Roma" and therefore prefers to use the term "Gypsy" to define the diverse groups with "common life styles" all around the world, and the term "Roma" to define those living in Western Turkey and the Balkans.

In an interview with Babelmed, Yükselsin says "There's no common religion, language or country of origin shared by all the Gypsies across the world". Although linguistic research suggests a homeland, that of India, there's no other trace in Gypsy mythology or memories to prove a connection to such a country of origin. Moreover, the language that is seen as a proof of a common homeland is not spoken by many of the "Gypsy" groups, including some Roma in Turkey.

Nor do they have a religious connection. "They adopt the beliefs of the societies in which they live in different parts of the world", Yükselsin says. "Gypsies living in Spain and France adopted the Catholic Christian belief, while those in Armenia embrace Orthodoxy. In the Balkans, Christian and Muslim Gypsies live side by side. In Turkey, the Roma are of the Sunni Islam faith while the Abdals are Alewites. This difference in faith, in turn, contributes to differences in culture", he continues.

However, what's common in Gypsy or Roma culture is their ways of living, he states. "Historically, Gypsies have held vocations adequate to a nomadic/itinerant life-style. Basket weaving, blacksmithing, floriculture, tinsmithing, animal training, fortune-telling and of course musicianship, are the best known of the marginal occupations specific to Gypsies."

"To leave these occupations often means leaving the group and the Gypsy identity", according to Yükselsin.

cingeneler2 250The decisive relation between occupation and identity in Gypsy groups is further emphasized by Ali Mezarcıoğlu in his book "The Book of Gypsies" (Çingenelerin Kitabı):

"Just like the property owning Gypsy individuals, Gypsy intellectuals who get education or cultivate themselves break off from their communities. The poverty and the caste boundaries surrounding them are so rigid that Gypsy intellectuals see that there's no hope for them if they stay within their communities. If they can escape the community, they may have a chance to construct a different, even if modest, future for themselves as an individual belonging to "Gaco-Geben" (non-Gypsy) societies. If their physical appearance does not give away their belonging to a Gypsy society, they break away from their relatives carrying the physical or cultural signs of such a belonging and they try to find a place for themselves among Gaco-Geben societies. And after this stage, all the cultural production achieved by the Gypsy individual will only benefit the Gaco-Geben people." [i]

Confined, therefore, to certain occupations, they have little opportunity to rise above the socio-economic circumstances of most Gypsy communities.


The role of religion

Their affiliation with music, at least in Turkey, also stems from their being seen as "not Muslim enough", according to various historical texts.

"In environments where making music is frowned upon because of religious or social reasons, being a "music player" has been seen fit only for Gypsies, and we may say that this attitude has obligated the Gypsies to construct a life-style model based on this kind of occupations. For example, in societies where Sunni Islam's rules are dominant, although making music is frowned upon, it is regarded legitimate that the music required for rituals like weddings or circumcision ceremonies be made by Gypsies", İbrahim Yavuz Yükselsin says.

Although Gypsies are almost universally associated with music, it is not possible to talk about a common, global Gypsy music culture. Yükselsin mentions that "Flamenco" in Spain, "Çigan" in Hungary and "Roman havası" in Turkey do not contain the same musical characteristics.

Even though they don't share a common musical style, Gypsies' relation to music in general, however, could be seen as a distinctive feature of their culture:

"If we look at how they relate to their music, rather than what kind of music Gypsies make or associate with their identity, it becomes easier to establish a connection. First of all, making music is the sole way of making a living for many Gypsies. They produce and keep alive the music required by the cultural environment in which they live and thus play a vital role in both expressing their identity and helping the other ethnic groups express theirs. And secondly, how the Gypsies see music is quite different from how non-Gypsies see it. For them (Gypsies) it is flexible, does not adhere to conservative norms and includes diverse cultural contents. Their skills of playing instruments and making music, learnt in an informal way, are displayed in their creative ways of expression such as improvisation either while performing Flamenco or "Roman havası", and it comes from a cultural commonsense."

As for the musician's place within a Gypsy community, Melih Duygulu, musicologist and Chair of the Ethnomusicology Department atMimar SinanFine ArtsUniversity, says in his book "Gypsy Music in Turkey" (Türkiye'de Çingene Müziği), that Gypsy musicians have a high social esteem and ranking within the community: "... Musicians have a special value and status among Gypsies... The musician at a Gypsy wedding, for example, is the guest of honour."[ii]

Although we come across Gypsy figures in many other forms of art such as shadow theatre (Karagöz) among many other performing arts, Gypsies' active contribution and creation in Turkey's art scene is most visible in music. İbrahim Yavuz Yükselsin explains in detail: "First of all, although it may seem that they don't have much of a contribution to art forms other than music and dance, it would be wrong to assume that there are no Gypsies active in different art fields. There probably are many actors, painters or architects who do not disclose their identities as Gypsies."

What Derya Nuket Özer, an academician and Roma rights defender, said in a previous interview with Babelmed could shed more light on why the musician Gypsies may come out with their identity while those doing other types of jobs may have to choose to hide their Gypsy identity: "The society applauds a Roma musician in an orchestra, but people usually are not eager to trust a Roma doctor." [iii]


The "half nation"

An old Turkish saying talks about "seventy-two and a half nations" living in the world, and it's the Gypsies that constitute the "half" nation. Hence the name of the documentary about Gypsies living in 38 cities of Turkey: "The Half" (Buçuk).

