Vol 3, article posted October 2013

Gentrification and Romani Dance in Istanbul

by M. Shivaun Corry
M.A. Communication, Simon Fraser University

About the author. M. Shivaun Corry is a community activist and recent graduate of the Simon Fraser University Department of Communication Masters’ program. Shivaun has worked in publishing, radio and television in both Canada and Turkey. She is a critically acclaimed musician and dancer, having released an album of traditional Turkish folk songs with Sony Music/Columbia Records and performed at events such as IdeasCity as well as Istanbul’s most historic entertainment venues including Gar Musichall. With a passion for media literacy and human rights, she has sat on the selection committee of the Amnesty International Film Festival and recently spent four months documenting social justice issues in Istanbul.

Last June, all eyes were on Istanbul’s Taksim Square as thousands protested the ruling AK Party’s decision to turn the city’s central park into a luxury shopping complex. What the international media, and many of the protesters themselves, ignored was that, just across the street, one of Istanbul’s last remaining Romani neighborhoods, Tarlabaşı, was being destroyed, putting the community’s vibrant music and dance traditions in peril.

For young Istanbulites, Tarlabaşı is synonymous with pick-pockets and prostitutes, but also belly-dance and Romani music. In the 19th century, Istanbul’s Greek and Armenian communities built homes, churches, restaurants and clubs just off Istanbul’s central square in the neighborhood of Tarlabaşı (Ivanoff, 2013). Unlike their Muslim Turkish neighbors, these Christians made and sold alcohol, quickly making the neighborhood rich with nightlife. But in the middle of the last century, pogroms and discriminatory laws forced these Christian communities to flee Turkey leaving the neighborhood to be squatted by marginalized communities including Romani, Kurds, and, more recently, Africans immigrants, and transvestites. Since this population shift, Tarlabaşı has been home to many Romani musicians and dancers who have taken advantage of the cheap rent and proximity to Taksim, Istanbul’s entertainment district. As renowned Romani dance instructor Sema Yildiz explains, “In the 1960s and 70s, Tarlabaşı was where all the best musicians were… Musicians and dancers, Romani and Gadjo (non-Romani), from all over Turkey came to perform with the Tarlıbaşı Romani” (See the photograph to the right of Sema Yildiz and Reyhan Tuzsus). In the decades following, Tarlabaşı went through crime-waves and periods of alternating intense mafia control and over-whelming police presence, yet, in spite these difficult times, the music and dance traditions of the Tarlıbaşı Romani survived.

In order to understand how these traditions have managed to survive, we must understand both the concept of the mahalle (an Ottoman administrative term for ward, now used to mean neighborhood or, in some contexts, ghetto) and the manner in which young Romani learn trades. Turkish cities like Istanbul are composed of districts called mahalles with their own distinct cultures. In Ottoman times, young people learned trades particular to their mahalles by apprenticing under the tutelage of community elders. Particular mahalles and groups within these mahalles were known for specialized trades such as copper-smithing, horse-shoeing, and performing. Young people would carry on the traditional manner of production or performance of their mahalle, watching and learning from birth, and eventually apprenticing under an usta (master). But since Ataturk’s reforms in the 1920s the distinct cultures of the mahalles have been under fire in an attempt to create a uniform Turkish identity (Gul, 2006; cited in Tuominen, p.38). With the current Islamic neo-liberal regime’s destruction of such neighborhoods in favour of North American style gated suburbs, these communities have dissipated, leading to a loss of friendships, support networks, and also the destruction of this millennia-old usta/çırak (master/apprentice) system.

The destruction of the mahalles and the accompanying systems of knowledge reproduction has already begun to affect Roma culture. As Romani dancer Reyhan Tuzsus explains, “there used to be a wedding in the Romani mahalles almost every day, and this was like our school.” Yildiz elaborates, “I never took dance lessons. We just danced together, old and young. Now that’s gone. You don’t see anybody just dancing in the streets, you have to take lessons and pay money to learn.” The destruction of Romani neighborhoods under successive neo-liberal governments in Turkey has, to paraphrase Marx, changed the relationship between people into the relationships between things. Whereas trades such as music and dancing were once rooted in a community, they are becoming skills to be obtained through payment. Yildiz argues that this reframing of the manner which young people now learn music and dance means that the young generation, “don’t feel the music in their blood.”

The survival of these Romani traditions was placed in further jeopardy since 2006 when the ruling AK Party, began planning the “Tarlabaşı Renewal Project” which was approved without public consultation. This project will see the gentrification of this community built by Istanbul’s Christian residents, now one of the last Romani mahalles to be redeveloped complete with chic coffee shops and luxury shopping centers for wealthy Turks. Early in 2012, the demolition of the neighborhood began with the destruction of more than 30 block of houses (Ivanoff, 2013) and with plans for more demolitions in the near future.

