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Gypsies in Istanbul, Turkey
"Istanbul?" "Yes, Istanbul"

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October 2002
By Karen-Claire Voss

The marginal has always held an attraction for me, partly because I love discovering things that are little known, and partly because things that are on the margin, that are in between, have a very particular kind of energy./1/ In any case, this month I’ve decided to write about the Gypsies, a group that has lived on the margins for as long as anyone can remember.

The correct name for Gypsy (Turkish: çingene) is Rom. The Roma have always been a people apart, with their own values, traditions, heritage, language and music. Throughout history, the Gypsies have been referred to by many names—in Byzantine poetry, for example, they were referred to as Egyptian, but their precise origins are lost in antiquity. However, since the 18th century, scholars have been certain they came originally from India. The study of language can provide many clues about the development of a people, and that of the Roma is no exception. An important philological study was done in the 18th century establishing the fact that one in every three words in the Romani language is Hindi, which supports the theory that they originated in India. We know that at some point in the distant past, possibly as early as the 5th century c.e., more likely, sometime in the 10th century, they left India and went to Persia. This accounts for the fact that there are many Persian words in Romani. We can surmise that they did not stay long in the Arabian Empire, since Romani has only two words that are certainly Arabic; kis, meaning purse and berk, meaning breast, but here again, the language provides more clues because we know that they passed through Armenia, since there are numerous Armenian words in Romani. Next, they moved to the Byzantine territories of Constantinople and Thrace, and then, even before the Ottoman Turks, they passed into the Balkans. Finally, they moved into Europe, during successive waves, in the 15th century, the 19th century, and the post-communist era. Eastern and Central Europe drew them more than did Western Europe although France, Germany, Italy, and Spain have their share. There are even Gypsies in Wales.

There is also a significant Gypsy presence in Istanbul where there is a thriving Gypsy community. In Istanbul, the Gypsies lived in Ayvansaray, Haliç and Aksaray, but when a road was built, many houses were broken down, and large numbers moved to the Nesliisah and Sulukule neighborhood, close by Edrine Kapi. The Roma love music and are renowned for their musical abilities, and a typical evening’s activities includes music, dancing, and the drinking of raki. At some point the Gypsies in Sulukule decided to turn professional, and from the late 50’s, throughout the 60’s and 70’s, opened their homes to visitors. The visitors sometimes included foreign tourists, but more often than not, there were Istanbulites, especially those belonging to “high society.” These programs were organized by and presided over by an older woman, usually the mother of the family who lived in the house. The entire family was involved. A young boy, called a kopil, the Turkish word for ‘rascal,’ was sent out to look for potential visitors. Meanwhile, the rest of the family—mother, father, grandparents, and daughters, set about preparing the place. Visitors were cordially welcomed— I have been told by someone who visited during these years that one was immediately struck by the discipline and order that prevailed—and were shown into one of several small rooms that were set aside for visitors. Simply furnished, there were comfortable places to sit and tables covered with place mats. Basic mezze was served, with raki. Sometimes mastika, a special raki flavored with mastic, was served. Jokes were told, and there was always was much laughter. It is said that if a customer were not a pleasant sort, he would be insulted without his ever becoming aware of it. For example, someone might insult him in Romani, which he couldn’t possibly understand/2/, and all the while, the one doing the insulting would be smiling broadly. A group of musicians moved from room to room playing and a girl danced. She was always young, frequently beautiful, and would sometimes sit on the lap of a customer, singing to him. If he were the unpleasant sort, she might very well sit down on his lap really hard, so hard that it hurt! The atmosphere might become bawdy and raucous, but even so, sometimes entire families would visit, not only men. Proper behavior was absolutely required. The rules of the Roma are very strict. If anyone did or said anything improper to the dancer, they would immediately be placed in a very bad position as penalty for the infraction—perhaps the matriarch would contrive to say something that was embarrassing, or do something that would cause the person to feel shame. And woe to him who imagined that he could contrive to meet one of these girls outside the community. By doing so, he could put his very life in danger.

The tradition in Sulukule may be finished, but Gypsy music is far from being done for. I’ve already said that Gypsies are renowned for their musical abilities, but many people may not be aware of the extent of their musical acumen. Turkish music production companies actually perform trials of music within the Gypsy community to see if music they are considering marketing is going to sell. It doesn’t matter if it is pop music, or arabesk, or classical, or folk; if the Gypsies respond well to it, the music company knows it will be a smash. One story, which may or may not be apocryphal, relates how a group of Rom musicians once listened to Bizet’s opera, Carmen, and then, after just one hearing, was able to reproduce it accurately. They remembered every note, every chord. A Rom musician plays the cümbüs, a type of mandolin with a metal case, the klarinet, and the darbuka/3/. While their instruments may not be as refined as those used by a philharmonic orchestra, their music is often world class and can touch the soul of the listener.

One of the greatest Gypsy singers and poets was named Bronislawa Wajs, but she was known by her Gypsy name, Papusza, which means doll. A Polish Gypsy, Papusza resorted to drastic measures so that she could learn to read and write, because such activities, especially for Gypsy women, were, and still are, largely disapproved of. She wrote hundreds of songs. One of them, an autobiographical ballad called “Bloody Tears: What We Went through under the Germans in Volhynia in the Years 43 and 44,” tells of how the Gypsies were forced to hide in the forests during the war. She wrote about the sufferings of the Jews, who, along with the Gypsies, were persecuted by Hitler and exterminated at Auschwitz. And she wrote about the Rom nostalgia for a home that no Gypsy has ever had.

The time of the wandering Gypsies
Has long passed. However, I see them,
They are bright,
Strong and clear like the water.
You can hear it
When it wishes to speak.
But poor thing it has no speech . . .
...the water does not look behind.
It flees, runs further away.
Where eyes will not see her,
The water that wanders ./4/

Gypsies are often regarded as lawless, but this has always seemed to me to be unjust. I think that one of the greatest reasons Gypsies have always been regarded this way, and why so-called “respectable” folk regard them as marginal or even threatening, is that the Roma have never participated in the status quo of any culture they find themselves in. Gypsies are far from lawless. It is just that they have their own ethic, their own rules, and their own sense of what constitutes honor. The Rom marches to the beat of his (or her) own, very particular drum. There can be a unique integrity in that. The Gypsies have a saying: Sako peskero charo dikhel: Everybody sees only his own dish./5/ With respect to the Gypsies, it might be a good idea if we all forced our small eyes to grow just a little bigger so that we could see their dish as well as our own. There is much there to appreciate.


/1/ See Istanbul? Yes, Istanbul. No.4, September 2000, for some comments about what it means to be in between.

/2/ The Romani language is considered very difficult, if not impossible to learn. Of course, someone can learn basic vocabulary but, as one Gypsy said to a gadji (non-Gypsy): “For every word you record in your little notebook, we have another one—a synonym, which we use and which you can never know. Oh, you might learn these; but you won’t get how to use them, or what nuances they carry. We don’t want you to know.” Quoted from Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), P. 13.

/3/ According to the dictionary, a darbuka is a rhythmic instrument made in the shape of an earthenware pitcher with a skin covering the bottom. Nowadays, unfortunately, it seems this instrument is usually made of metal.

/4/ Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing, op. cit., pp. 4-5.

/5/ Ibid., p. 35.

See also Karen-Claire Voss's website: http:/


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of each individual author. The views and opinions do not represent those held by the Dom Research Center.

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