For Turkey’s Romanies, “2006 the International Year of the Roma” triggers an array of different emotions. For one thing, in 2006, Turkish Romanies are for the first time ever establishing associations, speaking out in public, and putting forward their demands. At the same time, however, frantic mayors all over Turkey are tearing down a lot of Roma quarters, stripping thousands of Roma of their homes, and justifying all this with the need for gentrification and town development.

In August, the Ankara municipality pulled down the abodes of 170 families, allegedly to create space for multi story mansions, 400 more houses are expected to follow. In Bursa, police combat troops assisted the demolition of more than one hundred Roma shanties, to be displaced by a new cultural park. And Roma families are also being driven out of their houses in the pocket Eregli at the Black Sea.

The worst situation, however, is in Istanbul, home to the Roma for several thousand years, since a time when Turks not even had ventured into Anatolia. The quarter Sulukule, one of the first ever Roma settlements according to many historians, is going to be destroyed. Here, in Byzantium, the term Cingene, Turkish for gipsy, was coined.
In 1453, the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II. stormed the city, known as Constantinople in these days. The conqueror is still held in great esteem particularly by the Muslim conservatives of the Development- and Justice Party (AKP) who today runs the Istanbul Municipality. However, Mehmed II. applied a much more favourable policy towards the Roma than his admirers to date. He recognized the Roma of the city as able craftsmen and well-connected traders, and he established additional Roma communities in Istanbul with Sulukule as their centre. Under the Ottomans, Romanies dominated the guilds of horse-dealers and basket-makers. At field days, they took the stage as acrobats and conjurers, and it was they who formed the backbone of the Ottoman Military Band, the prototype of Western military music. In fact it is the realm of Turkish music where Roma left indelible traces. The classical music of the Sultan’s court is inconceivable without the Romas’ contribution, and until the days of Atatürk, the modern Republic’s founding father, the Roma were among the top musicians of the country. Cemal Çınarlı was the last representative of this great tradition. He appeared in Ravenna, Antwerp and New York, and artlessly lived in Sulukule.

However, in Istanbul, the terms Roma and Gypsy also have other twists and turns, and this might be one of the reasons why the mayor is hell-bent on purging Sulukule. The quarter, besides modest craftsmen and waste collectors, still harbours musicians whose wives and daughters time and again perform as dancers in restaurants and clubs. Until the 90s, Sulukule counted as an insider tip for well-to-do male visitors who longed for racier encounters, not easily realised in the conservative Muslim atmosphere of that time. That some of the girls showed an innocent striptease in the shanties of Sulukule has remained  in public memory until today, despite that fact that like elsewhere, this business has also been internationalised in Istanbul for a long time.

Whatever the reasons may be, the Roma of Sulukule learned only from the press that in three months time their quarter would cease to exist. Proprietors of small real estate are be expropriated, and allotted new living space, say the Municipality and TOKI, the public housing company. The Roma have no say in the entire plan as TOKI alone commands all the assets. The company assigns the value of the Roma’ houses, it is in charge for the procedure of expropriation, and it assesses also the price of the destined new abodes in Tasoluk, a new developed quarter on the fringes of the city, with public transport two hours away. 570 families have to leave, most of them with four children and more. Amongst them are 250 tenant families who own already nothing and who will receive nothing.

The present dwellers of Tasoluk are not particularly fond of their prospective neighbours. The image of the Romanies is poor in Turkey, and governments have done little to procure a change. The Ministry of National Education issued books in which the Romanies are depicted as thieves, predators, and usurers, as a quarrelsome folk with only nominal beliefs. The “Türkish-Islamic Encyclopaedia,” published by the very same ministry, frames Romanies as “dirty and primitive, they abduct children, traffic them and Roma women walk the street.” Strife between Romanies and other groups, thus comes as no surprise. Four years ago, the borough of Esenler witnessed street fighting between Romanies and rural out-migrants from Anatolia, to be quelled only by dispatched military and subsequently by declaring curfew. At present, emotions are simmering in Kustepe, a quarter crammed with Romanies and Kurds.

In Sulukule, bewilderment and perplexity hold sway. “We are all helpless”, says 25 year old Fadime, mother of three, and adds: “We can do nothing but obey.“ The shabby tea house turned into a waiting room to nowhere, and as a sign of gallows humour ,the quarter’s new reclamation plan bedecks the wall. “Admittedly we can’t go on like this, with seven or eight persons living in two rooms in an almost derelict house“, says Ömer Akdal who is already in his seventies. But even he refuses to leave the quarter, adjacent to the graveyard where since centuries the Roma lie when they have passed away.