//Elmas Arus with Gypsy children.


Elmas Arus, the director of the documentary, was born to a Roma mother and Abdal father in Amasya, Turkey. She is one of the five children of a "half-nomadic" family, her mother a house-worker and her father basket-weaver. She was the first female child to go to school in the family lineage of around 30 thousand persons. Elmas Arus tells that her father's used to say that "an illiterate person is destined to remain blind" and sent her to school although "It was forbidden for the girls to get out of the community and go to school. Even the boys studied until the 3rd grade at most". [iv]

When she finished elementary school, her family moved to Istanbul. She was 12 years-old by then, and under pressure to get married. She had to quit school and stay at home for 4 years, learning to do housework and embroidery. Resisting to the pressure to get married, she convinced her parents to let her continue her studies after a break of 4 years. She defines her high-school years as the "turning point of her life": "Their (the students') attitudes made me feel the social and class differences."

When she went to Edirne, a city with a large Roma population, for her studies at the Trakya University she met other Roma groups, different from her own community. "The different groups had different traditions and customs, depending on the region they live. Everybody knew just a little piece of the whole story. Then I started to ask myself some questions: 'Who am I?', 'Where do I come from?'. And I decided to travel across Turkey to make a documentary." [v]

One of her friends suggested to call the movie "Half" referring to the "72.5 nations" saying, "Let your movie be called 'The Half' and you make it a 'whole' as you shoot it!"

Elmas Arus's husband Haluk Arus says, "'The Half' is a name that may draw criticism but we aimed to be ironical in our use of this word. The name of the movie is 'half' but when you see it you understand that these people are not 'half-beings', and this was our goal."[vi]

Going through many a hardship, both financial and technical, she managed, with the help of her husband and a team of few volunteers, to make the documentary in 9 years.

Between 2001 and 2010, they travelled to about 10 cities every year, visiting 30-40 Gypsy quarters each month and in the end they met and shot many different Gypsy groups in 38 cities and 400 quarters.

"In the beginning we did not know who belonged to which group. Then bringing the pieces together we came up with three main groups: the Roma, the Dom and the Lom", she says.

From the 360 hours of documentation they obtained they created an hour-long documentary about the different Gypsy groups in Turkey. Gypsies from all over Turkey tell about their lives, traditions, cultural, social and economic problems in the documentary.

Arus says the biggest problems of the Gypsies in Turkey is not social exclusion but economic hardship: "First of all in the eastern parts of Turkey there's no visible social exclusion. Those who live in the east are closer to the Kurdish culture, Kurdish is their mother-tongue and they speak Dom as a second language. So if they don't mention their being Dom it is not possible to tell that they are Gypsies. The main problems are the economic problems. Economy comes before social exclusion. And as important as economy are the health issues." [vii]

Arus describes what surprised her the most during the shootings: "What was interesting for me was that the characters in the movie, tell off the same stories, legends and negative judgements about themselves exactly in the same way although they live in different parts of the country and have never met each other, although they live in a closed community where there's no written culture. This really surprised me." [viii]


"Gypsy, yet beautiful"

As for her marriage to a "Gaco" (non-Gypsy), Elmas Arus tells: "I am married to a Gaco. Just one day before our wedding my husband came to me and said 'Let's tell my mum that you are a Gypsy'. And we did it. My mother-in-law became sick and restricted to bed for one day. But then she said 'Well, what can we do! She is a Gypsy, yet educated and beautiful!' So I survived the challenge because I was educated and beautiful! My father did not consent to our marriage, either. He refused it saying 'Some day they will despise you because you are Gypsy'. We managed to convince him too in the end. I am lucky, I can say that I have not been maltreated much." [ix]

The poverty and marginalization she witnessed both in her own life and during the nine year long journey among the many Gypsy groups pushed Elmas Arus to found the "Zero Discrimination Association" (Sıfır Ayrımcılık Derneği [x]), fighting for Roma rights. The association and Arus's efforts are seen as vital in the elaboration of the Turkish government's "Roma opening" policy in 2009.

Arus was awarded Raoul Wallenberg Prize by the Council of Europe in 2014 for her "outstanding contributions to raising awareness about the conditions of the Roma people in Turkey and elsewhere". The prize jury said that "She has sought to improve their situation, particularly that of Roma women, and to bring discrimination against them to the forefront of political debate. The hard work carried out by Elmas Arus, with courage and perseverance, is a truly impressive contribution to the fight against deep-rooted prejudice and discrimination suffered by Roma populations all over our continent." [xi]

She donated the 10.000 euro prize to the association, to be used for the education of Roma children.

In her speech at a conference in 2010 in İstanbul, Arus underlined the importance of education for Roma children saying "Do you know that nobody asks our kids 'What are you going to be when you grow up?'. And do you know why they don't ask it? Because their destiny is predetermined. We are here to change this destiny. So that our kids, too, might say 'I want to be a doctor, an engineer, a police officer, a teacher, a historian, a professor, even the prime minister!'."


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