Dancer Sema Yildiz is all too familiar with the impact of gentrification on Romani communities. Her neighborhood, Sulukule, often cited as the oldest Romani settlement in the world (dating to the 15th Century) has undergone a complete transformation, with the last of the Romani “entertainment houses” closing in the 1990s (Dinçer, 2011, p. 48). As Yildiz explains, “when they told us there would be a ‘gentrification project’, nobody knew what that meant! Gypsies don’t go to school and learn words like that! They just figured the city would paint their houses or something. They thought it would be nice.” However, as many of the Romani do not have deeds to their houses, developers, often with connections of the ruling party, were free to appropriate land from Romani neighborhoods throughout Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. One of the largest of these land appropriations came in 1996, when more than 5000 Romani were forcibly evicted from the Selamsiz neighborhood on the Anatolian side of Istanbul (Minority Rights Group International, 2008).

The Housing Development Administration of Istanbul states that Tarlabaşı’s residents will be relocated to new housing projects while those illegally occupying residences will simply be evicted. Though the Romani in this neighborhood have occupied these houses for generations, many do not hold deeds, and, even of those who do hold deeds many do not want to relocate. However, those not agreeing to the conditions of relocation can, by law, be forcefully evicted and when deeds can be shown, the Romani have been given far less than the market-value of the property. More tragically, Yildiz notes that, when developers do give the Romani money for their property, it is given to the man of the house. She delicately explains, “you have to understand that Romani people have always had an insecure life: they never know what will happen tomorrow so they live for today. If you give a man money for his house, he’ll just spend it today and his wife and kids won’t have anything tomorrow.”

The gentrification of Tarlabaşı has been met with resistance from community associations and from many residents who feel an almost holy duty to protect their mahalle. However, the community sentiment is far from unanimous. The younger women of Tarlabaşı with whom I spoke did not seem too disturbed by the prospect of leaving their mahalle and the loss of their traditional systems of knowledge reproduction. One twenty-something woman, a member of the Akmaca family of well-known Romani musicians, was keen to describe her new job as a security guard in a chic Turkish clothing store, as well as her plan to use the money she her family will be receiving from the eviction settlement to put a down-payment on an apartment in a ‘better’ neighborhood. Perhaps this lack of concern is evidence that the community has already been eroded through softer assimilation techniques. For more than a generation, young Romani have been forced to attend the Turkish schools and receive instruction in the Turkish language which facilitated greater opportunities for Romani youth, many of whom choose not to pursue professions traditionally occupied by Romani.

Just as some might argue that such assimilation tactics have allowed young Romani opportunities which there parents could never have imagined, some argue that the destruction of neighborhood such as Tarlabaşı are for the good of both residents and non-residents. This destruction of such neighborhoods causes a mixed reaction from non-Romani Turks. Though they are pitied, the Romani residents of Tarlabaşı are often held responsible for the petty crime in nearby Taksim and the now infamous Istanbul police force seems to have no empathy for the eviction of the residents. With regards to the eviction, one officer put it in terms of the ongoing attempts to arrest pick-pockets, drug-dealers and prostitutes in the area stating “after years of swatting at mosquitoes, the swamp will now be drained” (Tuomeni, p.41).

Yet, activists argue that the gentrification will take a deep toll on not only the Romani, but the greater Turkish society. As urban scholar Yaşar Adanalı notes, the gentrification “is a kind of ‘Disneyfication’ in the sense that it’s taking the area’s heritage and making it flashy… like a Disney theme park. Everything becomes shallow.” In terms of Romani culture, this Disneyfication is mixed with Orientalism from foreigners and nostalgia from Turks. While the destruction of Tarlabaşı goes on, ‘domesticated’ Romani perform at ‘Turkish nights’ at hotels for orientalist tourists and wealthy Turks. And although young Romani girls still learn the traditional 9/8 dances in their homes, on the stages of Turkish night clubs and on Turkish television programs, Romani dancers such as Didem Kınali, are more likely to perform Turkish Oryantal, a style heavily influenced by Egyptian cabaret dancing, ballet, and other non-Romani forms.

Perhaps young Romani-style dancer Gigi Dilshah (in the photo to the left) most succinctly explains the impact that the gentrification will have on Roma music and dance “if you separate the Romani into apartments throughout the city, breaking up their communities, their culture will quickly die. In Romani neighborhoods no one complains if you play music on the streets, on the contrary, everybody gets up and dances rather than being annoyed. The Romani have to live together to inspire each other’s art.” With the gentrification neighborhoods such as Tarlıbaşı and the dissipation of Romani communities, we are left to wonder if any musicians will remain who “feel the music in their blood.”

Works cited:

Brearley, M. (2004). "The Persecution of Gypsies in Europe," in Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld and Diana Ruth Grant (Eds.) Crimes of Hate: Selected Readings. Sage, p. 359.

Dinçer, İ. (2011). The Impact of Neoliberal Policies on Historic Urban Space: Areas of Urban Renewal in Istanbul. International Planning Studies. DOI: 10.1080/13563475.2011.552474

Ermina, S. (2013). Tarlabaşı, The Dusk. Mashallah News. Retrieved from http://mashallahnews.com/?p=10024

Ivanoff, A. (2013) Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı – a symbol of urban renewal. Your Middle East. Retrieved from http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/columns/article/istanbuls-tarlabasi-a-symbol-of-urban-renewal_13241

Minority Rights Group International. 2008. World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkey: Roma. Retrieved from: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49749c95c.html

Tuominen, P. (2013) The clash of values across symbolic boundaries: claims of urban space in contemporary Istanbul. Contemporary Islam, 7, (1) pp 33-51.

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