Whether Istanbul’s big brass will have mercy with the dead remains to be seen, against the living it still steers an unrelenting course. This was brought home again on June 19th, when in Istanbul’s Asian borough Kadiköy, strictly speaking in the quarter Küçükbakkalköy, 120 Roma houses were razed to the ground. Informed only eight weeks before, on this day the Roma  faced hundreds of policemen together with combat forces which all protected the bulldozers from desperate inhabitants. Those who did not abandon their abode were dragged out by their legs by policemen and then the bulldozers finished the work. For weeks the roofless dwelled in the debris of their houses, and in order to chase them off the quarter finally, officials cut the last remaining water spout. Diseases spread, the children ran around with eyes sore from teargas, and Korhan Gümüs, chair of Istanbul’s Human Settlement Association compared the motion with shots from the Lebanon. He addressed NGOs and asked for victuals, medicines and even water.

In Kagithane, another borough, in May the eviction of the Roma occurred on a much smaller scale but no less brutal. When the bulldozers arrived, some Roma panicked and set their own houses on fire. Coming round shortly later, the owners entered the burning houses and ran after spilled milk. Reimbursements amounted to four thousand Euro at the most, whilst the authorities offered new flats for 25 000 Euro. It is to say: “Ask for a credit!” Who lends out money to a family whose house had been demolished? And more important, why are municipalities able to act in such a way?  In contrast to other socio-cultural groups in Turkey, Romanies have “their guys” neither in the bureaucracy,  nor in the political parties or in the local parliaments, and the authorities may treat Roma roughly with impunity.

But other reasons contribute to rendering the Roma unprotected and defenceless. Most prominent amongst them is the negative attention paid to the Roma by the state. In contrast to Western-European countries where Romanies today – at least on a legal level – enjoy equal footing, in Turkey the Roma are discriminated against by the law. The Law of Settlement (iskân kanunu) passed in 1934 forestalls the granting of citizenship to foreign Roma, together with “anarchists, spies and those who don’t belong to the Turkish culture.” And Article 134 of the Police’s Service Regulations describes the Roma in general in Paragraph 9.5 as “prone to commit crimes” and classifies the whole group as a “security risk“.

Slowly, however, developments in Europe regarding the Romanies have begun to have an impact on Turkey too. For the first ever, in June the parliament was asked to act in favour of the Roma. Enis Tütüncü, MP of the province Kırklareli in Eastern Thrace where 40 000 Roma live, proposed a motion to remove the discriminating clause. The same month witnessed a second novelty: In Edirne, one of the older Ottoman capitals close to the Bulgarian border, 30 000 Roma rejected to be registered as a distinctive group. The local Public Health Institution had particular questionnaires distributed only to Roma families who, led by the Roma Associations’ Federation ROMDEF, protested against the move and the officials stepped back.

ROMDEF, the biggest Roma federation unites the local Roma associations from Thrace, Cilici (provinces Adana and Içel/Mersin) and from the western coast of the Black Sea (Bartın). The ARDF (Anatolian Roma Association’s Federation) organises primarily Romanies in Izmir and the Aegean. The Istanbul Romanies run their own umbrella association, called RomanIstDer. Social work still makes up a large proportion of the agenda of the federations. Their associations are busy with campaigns to allow children to attend compulsory education, by setting up craftsmen cooperatives, and distributing job opportunities, coaching and grants. Regarding professional training and education, a lot of work still has to be done. Amongst Kırklareli’s 40 000 Roma, only 400, i.e. one per cent, enjoys  permanent employment. All the others work in the informal sector, part time or in seasonal work. They play music at weddings and in restaurants, they carry loads on their own shoulders or on carts, they collect and sort waste. In Kırklareli, eighty per cent of the Roma live in self-fabricated shanties which are generally made up of just one room, and only 25 out of the 40 000 Roma have studied or are attending university at present.

Thus, not much energy is left for the preservation and development of their own culture. Despite this, in Edirne ROMDEF has started a survey to collect the vocabulary for the first ever dictionary of the Turkish Roma. In Izmir, the chair of ARDF, Özcan Purçu, has herded (herded?) 140 kids and has established the “Romafire” (Roma Atesi) a dance and music company. According to Purçu, the state is overdue in making its mark in the protection of the Roma culture and should have long established a See for Language and Culture of the Turkish Roma.

In Turkey, the protection of minorities’ cultural assets is no easy task, since the Republic’s official ideology still paints the picture of the linguistically, religiously and culturally homogenous Turkish nation. Besides, to equate a definite group with a particular culture may not fit the group’s actual needs. Thus Roma youngsters from Istanbul-Kustepe show little motivation to dub themselves as Roma or as gipsy. Kustepe is just another place where Roma houses are on the list of alleged obstacles to the quarter’s gentrification. The Artistic Director Sule Ates works at Bilgi University in Kustepe. She developed a musical that presented Roma history from India to Turkey. But the town quarter’s Roma boys and girls, expected to star in the performance of the play, were very reluctant to accept the role. On no account did they want to be equated with “the gypsies” and they rejected every trapping related to this notion. In as much as it is true that Turkish Roma have their roots in India, it is also true that their journey today aims primarily to achieve citizenship and equal rights. Demands to live their own identity have to be met, but this is not the same as being pigeonholed in an exotic niche.

Günther Seufert, Istanbul (Turkey)